My Broken Calculus of Praise

kneeling in reverence

After much reflection and prayer (and quite a bit of thoughtful and coherent help from several authors whom I love) I realized how mechanical and devoid of joy my praise of God has become.  It’s alarmingly easy to stumble into a place like that:  bowed head, bent knee.  Eyes and hands clenched tightly as I stammer words so painfully self-deprecating that God can’t help but notice how infinitesimally small I am, and most importantly that He knows that I know.  I’m practiced at it, you see.  Natural.  It’s my own calculus for praise.

I would that I could bleed here, in that lowly place.  That I could diminish endlessly before Him, dry up, crumble and settle into dusty nothingness. It’s an offering, to be sure, for the Magnificent Father who has given me so much.  It says, “God, I’ve broken myself before You; I’ve killed the wicked flesh.  I never was any good.” And I imagine myself in that place at His feet, my body wracked and my soul contorted in self-mortification.  As if to say that His greatness is somehow recognized in proportion to my smallness.  To praise Him, I must first be in such painful regret of my own condition that the tears flow and the body aches. “Are you watching, God?  Do you see how great I think You are because of how miserable I am?”  This is that place where God finally delights in my…what? Agony? Nothingness? Homily of self-condemnation and self-mortification?  Can such be His delight?

This has been my go-to place when I want to praise Him.  I destroy myself first, as if God’s radiance is somehow more brilliant when fed by the fires of my own burning self-contempt.

And then I praise Him.  With feeble words muttered on tear stained lips.  Carefully chosen phrases that at the same time announce His magnificence and my own depravity.  His greatness is proportional to my smallness.  “Are you watching, God?”

No wonder people flee the practice of praise.  Struggle with it; grow weary of it.  It becomes mechanical because you can only break something once.  Then it must be restored.  Otherwise you are just stepping through ruins.  That’s why Christ went to the cross.  Because our broken and condemned state could not be restored but by the Holy hand of God.  Christ called to us as He hung there, His flesh pierced and bleeding.  He called us to drag ourselves to Him, broken limbs, sullied lives, our hearts twisted and cold.

As I lay there in the dirt of Calvary, I turn my eyes up to see what?  Christ’s gaze upon me, looking through ribbons of blood to see if I’ve injured myself enough?  No.

I see a Savior God become man, straining against His human fragility.  Agonizing over our collective desperation with a grace and love so immense, that our redemption, and consequently our joy has been His only aim from eternity past.   Remember the dying words of Christ, because they say it all.  His last breaths were spent for the love of others: Those that drove nails through His body; the thief dying beside Him.  His mother.  How could I have ever thought that my own self-destruction somehow elevated the act of the Cross?  How could I have thought to begin my praise of a God capable of such extraordinary love, with self-loathing.

Because there’s an idol there, in that place that I go and prepare myself to praise.  Something that until today has remained invisible to me.  Something that I cherish more than God.  What I am really sacrificing to in this place is my own need to ruin myself in His sight.  Not out of obedience, surrender, or humility.  But out of a purposeful act of contrition that says, “I’m bad.  So I tore my flesh and twisted my soul.  You can like me now.

“Are you watching, God?”

I can’t see the cross from here, in that place I go to ready myself for praise.  The idol of my own self-hatred blocks the view.  Don’t misunderstand.  God wants us to surrender, to die in our flesh, as I think Paul would say.  Christ’s act on the cross demands it.  But the hatred of my own flesh must be an act of celebration in Christ, rather than a substitution of His atonement at Calvary.  It must be a rejection of anything that I would cherish more than God, and a process of seeking the true joy and delight we find only in God.  It hasn’t been that at all.

In this place where I prepare to praise, I erected idols, practiced rituals, and sought my own path into God’s grace.  “Hate yourself, and God will notice.”  I think that’s what the subconscious loop in my head has been playing.

So it’s time for a new place.  A new practice.  Destroy the idols, crush the flesh, and abandon all hope of atoning for myself because Christ did that.  Alone.  He didn’t need me, and he certainly didn’t need my self-loathing.  That’s the beauty of grace.  We get to bring ourselves broken and bleeding-out to the dirt of Calvary knowing that any and all debts are painfully, awfully, beautifully paid.  Our money’s no good here.

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And I can reject myself—despise myself.  Because I know I’m bad.  But here, in the bloody dirt beneath the cross, that’s not an act of payment.  It’s not a sacrifice to gain favor with God, as if to look skyward and see Jesus giving me a Holy thumbs up.  “Good job.  You did it.”  No.  He did it.

Despising myself here, at the cross, is a response to the gift of salvation, available through God’s grace by which I get to let go.  I get to surrender all those painful slivers of self-fulfillment, self-worship, and yes, self-loathing in exchange for the truest, most complete joy imaginable:  Celebration of God.  That’s what I think praise is supposed to be.  The Bible tells us that’s what our natural, eternal state in heaven is:

“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” (Revelations 22:3)

Finding true joy, in praise of God.  So in my new place, where I go to prepare myself for praise, joy should be overwhelming.  There is an understanding of my eternal desperation for the blood of Christ, but it’s celebration rather than a mortification.  That God did something of eternal, timeless significance in Christ that I could not do myself.  There’s peace here.  And I get to celebrate that, because I must.  The imperative act of joy overflows and become unrestrainable.

And so I try to become the “Christian hedonist” as John Piper would describe it—A person so focused on Heaven, and on God’s radiance that he can scarcely be interrupted by the trifling’s of this world.  One whose desires are so attuned to the will of God, that the only joy worth feeling is in Him.  All else is a fading whisper.  Like the Scripture says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

This is where my praise must begin.  This is where my journey to true delight begins.  Because an obedient, uncontainable heart, overflowing with joy is the only real offering any of us have which is worthy of giving.  John Piper writes, “Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of His worth.”  I think he’s right.  The reflection in my own worship and praise has been woefully inadequate, and I see that now.  So I clear away the idols, look to the cross, and seek joy in the only place it has ever truly been:  In the arms of Our Father.

I leave you with three quotes from great men, whose pens more aptly relate the concepts of joy in praise than I can:

“God is not worshipped where He is not treasured and enjoyed.  Praise in not an alternative to joy, but the expression of Joy.”  John Piper, Desiring God:  Meditations of a Christian Hedonist

“He that testifies the idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.” Johnathan Edwards, Miscellanies

“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”  C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

God bless.