Catholic Epistles Scripture and the Life of the Church Uncategorized

Training Our Hearts in Praise and Gratitude

"Lift up your voices to glorify the LORD as much as you can, for there is still more."

But praise is uttered by the mouth of the wise, and its rightful owner teaches it.

Sirach 15:10, NABRE

Let us praise him the more, since we cannot fathom him, for greater is he than all his works; awesome indeed is the LORD, and wonderful his power. Lift up your voices to glorify the LORD as much as you can, for there is still more.

Sirach 43:28-30, NABRE

The Scriptures are full of calls for God’s creatures to give praise to the Lord. We are invited to laud and magnify the Lord’s name, to praise God in all his works through song, in vocal and silent prayer, and with obedience and faith that honor God as God. 

We are called to praise God not because God “needs” anything. “Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). God’s kindness, the graces of creation and beauty and holiness that he lavishes upon his people, are the reason why we are called to give praise. Indeed, praising the Lord for what he has done for us and just for who he is — “How Great Thou Art” — is an act of love. It takes love that we have for a person, God, and expresses it verbally. Such praise is a primary privilege and call of those to whom God has been revealed, a chief element of loving God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. That means it is a fulfillment of what Jesus identifies as the Greatest Commandment (Mark 12:29-30).

We’re not always very good at it, though, are we? In part that is necessarily true because of the effects of sin in the world. And it’s certainly true because God’s full greatness is unfathomable and inexpressible — as Sirach says, “there is still more” after we have uttered all the praises possible with the human mouth or mind (Sir 43:30). But I think many of us are inept at praise in particular because we don’t dispose our hearts to praise anything, especially people. Some of us praise only things or people that we want to possess in some way, and the praise wanes once we “get” them. How many odes to someone’s beauty turn into complaints after infatuation becomes commitment? Some of us are able only to praise people we don’t know, who are far away from us — a sports star or presidential candidate or actor — but feel odd complimenting a human being we know to their face. Some of us default to criticism in all cases because it is safer for our own reputation not to be a “fan” and because nobody wants to inflate anyone’s ego. 

There are lots of reasons for this in different societies and different individual lives. Some good, some less so. Our heritages also contribute to whether we have been or are being raised in a world where we are comfortable voicing compliments (or whether we give them meaninglessly). Our jobs and social locations contribute as well. I’m an academic, trained to be constantly critical for the good of my field; we can be particularly bad with humans.  

I bring this up because, while appreciation and praise can happen spontaneously out of our hearts, our hearts will be sluggish at it if we aren’t in the habit of noticing and appreciating what is good. If we can’t pay a genuine compliment to another human being, just because of who they are or something they have done — and with no expectation that doing so will get us a date or a “like” or a job or a favor — then we might not actually be able to do anything other than repeat the words when we are praising God. “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.”

One might argue that this is how it should be. We praise God. Who cares if you noticed your friend’s haircut or genuinely took a moment to tell them something good about them or something you are thankful for in their work? We should prioritize our praises for God, yes. And the best place to learn the vocabulary of praise is from the Psalms extolling God. But we also learn to praise, adore, and give thanks in relation to God by practicing it in relation to other humans. Indeed, it is here where we first learn what those words mean, in real, tangible relationships with people in front of us. Here is the logic that we find in 1 John: 

If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

1 John 4:20-21, NABRE (italics added)

All loves should, theologically, be ordered under God — loving others in God and because of God. What we love in another is there and is lovely because they are made in God’s image; the goodness and beauty in them are participations in God’s perfect goodness and beauty. And the character of praise — indeed, worship — that we give to God is and must be on a different level than what is given to any creature. But if I can’t act in love for another human, whom I can see and express gratitude or appreciation for directly, how do I begin to know what it is to love God whose face I do not see? The logic in the italicized phrase above is worth considering, with verbal expressions of love and in every other expression of love. If I can’t look for things to be thankful for in others and express that thankfulness appropriately, how often will my antennae pick up things to thank our merciful Creator for? If I can’t be attentive to the good in those closest to me, things I can see and can know took effort, how specific will my thank-offerings be to the Lord whose gifts are often hard to detect? If, as James indicates, what we say with our mouths is a kind of verbal steering wheel directing our hearts and actions, then a habit of gratitude and praise trains and directs my heart and mouth to notice and appreciate good in little things. And it is faithfulness in little things that begets faithfulness in great things (Luke 16:10). 

A practice of compliments for humans is good for other humans (usually, at least); you never know who is at the end of their rope. It is part of loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is also good for me psychologically to train my heart to see and appreciate goodness and beauty amid all the brokenness and sin that gets me down. Even more, such expressions of love in relation to others are good for my relationship toward God if I remember that God is the one who gives “every” good gift (James 1:17), including those I appreciate in another. For when I find something to appreciate in another, I can thank God for that same thing, and glorify the Lord all the more.

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