by Robin Wainwright
It is not difficult to praise God when God’s grace is expressed in blessings and deliverance. When God meets the children of Israel in Egypt, takes them through the Red Sea, brings them through the Exodus, they praise God. I think we all have times like that in our lives. We receive some gift from God and we respond instinctively, easily with praise. But there are other times in life – times when the blessings are not there or at least we cannot see them. And in those times we experience a good deal of spiritual confusion. When the blessings seem to stop, what then? How then do we praise God?
It is often in these difficult times that Christians say the strangest things about praise. Let me mention three very unhelpful approaches to praise during the difficult times of life – approaches that can lead to spiritual dysfunction.
Praise as Priming the Pump
There are those who say, “when the blessings stop, prime the pump with praise, this will secure the blessings again.” The main problem with this approach to praise is that there is an ulterior motive to the praise. It is really an attempt to control God. It is very like the kind of polytheistic spirituality which dominated the religious context into which the Old Testament was written. The central religious problem in polytheism is the problem of security. How can we protect ourselves from the tremendous dangers of life and from the gods who control what happens? How can I appease the gods in order to get the benefits that the gods offer? The assumption is that the ‘higher powers’ are dangerous, destructive, capricious and contemptuous of mere mortals.
In polytheistic spirituality, the way to deal with these dangerous gods is to find out the rules, principles and rituals that will make them happy (or at least allow us to avoid being noticed by them). The inner impulse of this spirituality is don’t-attract-attention and, if possible, gain power, favor and benefits. The bottom line is that the gods can be manipulated if you do things just right but you will always live in fear that you are not going to be able to get it right.
Into a context dominated by fear-based and control-oriented praise, the Old Testament called people to praise a God who is actively demonstrating his love and redemption. This God can not be controlled or manipulated by religious rituals or by ‘priming the pump’. This God is determined to do us good even when we have lost track of what is good for us. We do not need to ‘prime the pump’ of God’s blessings because God is already eager to give us good things! Unlike the gods who needed to be cajoled and appeased, the living and true God is eager to bless and nourish his people. Isaiah 55:1-2 is a wonderful image of God inviting us to a feast “without money and without cost” where we will “delight in the richest of fare.” That’s the God we serve – a God who is far more committed to our well-being than we are ourselves.
Praise as Denial
A second approach to praise in difficult times is, of course, denial. There is a kind of praise that is simply a misrepresentation of reality, a distortion of reality. It is the decision to say “it’s not really so bad, this catastrophe, so we are just going to praise God anyway, just pretend it didn’t really happen and just move on in faith without letting it really seep into us.” This is an attempt to shut out the truth in the face of the reality of darkness and evil all around us, and inside of us as well. This kind of denial creates spiritual unhealth even though it may come wrapped in the language or appearance of godly piety. God loves us too much to settle for superficial, denial-based relationships with us and is quite willing to be with us at the deepest point of our pain. It is not ‘worshiping in truth’ to pretend that the pain is not there.
Praise Without Trust
A third approach to praise in times when it seems like God’s blessings have stopped is a kind of trust-less praise. I got a glimpse of this when some people actually urged me to give thanks for the death of my son, Luke, who died of Reyes Syndrome. The idea, I suppose, is that this pain is a test from God. If God did this terrible thing to me, and I can still praise God, then I must really love God and will be blessed because I love God so much. But what kind of God is this? Is this a God who can be trusted? Absolutely not. This God does not have good intentions towards me. This trust-less praise not only confuses good and evil but it also makes God the author of evil. And, if we believe that God does evil, we will not trust God. And if we do not trust God we cannot praise God because trust is at the heart of all true praise.
Trust-less praise also shows no respect for our own God-encouraged capacity to distinguish good from evil. To praise God for evil things requires us to discount or ignore our capacity for discernment. What kind of praise is it that isn’t rooted in trust of God or appropriate trust in God’s good gifts to us? It isn’t praise at all. Trust-less praise isn’t what God wants.
Praise on the Recovery Journey
There is a healthy kind of praise that is possible in times when life is not working. It is not an easy spirituality but it is one that can be lived with integrity. A wonderful example of this is in the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk models for us quite clearly the kind of spiritual instincts that will serve us well in hard times. I don’t claim to fully understand what is going on in this text but I have struggled to plumb the depths of it and found that there is something important here for me.
