I want to begin by acknowledging something that’s true for each and every one of us. We all want to be praised. We want to be known, acknowledged, appreciated, loved and celebrated. It doesn’t matter who we are or from what culture we come, we all want to be praised. For example, think of a child. The most repeated phrase of any child is “look at me! Look at me!” And it doesn’t matter what they’re doing – riding their bike or going down a slide. Kids want to be seen, to be noticed, to be praised. A desire to be praised is just built into our DNA.
Of course, the problem is that we grow up and we let that desire rule us. We all have that friend – everything always seems to be about them; about what they’re doing and what they’ve accomplished and about how awesome they are. And we have a saying for people like that. We say they’re “full of themselves.” Now let me ask you this – is being full of ourselves a good thing? Of course not.
Before CS Lewis became a Christian he was really bothered by the idea that God wanted praise. Like us, Lewis didn’t care much for people who were always seeking compliments and praise. And so Lewis wondered – if God is perfect then why does He insist on being praised? Does God need praise to feel good about Himself? Does He have low self-esteem? That’s what CS Lewis wanted to know. Well, before we answer Lewis’ question let’s look at what Jesus says about praise.
Matthew 6: 5-6, 9
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Pray then in this way. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Now on the surface this passage seems pretty straightforward but if we’re willing to dig we’ll answer four incredibly important questions about what it means to praise God.
1. What is praise?
2. Why is praising God necessary?
3. Why is praising God primary?
4. How does praise work? In other words, how do we do it?
Once again, Jesus teaches us (1) what praise is, (2) why it’s necessary, (3) why it needs to come first in our prayer life, and finally (4) how we do it.
(1) And so what exactly is praise?
Well Jesus’ definition of praise is captured in the phrase “hallowed be your name.” Jesus says we’re supposed to hallow God’s name. Now, this isn’t a word we use very often. Does anyone know what it means? To hallow something means to treat it as absolutely sacred. In other words, whatever we hallow is our ultimate concern – the most crucial and sacred thing in our life.
And so what does this tell us about praising God? That to praise God means to make Him our ultimate concern. In other words, when we treat our relationship with God as absolutely sacred, praise is just what happens. And so perhaps a better word is adoration. According to Richard Foster, “Adoration is the spontaneous yearning of the heart to worship, honor, magnify, and bless God. In adoration … we ask for nothing but to cherish Him. We seek nothing but His exaltation. We focus on nothing but His goodness.” (Prayer, 81) To praise God is to make Him our ultimate concern.
(2) Why is praising God necessary?
Well, let’s rule out the possibility that God has low self-esteem and needs a little ego boost. The reason praising God is necessary is because we all praise something, we all hallow something. Remember, to hallow something means to treat it as absolutely sacred, it means to make something our ultimate concern. And what we have to understand is this – that’s something we all do. In fact, hallowing is something we have to do. What we hallow gives direction to our life. What we hallow motivates us. We literally cannot live unless we hallow something.
Look at the people Jesus criticizes in tonight’s Bible reading – people who love to stand and pray in public places in order to be seen. What they hallow, Jesus says, is their spiritual reputation. That’s their ultimate concern – being known as a spiritual person. In other words, what they praise is the praise of other people. And according to Jesus, “They have received their reward.”
And so there’s a question we all have to ask ourselves – what do we hallow? Let me share with you a quote from one of my favorite celebrities. “I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being, and then I get to another stage and think I'm mediocre and uninteresting, again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that's always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I've become somebody, I still have to prove I'm somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.” Any guesses on who said that? Apparently, you don’t read Vogue. Madonna. Madonna’s ultimate concern is proving she’s special, proving she’s praiseworthy, proving that she’s not just mediocre. “Even though I’ve become somebody,” she says, “I still have to prove I’m somebody.” What Madonna hallows is proving to the world that she matters – that’s where all of her praise is centered.
I think more than anything this quote captures why praising God is necessary. We all praise something. We all make something our ultimate concern. But if it’s the wrong thing we’ll find ourselves in a struggle, a struggle that deep down we know will never end.
Only praising God will end the struggle because one of the first things we see when we learn to praise God is that we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. No, it’s God who proves His love for us – that’s why He alone is praiseworthy. And the good news is that praising God is something we can learn. In fact it’s something we have to learn to flourish as human beings. But, we can’t learn to praise God until we’re honest about what we praise now. And according to Jesus, the key to knowing what we hallow has to do with what Jesus calls being “in secret.” William Temple once remarked, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” And so let me ask you this – when there’s nothing you have to do where do your thoughts go? What do you day dream about? Answering that question will tell us a great deal about the thing we most adore. And it can be anything – success, comfort, approval, family. What do we worry about? What do we think about? In the secrecy of our hearts what do we value? Anything can become an ultimate concern. And so what I want us to see is that praise is something we all do really well. Our challenge isn’t to learn how to praise. It’s to learn how to transfer our praise from whatever it’s on now to God.
(3) Why is praising God primary?
It’s incredibly significant that Jesus’ teaching on prayer begins with “hallowed by your name.” In other words, before we confess our sins or ask for daily bread Jesus tells us to begin our prayer by praising God. Why?
