• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.