If you’re like me, when you pray spontaneously, you push past the preliminaries and get right to your needs. “Lord, I need you for this. . . . Lord, can you help me with that?”
There’s nothing wrong with going right to your need. The urgent petition acknowledges your dependence on God. You’re not thinking of God correctly if you see him as a distant king with arms crossed because you’ve not yet bowed or curtsied your way into his presence. He may be king, but he’s also your father. And he delights in hearing and answering his children, whether or not you’ve followed the “proper protocol” in addressing his majesty.
That said, we shouldn’t overlook the power of praise in our prayers. There are good reasons why it’s best to begin our prayer times by magnifying and extolling the glory of God. Jesus himself gave us this pattern when he told us to pray first for the name of our Father to be hallowed (Matt. 6:9). Likewise, the psalms combine petition and praise, as the writer often bounces back and forth from singing praise and then asking for assistance.
Praise That Declares and Distances
J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom’s book Praying points out how praise is an important aspect of our prayer life, not simply because God delights in our praise as a fragrant offering but also because of what the act of praising God does for us. They say praise both “declares” and “distances.”
First, when we praise God, we declare who he is and the relationship we have with him. We don’t praise ourselves. We praise our Maker. So every time we praise God, we’re saying, through prayer and song, “You are God, and we are not.” Or, as the psalmist says it, “The LORD is God. He made us, and we are his” (Ps. 100:3).
Second, when we praise God, we distance ourselves from him even as (paradoxically) we enter his presence. Yes, there are times we’ll rush into the throne room to plead for assistance from our Father, but the regular act of bowing—of recognizing God’s majesty—drives home the reality that we stand in the presence of a King. Even when he’s close, we stand at a distance. By praising his majesty, we remind ourselves of how far he is above us.
Packer and Nystrom claim Psalm 95 as a classic example of this function of praise. The psalm celebrates the work of God in creation and then invites us to draw near to this God in humility.
The psalmist calls for a praise shaped by humility, so that we acknowledge even with our bodies our great distance from this almighty Creator God. . . . Come? Bow down? Kneel in reverent humility? To bow and to kneel are universal, time-honored gestures of acknowledging greatness in some form. Praise prayer acknowledges our dependence on the God who is great in power and wisdom, when we are neither. We approach him in prayer and thus draw near to him because he invites us to do that. But our mental attitude, our posture, our very words must ever declare the difference and distance between God and us.
Joy of Praise
We don’t praise God because he needs our affirmation. We praise God because he commands it for our own joy. C. S. Lewis made this point famously when he showed how praising something we enjoy not only expresses but completes the enjoyment. God’s desire for praise is not an act of selfish pride but of self-giving love.
We praise God because he’s worthy and because we receive the joy of basking in his greatness. When the King gives us an audience, we receive the benefit of his presence. It’s not in minimizing the distance of God’s glory and greatness that helps us feel his closeness but in feeling the awe and wonder of his presence with us even as he is so great a God. We’re thunderstruck not when we lower God to our level but when God condescends—comes near—while retaining all of his glorious Other-ness. Packer and Nystrom put it this way:
We declare his greatness to his face while on our knees, and in this act God bridges the distance between us and reveals himself to us. As we declare him to be very far above us, so we find him to be very close to us. He receives our praise; we receive his love. That is how praise prayer works.
I like how the hymn “Come, Thou Fount” asks God to “tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” It’s the “streams of mercy never ceasing” that “call for songs of loudest praise.” We ask God to tune our hearts and, in prayer, praising his majesty is one of the primary ways our heartstrings get retuned. We declare his God-ness and goodness, and we’re reminded of the distance between us and the God who draws near.
Don’t let your heart song get out of tune by rushing to petition. Make room in your prayers for resounding praise.
If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.