The Lawful Pleasure of Praise
The Lawful Pleasure of Praise
The key insight of this sermon is this: God will lavish his people with praise on the Last Day. Those who are in Christ can expect to find praise, glory, and honor at the judgment seat of Christ. There are key Scripture passages supporting this insight:
(Read Romans 2:29, 1 Corinthians 4:5, 1 Peter 1:6-7, Matthew 25:21)
It's biblical, then, to say that God will praise his people. I trust you'll agree that at least this much is clear from Scripture. But the idea of praise from God raises some interesting questions: is it okay to seek praise from God?
Sure, you may be thinking to yourself, it may be God's intention to praise his people, but that doesn't mean it should be my intention to seek praise from God. Isn't seeking praise from God only a convenient way to rationalize my own pride, vanity, and selfishness? Is seeking praise from God a valid, biblical motivation?
The undisguised pleasure in being praised
One of the things you learn to appreciate as a parent is that children love to be praised. It was C. S. Lewis who observed in The Weight of Glory that "nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised."
I remember this truth coming home to me powerfully one Sunday afternoon in Cambridge, England. I was playing with our son Ezra, who was then only four or five years old. Ezra loved to run, as most little kids love to do. And he would simply run in these big circles, with his hair flying in every direction, cheeks flushed, smile on his face, loving every minute of it. After the tenth lap, I diverted my gaze to the cricket match on the other side of the park. Ezra noticed me looking away, no longer admiring him running. So he ran right up to me, got my attention, and said, "Daddy, when I run really fast, you go like this"—and he stuck his two thumbs up in the air.
Ezra was unashamedly telling me how I ought to praise him. It was as if he was saying to me, "Daddy, here's how you should praise me." You see, children love to be praised. Lewis is exactly right; there is nothing so obvious in a child as their great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.
But do you want to know a little secret? I didn't mind praising Ezra. In fact, how odd it would have been if I had rebuked Ezra for being vain or proud. Can you imagine if I would have said, "Oh come on, Ezra, don't be so full of yourself"? Or how weird it would have been if I'd chastised him for being selfish in seeking his father's praise? Or said, "Ezra, don't get so excited when I clap for you"?
As parents, we don't begrudge our children's love of praise. In fact, we delight to lavish children with praise—and rightly so. We don't find anything wrong with it, but everything right with it. It's not selfish or narcissistic, proud or vain, but supremely loving for the child to seek to please and thus find praise from a parent, which is why C. S. Lewis called this "the lawful pleasure of praise."
Our delightful duty to seek praise from God
Did you know the same is true of God? Our heavenly Father doesn't begrudge his children's love of praise. In fact, he has made us for praise; every one of us has been designed for praise from God. That's why there is an inconsolable longing in each of our souls—indeed, an insatiable craving—for affirmation, approval, accolades.
Unfortunately, sin has distorted this desire for praise from God so that it's now mixed with vanity, pride, and selfishness. But the longing for praise itself is ultimately God-given. All these human expressions of praise we so covet are but shadows, or echoes, of what we've been ultimately designed for: praise from God.
This leads to our passage from Romans 2, where we find something very surprising: the Christian life is defined as a life to be lived in pursuit of praise from God. Paul explains that God is going to judge every living person, and his judgment will be according to works. "God 'will repay each person according to what they have done'" (Rom. 2:6). The outcome of that judgment is going to be either "eternal life" (v. 7) or "wrath and anger" (v. 8).
So how do we pass that judgment successfully? Or what will God be looking for? Those who have a certain overarching goal to their life; those who are in desperate pursuit of something grand and glorious; those who, as Paul says, "by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life" (Rom. 2:7).
Who will do well at the judgment? Those who seek praise from God. Who will fail to do well at the judgment? Those who choose not to seek praise from God, but who instead, as Paul says, are "self-seeking" (v. 8). Notice that when you fail to seek God's praise, you inevitably seek your own praise—which is the essence of being self-seeking.
Seeking praise from God enables belief
Paul isn't alone in defining the Christian life as seeking praise from God. Jesus does, too. In fact, Jesus doesn't think you can even believe unless you seek praise from God.
In disputing with the Pharisees, who are preoccupied with seeking praise from men, Jesus offers this stinging yet instructive rebuke: "How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5:44). Evidently, for Jesus, seeking praise from God enables you to believe; unless you seek praise from God, you won't be able to believe.
The pursuit of praise from God is not only the defining feature of the Christian life: it's also the defining feature of faith as well. We find this in the Book of Hebrews, in that great exposition of faith in chapter 11. Here's what we read about faith: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for" (Heb. 11:1-2).
