No end to having to learn... (smile).. More Lessons I have learned...


Dealing with praise


One of the stranger verses in the bible--at least to me as a new follower of Jesus--was Proverbs 27.21: "The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives". I remember reading that verse every month (on the 27th of the month, obviously--smile) in my morning time with the Lord for those first 10+ years or so, and always being amazed by it.
It was obviously true--praise and compliments CAN provoke a 'moral crisis’ (smile) for us, and having more visibility as a teacher than a new believer might should have (cf. the danger mentioned in 1 Tim 3.6), I had more than my share of this challenge.

One commentator nets it out:

"Heat both tests and refines silver (cf. 25:4) and gold, showing what the metals are really like. (This first line of 27:21 is identical with 17:3.) Praise tests a person in a similar way in that his reaction to it shows what he is really like. If he gloats over it, he shows himself to be arrogant; he “knows” he is good. But if he accepts the praise modestly, he shows his humility." [BKC]


So, early on I began to ponder what the proper response to praise is, or should be... And there were several things I saw fairly early on:


A little later I began to see other things:


And then more recently I learned:


This latter point was a constant, although it changed in 'format'(?) over the years. At first, when the wounds of self-styled insignificance were freshest, praise (in a secular/academic/occupational context) was a mainstream challenge. Since it 'addressed' a deep need for approval , respect, acceptance, and (I suppose) power(?) , it was like a drug fix, an over-powerful handgun, or cool water to someone lost in the desert. It was not actually received as 'praise', but as 'medicine' or 'food' or 'anesthesia'. Even if it were false, it still could be used this way! Even when you had 'tricked them' or manipulated them into thinking you were better than you were, you could still 'use' the praise for this pathological fix.

Then, over time, as our Precious Lord began convincing me over and over and over and over again that He accepted me (and this even while knowing ALL the bad about me, which I had so cleverly hid from others!), treasured me, delighted in me, warmly loved me, and actually 'chose me to be on His sandlot baseball team' (unlike all my other experiences in early life...), this need moved from being "my need" to being "the flesh's need". As the flesh/'old man' gets weaker and more feeble in my life (i.e., as righteousness and the Spirit simply 'crowd it out'), I can almost feel it take these scraps of praise and go hide them... it puts it on a trophy mantle, it cuddles with it at night, it polishes them all day long...and the New Me --not as often actually 'tempted' by the praise anymore--sees how pitiful, diseased, and empty that is.

To be sure, there are still certain kinds of compliments and praise that I have to 'manage down'--(sigh)--for I know I am at risk on a narrow class of compliments. But even then, the sensation/experience is so isolated from my main-life.

Of course, praise in Christian activities is a separate problem, and to be proud about one's spirituality has a unique ugliness to it. It's always a horrible experience when I 'back into pride' in this area for a moment. I know I am there, and I know it will 'end badly', and I know HOW it will end... It will end by my prideful-for-that-moment heart being juxtaposed with that heart of Jesus on the Cross--so beautiful, so pure, so other-centered, so praise-insensitive. As soon as the two are placed side-by-side, the putridity of the 'tarnished treasure, clutched and hoarded so tenaciously in my hands' becomes stark, repulsive, and slimy defilement. That is 'ending badly'--"all the things I counted as gain, I know count as refuse, waste, dung"...

Now, on the actual subject of the Lesson (smile)--"Dealing with Praise"...

One thing I learned later NOT to do (in addition to some of the things mentioned above) was to divide the compliments into 'sacred and secular'. So, early on, I would trivialize academic praise or technology praise or sports praise (i.e., only tennis in my case) as being secular, unrelated to the gospel or spiritual things, and of 'second class citizenship' in the Christian worldview. This made it easy to theoretically 'deflate' most of the praise I received, but it actually got me in trouble--it developed an almost legalistic, externalist view of spirituality. I would--in those days--have trivialized the Little Drummer Boy for playing with all his heart before the little baby Jesus...see what I mean? I would have trivialized the deacons who 'waited on tables' in the early church. I would have trivialized the janitors and bookkeepers and sound system people and grounds keepers and ....

