Lesson 3: Praise, Part 1
Welcome. Good morning! It’s good to see you all this morning as we start into our third lesson on prayer. Let’s start today by just reviewing where we’ve been.
Two weeks ago, we began our study by asking the question, “Why pray?” We said there are basically two answers to that question: because we need God and because we love Him. We also talked about the tendency to emphasize one of those motivations over against the other. And we concluded that both motivations are equally valid. It’s not necessarily more spiritual to pray because you love God than it is to pray because you need Him. However, we also talked about the danger of getting these two motivations imbalanced—of praying only when we need God and ignoring Him at other times. This is a serious problem, because it reveals that God does not have first place in our hearts. In fact, when we pray this way (only asking for things and never simply enjoying Him), we are essentially asking God for the resources we need to commit spiritual adultery against Him. That’s what James 4 says. “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” We’ll talk more about that later. But it’s also possible to get imbalanced on the side of what Keller calls “communion-centered” prayer—praying because we love God. We become imbalanced on that side when we make prayer into some sort of mystical experience that is disconnected from the Bible. This isn’t an issue that comes up much in our circles, but it does come up in other contexts and has been a problem at other times in church history, as well. Which is why we need to be reminded that prayer is merely half of a two-way conversation. God speaks to us through the Bible; we answer Him through prayer. That being the case, it is vitally important that we couple our prayers with the regular intake of God’s Word. In fact, one of the best ways to deepen your prayer life is to get better at listening to God through Bible reading, study, and meditation.
So that all has to do with why we pray. But then last week, we also considered some common hindrances to prayer in our American culture. We’re so independent that we don’t think we need Him, so prosperous that we don’t really love Him, and so distracted that we don’t have time for Him. That’s a sad assessment, but it’s often true. So, if we are going to develop rich lives of prayer, we are going to have to fight against the tendencies of our culture. One of the ways we can do that is by setting aside time each day for Bible reading and prayer. We talked about how important it was to Jesus to get away from the noise of life and spend time alone with His Father. It wasn’t that Jesus was disconnected from real life! He was a very busy man! But because He was so busy, He needed at times to distance Himself from everyone else in order to focus on His relationship with His Father. Of course, if Jesus needed to get alone with God, so do we. However, our prayer lives certainly aren’t limited to our quiet times! The Bible tells to “pray without ceasing.” We should view our lives as a story God is telling and regularly ask Him to intervene in particular ways. In addition, we should be constantly interceding for others, as we saw from Paul’s example.
This week, we’re going to dive into the first of three main types of prayer that we see in the Bible, and that is praise. However, before we do so, I think we ought to talk about how we divide up the categories.
How many of you learned an acronym for classifying prayer? Which acronyms did you learn?
There are basically two main acronyms for classifying prayer that I have seen: ACTS and PRAY. In the ACTS acronym, A stands for “adoration,” C is for “confession,” T is for “thanksgiving,” and S stands for “supplication.” The PRAY acronym is a little bit different. It combines adoration and thanksgiving under the heading, “praise,” but then add a fourth category called “yielding,” in which we say, “Not my will, but Thine be done” and present our members as instruments of righteousness to God. So, P stands for “praise,” R is for “repent,” A is for “ask,” and Y stands for “yield.”
You say, “Pastor Kris, which acronym do you like best?” Well, honestly, I’m not completely satisfied with either! I like the way that PRAY combines adoration and thanksgiving, but I’m not completely convinced that “yield” deserves its own category. Also, it seems that neither acronym covers the full range of appropriate prayer. For instance, what do you do with the psalms of lament, in which the psalmists spend multiple verses simply describing their situation? Or what do you do with a verse like Psalm 119:20, which says, “My soul breaks with longing for your judgments at all times.” Is that praise? Not exactly. Is it a request? No. It’s certainly not confession of sin, and it isn’t really yielding to God, either. It’s just talking to Him about my feelings and desires.
So, what do we do? Do we throw out the acronyms? I don’t think that’s necessary, because most of what the Bible says about prayer does fit into one of those categories, and the memory devices are helpful. Just don’t marry yourself to one particular acronym; and remember that prayer is not a four-step process; it’s talking to God. It may be helpful at times to pray through an acronym, especially when you’re first learning to pray; but hopefully, over time, your prayers will become more fluid and natural.
So now that we’ve talked about how to categorize prayer in general, let’s zoom in on that first category: praise. (And just to clarify, when I say, “praise,” I mean both adoration and thanksgiving.) First, we’ll consider the difficulty of praise.
The Difficulty of Praise
One of the statistics that really surprised me in the online prayer survey was this one. 83% of the respondents say that they ask God for things that they want or need. 86% say that they confess their sins. But 91% say that they praise and thank Him. That number surprised me, because personally, I find praise to the be the least-natural form of prayer. Now, I guess thanksgiving may be an exception. But I find it easier to ask God for things, and even to confess my sins to Him, than to adore Him for who He is. Does anyone else identify with me? Perhaps the problem was that I worded the question wrong. But I would guess that many people neglect praise for one reason or another.
And that’s a problem, because praise is very important! So let’s talk about the importance of praise.
The Importance of Praise
Praise is very important; in fact, I would argue that it is the most foundational type of prayer.
