Any of you who have known me for any length of time are sure to notice that my typically upbeat nature has been, ahem, shall we say, tested, the last few weeks. Writing? Yeah, not happening. There have been so many questions. So many demands. And on top of the legitimate challenges of the last couple years, there have been so many insignificant, first world nuisances that somehow have become a big deal to my normally easy going disposition. There have been these brief moments when I think I’ve heard something from Daddy God, but distraction is right there on the spot to keep me from soaking in it.
“Are there themes that you’re showing me, God? Help me to see.”
“What are you saying? What am I missing?”
“I’m sorry I’m so distracted, God. My kid is flooding the bathroom.”
But it’s coming into focus, and I’m unsettled about it. “What do You want me to DO with this, Lord?” Here’s the thing, friends: I don’t think God is interested in our glossed over and insincere platitudes that we call “praise”. I’m going to go ahead and put myself in the middle of the intervention circle and admit to you straight up that sometimes (a lot of times) I DON’T KNOW HOW TO PRAISE GOD. Yes, I know the formula: A.C.T.S — adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But let’s all be honest for a skinny minute: don’t we really just want to jump to the supplication part? That’s what comes most naturally. I’m excellent at thinking about myself and the things I think I need in order for my life to be more comfortable. (And in all fairness, we can usually come up with quite a few things to be thankful for, too.) But adoration (and confession — that one deserves a post all it’s own)? Yikes! Those are harder for most of us. So we sit with it. We think hard. We ask, “God, how should I praise you? What do I say? …Do? How is praise any different than thanking you?” We may eventually come up with a few things to name off as praises, but when we muster our courage to name them out loud — be it in a crowd or in private — where is the sense of conviction? Where is the brokenness over our sin in relation to His holiness? The strength of spirit? The emotion? We (I) sound so…melancholy. So unconvincing. And the painful reality that I can’t help but to remember is that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Yeah, I’ve been mulling over that convicting truth.
I’ve come under conviction, friends. I’ve had to look at myself in the mirror and allow myself to see down into the ugly parts of my soul that I’d rather keep hidden in darkness. He wants us to participate in praise, not observe it (or worse, critique it). He doesn’t require a dark room with flashy lights, the latest music, and a producer at a board in the back of the room that makes it all look and sound good (or on the other extreme, He isn’t limited to our liturgical traditions or worship guides). He doesn’t require fancy or culturally “hip” words/phrases. He doesn’t even mind if I fumble over what I’m trying to say, or if I have some holes in my theology. He wants my heart…my mind. He wants me to let it all go in adoration, without regard for what other people may think. He wants me to come to Him ready, expecting Him to meet me. Ahhhh!!! His presence.
I’ve heard skeptics ask why God is so needy? Is He really that egotistical that He demands our praise and worship? But I would submit to you that while worship truly is about HIM…remembering HIM…esteeming HIM, He isn’t the only one who benefits. And this seems especially true when we cause ourselves to profess the affection of our hearts toward Him even when we’re not feelin’ it. Because here’s a cold hard truth: sometimes we identify with David in Psalm 22. He’s broken. God feels absent. He feels abandoned…forgotten. The fascinating thing that is being revealed to me, though, is that something remarkable happens with praise. Watch and see if you catch it:
¹My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
²Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
That’s honesty right there, friends. My guess is that when David penned and sang those words, the bent of his emotion didn’t lean toward praise. But YET. The next word is YET. (I have so much to learn from this example):
³Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 Our ancestors trusted in you,
and you rescued them.
5 They cried out to you and were saved.
They trusted in you and were never disgraced.
David makes himself remember the praiseworthiness of his God. And my guess is that if we were a fly on the (cave?) wall when he first sang this song, we would be emotionally moved. Praise in the midst of hardship, that’s what this is. I can’t say with any true authority what David was feeling outside of what is written, but I DO know how I would feel: I wouldn’t feel like praising God. Remembering God’s goodness and faithfulness wouldn’t be my natural response. I would probably have a hard time thinking of any kind of praise to offer to (in my estimation, a confusing and absent) God. Maybe that’s how David felt too, because it sure seems to me that it was a battle even for him to keep the perspective and heart of praise, because what comes next?