So, when all of life came back under the en-valuing Lordship of Christ (smile--"whatsoever you do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord"), this avenue closed up, and my 'slander meter needle' dropped back down out of the red...

So now, I have a couple of practical ways of dealing with praise (some public, some private):

Of course, after I have dealt with it 'at the scene of the crime' (smile), I still have to deal with it in my mind later. My favorite first-offense is humor, laughing with the Lord about how infantile self-infatuation is, how comical self-puffery looks, and how amusing it is to watch oneself watch oneself in the mirror, preening and posing and trying to visualize how one looks to others...!

And my second defense/offense -- if I need one (see the last paragraph below)--is thanks and praise to Him. I know God does incredibly beautiful stuff through me, because He does incredibly beautiful stuff TO me THROUGH others! I can honestly be amazed at His work in/through some act, teaching, writing of mine--without in ANY way deriving self-pride from that, and without in ANY WAY concluding in self-denigration. "Co-workers with God"--but who in his/her RIGHT MIND would do some self-exaltation ceremony over that??!!

Now, frankly, over the last few years I have found a new dynamic in play in my spirit: the transparency of the praise act. I find, increasingly, that when someone is paying me a compliment that all I 'notice' is their act of praising--as an indicator of who they are, and where they are in their spiritual journey. I know they are saying something nice about ME, but that is rather un-interesting to me at the time. Their comment about me doesn't get me thinking about me--but rather about them. The praise actually sorta 'flies by' me... I may thank them for the compliment (as above) and later will thank the Lord for His 'partial success at glenn-sanctification' (smile), but at point-of-delivery its more like a hug, or a confession, or a statement of one's values. [I have written elsewhere that I think this is part of why God wants us to 'praise Him in singing and dancing'. He doesn't need the praise(!), nor does He trivialize it, but He is interested in what praise does TO us, setting our hearts free in joy/truth, in confidence, and in awareness of His loving-kindness...It makes our world so much bigger and brighter, by including Him in that world...and our hearts soar beyond the confines of our daily urgencies.] A similar heart in us would allow us to delight in praise, without in any way having to wrestle with conceit, or self-inflation, etc...pure joy and expansiveness!


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The God of Truth


When I first became a follower of the Lord, I become involved in apologetics within a year. Somehow, the concept that "The God of Truth is not afraid of our questions" got stuck in my head. As I 'practiced' that concept over the early years, it was largely confined to 'intellectual truth' for the first decade, it seems, as I explored the cognitive/propositional aspects of the historical faith. And this area was hard enough as it was (smile)...

And, of course, over time God showed me more and more what all was included in 'truth'... truth of a man's word (faithfulness), truth of a woman's response (resonance), truth of a young person's identity (integrity), truth of God's self-representation (no duplicity!) etc. ... God sought those who would 'worship in spirit AND in truth' (John 4)...

God does want me to know truth, but He also seems focused on me BEING true--in times when I have to trust (due to lack of all the data). If propositional truth is some kind of 'correspondence' between the linguistic and the ontic/existent (and I do NOT want to get into that argument here...sigh), then being true/truth is a correspondence between the volitional and the deontic/ethical...

The hardest part (in many ways) of the walk with God is His incessant (but gentle) call to self-honesty. That is SO hard, and too often we do not know we "have it" when we DO (on those occasions). But the call to intellectual honesty--in some ways--requires a movement in self-honesty. Too often in argumentation (scholarly, family, occupational, etc), one is tempted to 'spin' and 'weight the data' in ways more in line with 'agenda', rather than in line with personal conscience before God. I learned very early on that it was "so much easier to be bright, than right"...Easy to out-argue someone else, only to fail to convince one's own conscience... The God of Truth never seems to be pleased with that approach...

