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The Problem with Praise

Amanda was pretty excited to find out her husband, Jack, was reading the new bestselling book in marriage enrichment, A Praise Centered Marriage.  It wasn't that their relationship was bad or anything.  It just wasn't always as good as Amanda had hoped it would be.

Her hopes seemed to all come true  when, that next Tuesday evening, Jack looked at her across the dinner table and said, "You are wonderful.  You are simply the best.  I love everything about you. You fill my life with joy."

What more could a woman want out of a marriage?  At least, that's what Amanda thought six months ago when the process started that would eventually ruin their marriage. 

Jack was nothing if not confident and consistent.  The book had assured him the key to making any marriage better, from "good to great" as the book repeatedly claimed, lay in claiming the power of praising your wife and all the blessing that would bring into the marriage.

So, the next evening, when they sat at the dinner table, Amanda was actually pleased when Jack looked over at her, smiled lovingly, and said, "You are wonderful.  You are simply the best.  I love everything about you. You fill my life with joy."

The sense of strangeness actually first surfaced four days later.  It was a Thursday evening, which was when Amanda normally went online and checked their debit card spending to make sure there were no surprises.  She noticed the new Bose Home Theater  system purchase.  It was not a small expenditure.

"Jack, what is this all about?"

"You are wonderful.  You are simply the best.  I love everything about you. You fill my life with joy."

"Did you buy these speakers?"

"Of course.  There are genuine blessings to those who learn how to praise."

"You're not making any sense."

"You are wonderful.  You are simply the best.  I love everything about you. You fill my life with joy."

Amanda decided to just let it drop. I mean, people would think she was nuts if she complained that her husband's lavish praise was beginning to irritate her a little.

But, the sense that something was wrong didn't go away.  It just got worse.

About a week and a half later, Amanda had promised to go out shopping with her mom.  Jack knew it was on the calendar.  She was sure she had even mentioned it the day before.  But, seven o'clock came and no Jack.  She hadn't arranged a sitter, and she wasn't about to leave Katherine by herself, even though her daughter  kept insisting that nine year old was plenty grownup.  So, Amanda waited.  And waited.  Her mom called twice.  At first, Amanda did her best to defend her husband.

"Maybe he got tied up at work?  Or might have been in a fender bender?"

She couldn't for the life of her imagine what Jack could be doing on a Monday evening.  Even as she let the question firm up in her mind, she knew the answer.  Jack had to be at his sister and brother-in-law's house watching Monday night football.  Nothing else made sense.  She was furious.

Jack came through the front door about 10:30.  Amanda was sitting at the kitchen table, fuming.

"Jack, you knew I had something scheduled this evening.  What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking how much I love you."

"I know that.  But, how could you have forgotten about my plans for this evening."

"You are wonderful.  You are simply the best."

"Would you please shut up about all that you-are-wonderful stuff!  I want to know you realize what you did to me this evening and promise me it's not going to happen again!"

"I love everything about you."

"Quit changing the subject, Jack."

"You fill my life with joy."

Amanda stormed out of the kitchen, went into the main bathroom, and loudly slammed the door shut.

Jack had liked the football game.  Steelers versus Houston.  Both had a shot at the Superbowl this year.  Shame about Amanda and her mom.  But, Jack knew, sincere praise would cover a multitude of sins.

Amanda did not bring up the subject of Monday again the next day.  Or the next.  In fact, she didn't bring up anything.  She'd stopped talking to him.  For his part, Jack was taking it all in stride, and putting his trust in the promises he was claiming through the practice of ongoing wife-praise.

About two weeks later, time in which Amanda said next to nothing and Jack periodically announced his undying love and praise for her, she finally told her mother that her marriage was falling apart.  When asked why, she broke down and told her mother than Jack had totally stopped communicating with her.  He didn't listen to her.  He never admitted doing anything wrong.  He just kept saying over and over how great she was and how much he adored her.

"Jack, we need to talk," she managed to say just before they turned the light out one night in late October.  "I'm not sure it's working for us anymore."

"But, Amanda, how can you possibly say that?  You are wonderful.  You are simply the best.  I love everything about you. You fill my life with joy."

"Jack, if you don't quit saying things like that, I'm calling a divorce lawyer."

"I've never felt better about our marriage, Amanda. You are the light of my life."

"What planet on you own, Jack?.  Go outside.  Look around.  It's late October.  It's 9:30 and the sun went down over three hours ago.  Wake up, Jack.  This isn't lighting up anything. It's dark out there jack, Jack.  Not even the moon. Just a few stars."

"Why do stars fall down from the sky, every time you walk by? Just like me, they long to be close to you."

"Jack, I'm serious as a heart attack.  We've got to start really communicating."

"On the day that you were born, and the angels got together…"

Amanda stormed out of the house and slammed the door behind her.

Praise, even utterly sincere praise, cannot by itself build or maintain an authentic relationship.  Relationships need listening, not just speaking.  Relationships need to talk about tough times, not just pretend every day is  more joyful than the day before.  Relationships happen when people know when they have done wrong and hurt  each other, and are willing to talk about it, apologize, maybe cry a little, and then move on.

