Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Psalm —150:6
Jesus, community, mission – that’s all we’re about here at Immanuel Church. What does Jesus mean to us? Two things. One, free acceptance through his cross. Are you a sinner who needs belovedness? Jesus gives it and gives it and gives it. What else does Jesus mean to us? Two, new power through his Spirit. Do you ever feel like giving up? Jesus sends his Spirit to people stuck in their status quo. That’s what Jesus means to us here at Immanuel – acceptance and power, his cross and his resurrection. And he never stops pouring out his acceptance on people in shame and his power on people in weakness.
What do we give back to Jesus? Two things. One, repentance. We turn from our idols to serve him. We have idols in our hearts, and now we want to call them out, we want to trust Jesus alone to save us. What are idols? Idols are the defunct ideas that have never helped us. Idols are the sneaky motives we don’t want to face. Idols are our self-exalting hearts. Repentance is when we turn around and take God’s side against our idols and become suspicious of ourselves and we start discovering what it means to trust Jesus as our only Savior. So repentance is not a one-time event. We never stop repenting. Martin Luther’s first thesis in his 95 Theses is that a Christian’s whole life is repentance. Here at Immanuel we want to live in repentance. We want to start a movement of repentance in our city. Every leader in this church wants to set a tone of open repentance. It is so freeing.
Here is the other thing we give Jesus: faith. Faith in Christ has many powers. Here’s just one. Faith overflows in a spirit of praise. When we live by faith, we feel an upsurge of praise. I want to preach today on faith as a spirit of praise. Let’s be radiant with praises to God here at Immanuel. Three questions. One, why does God want us to praise him? Two, what keeps us from praising God? Three, how are we set free to live in a spirit of praise?
Why does God want us to praise him?
If I were hungry, I would not tell you. —Psalm 50:12
Why does God, who needs nothing, command us to praise him? God can’t be fishing for compliments. Even if he did want flattery, would he turn to us for it? C. S. Lewis said he wouldn’t be gratified to hear his dog bark approval of his books. And if God were hungry, he wouldn’t tell us. Why then does God command us to praise him?
The Lord commands us to praise him because it’s how he frees us to be happy. In his Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis helped me see. He pointed out the obvious. The world is filled with praise. We praise our children and football teams and sunsets and blogs and new cars and favorite coffee and a lot more. We also want others to join us in our praises. “Isn’t she beautiful? Wasn’t that song amazing? Can you believe that full moon?” We can’t help but share a good joke. It would be maddening to be told we can’t. We automatically praise what we love, and we automatically spread our praises. It’s how God made us. We love to praise. Why? God made us for happiness about himself, a happiness that sets us free from self-focused gloom and rises to praise God by faith. And Lewis wrote:
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. . . . It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.
Why does God command us to praise him? Because praising him intensifies our own joy. That’s his motive, his heart. It’s for our need, not for some need in him. Our praises aren’t giving him happiness he lacks; he’s giving us the happiness we lack. A spirit of praise fills a church with a happiness only God can give. And praising God has nothing to do with how well our lives are going. It’s about who God is. He commands us to praise him, because he wants us to be happy.
So we might think praising God is so obvious and natural it should be easy. But it isn’t, as we all know. Let’s drill down right there.
What keeps us from praising God?
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. —James 5:13
Praising God can be difficult, because life can be difficult. That’s obvious. Life will break us. That is inevitable. But our weakness is deeper. Our weakness is that sometimes our hearts want to veto the joy of others. For example, as the Bible says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13). Two people walk into church. One person is suffering, the other person is cheerful. Now, how might we modern Americans have written James 5:13? We might have written: “Is anyone among you suffering? Well, duh! Is anyone cheerful? Then keep quiet about it. Don’t be insensitive to the person suffering.” The “I feel your pain” ethos can become “If you don’t feel my pain, I’ll intensity your pain.” It’s the idol of Self pushing Jesus aside. What’s behind all this? There is a dark power fighting against the praise of God in our hearts. Here’s what we’re up against. Hell is not content to be miserable by itself; hell wants to veto the joy of heaven. Don’t be a part of it. Your heart and mine might be too broken to praise God at any given time, but we can still respect the authority of joy. We can say to ourselves in church, “I’m not feeling it today. But what’s going on here is about Jesus. For his sake, I will not rob other people of their joy.” God will bless that humility.
I want you to see the kindness of God toward weak people like us with all our ups and downs. The book of Psalms has two primary moods – praise and lament. Praise is the dominant mood. In fact, the title of the book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible is “Praises.” With just one exception, all the laments in the Psalter include a note of praise and hope and expectancy. The poets are honest with God about their pain. But they’re trusting him. So they say things like, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5). In only one psalm of lament is there not a spark of hope – Psalm 88. The psalmist feels forsaken. We all understand that. So we’re thankful for Psalm 88, telling us that when we feel abandoned we have in the Word of God a place to go where we can pour out our hearts before him with words he himself has given to sufferers. So we’re not abandoned.
