Everyday Christian: In praise of praise

I sometimes play keyboard at church. It’s great and I look forward to it. But occasionally my creativity outpaces my ability.

Most recently, we played without a bass guitar or a drum kit. Because I was providing all the bass, I was a little more exposed than usual. As the final hymn built to a crescendo, I hammered each note louder and louder.

Right at the song’s climax, I smashed the wrong chord.

You know how people always say, “Only the musicians would have noticed”? Not this time. Babies burst out crying. Adults burst out laughing. Okay, not quite. Actually, everyone probably forgot about it as quickly as it happened.

But it was such a raw moment that I actually started to tear up. Not because of embarrassment, but something else.

I can’t quite explain why, but the discordant moment immediately brought an image to my mind. I thought of a child running excitedly to her parents and handing them a terrible drawing – a drawing of the parents themselves. Of course, they don’t reject the picture or laugh at it. The parents delight in their child and her drawing, just as the child delights in her parents and compliments them. The child’s drawing ends up looking (and my music-making ended up sounding) less complimentary than intended. But everyone knows that the parents are being praised.

Similarly, I was content with my efforts because they were intended to praise God.

We don’t like praise. It doesn’t sit right.

But the fact that this moment felt so foreign made me consider the nature of praise and conclude that I (and I suspect we) have a pretty strained relationship with it.

We’re better at condemning than commending. We’re quicker to cancel or criticise than to celebrate.

Our YouTube and Facebook ‘feeds’ feed us a lot of outrage and cynicism. We despise celebrities and their demands of continued assurance, calling them narcissistic and calling those who meet their demands ‘sheep’.

We don’t like praise. It doesn’t sit right. We’re wary of it. We often mock it or cringe at it.

Demands of praise are even more unsettling. Our culture doesn’t like power and it certainly doesn’t like demands. Of course, it’s appropriate to expect thanks – that’s just good manners. But praise?

Was God desperate for our attention?

I’ve always been a little wary of praise when it comes to God, too. So I found it immensely comforting that the great author and apologist C.S. Lewis shared my discomfort and claimed he had found an answer for it.

In his Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis explains how he was repelled by religious people who insisted that we should praise God. He was even more put off by a God who himself demanded it. Was God desperate for our attention? Were the Psalmists bargaining praise for favours? Why did praising God so often involve telling other people to praise him?

As usual, Lewis put into words concerns I hadn’t quite articulated, without pulling any punches. The question behind these questions seems to be, “Can God really be the loving God he claims to be if he’s obsessed with his own glory?”

Lewis skillfully untangles our assumptions from God’s word.

He begins with a bold analogy: perhaps God demands praise the way a great work of art demands praise. Praise is the appropriate response, without which we will have missed out on something precious. Without the praise of things that we most admire, our lives would be lacking. If God is most admirable, perhaps our lives would be most lacking without praising him.

Lewis bluntly labels the idea that God craves our praise like a vain person wanting compliments as “miserable”. He points to the words of Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” God does not expect our praise because we have something he lacks. He does not demand our praise because he needs it, but because we need it.

To rejoice in something and not be able to express it is unbearable!

But what is it that we miss out on without praising God?

What Lewis calls “the most obvious fact about praise”, he and I had both missed. “I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless … shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise – lovers praising their [partners], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game.”

To rejoice in something and not be able to express it is unbearable! When we see something extraordinary, we run to share the news. When we see something hilarious, we cannot wait to retell it. That’s why we have a whole generation (or two) whose instinct in a moment of joy is to take a picture of it, or whose most frequent method of communication is sharing funny content online.

Lewis noticed that the people we want to be around are not those who find the bad in something good, but who praise the imperfect. In his words, “praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

Nor are we content only to praise what we value – we spontaneously urge others to join us in praising it. In this way, “The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all [people] do when they speak of what they care about.” This is what we do on Sunday. Indeed, “For many people at many times, the ‘fair beauty of the Lord’ is revealed chiefly or only while they worship Him together.”

So Lewis concludes that his and my whole concern stems from “absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

The call to praise God is not vanity or desperation on his part. In the strangest way, it’s a profound act of grace.

So when the Westminster Catechism states that the ultimate end for the human is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”, Lewis thinks it speaks of one thing in two ways. If the greatest condition of the human soul would be to perfectly express praise of the worthiest object, then the euphoric feeling we get when we delight in something and join others in praise of it is a faint glimpse of what we will enjoy for eternity. Only then the object of our praise will be infinitely more glorious and our delight in it infinitely fuller.

This is what God wants for us. He is profoundly concerned with his glory and our good, and both come about through our praise of him.

When we meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we urge each other to join in praise of our God. When we speak with everyone else, too, do we speak (with an appropriate level of thoughtfulness and tact) about our joy in God himself, and urge others to join us in gazing at him?

The call to praise God is not vanity or desperation on his part. In the strangest way, it’s a profound act of grace.

So why, in the end, did playing the wrong chord give me a deep sense of satisfaction and joy? Because it reminded me that I played not for my own glory, but for God’s. And because the greatest satisfaction is found in enjoying and praising him.