Notice how the writer continues to unpack faith and how it is connected with being commended by God.
(Read Hebrews 11:4-6)
As far as the question we're trying to answer in this sermon, we need to conclude that it's not only okay to seek praise from God, but it's absolutely necessary. Pursuing praise from God is not only the defining thing of the Christian life, as we see Paul say in Romans 2, but it's also the defining thing of faith itself, as we see both Hebrews and Jesus himself say. You cannot please God unless you pursue praise from God.
Doesn't seeking praise from God feed vanity and pride?
Now, I recognize that some may feel unsettled by all this talk of pursuing praise from God. You understand how intoxicating something like praise can be—and so the question running through your mind is whether seeking praise from God, or trying to become the object of God's approval, will only serve to fuel our vanity, pride, or selfishness, like pouring gasoline on an open fire.
There is a very real danger here. But the danger lies not in the pursuit of praise, but in the pursuit of yourself. The danger is in becoming more preoccupied with yourself than you are with the God whose praise you are seeking. The danger comes, as C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, "when you pass from thinking, 'I have pleased him; all is well,' to thinking, 'What a fine person I must be to have done it.'"
Listen to Lewis explain: "The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says 'Well done,' are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please."
Nor will pursuing praise from God necessarily make you vain. Again, Lewis is so insightful. Listen to what he says in The Weight of Glory of the redeemed soul who, on the Day of Judgment, realizes, "beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief," that she has pleased him whom she was created to please:
There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride … Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself.
To seek praise from God is to love God supremely
But you may still wonder whether pursuing praise from God is a bit selfish or self-centered—maybe even a tad narcissistic.
If you're wrestling with that, what you need to be assured of is that seeking praise from God isn't selfish: in fact, it is the essence of loving God. To seek praise from God is simply our way of seeking to please and honor our heavenly Father. The praise we seek is the verbal expression of God's delight in being honored as God, just as a child's desire to please his mother or father is about the best way that child could love and honor his mother or father.
The apostle Paul understands this, which is why he appeals to the final judgment and the prospect of praise from God to motivate believers to please God with their lives. Listen to what he says in 2 Corinthians 5:9: "So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it."
Why seek to please God? Paul explains in verse 10. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." When receiving praise from God is uppermost in our desires, then pleasing God will be uppermost in our lives.
But seeking praise from God is also a powerful way to love others, not just God—because we know that what pleases our heavenly Father, and what calls forth his praise of his people, is when his people love others as God has loved them. When we pursue praise from God in this way, then, it will look like a life of radical love and sacrifice for the good of others, to the glory and praise of God.
If you want to love God supremely, and love your neighbor as yourself, then ask yourself, What would delight God's heart today? What could I do in Jesus' name, relying upon Jesus' grace, to bring pleasure and honor to my heavenly Father? Or what would God cheer for if he saw me doing it today? What would cause God to clap, to applaud, to say "Well done"? What, in short, will win praise from God?
In the introduction to his biography of George Whitefield, Arnold Dallimore shares with the reader his longing for the life of Whitefield to stir the hearts of a new generation of Christians and promote the cause of Christ in the world. But he asks what sort of men and women will be used to bring about revival, and his answer is one of my favorite descriptions of a Christian I've found anywhere: one to which I aspire, and I pray it will be one to which you aspire as well. Listen to what he says.
Men [and women] mighty in the Scriptures, their lives dominated by a sense of the greatness, the majesty and the holiness of God, and their minds and hearts aglow with the great truths of the doctrines of grace. They will be men [and women] who have learned what it is to die to self, to human aims and personal ambitions; men [and women] who are willing to be 'fools for Christ's sake', who will bear reproach and falsehood, who will labour and suffer, and whose supreme desire will be, not to gain earth's accolades, but to win the Master's approbation when they appear before his awesome judgment seat.
What is your supreme desire: the drive that animates everything else you do, the impulse that gets you out of bed in the morning and moves you through the day's events and activities, tasks and responsibilities? Is it to please yourself, or to please the one you were designed to please? Is it to seek praise from people, to boost your reputation by looking impressive in the eyes of others, or is it to win the approbation or approval from your Master? Is it to gain Earth's accolades, or to lay hold of praise from God on the Last Day?
There is, then, such a thing as the lawful pleasure of praise. The Bible not only gives us permission to seek it, but it says it's our solemn, happy duty to do so. May this message, then, so stir in your heart that it sets you on a course of seeking the glory, honor, and immortality that comes from God—for in so doing, you will find not only the smile of God, but eternal life as well.
Todd Wilson (PhD, Cambridge University) is Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL, cofounder of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and author most recently of The Pastor Theologian and Real Christian.