Effect of Praise
Praise is transformative. When we praise God we open ourselves up to Him and His essence, meaning we absorb more of the very things we praise Him about. The effect of this is that those same attributes are empowered to enter into a deeper level of our soul and mold us to become more and more like how we view Him. Psalm 22:3 says that God is enthroned on the praises of His people.
But how is God enthroned and where? Again, the how is I believe what I just described. But the where may involve more than what many have assumed from this verse. I have come to realize that the real throne of God is in our heart, not far off in some distant place from where He remotely relates to us. The reason we need to praise God is not to stroke His ego but rather to open up ourselves for Him to be enthroned more securely within us, in our most holy place which can only be entered by permission. And praise is part of how we give God permission to dwell within us and establish His throne there.
But I have a question. Is this just a matter of praising God and enjoying the benefits of being transformed? I am not suggesting that praise is not transformative, but might also the content of praise have a significant effect on the sort of transformation taking place in our hearts? If so, is it possible that we might be able to praise God with all our heart, soul, mind and spirit and yet come to find that what we have been transformed into is not the kind of reflection that God intends for us to reflect?
To take this even further, is it possible that we can engage whole-heartedly in a religion that appears to have evidence of being right, that even appears to fill people with love for each other and even their enemies, yet still be rooted in presumptions about God that are not only false but may actually lead them to act more like one of the prophetic beasts of Revelation 13 rather than like the Lamb?
This is a very sobering thought I have not considered before. But after contemplating about a recent encounter I had with a devoted group of people seeking to follow Scripture with great passion, who are adamant that we must produce fruits of righteousness and not just settle for cheap grace, who display lives governed by a religion that produces evidence most people would expect to see in a typical Christian, and who even seek to love everyone including beliefs in a life of non-violence, I am left struggling to discern what it is that causes them to reject key elements of God's truths as unnecessary.
Now let me get something very clear from the very beginning. I am not suggesting in the least that these people are going to be lost simply because they don't embrace every point of truth that seems clear to me in Scripture. That would be hypocritical, arrogant and just plain prejudiced on my part. That is not the point of what I am struggling to understand here – whether or not these people are going to be saved or lost. In observing their lives, their beliefs and their style of religion I have gained great respect for their sincerity and genuine desire to follow the principles of God's kingdom as they perceive them. The results of their commitment to follow God the best they know how has resulted in producing a witness to the world around them that is both compelling and highly attractive, drawing hundreds to investigate more into their beliefs and awakening a desire on the part of some to join with them.
Actually as I witness the compelling power of their witness and their commitment to live out publicly their beliefs, I feel ashamed of my own life and the coldness that envelopes the vast majority of those in my church. Most people could easily assume that based on the outward evidence this group of people is more in line with truth because they display more of the evidence declared by Jesus to be the true test of discipleship – love for one another. This is precisely the very conundrum that I am facing even now, trying to discern why it is that my own belief system – so similar in many respects to what I see in this group – has not effected nearly so much a radical change in my own life as their belief system appears to produce in theirs. As I compare our beliefs I see in theirs both very positive elements but also disturbing things that I sense are deeply problematic.
As I have prayed and contemplated and discussed this with friends, what was impressed on me this morning was this factor of praise and how the kind of praise we engage in can have significantly differing effects on the kind of outcome that will result deep inside of us. Thus I bring up the question again: does our theology and our opinions about the kind of God we worship and praise, the content of our praise make a significant difference in shaping our characters? Furthermore, is it possible that in the end, that very process of being transformed by the content of what we choose to praise God for, the nature of His character that we dwell on as we praise Him – could it be possible we might produce a character within us that in the end results in a character that is very different than God?
The struggle to even articulate this concept partly reflects the problem of deception itself. I am convinced that the most attractive deceptions in these last days are not going to come from religions that are openly hostile to goodness and truth but rather will be in forms of religion that look so familiar to truth and that may even produce fruits that are very compelling, that for all intents and purposes it will be impossible to tell the difference between truth and error. This is what I believe could be what produces an overwhelming deception.
Does this imply that our over-emphasis on pure doctrines while failing to take seriously Jesus' clear instruction that true disciples will be known by their love for each other can be vindicated? Not hardly. Our own lack of genuine transforming love in our midst is a very serious indictment that is so glaringly obvious that we have little influence over those around us to attract them to truth. God is blasphemed every day by our claims to 'have the truth' while ignoring the core truth that God is love. Just asserting that God is love but then quickly moving on to emphasis other doctrines implying they are more important has been an Achilles heel to us for a very long time.
