We are often told that it is a Christian's duty to Praise God; but the word "duty" is scarcely appropriate. Of course you get that among pagan chiefs. The Zulus have developed Praise Songs into a poetic art-form. The Zulu king used to employ and pay minstrels to sing his praises all day long. But is God like that? He who created the universe, and is spinning the planets and all the atoms of matter, who formed every one of us from the womb and every living creature . . . would his heart swell with pride because one of us sang his praise? He surely does not need praise and gratitude to satisfy his own ego! Nor would he require praise as a duty from anyone. He is not a Hitler who needs to have thousands of sycophants rhythmically repeating "Hail Jesus!" over and over again like robots!
Nevertheless we are told the Lord does want us to praise and thank Him. Why? Because by praising and thanking Him we put ourselves in a positive state of mind, so that we can receive more fully the blessings He has in store for us.
There is a difference between Praise and Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving presupposes something to be thankful for — it is a kind of return for favours received. But Praise presupposes nothing, except the worthiness of the person being praised. It is the emotional uplift gained from contemplating some wonderful and glorious Being in whose life-giving presence you wish to bask. Praise is thus on a deeper or higher level than thanksgiving. You thank God for what He does. You praise him for what He is.
And what is He? Well, He is infinite Love, Wisdom and Power, beyond all finite limitations. He is the primal Mover and Source of the whole created universe. But these are merely philosophical concepts, just "words" to most of us. I prefer to think of him as the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, who appeared to the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, his garments white and glistening, his face shining as the noonday sun. He is looking straight into my eyes, holding out his arms in an attitude of affectionate welcome. The disciple John saw the Lord again on the Isle of Patmos, his face burning like molten copper and his eyes like flames of fire. These sublime visions, so impossible to describe in earthly language, were but visual projections of the infinite God, viewed in his creation; God himself is invisible, too glorious to be seen by anyone.
I have often heard it said by humanists: "You can't honestly praise God, or even believe in God at all, when you see the mess the world is in!" But is it His world that is in a mess, or our world? Most of our troubles, I would say, are of our own making. The sceptic persists, "How about tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, plagues and famine, and the various disasters which insurance companies call 'Acts of God'?" Most of these arise from the operation of natural laws — the shrinking of the surface of the globe as it cools; the rising of heated air, changing the atmospheric pressure; sun-spots, cosmic rays, and so on. Diseases are mostly caused by the multiplication of bacteria, which has its good side as well as its bad. God created nature, and established all its laws as they are. He might have done things differently, but in His infinite wisdom He produced the universe as we see it today, and it is truly a marvelous and beautiful piece of work. When man has tried to interfere with the balance of nature, the result has usually been disastrous!
I know I have not explained away all the problems, such as babies dying of cancer; nor is it satisfactory to say, "Let God's will be done!" — as if it were God's will that anyone should suffer! (What a blasphemous thought!) The fact is, there is another force in the universe, called HELL, which is working against God, producing a perpetual state of tension, in which good and evil can exist side by side. God did not create hell — except in the sense that He is the power-house that provides the energy misused by men for their own damnation. Man alone, going back to ancient times, is responsible for hell, that horrific reservoir of evils and falsities which continually overflows into the world. God allows or permits hell, out of respect for human freewill. Would you have it otherwise?
Maybe you do not think this is an adequate or satisfactory explanation of the existence of evil; well, we none of us know all the answers. There will always be an area of puzzlement. What I do know is that the more we worry about the negative aspects of life, the more they seem to become part of us; whereas, by turning away from the darkness and facing the Lord as the LIGHT, we bring the light into our lives and into our environment and situation. Beware of negative thoughts, and even more of negative speech, which has behind it the power of black magic.
To change from a pessimist to an optimist does not require a rational thought-process. You cannot prove the existence of God by any kind of logic or intellectual exercise. Faith in God must be an exercise of the heart, not of the head. It comes at a certain stage of spiritual maturity.
The prophet Habakkuk is the classical example of someone who had reached this stage of development. He lived surrounded by appalling scenes as the cruel Babylonian hordes swept through the land, killing and devouring everything, leaving behind them famine and pestilence. To add to the disaster, there had been a prolonged drought. Animals that survived the Babylonian invasion were dying of starvation; the fruit was withering on the trees and the wheat in the fields. Nothing much to praise God for, you would suppose! Yet Habakkuk, up there in his watchtower, struggling with his inner thoughts, worked his way through to a realization that God's love was somehow behind and within even those terrible happenings which seemed to be bringing life as he knew it to an end. Suppose it did come to an end? After the end there would doubtless be another beginning; after the winter, a spring. Anyway, God was in ultimate control, and God was good, and God was to be praised. So the prophet voiced that glorious affirmation which has echoed down through the ages: "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; although the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; although the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stall: YET WILL I REJOICE IN THE LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation!" (Habakkuk 3: 17,18)
He would persist in praising God, in spite of all. And in so doing, he achieved a closeness to God, opening his soul to receive a deeper blessing than could possibly have come from worldly affluence and prosperity. Praise for what God is, irrespective of what He may seem to be doing, introduces us at once into that sphere of holiness that is heaven.
The Psalms are full of such praise. In fact, the last five Psalms form a group called the "Hallelujah Psalms," because each begins with the word Hallelujah, which is Hebrew for "Praise the Lord!" Music was involved to express the emotion of praise — trumpet, psaltery and cymbals, stringed instruments and organs. With choirs in the temple singing loudly and the orchestra playing most gloriously, the worshippers must have felt their hearts well-nigh bursting with love and joy. And if praise-songs were like that among ordinary mortals on earth, what must they be like in heaven? Handel claimed to have heard the Hallelujah Chorus with his spiritual ears while he was composing the Messiah, and I can believe him! Emanuel Swedenborg also heard what he called "Glorifications" in heaven, to such words as : "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him and He will save us. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last; who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." This tremendous musical experience must have been the equivalent of the angelic chorus which sounded over the hills of Bethlehem two thousand years ago: "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men."
Yes, the angels delight to glorify God, and we must feel the same way if we are in process of becoming angels, as we ought to be. Praise to the Lord is appropriate to our condition as children of God. It also definitely aids us in our regeneration. Like an airplane, it lifts us above the black lowering clouds which fill the sky, so that we can view the sparkling silver of the upper side. It puts our petty desires, doubts and frustrations in their proper perspective. Health-waves flow into us as we open our hearts inwards to the Lord; praise removes the blockages (those evil states for which we ourselves are responsible) enabling us to be filled with gifts and joys and beauties which are too wonderful to be expressed by mere thanks.
We cannot, of course, be praising God aloud all the time. In the spiritual world, if anyone feels moved about anything, especially the contemplation of any particular truth, he sings. The angels don't need hymn-books, they just pour out the music as it fills their hearts. It is not like that with us on earth. We are limited here by our physical environment, even if we have good voices — which some of us don't have! The point is, we should have an inner bent of mind towards praise to God. When things go badly, praise the Lord! When things go well, praise the Lord! Whether the day is bright or dull, sunny or cloudy, say: "This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it." Cultivate a sense of nearness to God, even when all hell seems at work all around you, and you will experience an inner joy and peace which the world can neither give nor take away. "Praise the Lord, O my soul. While I live will I praise the Lord. I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being."