There seems to be three 'movements' here: learning something that is known to be true ("open my eyes, Lord"..."give us understanding"), then accepting that as epistemic-ly/morally binding upon one's self ("although they knew the truth, they suppressed it"), and finally exploring the intersection between one's current life/worldview and the implications of that newly-acquired truth ("application" and "integration"--with challenges of dissonance, inconsistency, and internal contradictions to be resolved).

So, truth (as a part of 'truth, beauty, and good') is not only a pragmatic necessity of life, but it is a high calling of God! It has a divine elegance about it, but sometimes yields the pain/sorrow of 'what is known truly'. Truth and honesty have a transcendental, like-God quality to them--beautiful (and often discernible) to all truth-seekers and truth-lovers... Truth is not just something to be 'had', it is something to be LOVED ("because they loved not the truth...", 2 Thess 2.10)...Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life..."

This, of course, is what fueled the fathers of modern science--the hope of seeing God's 'thoughts' in the reality of nature. The joy of discovery, and the joy of finding truth. God calls us to truth (about ourselves, our God, our problems, our communities) , and this 'painful' truth is what can set us free...as it leads us to the Truth-giver and the Truth-restorer...God desires truth "in the inward parts"

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Pour out your heart

I have always loved the phrase "pour out your heart to Him". It shows up a couple of times in the Psalms (Ps 62.8; 142.2), and has shown up in my life a couple of million times (smile). What I learned about this -- as a new believer-- was how 'emotional' and 'feeling-filled' this experience was meant to be! Being raised in a very traditional communion, prayer was formal, sober, and solemn. You could be in extreme agony of soul and the prayer was more like "I beseech Thee, O Distant God of Unfathomable Glory" than the more realistic and 'contemporary' (smile) "Lord---HELP! This is killing me! Ouch! Ouch! Lord??!!!!". Anybody familiar with the Psalms, of course, recognizes this latter form to be the more biblical, because the Psalmist was ALWAYS pointing out that he was wasting away, had one foot in 'the pit', couldn’t see straight, function, or even walk around...etc. And they were 'bold' enough (i.e., they knew God well enough...smile) to 'confront God' with the "How long, O Lord will you be silent?" etc... They knew the Lord and His heart and His good-heart toward those who approach Him in trust/confidence (even when approaching in pain, distress, and pain-incited expletives!).

Although there are beautifully formal prayers in the Bible (cf. the prayers of Nehemiah and Ezra, Solomon)--and this is ENTIRELY legitimate--the believer's intimacy with the Father allows an honesty and "respectful informality" to be the norm. When my kids hurt themselves or were torn up about some trauma, I wasn't very picky about their 'approach protocol' (!)--as long as they came to me for help (without some kind of negative blame toward me, of course), I was totally and immediately engaged in helping.

The image I first 'imported' to this biblical motif was the pouring out of cup of steaming, boiling, overheated liquid. Taking the boiling fear, anxiety, stress, uncertainty 'in a cup' and pouring it out before the altar in the temple. "Here's what is in my heart, dear Lord--please cool it off, and stop the burning..." So many things in my past had this aspect--and I poured out my heart before Him in prayer constantly... I love the superscription (formal--smile) at Psalm 102: "A Prayer of the Afflicted, when he is faint, and pours out his complaint before the Lord".

But the 'pour out your heart' also has that element of truthfulness and honesty...and our Father delights in the honest prayer (in pain, in peace, or in pleasure), as we draw near to Him.

I routinely 'whine' about things to Him (and actually delight in His being there for me during that time, btw), and always admit to Him that I KNOW I am whining and over-reacting and operating in a skewed perspective--and this creates more honesty and openness on my part, and less hesitancy about opening more and more of my life to Him...