Praise ‘In the Midst of’
The first key to healthy praise is to live ‘in the midst of’. Habakkuk begins his praise by telling the truth, by confession. “Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails, and the field produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord.(Habakkuk 3:17-18)” Here is praise in the midst of darkness, disaster, pain. There is no avoidance of reality in this text, no pretending, no attempt to control the gods. Habakkuk does not give thanks for tribulation, but rejoices in the midst of tribulation because of who God is. He does not give thanks for the pain, but rejoices in the midst of the pain because of who God is. He does not give thanks for all things, but gives thanks in the midst of all things because of who God is. It is this living ‘in the midst of because of who God is’ that is the core of healthy spirituality. It is both a deep connection to what is real in our circumstances and a deep trusting connection to God whose love for us and whose determination to do us good has not changed.
Trust at the Center of Praise
What’s important here is to understand Habakkuk’s understand of faith ‘in the midst of.’ Habakkuk made it clear in the impossible circumstances he faced that “the righteous one will live by his faith.(Habakkuk 2:3)” But what does it mean to live by faith? According to Habakkuk, living by faith is acting on the basis of who God is whatever the circumstances. We can be faithful people ‘in the midst of’ painful circumstances not because we are people who are strong, determined, competent, resourceful, committed or full-of-faith. We can be faithful even when our faith seems hopelessly small (like a mustard seed!) because faith is about trusting in God’s character and purposes and not about our ability to feel good in bad circumstances. In the midst of any circumstances we can trust in a God who has not changed. God remains compassionate and loving and committed to redemptive purposes.
The key to the kind of praise that fits a recovery journey is trust. That makes it difficult, of course, because most of us have a long list of good reasons to be suspicious and untrusting and only a very short list of reasons to trust anybody. The question is this: in the midst of the darkness, is it possible to trust in God’s character and purposes? To trust that God is good and seeks to do good to us? Is it possible somehow for me to act in the light of God’s kingdom in the midst of this darkness?
I had an experience when my son Luke was dying that is relevant here. I stood by him in that last hour, holding his head in my hands. It was pretty sure that he was dying. I held him tightly for that last hour, praying as hard as I’ve ever prayed. I don’t think I’ve ever concentrated so hard over that length of time as in that hour. I wanted somehow to breathe life into him, to have life go from my body into his and to bring him back and take him home with me. Bending over him, with tears running down my face, I would have done anything to give him life. I would have given my life to save his. It was in that hour, as I bent over him, in the midst of the worst circumstances of my life, that I had a clear vision of God’s character and purposes. In those terrible moments I knew in a way I had never known before about God’s love for each of us. I realized that my deep love for my son is a picture of God’s love for us – this is how God is toward each of us. In the worst moments of life, God bends over us, reaches out to us, holds us in his hands, and, with tears, God longs to breathe life into us, wants to make us alive and make us whole again. That’s what the whole Christian story is about. At the moment of my son’s death I knew that I did not grieve alone – that God also held Luke, and God also wept. And I knew that God held me and grieved with me and with all of us for the sin and death in the world. In the midst of the darkness, I can trust, and therefore praise, a God who knows how to be with us in grief.
The point is this: God is ‘in the midst of’ with us. God knows what the journey is like. So, we need not put our faith in our capacity to be faithful, we can put our faith in a God of faithfulness. We can act on the basis of who God is – a God who loves us and who will be faithful to his redemptive purposes. God will have the last word about all of this darkness. Here’s just one picture of God’s intentions for us: “God himself will be there with them, and be their God, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said ‘I am making everything new’, then he said, ‘write these down, these words are trustworthy and true and will be done’ (Revelation 21:3-4).” In the midst of the darkness, when all I can do is put one stumbling foot in front of another, I can still direct these halting steps towards God’s kingdom and trust that this step-by-step journey is headed towards a time when there will be no more tears. That doesn’t make the pain go away, but it puts the future in the hands of a God who can be trusted. And that is, after all, what spirituality and praise is all about.
Robin Catlin Wainwright was a founding member of the Board of Directors of Christian Recovery International.