Accepting Praise

When our sons took piano lessons, they were taught to bow properly. Now that is a skill otherwise rather rare in contemporary Canadian society, there not being abundant opportunity to use it. But each of them learned to face the audience, before and after they were at the piano, to look out (rather than at their feet or up at the ceiling), to bow slowly from the waist, to rise equally slowly, to look at the audience once more, and then either to sit down to play or leave the stage.

When they told us parents that they were learning this skill, we immediately smiled. “How cute!” we thought. And they were, as the family videos show, utterly adorable in their bow ties and suits as they solemnly bowed, played, and bowed again. But it wasn’t about cuteness: It was about courtesy. The audience was giving them its attention. The artist then, knowing that the audience could be giving its attention to a hundred other things, bows in appreciation of that attention, and with even more appreciation if there is applause.

Receiving attention, and acclaim, is a skill that needs to be learned . . . and practiced. I encourage those I coach in public speaking to script two or more short phrases they can memorize and deliver confidently, gently, and sincerely to those who praise them, because many speakers are, in fact, introverts who are quite jangled by the experience of meeting a succession of well-wishers. And even extroverts will want to say the right thing: not glib, not conceited, and not falsely humble.

Indeed, many Christian speakers and performers I know implicitly insult the judgment those who want to celebrate the experience and commend the performer by saying, “Oh, it wasn’t that good!” or the like. No, the courteous thing is to focus on what matters: “Thank-you very much! What a generous thing to say! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It was a privilege to be here with you!” and so on. Look people in the eye, smile, and deliver the line sincerely. Good handshake (or proper air kiss) and you’re done! All is well.

I’ve been featuring Thomas Merton over this last while, as I slowly work my way again through New Seeds of Contemplation. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of what Merton says leaves me cold (there’s a long section on Mary, for instance, that for me seems right over the top, admiring as I am of the Mother of Our Lord). But when he’s on-target, he’s really on.

In the following passage, however, it seems to me that he doesn’t get things right. See what you think:

A humble man is not disturbed by praise. Since he is no longer concerned with himself, and since he knows where the good that is in him comes from, he does not refuse praise, because it belongs to the God he loves, and in receiving it he keeps nothing for himself but gives it all, with great joy, to his God….

A man who is not humble cannot accept praise gracefully. He knows what he ought to do about it. He knows that the praise belongs to God and not to himself: but he passes it on to God so clumsily that he trips himself up and draws attention to himself by his own awkwardness.

A relative of mine, who was steeped in the same tradition of piety in which I was raised but who has long since abandoned it, once exclaimed with understandable waspishness, “Why is it that God gets the praise for everything good that I do, but everything bad that I do is all my fault? What a nice arrangement for God!”

I have thought about that challenge a lot, and I believe we can over-correct for human conceit, as I believe Merton does. We end up denying our own contribution to the partnership God loves to enjoy with us. God himself doesn’t attribute everything good that happens to himself, so why should we?

Jesus tells us parables of faithful servants being praised by masters for performing well. Paul, under the inspiration of God, warns us to build well and to strive for excellence in our lives. James warns us to add works to our faith . . . as if it is, indeed, our responsibility to do so. So if God is not claiming all the glory for what we do, why should we insist he take it?

God does not deny our contribution to the partnership, nor even diminish it as if we were sweet little kids who, screwing up as we always do (“You know how those humans are, God love ’em!”), are nonetheless adorably cute in his eyes, and that’s all he wants from us. No, God calls us to act like adults and he says that there are consequences, for ourselves and others, to whether we rise to the challenge. That sounds like we’re more than just instruments in God’s hands, mirrors of God’s goodness.

Indeed, Jesus says we are trusted servants, and even more than servants: friends (John 15:15), a status previously reserved for (wait for it . . . ) Enoch and Moses!

So let’s get the theology of partnership straight. “I can do all things . . . through the one who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Then, whether we are performers or audience members, we can enjoy experiences of applause and verbal praise for what they are: thanks for a job sincerely and faithfully rendered, and maybe even well!

That’s what you mean to communicate when you clap for, or compliment, someone, isn’t it? You don’t want him or her to deflect it all upward with a modest “Oh, no, it’s all to God’s glory. I’m just, you know, a tiny, insignificant vessel…,” do you? Certainly not! You want to thank him or her for what he or she did in concert with God, using God’s gifts well. Bad theology, however sincerely meant, gets in the way here and distorts what is supposed to be a delightful time of effervescent celebration.

And, like any conscientious theologian striving against the cold darkness of this fallen world, I want to promote all the joyous bubbles I can.

