Saturday, September 11, 2010

Praise in All Circumstances ...???

When I was in college, I liked a short book called Prison to Praise by Merlin Carothers. It was published in 1970 and is actually still in print. The book is about reorienting your life via the offering of praise to God in (and even for) all your circumstances, good and bad. My circumstances were outwardly good but I struggled with anxiety and depression. The book was so positive that it gave me something to focus on to feel better, and also it provided an interesting theological (and, of course, biblically warranted) approach to “life.”

Ever since, I’ve often “mulled” and tried to practice that idea of offering praise amid daily circumstances. Unfortunately I’m still a terrible fretter, but I haven't given up and continue to work on it. I thought of all this again recently as I reread a favorite book by Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room Books, 2003). He writes, “A particular strand of conservative, charismatic Christian piety advocates immediate thanksgiving over any occurrence, however tragic or evil it may be. When I first heard this idea, I considered it dangerous at best, seriously demented at worst. I still consider it potentially dangerous if used to bury feelings of outrage, hurt, or grief. But gradually I have come to see this practice as part of the counterintuitive logic of the gospel pathway” (p. 173).

He goes on to recall an acquaintance whose wife was an alcoholic. Following a church service, the acquaintance told the author that he’d never noticed the odd connection of Jesus’ words: “In the night in which he was betrayed, he gave thanks.” Betrayal, after all, is a very horrible thing to experience: what a strange response to such an awful hurt! “He gave thanks.”

Morris’ reservations are well founded. Today, for instance, is September 11 and I'm reminded that it's theologically problematic to praise God for a terrible circumstance, in contrast to praising God amid a terrible circumstance. Morris notes, however, that we do pray for good outcomes to difficult situations, after all, so “why not begin to give thanks for that good now?” (p. 173). This is essentially what “giving thanks in all circumstances” (1. Thess. 5:18) means: to thank God for whatever ways he may answer our prayer, even though we don’t know what will happen--and we don’t necessarily know if we’ll like what happens! Nevertheless, we trust God.

Morris writes, “My regular practice of responding to frustration with blessing has helped me to this seemingly crazy wisdom as an emotionally honest practice.” (p. 173). That’s an excellent way to put it. Praising God habitually doesn’t mean that you’re upbeat and sunny all the time in a fake way (although sometimes praising God is indeed an act of will power, because you feel so badly.) You don't have to be a "summery Christian," as Martin Marty puts it, who never seems to feel lost and uncertain sometimes. But praising God can be an emotionally honest practice--a very freeing, trustful practice as we live in faith and hope.

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