Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Problem With Praise

God, the Emperor of heaven and earth is the most praised entity that has ever existed, even more than Paul McCartney.   He has more hymns, songs, prayers, anthems, spontaneous outbursts, love poetry, essays, monologues, and even clichés to his nature, character and works than any other being.  He is the only one recognized as so noble to have His pronoun capitalized.  That must be some sort of certificate on the wall that He can compare to other spirits, kings and celebrities: “Sure, Michael, you have the greatest selling album of all time, but I receive the most glory, how about that?”

But I can’t help but wonder if He is actually… comfortable with all this praise.  I know I wouldn’t be.  I certainly wouldn’t like millions of people extolling my physical characteristics as virtue.   I suppose if someone said, “Steve, your beard is glorious,” I’d respond with a humble “pshaw”, but if someone honored me for my height, I don’t know how to respond to that.  I wonder about people praising God for being eternal or almighty.  Did he do anything to obtain these characteristics?   Isn’t he a bit embarrassed for being extolled for that which is his basic nature?

I could understand a certain pleasure in being thanked for something that He had done.  We all like some gratitude for our hard work.  But I wonder how J.K. Rowling feels when the ten thousandth person approaches her humbly and mentions how much the Harry Potter books have meant to them and what an amazing author she is.  I think most uber-popular creators get a glazed look over their eyes and mumbles a half-heard, “Thanks” in response.  It can be wearying, receiving that enormity of thanks.

And what about being thanked for something you didn’t do?  I’ve had this experience quite a bit, being the head of a service organization.  “Thank you for that food,” “Thanks for the clothes,” and I just want to respond, “You know, I didn’t have anything to do with that.  You should thank David, he cooked it or the donors who gave it.”  But I don’t, because the recipient’s lives are complicated enough and they just want to express some gratitude, even if it is directed toward the wrong person.  After all, grateful people are statistically shown to be happier people, so we should encourage that characteristic.  I wonder if God does the same.  If he recognizes that even if He is thanked or praised inaccurately, that He receives it for our benefit.  On the other hand, I’ve very rarely heard him utter a “You’re welcome.”

Not all praise is good, either.  Of course there is sarcastic praise, which the Holy One might only receive occasionally by a disgruntled atheist.  But think about the woman who hears a whistle down the street and a shout, “Nice ass!”  Or my female friend on Facebook who receives requests to be friends with the quip “you’re pretty.”   It isn’t that this praise isn’t sincere, I have every reason to believe that it is, but that the worshippers are speaking honor for their own motives that do not match with those being “honored”.  What they intended is much different than a friend glancing at another’s clothes and responding, “You look great today!”  (One might wonder if there is an implication that other days might be a remarkably different story, but it’s best not to linger on that.)

I wonder if that sense of mixed motives is why Jesus rejects the praise of the wealthy young man in Mark 10.  He goes to Jesus and says, “Good teacher…” and Jesus immediately responds with, “Why call me ‘good’?  Only God is good.”  I suspect it isn’t because Jesus didn’t think of himself as good, but that he was feeling buttered up for a bigger bite, in this case to receive a free ticket to eternal life.  Once Jesus realized the man’s sincerity, he softened up and gave him the hardest blow, but a truth that he needed to hear.  But he wasn’t ready to give the youth this powerful knowledge when only receiving an adjective on false pretenses.

And this makes me wonder about our practice of praise.  In many… perhaps all… churches, we have a practice of pouring praise upon God’s name and power that seems highly suspect.  It is a habit to weekly heap words of gratefulness and honor from the lips of another that often runs counter to our daily experience.   Perhaps we sing and speak the words because of social pressure or because we appreciate the nostalgic feeling of familiar cadence.  But are we really expressing praise or thankfulness in the manner in which God desires it?  If I were God (which, thankfully, I am not), I’d prefer a sincere  statement of awe when viewing a mountaintop or an outburst of gratitude when the cancer is in remission rather than being the object of the worst possible musical ever made. 

Certainly the Bible, while establishing opportunities for regular worship, is equally harshly critical to that same worship.  “Take away your worthless offerings; incense is an abomination to me.”  “You are not pleased with sacrifices, otherwise I would give it.”  It isn’t that praise or worship isn’t inherently wrong, or that a certain kind is opposed by God.  Rather, one’s attitude is essential.   I wonder if God would be more pleased with my narrative of His work this last week rather than another rendition of the Doxology.  I wonder if God wonders about our motives and if we shouldn’t consider them more often.  And I occasionally wonder if my motives are ever worthy of God’s attention. 

Going through the motions never do it for me.  At first, perhaps it would be nice if my wife arose each morning, faced me and said, “Praise to you, my Lord” but after a while her bored tone would get to me, as well as the sense that she wasn’t speaking in all sincerity.   But if I actually did the dishes and she said, “Thanks, you did a great job” that would mean a lot to me.  Or if she read this article and said, “Wow, that’s some amazing writing.  I enjoyed it so much, I’ll read it again,” my heart would truly warm.

I sincerely doubt that this will happen though.  I wonder what God feels is his chance for sincere praise with the motive of a pure heart?   Or is He interested in it at all?  I find it fascinating that the Lord’s Prayer, in the form that Jesus taught it, contains not a single word of praise.  We have the title, “Father,” which introduces the phrase “hallowed be your name,” which is no statement of praise, but is, in fact, a prayer request for God himself. 

Jesus, when giving us a model prayer, does not give us a single line of praise or thanks, but the first three lines are requests for God himself.  “Make your name holy, may your kingdom come, may your will be done.”  These are requests for God to act in his own self-interest.  I wonder if God is less interested in honorifics, or, like the rest of us, just wants to be prayed for?

Jesus prayed in one of the few prayer requests ever made with an immediate answer, “Father, glorify your name.”  So the one who praises is not us, but God, who could do it much better than we.  And the Father responds, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”    So how is God praising himself?  Through his works, through his acts of mercy and power that we often miss because we are too busy listening to the number one worship song this week?

Well, Lord, keep it up.  We’ll be the backup to your lead vocal.

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