 

 

8 Responses to “Accepting Praise”

  1. Jon

    Thanks for this John. I have wrestled with this in my own personal and professional life. I am a worship leader, but I am also a musician who records and plays in a separate band. My struggle has never been in taking praise for using my talents for music, but I sometimes feel awkward when accepting praise for leading people in worship.

    This posting has given me much to ponder. Thanks for it as I continue to contemplate the place of praise in our lives. Still haven’t made up my mind one way or the other, but this helps me think of things in a new light. Blessings on you!

  2. Mike in Pennsylvania

    Once in a seminary homiletics class I said “well done” to a student after their first attempt at giving a sermon. Their response was “It was all Jesus.” And I thought to myself “gee, it wasn’t that good.” I understood their sentiment but, truly if it was all Jesus it would have been a whole lot better.

    • John

      Thanks for this hilarious, post, Mike. My favourites are the Christian singers who claim, “This is a song that the Lord gave me.” As Larry Norman used to reply, “He sure must have been glad to get rid of it.” And I’d add, “Sheesh: I’d give it back and ask him to try again.”

  3. Victor Robidas

    Dear Brother John,

    I do remember the times, likely when you believed in it where Christians understood the significance of Who’s we are as children of God! We understood that prior to accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, we had no hope, nor could we ever earn our way to heaven.

    Verses like “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” {Eph 2:9}; ” …there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” {Rom 3:12} and “…and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” {Isa 64:6} were very clear to some of us who had our eyes opened in the day! We understood that prior to accepting Christ we were “..all as an unclean thing”. Certainly, not worthy of a bow although it is not the context of your message… but I will tie that in later…

    When we were finally in the fold, there was no question in our minds that we were saved, only as a result of what Christ had done for us… Surely, we knew that we did not deserve heaven, but as a gift given to us by the Father {Rom 6:23} we were heaven bound…

    Not wanting to get too carried away, Christian Assemblies since the 70’s and even before our times have experienced a gradual “slip” away from that which is to be Holy… And certainly, we are told in scripture it will just get worse as we move further away from what scripture teaches regarding the “One” that every knee should bow to! An excellent example of something which started, on the surface, as a harmless beginning of “tradition” is the Catholic Organization itself… A tradition grounded in Pagan rituals….

    Now being in the dispensation of Grace, yet whilst the world was in the dispensation of the law, we read the 2nd Commandment “…Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God,” {Exo 20:4,5} Pretty clear right, but then we were dealing with Egyptian gods and later other gods, most notably the Babylonian gods. Centuries later, in comes Constantine, Emperor of Rome, and declares an edict protection all those who refer to themselves as “Christians” inviting them to come to Rome. Once there, and under the Romish laws, slowly the emperor introduces pagan rituals. Counting beads which is now referred to as ‘the rosary”. A yearly celebrations 3 days following the winter solstice today known as christmas. Let me jump forward to when the leader of the so called churches, decided that there should be one overseer above them all, the word Pope came about.. Although first few leaders refused to take that title, it was then adopted… Now, not so innocent, because people had to bow down to popes and later referred to as Lord God the Pope by Pope Pius the IX. A decree that stated the pope was infallible… Than images of saints, Mary, the cross, etc,… So much for the second commandment, although we know that in the catechism, the Catholic organization omits the 2nd commandment and divides the 10th commandment in two… Today, there is far more meaning to bowing then one would realize… Why? because the Catholic organizations Pope has decreed that following Traditions was to be revered as equal to that as the Bible.

    With respect to bowing, I was okay with the suggestion that one who is playing or performing in front of a crowd, could bow to acknowledge at the “thank you”‘s coming from them… That is, until you brought in the Christian element into it!

    Brother, I’ve been preaching the Gospel and ministering to God’s people for years, and haven’t taken a bow once, nor have I taken money. As a Child of God I’ve been commanded to go into the world and preach the gospel, and to teach God’s word… God has taken care of my needs, and certainly I would never accept money from people’s who’s relationship with God is unknown, less I accept the fruits of the devil’s labour…

    In conclusion, bowing to a crowd is more traditional then the meaning you place on it.. Going on for a long time, and taking a bow in past centuries was also elevating yourself.. think about that for a moment…

    I am glad that in a world where immorality has continued to rise and, of course, this is a sign of the times, there are Christians who do not mix the sin of Pride with that of receiving praise and adoration for entertainment or for a message!

    The devil has two purposes! To keep those who are not saved happy (so they don’t have to think about eternal matters) and Christians miserable so they are robbed of His glory.

    • John

      Brother Victor,

      I’m rather at a loss to know how to respond to this very long post. You seem to think that I’m suggesting that preachers take a bow after we preach. I’m not.