Like the Psalmist knew, I don't expect God to jump even time I whine or complain, but I DO expect His tender heart to gently, patiently, and parentally (smile) be there, listen, and hold me. {And generally, He guides me to a fuller understanding, better perspective, clarity of action items, ideas on resolution, etc--in the process of my 'arguing with' or 'arguing to' His sweet heart.)
This has been a defining characteristic of my spiritual growth--I bring EVERYTHING to Him, and since way too much of the stuff in my life is associated with fear, anxiety, or pain (sigh/smile), I do a LOT of this... and this has made my walk with Him more honest, real, interactive, constant, God-inclusive, and transformative--


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Fear of Pain and Fear of Evil

In my slightly-less-naïve days (i.e., when I was younger…smile), I confused fear of evil with fear of pain. I was aware that the Scripture generally enjoined me to ‘fear not evil’ and I tried to obey this directive in my life (I really didn’t do very well at it, though, and I didn’t understand it much either—there are several dimensions/kinds of ‘fear of evil’, for example).

I immediately noticed a problem: I was still afraid of physical pain. I noticed that I tried to keep from failing down, from getting run over by cars, from getting sick, from smashing my fingers with a hammer. Each time (go ahead and laugh if you want to—I deserve it) I was aware of this, I felt a twinge of guilt—as if I really weren’t “trusting the Lord”.

And then, during probably the second year of walking with the Lord, I was pondering the Garden of Gethsemane scene, in which the Bravest of All Souls was struggling with the impending horror and agony of sin-bearing on the Cross. He had a ‘fear of pain’, but without the ‘fear of evil’. I realized that fear of pain is a GIFT from God, to help us stay healthy, productive, and fruitful as long as possible. But I also recognized that it should/could NOT be absolutized or turned into an idol (“personal lack of pain is the highest value in the system—greater than loyalty, compassion, honesty, martyrdom to save others, etc”).

So, in the Garden, Jesus (who never sinned, remember) experienced fear of pain, and took steps to alleviate it in legitimate ways (i.e., by prayer to the Father), but did not let that fear STOP HIM from fulfilling His mission as the Lamb of God to be slain “to take away the sins of the world”.

So, this helped me GIVE THANKS for fear of pain, without divinizing it in the process.

What this also entails is the fairly liberating notion that ‘fear of pain’ is SUPPOSED to be pervasive and ‘alert-ive’ in life. In other words, fear of fire, tornados, rejection, isolation, betrayal, abuse, sickness ‘goes with the territory’. It’s just that I am not supposed to let it STOP ME from obeying my calling, loving my neighbors, giving my life, and sharing my heart…(smile). Granted, I may be terrified in the process of being ‘transparent’ (but often God so blesses that act that we don’t notice it except before and after!), but I can also be warm, effusive, caring, and giving during the same exact time slot—“in parallel with” the fear or nervousness! What a freedom this gives us! We don’t have to beat ourselves up about feeling ‘fear of rejection’ as long as we are doing the personal contact, personal engagement, personal sharing ANYWAY! And walking with the Lord, and allowing the Spirit to fill our hearts with His fruit (Gal 5.22, 23), will create an ‘excess of life’ which WILL find an outlet to others (smile), the instant we are thrown into a catalytic situation… how neat is that, huh?!

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Commitment – sometimes cold and sometimes warm

When I was first starting out on this journey, I had the idea that commitment (to the Lord, to loved ones, to neighbors, to enemies) was a ‘teeth gritting kinda thing’. I looked at obvious scriptural examples of this and aspired to such strength (“of jaw”—smile):

The beautiful Servant Song in Isaiah 50.4ff about my lord Jesus:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.