6 But I am a worm and not a man.
I am scorned and despised by all!
7 Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
8 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”
Honest confession, ache, groaning, despair, feelings of abandonment and rejection…that’s what came next. And then there it is again…YET. There’s that word.
9 Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb
and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast.
10 I was thrust into your arms at my birth.
You have been my God from the moment I was born.
Do you see it? He sure is trying! Even though he anguishes, he is naming the steady presence of God in his life, from the very beginning. He is naming things that prevent despair from isolating him from God and the rest of the world. Again, in this example David demonstrates that sometimes praise looks like the discipline of remembrance. Sometimes we have to make ourselves remember God’s faithful goodness even when we don’t see it. But even so, discipline to remember and praise God ≠ sullenness. Or melancholy. Or apathy. It doesn’t mean we sit on the sidelines or the folding chairs or the pews and watch other people praise. It doesn’t mean we wave the white flag when we can’t think of anything praiseworthy to say after 2 seconds of thinking about how to fill in the gap when we’re praying the “A” section of the A.C.T.S prayer.
David goes on to name the grim stakes of his dire situation. He begs the Lord to be near. He pleads for breakthrough…for mercy. And as he goes on, you can almost hear it in his voice: “whom have I but You? This situation is impossible. You are my only chance for survival.” And yet… as he goes on, you can feel David’s confidence building once again. He knows the despair of his situation, but he also knows the LOVE and POWER of GOD. He remembers God’s goodness from the dawn of time, and His constant faithfulness throughout his own life. His discipline to remember, to praise, has fed his own spirit. If he had been John’s contemporary, I’m sure he would’ve agreed: Greater is He who is in me than He who is in the world.
How encouraging would I be as a mother if I never praised my children, only asking them to do things for me? And how effective would my praises to my children be if I lacked any depth of sincerity or applause in my expression of them? When our spiritual ancestors praised, they did so with musical instruments and singing, shouts of joy and clapping hands; they praised with broken and contrite hearts, weeping over their own sin as they reflect on the holiness of God; they praised in the assembly and as individuals; they praised sitting, standing, kneeling, lying prostrate, bowed heads, lifted hands, and dancing.
They meant it.
They felt it.
They expressed it.
I guess it may seem like I’m harping on the outward appearance of our praise, and yes, I do wish we invited and welcomed a move of the Spirit that just may surprise even ourselves in the way that we respond with our expression of worship. But even deeper than that is my grief that we, *I*, forget His praiseworthiness. That’s the real heart of it. We’re so focused on ourselves that we rush past Him. We’re so concerned about the things we desire from His hand, that we miss His heart. But I can’t help but believe that we’re no different than David, and that as we remember our God, His mercy, His breakthroughs, His sacrifice, His revolutionary grace; as we lift our eyes from the despair of our situations, we see HIM. And when we see HIM, confidence climbs, boldness builds, faith flourishes, and praises pour. It honors our God, and it moves us. In fact, I also believe it moves Him toward us. And as we come closer to one another, His presence overwhelms us. Our perspective is made right.
The beginning section of Psalm 22 and the ending…talk about stark contrast. Despair has turned to boldness. Groaning has turned to declarations of authority. Hopelessness about even living to see another day has turned to hopeful confidence for many righteous generations to come. The difference?
A heart of praise.
So today, I will choose obedience. I will choose remembrance. I will choose praise…even if my circumstances aren’t comfortable. Even if things aren’t going as planned or hoped, I will remember His faithful goodness. I have to, lest I become angry and isolated from the One who has always been faithful. …and I will mean it when I speak it. My heart and mind will join together in solidarity as I speak with gumption about His praiseworthiness. And I expect that He will exchange my despair, and give hope; He will take my questions, and give peace; He will take my offering, and give joy. As I look to Him, I will remember and name what He said, and my own confidence will rise. Will you join me? Let’s try this together!
Yes, a true heart of praise is humble and it is focused on the One who is worthy of praise. But like David, I expect that in lifting His name, He blesses me in return by lifting my spirit.