When one of the leading New Testament scholars alive today takes the time to address the weaknesses and predictability of contemporary praise music, it's a good bet the issue is about more than just style.  N. T. Wright's timely new book, The Case for the Psalms: Why they are Essential, drives home the point that the ancient songs of worship were far richer and more diverse than the praise dominated worship music that's become the mainstay of popular worship music.  Words of sorrow can stand alongside words of celebration.  Songs that focus on how we have failed God are there to balance those songs when we talk about the fact that God has never failed us.

It may go against the grain of our age to suggest that a constant diet of praise and worship songs is undermining the church's relationship with God.  What could be wrong with praising God?  At one level, absolutely nothing.  He is worthy to be praised and we understandable want to affirm that in our music.  It may be risky to come out and just say it, but a good deal of our praise music today is just outright boring.  How long can we keep singing the same ideas over and over, just revising the exact words we use to say it?

When  you consider that all relationships grow out of both talking and listening.  They grow through talking and listening using wide variety of emotions and circumstances.  The fact is,  we're facing a clear choice between praise and communication. 

Is there any such thing as too much praise?  Just ask Jack.


Brendan said...

I like it but I don't. Yes a lot of modern music focuses on praise, but I think it's unfair to say that modern music ignores suffering. This parable of yours is a bit of a straw man argument.

Tom Lawson said...

Brendan -
You are right to point out the story doesn't fully reflect the variety of recent praise and worship music available. Of course, the story posted exaggerates (I prefer caricatures) the reality of contemporary worship music. Many have noted a kind of theological maturing in both the artists and in their music. Some of it does address suffering. Some will even address personal sin and confession. But, the proportion given over to withing affirming the greatness of God or our desire to experience the greatness of God is still at proportion that is not consistent with Psalms or with the reality of being a follower of Jesus.

In part, I am pointing people to get a hold of Wright's new publication, with its appeal to reclaim a more active use of the themes and ideas of the Psalms in our worship.

Good feedback.

Tom Lawson said...
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Tom Lawson said...

mmm... it seems I posted a sentence in my comment that said...the proportion given over to withing affirming the greatness of God. "Withing affirming?" My HP laptop clearly misunderstood my fingers. I need a Mac.

Christopher said...

Good stuff. I think the psalms also communicates a wrestling with Godthat is pretty standard part of relationship with God for a lot of people. Like psalms 13, wrestling with God's silence but still trusting him because he has shown his goodness.

Christopher said...
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Christopher said...
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Anonymous said...

Great blog post, I will add this book to my list of books to read. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to be silent and listen before God. I wonder if a deeper issue would be that we really don't understand and seek what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus. Disciples of any Jewish rabbi sought to imitate every characteristic of their teacher. How he ate, what he wore, how he spoke and ultimately his interpretation of the Torah. No one can learn to follow Christ and imitate him without listening and digging deeper beyond sunday praise and worship! Thanks for the book referral!

Deb Potts said...

I liked the way you personalized this topic. It's not just modern praise and worship that can tempt us to think we are in relationship with God just because we sing the "right" songs. Singing psalms in corporate worship doesn't necessarily mean we are communicating on a personal level with God either. We need to pour out our personal situations, doubts, sins, struggles, fears and pain to God. No matter what type of music you sing in church, that doesn't exempt you from a one-on-one real conversation with God.

Harry H. said...

Tom, I agree with you. If you are up front looking back you can see how many aren't singing just looking bored. I'm not sure what the answer is. We live in an entertainment driven society. I'm still thrilled when I see some of the kids (teens, pre-teens, and even younger) singing out with that look of sincerity on their faces

Peter Alexander said...

A while back I wrote a book that's essentially an exegetical look in Scripture at Christian music per se. What I did was locate in Scripture every song and every song clearly labeled as a praise song. You can see the results of my study in Writing And Performing Christian Music: God's Plan and Purpose for the Church.

For example, there are different types of praise songs. The very first published praise song in Scripture was by Miriam called The Horse and The Rider. It's an extended work found in Exodus.

The second published song is found in Deuteronomy called The Song of Moses. It's a prophetic song and it's also an extended work.

The type of praise song that brought the glory into Solomon's temple was called a halal which means shout. It was a short two-line lyric though sometimes it would be longer.

My analysis found that the Psalms contained both songs and praise songs. Sometimes the songs in this collection were also sung prayers.

Why aren't lyricists more into the Psalms?

For one reason we keep telling people they're poems. They're not. They're song lyrics. Second, in light of what you've taught about Finney, they're not evangelical enough. In fact, they're not really evangelical at all! Third, they're emotional, and sometimes weepy and whiney. We don't do emotions in church. Fourth, as Bruce Waltke points out, all the Psalms are Scripture, and we don't sing a lot of Scripture in church any more, either. Fifth, there's the Purpose Driven Church Seminar which teaches only to use happy songs with major chords. Don't use songs with minor chords in a Sunday morning service. Honest. That's actually taught.

Now, Suzanne Haik Vantoura. She discovered that the hooks in the Masoretic text were hand motions showing which pitches to sing. Check this out:

All the Psalms can be decoded this way. Listen to the 23rd Psalm and see how the melody follows the Hebrew. Anyway, a few thoughts!

Peter Alexander