It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

And I saw that ‘face like flint’ in motion in Luke 9.51: “And it came about, when the days were approaching for His ascension, that He resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem…”

And this was how I understood the description of the righteous walker-with-God in Ps 15.4bc: “who keeps his oath even when it hurts

Now, at that time in my life, this ‘face like flint’ position would have been associated with ‘cold, teeth-clenching commitment’. Tenacity-without-emotion, pure hard-headedness (smile), firm-jaw kinda stuff. Of course, all of this body language was typically evocative of anger, disagreement, closed-ness, the early Clint Eastwood (smile), etc. And so, I understood that to be almost a ‘cold-blooded commitment’. Absolutely necessary, and not something bad (by any means!), but nevertheless something in semi-contrast to warmth and emotion.

The transition from cold-only commitment to sometimes-cold, sometimes-warm came through the intermediation of love. The biblical/theological materials I was reading at the time emphasized that love was ‘a commitment’ and not ‘a feeling’ (in response to the 60’s rhetoric to the contrary, I suspect). This made God’s love for me a matter of ‘will’ (instead of emotion) and a matter of ‘firm jaw’ commitment to me.

As important and liberating as this was to me (and still is, believe me!) at the time, there was still something missing in it. It made God’s love seemingly different from the kind of “human” love I saw around me: warm, laughing, effusive, tearful, ‘huggy’, empathetic. And eventually—after the birth my precious kidlets—I experienced that love/commitment as something of sheer delight in another human being (although in miniature…smile) along with abject and total commitment to them.

There were times of deep exhaustion when my commitment to do something for a little one was ‘cold’, but only because there was nothing left to fuel the warmth. And there were times when the commitment was ‘tough love’ in tone: “cold looking”, but filled with warmth and pain. And there were times when the commitment was fiery, jovial, excited—as when I made a commitment to do something special for/with them!

And, then it was only a short step until God’s love became filled with this type of warmth. His word talked about His ‘delight’ in the righteous, His ‘outstretched arm’ for His enslaved people, His ‘tough love’ (weeping through Moses and the prophets—“O, would that they had a heart…”, “all day long have I stretched out my hands to you…”), His weeping at a tomb, and His being a ‘Man of Sorrows’.

And so God’s love/commitment became ‘all of the above’: firm, cold, fierce, fiery, fluid, solid, gentle, laughing, ‘tough’, forgiving. And my love/commitment began to thaw out a little too…(smile)…and began to have a wider range of expressions, form, and tone.

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Giving Thanks implies Getting Blessing

I learned early the difference between praise and thanks. Praise had to do with WHO God was and what He was like (His being/character); thanks had to do with WHAT God DID (His works). The line was blurry in the middle, of course, where I could praise God for the wonders of His created order (since that obviously taught us something about His character—a lover of beauty and sharing—and something about His being—very wise, powerful, and imaginative). So the two were often either hand-in-hand, or one brought in the other.

Such it was when the Psalmist gave thanks to God. It was for some benefit received: deliverance from enemies, justice for the down-trodden people in his kingdom, vindication against slander, rescue from despair, or even for affliction (Ps 119.67, 72 … smile).

Sometime the Psalmist even used that annoying-to-glenn pitch of “thanks in advance for your cooperation”, which God didn’t seem to be annoyed at by any means…(“for I shall yet praise Him…”)… (smile).

Blessings come in pleasurable and painful varieties, but ALL have some benefit for the beloved of God. God only lets the stuff through that He can ‘make something out of’ for our benefit (broadly considered). This means that every time I thank God for something painful (and I do this a LOT), I can meditate on the matter to sometimes be amazed at the hidden blessing in it. [Of course, being ‘providentially imaginative’, I can find ALL KINDS OF STUFF that are probably NOT ‘in there’—smile—but some of probably is.]

Conversely, there is so much more stuff in our lives than what we give thanks for! And this means that we could be ‘having more fun’ in thanksgiving and delight-in-God than we do—if we would only start thanking God more and more, for less and less (i.e. ‘make the granularity finer’—smile). There’s something beautiful, ‘good’, truthful, liberating, healing, peace-making, tenderizing (smile), deepening, and joyous about thanking someone/Someone…and our lives are supposed to be FILLED with this richness!



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