I love praise music.
Regardless of your preference–old school hymns, contemporary Christian, soulful gospel–there is something powerful about using your voice and your body to worship our Creator. I usually try to start out my day with praise music, listening to it as I do my hair and ready myself in the morning; to me, it’s almost as if praising God in this way reminds me to put on my armor, if you will, and redirect my focus to Truth. Even if I wake up tired or a bit grumpy, a little praise music goes a long way in reshaping my attitude for the day ahead.
Except on those days when it doesn’t.
You know what I’m talking about. There are days where our bad moods transcend just a lousy night of sleep or case of the Mondays. It’s those days when a medical test came back positive. When a spouse says he or she wants a divorce. When a wayward child makes another choice that could end up ruining his or her life. When you get a pink slip at work. Or maybe it’s just another day in a long line of days where it just seems as if everything has been going wrong and there is no light on the horizon.
Those days, weeks, months where it seems as if God isn’t acting like He should.
When He isn’t showing up like He should.
When everything we think we ever knew about God seems to be a lie and praise is the absolute last thing we want to do.
Why in the world would we want to praise God when the world is crumbling around us?
Paul speaks to this in Hebrews 13:15 when he says, “through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
A “sacrifice” of praise. It seems like an oxymoron. But, in reality, it’s one of the most beautiful acts faith a person can perform. You see, it’s easy to praise God when all is going well. It takes extreme faith to do it when they’re not. When you’re mad, hurt, ill, broken down, frustrated, or in all other ways defeated…and yet still you come to the feet of Jesus and offer up worship to Him simply because of who He is.
Paul’s audience for this letter–Jewish Christians–would have been familiar with the story of their ancestors wandering in the desert with Moses. He reminds them of this story, however, a few chapters earlier in Hebrews 3 to make a point about this notion of the “sacrifice of praise”:
“So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation…so I declared an oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” –verses 7-11
Sometimes we like to scoff at the Israelites for their stubbornness–God had just rescued them miraculously from slavery! He LITERALLY made food rain from the sky!–but I think at times we may be more like them than we care to admit. The Israelites were in unbelievably difficult circumstances; the wilderness of the Middle East is no joke! They were tired, they were hungry, they were thirsty, they were scared–so much was unknown. Yes, they knew God was good and faithful but life, at that moment, was just plain hard.
We may not be wandering in the desert, but most of us know what’s it’s like to be in a stage of life that’s just downright difficult.
The caution here comes from remembering how the Israelites dealt with this hardship. Rather than remaining faithful to God and offering up that “sacrifice of praise,” they chose hard hearts and disobedience. They chose to step away from Him instead of pulling close. And this, rather that solving any of their problems, actually prolonged their suffering by keeping them out of “God’s rest” for 40 years.
Now, in the Old Testament, “God’s rest” was a concept that meant “security from disruption or enemy attack on land which has been given as an inheritance” (see Deuteronomy 12:9-10). In this story, the Israelites were kept out of this rest, which manifested physically as the Promised Land, for 40 years as a result of their sin and rebellion. As New Testament Christians, the concept of “God’s rest” is demonstrated by the presence of Jesus. In Him, God’s work was finished and we can find our rest, our salvation, and our peace.
“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” –Hebrews 4:9-10
Although we are now on the other side of the cross, the ramifications of disobedience–both with us and the Israelites–should still serve as a lesson. We may not lose our salvation. We may not lose God’s love. But hardening our hearts and turning away from God during times of difficulties, while it may feel good in the moment, only succeeds in moving us out of God’s rest. And, in doing so, prolongs the very suffering from which we’re desperate to escape.
That’s why this notion of a “sacrifice of praise” is so important. Sacrifice costs us something, be it our time, our effort, or even our pride. When life isn’t going well and praise is the last thing you want to do, offering it can feel as if it doesn’t just cost you something–it costs you everything. And yet it is in these moments that we have to make a conscious effort to lean into God rather than away, to soften our heart to His presence rather than harden it, to commit to obedience rather than fall into rebellion. Because God is able to comfort and lead us in our sufferings; we just have to be willing to follow.
As Paul writes, “let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their [the Israelites] example of disobedience…for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” –Hebrews 4:11-15
Let us approach His throne, not run away from it. Let us offer our praise as a sacrifice “for here we do have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)
Because our circumstances are temporary, but God is eternal.