Love and Praise

There are so many questions that Jesus answered less-than-clearly.  Often he answered a question with a round-about story, like in Luke 10:25-37:

Q:         “Who is my neighbor?”
A:         “Once on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, a man got robbed blind and beaten half to death…”

Other times Jesus answers a question with a question.  Like when he gets a query about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34; see also Matt 22:36-40 and Luke 10:25-28); he asks

Q:         “Which commandment is the first of all?”
A:         “First:  love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.  And second:  love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it – plain and simple.

Maybe Jesus answered this one question so clearly because of how important it is.  If we can follow these two commands of loving God and loving neighbor, then pretty much everything else will fall in line.  So we’re going to spend the next four weeks exploring these two most important commandments, starting with what Jesus himself said comes first.  To quote it in full:

“Hear, O Israel:  the LORD our God, the LORD is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).

The reason it begins with a “Hear, O Israel” pronouncement is because Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  In that case, the Ten Commandments are fresh out of Moses’ lips, practically still lingering in the air above the Israelites’ heads.  And then:  “Hear, O Israel… love our one God with all you’ve got!”  It’s like a powerful summation of the Decalogue, driving home the point of all those commands.  And this is what Jesus chooses as the greatest commandment – not a specific one among the ten, but the even greater one that calls us to direct all our human capacity for love toward our One God.

“Hear, O Israel:  the LORD our God, the LORD is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).

This is the greatest commandment.  It’s the purpose of the other ten.  It’s what we are designed to do:  to put all of our existence into loving the God who created us.

There are many ways in which we love God – and we’ll cover another one next week – but there’s one in particular that has been working on me lately.  It has to do with the way that we pray; specifically, praising God in our prayers. 

Maybe you’re like me:  my prayers often start by asking God for help, and often include my apologies for how I’ve messed up.  These are valuable ways of praying – important for our spiritual health – but they’re not praise.

Another way of praying is to thank God for things.  “Thanks for the cool weather.”  “Thanks for my family.”  “Thanks for getting me through today.”  This is also a very good, important aspect of prayer.  God is so good to us, and we ought to thank God.  But if you think saying “thank you” is praising God then you might be missing out on another way to pray, a way that helps us obey that greatest commandment by deeply loving God.

Praise is different than saying “thank you.”  We parents can feel the difference.

Like God receiving our prayers, parents get asked for stuff… a lot.  Kids want the toys they see on TV and the popsicles they think they deserve when they get home from school.  Kids also want some good things like new toothbrushes (with Lightning McQueen on them) and celery for a snack (with a bowlful of ranch on the side).  Whether the requests are silly or wonderful, all the asking will make a parent twitch after a while.  Clearly, it is not praise.

Like God receiving our prayers, parents get occasional apologies.  In our house these are usually coaxed out of the offending party by a time-out.  “I’m sorry,” comes out in a whisper without an ounce of eye contact, and the immediate reward (for parent and child) is a deep, reconciling hug.  That hug – and the forgiveness it represents – is amazing, and worth all the work that leads up to it.  But as good as that feels, it’s not praise.

Like God receiving our prayers, parents get an occasional “thank you.”  We’re really working on this habit in our house.  Sometimes our kids think to say those two sweet words on their own:  “Thank you for taking us to the playground.”  “Thank you for my ice cream.”  “Thank you for patiently reading me Fancy Nancy for the 364th time.”  (I’m still waiting on that last one.)  “Thank yous” are nice, but they’re really just good manners.  They’re not praise.

Praise is different.  Praise feels incredible.

Let me tell you about praise.

Praise is when my daughter tells me that I’m her best friend, and I wish I could get that in writing and lock it down forever.  Or when she proclaims that I’m the best mom ever – a statement that can only be made out of lack of comparison, but one that I treasure anyway.

Praise is when my son and I are playing catch outside and he throws a wild wiffle-ball pitch.  I run and catch it with a Sportscenter-worth display of athletics.  He raises his three-year-old voice to a squeaky pitch and says, “Awesome, Mom!”

Praise, I should note, is not reserved for children and their parents.  Praise is also when my husband and I are sitting on the couch at the end of a long day and I’m not doing anything but feeling sleepy in my bargain-bin sweatpants.  He turns to me with no prompting and says, “I love you,” and I feel deeply content.

A “thank you” is somehow deserved, a transactional response that’s directed more at the performance than the performer.  Praise is a declaration of the goodness of its recipient.

Praise is not, “Thanks for cooking dinner.”  Praise is, “You’re an amazing cook!”

Praise is not, “Thanks for picking up the toys after the kids went to bed and you were totally exhausted.”  Praise is, “You are an amazing dad and husband.”

Can you feel the difference?

Saying thank you is good and very important.  But praise feeds our soul; it tells us that we’re loved and appreciated.  And if praise feels good to us, human beings that we are, isn’t it fair to assume that it feels good to the God who created us in the divine image?

So I have a challenge for you:  This week, every time you pray don’t start by asking God for something (“God, please help me today…”).  Don’t open your conversation with God with an apology (“God, please forgive me of my sins…”).  And even though “thank yous” are good manners, resist the temptation to start with gratitude (“God, thanks for all you give me…”).  Start with praise.

“God, you are awesome.
You’re taller than the mountains.
You’re more infinite than the stars in the sky.
You’re bigger than any force on earth.
You are in control.
You are awesome.”

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now.  I’m so in the habit of asking God for help that I’ve often had to stop and restart my prayers.  I begin again with praise, showering God with accolades.  I cannot overdo this – the Creator of the universe deserves every praise I can think of.

Starting my prayers this way stokes the flames of my love for God.  It reminds me of just how amazing God is.  Beginning with praise puts my relationship with God in the correct order, staring our conversation with my love for God.

I challenge you to do the same.  Take seven days and begin your prayers with piles of praise.  Lean into your love for God, and by doing so, fulfill that greatest commandment:

“Hear, O Israel:  the LORD our God, the LORD is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).

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