Jesus knows that the bulk of our problems are problems of adoration. Adoring the wrong thing throws our life out of balance. After all, what we hallow motivates and fuels our life and because of that what we praise completely controls our view of our self, our view of God and our view of the world. And so when we hallow things more than God our perspective on life gets distorted.
One of my favorite preachers tells the story of a dad who takes his little girl to the candy store. “Sweetie,” he says, “do you see all this candy? Doesn’t it look good? You’d like some of this candy wouldn’t you?” And of course this girl goes crazy – there’s nothing she wants more. But instead of giving her the candy, her dad grabs her by the wrist, drags her out of the store and yells at her, “Forget it. You can’t have any candy! In fact as long as I’m alive I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you never get your hands on this candy – ever!”
Now obviously, this is a cruel Father. But I tell the story because I think it sheds some light on why we have a hard time praising God. I think that deep within us is a fear – a fear that God’s like that dad. I think deep down we’re all scared that God gives us deep desires, that He waves the candy in front of our face and then just snags it away for no reason. I mean have you ever had your heart set on something or prayed for something only to be devastated that you didn’t get it? Have you ever been crushed and left wondering – seriously God, what was the point? Do you know what’s behind that question? A fear that God isn’t good.
Think about how the Bible begins. Adam and Eve are in a garden and God says, “It’s all yours. Eat whatever you want. Just one rule – you need to stay away from the tree of knowledge because that tree’s bad for you.” But then the serpent comes along and he begins spreading lies. “God is holding back. If God really loved you, if God were really good, He’d let you eat that fruit.” And do you know what happened in that moment? Adam and Eve’s praise shifted – what they hallowed shifted – from God to the fruit. And in that moment a great lie entered the human heart – the lie that says because God withholds things from us He cannot be good. And if we believe that lie it’s going to distort our view of God, it’s going to distort our view of our self and it’s going to distort our view of the world. You see, there’s only one thing that can heal the lie. Praise. Making God our ultimate concern. Hallowing His name above all else. Seeing Him in all of His goodness – only praise will heal the lie.
(4) How do we praise?
Well, think about how the Lord’s Prayer begins. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Question – which one is it? Is God our Father – close, tender, caring, and intimately involved our lives? Or is God in heaven – holy, totally Other and different, a God of justice who rules the world with wisdom and power, who looks at the Sun and sees a marble? Do you see where I’m trying to go with this? We pray this prayer so much we miss the miracle and the paradox of what Jesus is saying – that God is both Holy and powerful and yet at the same time that He wants to be our Father. To the extent that this amazing reality sinks in, praise will be the most natural thing in the world.
But the reality is, praising God is not the most natural thing in the world, which means that praise is something we need to learn. And to learn to praise God we need to name two things that get in our way.
First, inattention keeps us from praising God. Life is hectic. It moves fast and it’s really easy to get caught up in our activities – school and family and friends and church and social obligations. And so learning to praise God requires slowing down and making time to pay attention to God. Or, in order to grow we need to slow. We need to read the Scriptures. We need to spend time in creation. Simply put, we can’t praise something if we can’t see it and so we need to pay attention.
Second, misplaced attention keeps us from praising God. If we’re bent on making something other than God our ultimate concern – our job or status or a certain relationship – we’ll never learn to praise God or anything else for that matter. The irony is that we can only learn to praise or value another person if we’re committed to praising God first. Perhaps you’ve been in a relationship where you felt smothered. And do you know why you felt smothered? Because no human relationship can bear the burden of God-hood. If someone ever makes you their ultimate praise please be careful. It’s not going to end well for either one of you.
And so if you want to learn to praise God this is where I’d start. Make two lists. On the first list, write down God’s attributes that you find appealing. For example, words like loving and merciful and holy and perfect might be on list #1. On the second list, write down what God has done for you. He created you. He gave you a certain amount of intelligence. He’s given you the gift of faith that saves you from sin and death. He’s promised to restore our world. Just make a list. Then, read your two lists to God and say amen. Will this feel clumsy and awkward? No doubt. But do it in secret. And trust me, what seems silly to you will ravish the heart of God. Like Augustine said, “God thirsts to be thirsted after.”
And so let me end by saying this. We all want to be praised. We want to be known, acknowledged, appreciated, loved and celebrated. It doesn’t matter who we are or from what culture we come, we all want to be praised. Just so you know – that’s a good thing. God created us to be praised, celebrated, appreciated and loved. And so just as important as the question “what do we praise” is the question “where are we seeking our praise?” Madonna – she wants if from you. She’s going to work really hard to make sure you don’t think she’s mediocre. Others – they want praise from their peers or their spouse or their parents. But what about us? Where are we seeking our praise?
You see the miracle of the Christian Gospel is that God praises us. We don’t deserve it. We don’t earn it. But God genuinely delights in us because of what Christ has done for us. By living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, Jesus gave us His record and His obedience so that when we put our trust in Him we don’t just have the Father’s acceptance. We have His applause. His praise.
And so if any of you are trying to live a good life in order to get God’s praise do me a favor and stop right now. Instead, ponder the great miracle that in Christ you already have God’s praise. God’s applause.
And so back to our question – why does God want our praise? Because praising God puts an end to the struggle. You see God knows that we only really have two options. We can either be full of ourselves or we can be full of God. Praising God is all about being full of Him and to be full of God is to be full of life.