The man had done something very helpful for me, so I gave him a small gift in appreciation. He took it, wadded it up, dropped it on the ground, stomped on it and threw it back at me. I backed away, deflated and embarrassed. Burned by that incident, gifts of gratitude have been harder to hand out since then.
The above incident is a metaphor for the common experience of paying compliments. Very often, unfortunately, they bounce off their target as if unwanted, and they are even flung back indifferently.
It sounds like the saintliest of attitudes when the appreciated preacher retorts, "Don't thank me, just praise the Lord." But the grateful parishioner feels rebuffed and straight-armed away with a 'pious' platitude.
Accepting compliments, for some strange reason, is difficult for a lot of people: The exquisite meal prepared by a hardworking homemaker is shrugged off as "something I threw together in a minute." The attractive dress, praised, is discounted as "something from a bargain basement."
Teenagers, too, seem to suffer from compliment aversion. Handling one comfortably is a rarity. They tend to shove them frantically away, as if afraid of contamination by the positive regard of an adult.
My own conversion from tending to be a gift-rejecter to learning to be a grateful accepter happened at the door of Trinity Church. I had just preached the morning sermon, and I had taken my customary position at the back door to greet the departing worshippers. A young woman stopped, shook my hand, and commented, "That was a very good message." While inwardly glowing from this endorsement, I gave my usual disclaimer along these lines: "It seemed a little long to me." To which she countered firmly, "Why can't you accept a compliment?"
Stung, I started thinking and repenting. She had given me a gift of herself and I batted it back as if unneeded. My response was dishonest and unkind. Truthfully, I deeply needed her supportive response — and any others I could get. Her words helped enormously. A better response would have been honest acceptance of her kindness and to say, "Thank you. I really appreciate hearing that." Even a simple "thank you" would be enough.
'It is better to give than to receive,' we are taught. But insensitive receivers sorely discourage generous givers.
Jesus knew how to treat a gift. When a young woman anointed him with expensive ointment, the disciples registered disapproval of the waste. But Jesus gracefully embraced both the gift and the giver, protecting her feelings, and, by his actions, saying, "Thanks, I needed that."
A compliment is a gift. Most of us, if honest about it, are needy enough to take all we can get. Kindness to those who give, and to ourselves, calls for a simple, honest "thank you." Accepting the manna of kindness is, in truth, giving thanks to God.