But that’s the only praise-less psalm in all the Psalter, and there are so many shouts of joy. They set the tone. Praising God is the tone of the whole Bible, it’s the tone of Immanuel Church. Psalm 33:1 says, “Praise befits the upright.” Praising God is not just obligatory; it’s fitting, it’s beautiful. Think of a man wearing a great suit, with the perfect shirt for that suit, but then he puts on a killer tie that makes the whole thing pop. That tie is what a spirit of praise does to a church. It makes everything beautiful. Praise befits the upright. We are not upright in ourselves; but God has made us upright in Christ. There’s nothing to keep us from praising God now. And there’s nothing more beautiful we can do than praise God. The only final difficulty in constantly realigning with the praise of God is unbelief.
How are we set free to live in a spirit of praise?
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust. —Psalm 56:3-4
Our hearts are set free to praise God as we live by faith. That’s what praise is. Praise is our faith telling our mouths what to do. What is it that our faith grabs hold of? What is it that our faith can look at and rejoice?
We can’t look at ourselves. Our sins rise up and accuse us and remind us of the terrible things we’ve done. And unbelief gets up in our faces and says, “That’s too much for God.” But faith says, “Every accusation is true. But the blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanses me from all sin.”
We can’t look at our circumstances. Some of us are struggling in business. Unbelief says, “You’re on your own. You’d better cut corners. You might have to step on some people. Put yourself first.” Faith says, “God is with me, God can handle my affairs.”
God’s faithfulness is what our faith grabs hold of. The Bible says, “We are not of those who shrink back [that’s the psychology of unbelief – hesitancy, holding back, “playing it safe”] and are destroyed but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39). Some say that faith is risky. The truth is the opposite. Unbelief is not safe. It doesn’t preserve us; it destroys us, it hollows us out, it diminishes us. But faith preserves us down deep and replenishes us, because faith is what connects us with the living God. Unfaith says, “Don’t get your hopes up.” Faith says, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). So we don’t ask how much faith we have; we ask how much faithfulness God has. A. W. Tozer taught us how simple that is: “Faith is the gaze of the heart at God. This gaze is but the raising of the inward eyes to meet the all-seeing eyes of God.” Look up, look away from yourself and your failure and your fears, look up at the faithful One, and start praising him.
You can praise God today, because when God finishes keeping all his promises to you he won’t be any different from who he is right now. Do not take a wait-and-see attitude. Don’t let your heart say, “Let me see how things turn out first.” That’s really our unbelief saying, “Is God going to do what I want him to do?” There’s no faith in that. The Bible says it was that unbelief that kept God’s people in the desert for forty years, a dry, miserable place (Hebrews 3:12-19). It has happened over and over again to Christians and churches, when a spirit of unfaith robs them of their sense of destiny, their sense of God’s call upon them, their sense of purpose and greatness and forward motion. They settle into inertia. There’s no joy in that. There’s no spirit of praise. It says in Matthew’s gospel, “Jesus did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). Do not tell yourself that doesn’t have anything to say to you because you’re a Calvinist. Calvinists of all people should have mighty faith. The Bible says, “Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all we can ask or think, to him to be glory” (Ephesians 3:20-21). That’s Calvinism. God forbid we would ever say, “We’re Reformed. So we don’t expect God to do anything. We’re here just to fine-tune our theology.” No. We’re here to see what only God can do for us and through us to the ends of the earth. And faith says, “I will start praising God right now, because I’m always on the leading edge of what God in his sovereign power is about to do.” When we really believe in a sovereign God, our hearts feel expectant. We feel a sense of about-ness. A new awareness comes over us: “I wonder what God is about to do.”
This is real. This is not a mind-game, not a psychological uplift. Why? Faith sees the invisible – not the make-believe, but the invisible. God is in fact surrounding us right now. We will never have more of his love and forgiveness and attention and care than we have right now. Faith doesn’t make that up. Faith sees it. Faith lays hold of God’s faithfulness that is in fact the reality beneath us, above us, around us, behind us, before us. Faith doesn’t make our lives problem-free, but faith grabs hold of God. When the prophet Elisha was under attack from the armies of the king of Syria and he was surrounded, his young friend with him started to panic. But Elisha said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “Lord, open his eyes.” And that young man saw the mountains around filled with horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6). Faith says, “I refuse to live without factoring God in. So I will praise him, because my unfolding story, in all the ups and downs, will forever display more and more of his grace. That is the reality of my life.”
Will you declare war on the unbelief in your heart? It’s there. Let’s all admit it and fear it and attack it. Will you call out your unbelieving thoughts that treat God as small and make you small? Will you kick those thoughts out as having no place in your life any more? You are in Christ. He accepts you. He empowers you. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. You have every right to expect the glory of God in your life and in our church. He is a big God with a big heart and big purposes. It’s just who he is. Will you commit yourself to praising him by faith? Let’s fill this church with expectant about-ness. Jesus said, “According to your faith be it done for you” (Matthew 9:29).