Tim Keller calls praise “the alpha prayer,” and he goes on to say this about it: “Praise and adoration are the necessary preconditions for the proper formulation and motivation for all other kinds of prayer. This doesn’t mean we can never go immediately to petition or confession, but it means that, in our overall prayer life, praise and adoration must have a prime place.”
You say, “Pastor Kris, I don’t think I agree with Tim Keller! I mean, how is praise a precondition for proper petition?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Turn to James 4 (James 4:1-3). There’s obviously a lot going on in this passage, but I want to focus your attention on three little words in v. 3: “you ask amiss.” What was wrong with the requests of these believers? Let’s read on (vv. 3-4). You see, the problem with their requests had to do with the condition of their hearts. James describes them as adulterers. What do agree to when you get married? “For better or for worse,” “for richer, for poorer,” “in sickness and in health,” “to love and to cherish,” and what? (“forsaking all others”) What if when they got to the “forsaking all others” part, the bride said, “Wait, I don’t agree to that!” The groom might just walk out of the building! We understand that scenario to be absurd because marriage is to be an exclusive relationship.
But sadly, these believers were having an affair with the world. And yet, they had the audacity to pray! Can you imagine it? A wife falls for a guy she meets online. She moves out of the house to go live with him. A month later, she calls her husband, “Honey, can I borrow your credit card? I’m planning a trip to Vegas, and I wanted to get some things.” “Are you kidding? How dare you treat me like that and then expect me to foot the bill?” What do you think these people in James 4 were praying for? I doubt they were asking for anything blatantly sinful. They were probably asking for the same things most people ask God for: prosperity, comfort, and success. And the indication from the text is that God as a loving husband wanted to give them those things. It says, “You do not have because you do not ask.” However, God knew that He could not safely grant them their requests because to do so would be to aid and abet their adultery. So instead, He pleads with them to repent and return to Him.
You say, “Okay, Pastor Kris, I get it. But how does praise fix all of that!?” Let me give you three reasons.
First, praise fixes all of that because it flows from a heart that enjoys God. When a husband consistently praises his wife for her beauty and charm, the wife isn’t usually worried about him being unfaithful. Why? Because she recognizes that one love pushes out the other. He’s happy with her; why would he look elsewhere? That’s why Proverbs says, “Rejoice with the wife of your youth.”
Second, praise fixes all of that because it is in and of itself the enjoyment of God. C.S. Lewis has a famous quote about this. He said, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”
Elise and I have many happy memories at Camp Ironwood. It was during our first summer there that we really got to know each other, and it was the first place we lived after our honeymoon. We enjoyed our summers there during the early years as reprieves from the demands of seminary life. Our favorite spot there no longer exists. It was a little dock down near the end of the lake where they used to take the kids snorkeling. We’d go sit on that dock as it was starting to get dark and watch the show. As the sun set over the hill, the bugs would come out over lake in full force, so the fish would jump up to catch them. But there were also these birds that would swoop down and eat the bugs, too. So you’ve got the sun setting in the background over a peaceful lake, fish jumping, and dozens of birds swooping down over and over again to catch bugs. It was almost like watching fireworks. But of course, the best part was just sitting next to each other on the dock, dangling our feet in the water, and talking. Imagine a conversation there the summer that we were dating. I say, “That’s a really nice shirt. You look good in it.” I get little chills. I say, “And also, I love your smile.” Goosebumps, right? Why? Because I enjoy praising my girlfriend. I don’t just praise her because I enjoy her, as if the two things are completely separate; the praise itself is part of the delight. So when we praise God, we’re actually in that moment enjoying Him. It’s as if we’re taking that pot that’s been simmering on the back burner and bringing it to a boil.
You say, “Pastor Kris, that’s all well and good, but I don’t have those types of feelings when I’m praising God.” That’s where reason number three comes in. The third reason praise fixes our relationship with God is that it actually shapes our affections toward Him.
Let me share with you another story about me and Elise. This past March, I wanted to do something extra-special for Elise’s birthday. So I got a babysitter and planned a one-night getaway with her. And the way it worked out, I had a little more time to plan it all out than I had expected, so I tried to add some extra details that I knew she would appreciate. Now, one of the things that my wife loves is cards. I don’t really understand it; cards are not a big deal to me, but my wife really likes them. So I decided to give her five notes throughout the day that corresponded to the five letters of her name. And on each note, I wrote an adjective starting with that letter that describes her. Can I describe to you how that process went? It started out pretty matter-of-factly. “E—e—okay, “energetic?” Mabye…. There’s gotta be something better than that. I know, I’ll Google it. ‘E adjectives to describe a person—go!’ Great! Here’s a list. Let’s see, that one’s a possibility… that one could work… certainly not that one! Okay, E’s done. Now L. Hmm. Boy, there are so many good ones. I should do two—maybe three!” And by the time I was done, I was like, “Wow, I’ve got a really great wife! I love her, and I’m excited about giving her these notes!”
Now, what happened? We might say that the discipline of praise shaped my heart. I began writing the notes because I thought it was a good idea, but by the time I was done, my heart had caught up with my head. And I think the same thing often happens when we praise God. At first, we may praise Him out of a sense of duty; but in time, duty turns into delight.
So I hope you’ve seen how praise is a precondition for proper petition. Next week, I plan to cover the relationship between praise and confession and then hopefully discuss how we are to go about praising God. But we’ll close with that for today.