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Why do we praise God?

30 November, 1999

Edmond Grace SJ explains the reasons for praising God.   Why do we praise God? I can make sense of the need to give thanks. People who are ungrateful are the poorer for their inability to say that simple word – ‘Thanks’. But giving praise leaves me feeling uneasy. It’s not that I begrudge God […]

Edmond Grace SJ explains the reasons for praising God.

 


Why do we praise God? I can make sense of the need to give thanks. People who are ungrateful are the poorer for their inability to say that simple word – ‘Thanks’. But giving praise leaves me feeling uneasy. It’s not that I begrudge God in any way. I have no problem acknowledging that God is the creator of everything and the source of every blessing, but that is more to do with gratitude. Which brings me back to my original question: why praise?


Your question troubles a lot of people. As you say, it’s not that you begrudge God in any way but the idea of giving praise can sound empty – a bit of a formality.

Self-conscious
One reason is that the language of praise as we find it in scripture is not used in ordinary life, but then there is so much more to praise about God than about anyone else. From what you say in your letter it is not that you would deny that God is praiseworthy. Perhaps the difficulty lies in our sense of unworthiness.

It is easy to praise children. When for the first time they do something which any adult can take for granted, like tying their shoelaces, it is always great to be around and to say ‘Well done!’ Children are very unselfconscious in the spontaneous pleasure they show when someone praises them. As we get older, however, and our skills are more developed our response to praise often becomes more self-conscious and we also hear praise less often.

Famous singer
Recently I happened to meet one of Ireland’s leading singers. This man has been around for decades and there are very few people who wouldn’t have heard of him – if I told you his name you would recognise it immediately!

It was at a party and he was asked to sing something, which he did in the way that only he can – a very clever and funny song with a string of complicated words sung at amazing speed.
Afterwards I was chatting to him and I marvelled at his ability not only to remember the words but to keep them flowing without the slightest hitch.

Singing is this man’s profession as well as his talent. In one sense it is no big deal for him to get up and remember the words and keep them coming. He has the ear and eye of an experienced performer and would be able to spot both strengths and weaknesses in his own and others’ performance which the likes of me wouldn’t even begin to notice.

I would not have been the least bit surprised if, on hearing my simple compliment about being able to remember the words, he had given me a friendly but slightly pitying smile. But he didn’t. Instead his face lit up. If he was not genuinely pleased at my simple compliment, he was certainly putting on a very good act. I always liked his singing but after that little encounter I really warmed to the man – not just to the singing, but to the man himself.

Gracious acceptance
Here was one of Ireland’s leading entertainers. I praised him and he enjoyed the praise in a simple straightforward natural way which was free of conceit. If you are foolish enough to praise a conceited person, especially one who is very talented, you will walk away from the encounter feeling small. This man did not leave me feeling small.

Later it occurred to me that this is probably one of the secrets of his enduring success. He loves to sing and he loves it too when people love his singing. There is a simple enthusiasm about a really good performer which I hesitate to describe as ‘childlike’ because that can sound patronising, and yet it is a quality which you see in children when they are enjoying themselves the most. They love to entertain and amuse people and they enjoy it when people are entertained and amused.

Childlike quality
It is energising and healing to be in the presence of someone who has developed that side of their personality.

People like that make it easy for us to say ‘You’re great!’ and they enjoy hearing it. They like to be praised and when we see this quality – this ‘childlike’ quality – we can’t help responding to them with goodwill and affection.

I’m no longer just talking about professional performers. Some people are simply good at living; they are fun to be around and they make us want to cheer them on. Every good teacher has this quality – an enthusiasm for life which is infectious. We tell other people about them. We even praise them!

We usually do it behind their backs, though on occasion we praise them to their faces. Of course, at such moments many really generous and dedicated people ‘die’ with embarrassment.

Many really good people are unable to delight in the genuine praise of others but, while in no way taking from their other good qualities, this inability is not really admirable. There is a sadness about it, an absence of joy and ultimately an absence of gratitude for the gift of ‘life’ as distinct from merely being ‘alive.’

Many people think that this embarrassed reaction to praise is a sign of humility but they are mistaken. Humble persons have no exaggerated sense of their importance, but the hallmark of real humility is an ability to respond encouragingly to other people.

So, if you happen to be one of Ireland’s leading singers and some complete stranger marvels at your ability to remember the words of all the songs, if you’re a humble man you’ll be pleased and you’ll be happy to let them see that you are pleased!

Praise and homage
Coming back to the question – why do we praise God? It boils down to the difference between praise and homage. We pay homage to the powerful, and in doing so we use the language of praise – ‘You are great.’ Homage is formal and calculated to keep a powerful personage on our side. Praise is different.

We praise children. God is like a child in this sense – or like a happy performing artist. Creation is like a great performance in which the artist loves to create and also loves to be praised for creating. Praise of God is a gift to be prayed for, not a duty to be performed. Praise is a form of play – spontaneous and lavish, like the response of a crowd when they see an athlete set a new world record. We praise God, not for setting world records but for creating a world in which world records and great performances are possible! That is why we sing ‘Alleluia!’

Messenger, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


This article first appeared in the