Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
“Praise” — it is the second form of prayer mentioned in James 5:13.
As I said on Sunday, my hunch is that although we often praise God corporately — like singing on Sundays — many of us have not made this form of prayer a regular practice in our personal prayer lives. If we were to each assess the ways that we commonly pray, I would guess that most of our praying is asking God to do things in our lives, not thanking God for what he has already done.
And right away, I want you to know that God is not mad at you for not praising him enough. If you’re like me, that might be the first place your mind goes once you realize that you spend most of your praying asking instead of giving. And if you go there, I want to stop you. I want to stop you because thinking along those lines is dangerous — for at least three reasons.
First, God doesn’t need your praise.
It is appropriate that we spend most of our praying asking instead of giving. That’s because God is God, not us. There are things he must do in our lives, and our asking him to do those things acknowledges that. It recognizes his greatness and our finitude. There is, as James mentions, a kind of asking that is selfish, so don’t do that (see James 4). But there is also a kind of asking that honors God. It is the kind of asking exemplified by the psalmist in Psalm 116:12–13,
What shall I render the Lord for all his benefits to me?
In other words, what should I give to God for all of the good he has given to me?
I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
In other words, I will ask him for more. I will acknowledge that I am starving, but he is the harvest. I am poor, but he is wealthy. I am a human, but he is God.
Let us ask like that.
Second, praising God should flow from God’s praiseworthiness, not you thinking he is disappointed in you.
This is a real thing. Once you realize you don’t praise God “enough,” you can easily slip into a mindset that assumes God is disappointed in you. It happens subtly, but you can end up imagining that God is shaking his head about the whole thing. He must be up in heaven looking down at your praying, thinking to himself, “Geez, that Parnell kid is just always asking for me to do things. Can he just spend a little more time giving thanks?”
Again, you probably won’t play that exact thought out in your head, but it could be something like that. And if it is something like that, and you feel the urge to start praising God more, then it isn’t because you think he’s praiseworthy, it’s because you don’t want him to be disappointed. And if that’s why you’re doing it then it isn’t actually praise, it’s works-righteousness. It is you trying to do something in your own power to change the way God thinks about you.
And by this point your praise has become mere lip-service. This sort of thing has happened before. Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8; and he was quoting Isaiah 29:13).
Third, corrective praying can become hyper-formulaic.
There will be multiple times in our Christian walk when we experience renewal in the way we pray. We tend to pick up bad habits over time that need correcting, and when the correcting comes, we should beware of overcompensating and making our prayers hyper-formulaic.
For example, you might be familiar with some different models of how to pray. One such model is the acronym ACTS — Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication — and it can be super helpful. Another model is the Lord’s Prayer, which is what I tend to use (it includes the same parts of ACTS, but in a different order). These models and others can be great, but one way we can misuse them is to think that our prayers have to be this symmetrical equation every time. If we’re not careful, we can make the focus of our prayers getting the equation right rather than actually talking to God.
And then we can really misuse the models when we think that our getting the equation right ensures that God will give us what we want. The problem here is one we all face. Our sinful hearts are bent on turning models of prayer into lock combinations.
This is not a reason to not use them — I use them! — but it’s just something to watch out for. What’s really at stake when it comes to making prayer an equation isn’t just that we’re praying wrongly, but it’s that eventually we will not pray at all. Because praying like that is boring. It’s mechanical. It’s rote. It’s praying like a robot, but we’re not robots. Could you imagine having to check the box of an acronym every time you talk with your spouse? Real relationships have dynamism, including your communion with God.
My point here is that we want to pray like humans, and sometimes that means we’re jumping around all over the place, and that’s okay. The best way to praise God more in our praying is to think less about our model and to just think more about God. I have found that the best way to praise God is to rehearse the truths of who he is and what he has done. The Psalms are exemplary in this. Or you might consider this below template of adoration and thanksgiving from Tim Keller, via Matthew Henry, the 17th century Puritan.
Help with Our Praise
In the section below, Keller encourages us to turn these truths about God into actual adoration and thanksgiving as we pray. That means changing the “he is” statements to “you are” — “God, you are transcendently and infinitely bright, blessed, and beautiful...”
From Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, pp. 199–201,
God is transcendently and infinitely bright, blessed, and beautiful. He is self-existent— depending on nothing for his being. Instead, all things are dependent on him. He is an infinite and eternal Spirit, the only perfect One, the God of absolute glory and importance. God’s perfections are matchless and without comparison. Those perfections include his eternal and unchanging character; his presence everywhere; his perfect knowledge of all things; his perfect, unsearchable wisdom; his absolute, irresistible power and sovereignty over all that happens; his unspotted moral purity, beauty, and holiness; and his justice— his inexorable judgment that will ultimately put all things right. God is a Creator God, the maker, protector, sustainer, and ruler of all creation. He is a God of truth, a speaking God with whom we may have a personal relationship. He is the covenant God, who is faithful to his promises, who has bound himself to us that we might bind ourselves to him. He is the triune God, one and yet three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not only our King but our Friend and Spouse. Our hearts were made for him to be our only joy.
For the ways he gives and sustains our physical life. For making us in his image, capable of knowing, loving, serving, enjoying him and other relationships; for preserving our lives thus far— bringing us through injuries and sicknesses so that we are alive today; for the supports and comforts that make our lives enjoyable, pleasant, and bearable; for the successes we have received, goals attained, and for the blessings we weren’t wise enough or capable of achieving but which he sent anyway. For the ways he gives and sustains our spiritual life. For the plan of salvation itself, and how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit planned it from the deeps of eternity; for Christ emptying himself of his glory for us; for his teaching and character that reveal to us the beauty of holiness; for Jesus’ death on our behalf, paying for our sins, fulfilling all the requirements, bringing us into a new covenant relationship with God through grace; for the Holy Spirit, for his power and presence in our lives enabling us to understand God’s truth, know his love and glory, be conformed to Christ’s character, and serve others with his gifts; for the Word of God, the Scripture— for its wisdom and truth, and its power; for the church, its congregations and leaders, who have shaped and formed us, who have helped us grow in faith, hope, and love; for the Christian friends who have given us so much; for the assurance of our salvation, that we can rest in the hope of future resurrection and living with him forever; for being able to know that, no matter what, everything will be all right. For the particular mercies bestowed on us. Ways God has been patient with us; ways he has helped us change and break bad habits and patterns of thought, heart attitude, and practice; ways he has protected us from the fuller consequences of our own blindness and foolishness; ways he has revealed himself to us, giving us communion with him; ways he has answered our prayers; ways he has walked with us through pain and suffering.