By Jan Alkire
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:16-19, NRSV)
Years ago, police in an oppressive regime seized two men, dragged them off and beat them. Their crime? Being Christian and talking to others about their faith. Bleeding and bruised, the men were finally thrown into a jail cell and shackled to a wall. By that night, they had decided how to respond to their pain: They began to pray and sing praises to God.
This was no evil event from the days of Communism. This was Paul and Silas’ experience. Acts 16 recounts what happened next: “Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened…” The jailer ended up taking Paul and Silas to his home, washing their wounds, and begging them to baptize him and his family.
How many could praise God in the midst of such pain and filth? More appropriate responses would be anger, depression, weeping and/or plotting an escape. Prayers of praise in that setting seem out of place or even crazy.
Baffled feelings like these arose the first time I attended a prayer meeting. People were going on and on praising God. Eventually, I learned why. I learned what praise is, how to move into it, and what its benefits are.
What Praise Is:
Praise is a joyful response to any powerful, positive event in our lives. For instance, at the end of a symphony, we applaud. When our football team scores a touchdown, we cheer. As C.S. Lewis said, “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless it is checked by shyness.”
Bleeding in prison could hardly qualify as a positive event in the lives of Paul and Silas. And when we ourselves are in distress, only a masochist could see that as a plus. So why praise God? We do so in faith, believing what Paul said to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Rm 8:28, NRSV)
This prayer ingredient has God as its focus. It is not flattery. We are not trying to butter up the Lord to gain favors. Rather, praise is God’s Self-revelation to us. It enables us to experience God by recalling his wonderful acts and trusting that those acts will continue. It’s like vacation photos that help us experience feelings and events all over again. Praise strengthens us in the present and gives us hope for the future. God has been, is now, and will be present at every moment, even when we are suffering.
The prayer of praise expresses our feelings about what God has done for us in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a three-step process:
We recognize God’s kindness to us as, for example, Paul did: “Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavens!” (Eph 1:3)
Recognition gives rise to attitudes of awe, wonder, reverence and gratitude. Who can remain unmoved while being showered with gifts?
Finally, we express our attitude in some external way. This may be vocal, such as singing or praying aloud. Or it may be through body language, e.g. clapping, raising our hands, kneeling. These expressions convey our response to God’s goodness to us. People call them by various names: praise, thanksgiving, blessing.
Implicitly or explicitly, praise also includes a desire for God’s goodness to continue in the future, as Paul and Silas may have been doing. So the prayer includes phrases such as those spoken by the blind Bartimaeus as he sought healing: “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). Bartimaeus could not have addressed Jesus with these words without first recognizing him as the loving, merciful, powerful Messiah.
Without being aware of it, I had been surrounded by praise prayers my whole life. Sources include:
Scripture. The Psalms overflow with thanksgiving for God’s blessings. Also, the Bible contains many titles for God that are themselves a form of praise, e.g. Light of the world, Son of God.
Liturgy. The Mass includes a number of praise prayers, such as the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts) and the Gloria.
Litanies. Litanies sound like petitions, e.g. “Jesus, our refuge, have mercy on us.” Actually, each line in a litany contains an implied “you do.” “Jesus, our refuge, (you do) have mercy on us.”
Hymns. Music can touch people’s spirits when nothing else reaches them. Hymnals overflow with songs of praise. Tapes and CDs help us pray these songs while driving, cooking, exercising, etc.
Tongues. When the brain’s supply of praise prayers runs low, the prayer language called “tongues” can move us beyond the limits of our own words. The charismatic renewal has blessed us by reawakening a form of praise that lay dormant for centuries.
The Benefits of Praise
Used alone or with other worshipers, here are five benefits of praise:
The challenge with the prayer of praise is to pray it authentically. For instance, we who attend Catholic Mass sometimes say the Gloria with all the zest of an announcer reading a traffic report… “Glory to God in the highest…” we say with our lips, but flat tones give a hint that our hearts are not engaged. Praise prayers often begin with an outside stimulus such as playing music or saying a litany. Ultimately, however, outer words must move inward if they are to become an act of faith and a response to God’s goodness. Without the first two steps in the prayer of praise (recognizing God’s goodness, then letting an attitude of awe or gratitude arise within us), the third step — external expression — will be hollow.
A Praise Practicum
If you would like to experience the prayer of praise in the way I’ve just described, and if you would like to experience the benefits of this type of prayer, I suggest the following process:
Begin by asking God for the gift of praise. We cannot muscle our way into praise any more than we can fly under our own power because “No one can say: ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:3, NAB)
Next, you may want to focus on an external praise stimulus. At church, this could mean joining in singing the hymns. At home, it could mean putting on a CD and singing to it, or reciting a litany or reading a praise psalm aloud.
While focusing on the external stimulus, start consciously bringing to mind an act of God you are grateful for. It may be something that affects your salvation, e.g. the Son of God coming to earth. Or it may be small, e.g. recovery from a cold. God’s act may be big or little, cosmic or private.
Next, allow an emotional response to God’s act to rise up within you, e.g. gratitude, awe, love. Finally, give this response some external expression-singing, praying out loud, etc. The format is less important than the heart because praise is a prayer of the heart.
The prayer of praise makes a wonderful start to any time of worship, whether a Sunday liturgy or a personal prayer time. It enhances all the prayers that follow and can open us to God‘s healing power.