      You also use this post as an occasion once again to launch an attack on Roman Catholicism, which I’m afraid you seem not to understand very well. (For example, you get the developments in Catholic theology, piety, and polity in quite the wrong order: e.g., papal infallibility isn’t promulgated until Vatican I in the later nineteenth century; the Catholic Catechism does not, in fact, ignore the commandment against graven images, if you will just look up the Catechism online, as I just did: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c1a1.htm#IV.) You argue, it seems, against the Apostle Paul himself, who commands that spiritual workers be paid properly, saying that the worker is indeed worthy of his wages (e.g., I Timothy 5:17-18). And so on, and so on.

      We agree, I expect, far more than we disagree when it comes to Christian faith, Victor. And I admire your love for Jesus, the Scripture, and gospel preaching. But in the case of this particular posting, I really don’t know what your main point is, and along the way I fear you discredit yourself with these rather wild swings at other Christians. Maybe write something briefer and on point?

      • Victor Robidas

        Bro John, you still miss the point! I’m surprised you would be at a lost for words! This kind of thinking is not knew….. To keep things short….. I’ll keep my bowing for the Lord Himself. ..not for man!!!

        My attempt at pointing out what happens when you take something innocent and allow it to grow without keeping in check. I believe exposing “religions” which are leading millions to hell is actually an act of love.. plain and simple…. As for the Catholic organization, your right, it is of Rome.. The Vatican’s cut of Rome. To the point, Revelation 17:1-10 will clearly describe the Catholic organization and what she represents…… Since you asked me to be brief, I’ll end with this…. I’m not attacking your bread and butter, I am speaking only of traditions… Bowing being one of them…..

      • Victor Robidas

        John, I do have a lot of respect for you! Always have since WSS. You and I both know that not all denominations can be right.. And I know where you came from.. It is as close to the truth as you will find…

        But I know your work leads you to study so much more.. I accept that… But mine doesn’t; it is simply to bring others to Christ and if a belief system keeps them from salvation, I will expose it…. I may not be clear in my words, but I assure you, as a two finger typist, my verbal words are much clearer.. I pray that God continues to bless you!

      • Victor Robidas

        Brother John, I had to review my notes and study some of the references you made, particularly 1 Tim 5:17-18 concerning spiritual workers being paid properly and the link you shared from the Catechism referring to the Ten Commandments.

        Firstly, stating that “Paul himself, commands that spiritual workers be paid properly,….” in 1 Tim 5 is a strong use of the word “command”. I agree that 17 – 18 can mean financial remuneration or support for those referred to as “elders” in this verse. Your use of the word “properly” makes me want to ask a few questions.. But assuming you mean having their needs met, I agree.

        Take note that the word “honour” in verse 17 is toward God. An elder (overseer of a local assembly of believers is honouring God. In no way is it meant to mean a higher or different class of person. Some elders also work for a living while at same time committed to the flock… God does promise to meet their needs.. Paul also writes to Timothy in 5:3 “Honour widows who are really widows;” and the context is the same, “material support”! The idea of 17-18 is that we do not discourage those who are doing work for the Lord by not supporting them financial or materially. This would include the Lord’s Servant’s…

        Finally, I wonder if you read the link you sent me, just the one page in it’s entirety. They shun the whole of the 2nd Commandment as if just the first line is important. Then when they refer to Deuteronomy 5: 6-21 it becomes clearer what they intend to teach…. It just so happens that the Catechism also has a summary of the Commandments here http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/command.htm . They call it a A Traditional Catechetical Formula… here we go with the word Traditional again! Remember, in 1545 The Council of Trent, declared that Tradition is of equal authority with the Bible!

        John, in a passive aggressive way you sometimes attempt to discredit the knowledge of another Christian because he differs in views. You also imply I do not understand Roman Catholism very well, when I grew up in that religion, and since I was saved, I have studied it almost exhaustively so I could reach my extended family with the gospel! I’m happy to report, it has led 14 of them to Christ.. You see, I have met no Catholic who can stand in front of me and go head to head and win…. Why? Most Catholics could not even tell you the origins of their own practices. And most fail miserably when it comes to using scripture to stand on firm ground.. it is why they are the first to drop into what I refer to as the second stage of a developing crisis which is Defensiveness… Now, you should here the words coming out of those faithful’s mouths’…..

        I will not mention in my responses to you that belief system again…. Less I should be accused of attacking that which is of the devil…. Respectfully, I pray that Catholics have their eyes opened.. I love the people and even the pope, as God loves everyone, but I do not have to like what they do! Blessings John

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