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Men spontaneously praise whatever they value...


Prayer of Praise

C. S. Lewis        

In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.


C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should "praise" God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it.  We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.  Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshipers, threatened to appear in my mind.

The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way — "Praise the Lord," "O praise the Lord with me," "Praise Him."  (And why, incidentally, did praising God so often consist in telling other people to praise Him?  Even in telling whales, snowstorms, etc., to go on doing what they would certainly do whether we told them or not?)  Worse still was the statement put into God's own mouth, "whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoreth me" (Psalm 50:23).  It was hideously like saying, "What I most want is to be told that I am good and great."  Worst of all was the suggestion of the very silliest Pagan bargaining, that of the savage who makes offerings to his idol when the fishing is good and beats it when he has caught nothing.

More than once the Psalmist seemed to be saying, "You like praise.  Do this for me, and you shall have some."  Thus in Psalm 54 the poet begins, "save me" (verse 1), and in verse 6 adds an inducement, "An offering of a free heart will I give thee, and praise thy Name."  Again and again the speaker asks to be saved from death on the ground that if God lets His supplicants die, He will get no more praise from them, for the ghost in Sheol cannot praise (Psalm 30:10; Psalm 88:10; Psalm 119:175).  And mere quantity of praise seemed to count; "seven times a day do I praise thee" (Psalm 119:164).  It was extremely distressing.  It made one think what one least wanted to think.  Gratitude to God; reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.

Nor were matters mended by a modern author who talked of God's "right" to be praised.  I still think "right" is a bad way of expressing it, but I believe I now see what that author meant.  It is perhaps easiest to begin with inanimate objects which can have no rights.  What do we mean when we say that a picture is "admirable"?  We certainly don't mean that it is admired (that's as may be) for bad work is admired by thousands and good work may be ignored.  Nor that it "deserves" admiration in the sense in which a candidate "deserves" a high mark from the examiners — that is, that a human being will have suffered injustice if it is not awarded.  The sense in which the picture "deserves" or "demands" admiration is rather this; that admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate, response to it, that, if paid, admiration will not be "thrown away," and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something.

In that way many objects both in Nature and in Art may be said to deserve, or merit, or demand, admiration.  It was from this end, which will seem to some irreverent, that I found it best to approach the idea that God "demands" praise.  He is that Object to admire which (or, if you like, to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all.  The incomplete and crippled lives of those who are tone deaf, have never been in love, never known true friendship, never cared for a good book, never enjoyed the feel of the morning air on their cheeks, never (I am one of these) enjoyed football, are faint images of it.

But, of course, this is not all.  God does not only "demand" praise as the supremely beautiful and all-satisfying Object.  He does apparently command it as lawgiver.  The Jews were told to sacrifice.  We are under an obligation to go to church.  But this was a difficulty only because I did not see that it is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates His presence to men.  It is not, of course, the only way.  But for many people at many times the "fair beauty of the Lord" is revealed briefly or only while they worship Him together.  Even in Judaism the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men; in the central act of our own worship, of course, this is far clearer — there it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive.

The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard of him, is implicitly answered by the words, "If I be hungry I will not tell thee (Psalm 50:12).  Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite.  I don't want my dog to bark approval of my books.  Now that I come to think of it, there are some humans whose enthusiastically favorable criticism would not much gratify me.

The Joyful Christian

The Joyful Christian

But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me.  I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor.  I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.  The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers praising their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.  I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least.  The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read.  the healthy and unaffected man, even if luxuriously brought up and widely experienced in good cookery, could praise a very modest meal:  the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all.  Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.  Nor does it cease to be so when, through lack of skill, the forms of its expression are very uncouth or even ridiculous.  Heaven knows, many poems of praise addressed to an earthly beloved are as bad as our bad hymns, and an anthology of love poems for public and perpetual use would probably be a sore a trial to literary taste as Hymns Ancient and Modern.

I had not noticed, either, that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: "Isn't she lovely?  Wasn't it glorious?  Don't you think that magnificent?"  The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.  My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.  It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.  It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with (the perfect hearer died a year ago*).  This is so even when our expressions are inadequate, as, of course, they usually are.  But how if one could really and fully praise even such things to perfection — utterly "get out" in poetry, or music, or paint the upsurge of appreciation which almost bursts you?  Then indeed the object would be fully appreciated and our delight would have attained perfect development.  The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be.  If it were possible for a created soul fully (I mean, up to the full measure conceivable in a finite being) to "appreciate," that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude.

It is along these lines that I find it easiest to understand the Christian doctrine that "Heaven" is a state in which angels now, and men hereafter, are perpetually employed in praising God.  This does not mean, as it can so dismally suggest, that it is like "being in Church."  For our "services," both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 percent failures; sometimes total failures.  We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles, and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we were, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster.

To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God — drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds.  The Scotch catechism says that man's chief end is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever."  But we shall then know that these are the same thing.  Fully to enjoy is to glorify.  In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.

 


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