But here is still what I am asking – why is it this way? Why are we so lukewarm in our love and so hot to trot out our proofed doctrines to discredit any who disagree with our theology? Why do we remain so stuck in our apathy toward the poor, the lower classes, those who struggle with addictions, perverted sexual attractions and all sorts of other sins? Why are the majority of our churches slowly fading in spiritual strength and dwindling in numbers while we increasingly turn to slick TV ads promoting ourselves as something very different than what people find when they actually visit a local church?
In recent years I have been increasingly convicted that the core issue that cannot be ignored but at the peril of our souls, is our actual beliefs about the kind of God we claim to worship, the character of the One who is in charge of the universe and in particular our beliefs about the methods He is using to bring about a permanent resolution to the sin problem. I have become increasingly convinced as I have looked deeper and deeper into this issue that the number one problem that plagues us and prevents us from enjoying the power of the Spirit of God more fully in our lives are these dark ideas that we cling to about the kind of God we believe is in charge.
I am starting to see that this issue is becoming so divisive that it is beginning to polarize not only our denomination but is having a similar effect on the world around us. As I listened to the people of this community I was visiting put on compelling praise concerts filled with music that was lively Southern gospel style, I realized that much of the content of Christian music often promotes concepts of God that I see now are very out of harmony with the truths I am discovering in light of a God who is like the Lamb of Revelation.
As this started to dawn on me I was impressed how praise and music has such a powerful effect to solidify our thinking and feelings about God. It also synchronizes us with everyone around us in parroting such praise. Yet the effect on our hearts of engaging in praise for things we believe about God could in fact be hardening our hearts against the real truth about Him and could well even be forming within us collectively a reflection, an image of something other than the character of the Lamb we claim to be praising. And the subtle effects of this, if even noticed, are brushed aside because of the compelling nature of music and because it all just feels so right and religiously correct that we are led to assume it must all be true without seriously questioning what we are singing.
For a number of years now God has been impressing on me more deeply core problems with mainstream theology and how so many music lyrics contain inferences that misrepresent His true character of love. As I become more and more aware of the true glory of His character in contrast to what I grew up feeling about Him, my own heart has begun to heal and to slowly come alive as I feel His Spirit bearing witness with my spirit that indeed I am being led to the real truth about Him I was designed to enjoy from the beginning. As I have increasingly embraced this light that God is love alone, I discover I don't have to force many passages of the Bible to fit together to form my belief system but that they actually affirm the truth about God as everything now fits together so much better. I have correspondingly experienced increasing peace and joy as I perceive clearer views of what God's righteousness actually means.
At the same time I am confronted with the uncomfortable reality that much of our religious worship music, both in older hymns as well as contemporary Christian music, is filled with subtle or not so subtle messages that steer us into thinking that God is at least partly something different from the love I am coming to see in the truth of the Lamb. This has created a dilemma for me, for if I resist participating in praising God with music that used to be acceptable for me and is still popular with those around me, I will be viewed with suspicion. But if I just go along and participate in music that promotes what I now see are false ideas about God's character embedded in the lyrics, I am participating in helping to deepen ideas and impressions about Him that I now feel convicted are part of the biggest problem God is working hard to overcome.
More importantly, as I wrestle with these issues I need to carefully guard the condition of my own spirit as I seek for the right response. It is so easy to think I am standing up for what I increasingly feel convicted is the testing truth of these last days, yet fail to exhibit the kind of disposition I am coming to see is in God. This is one problem in what I now see lies behind the compelling power of subtle deception in these last days. For if increasing numbers of people hold to false views about God's character while at the same time living a lifestyle and even developing synchronized communities that produce what appears to have all the fruits of righteousness, what kind of overwhelming power will such deception have on a world hungry for love, acceptance and something better?
I am also convicted that what we have long asserted to be represented by the image to the beast found in Revelation 13 may in fact not be nearly so simple to identify as we have long thought it to be. By restricting the meaning of this symbolic beast only to a specific political or religious entity while failing to consider the enormous implications of the symbol itself, we may in fact be setting ourselves up for deception. We fail to realize how easy it is to be blindsided by overwhelming delusions coming from directions we fail to take into account.
Let me list a few observations about potentially damaging praise by way of illustration:
If I praise God for sending Jesus to die to take the punishment for my sins, a punishment assumed to be imposed by His Father from heaven, what kind of reflection of God will that produce in my own life?
If I sing praise to the Lamb with songs concerning the blood of that Lamb, yet cling to popular beliefs that the Lamb hero of Revelation will come back to slaughter His enemies and become drenched with their splattered blood, what effect will this kind of praise have on how I view or treat my enemies that I feel are fighting against me because I am a loyal follower of that same Lamb?
If when I sing with great enthusiasm, songs about being washed in the blood, dipped in the blood, saved by the blood, covered by the blood, yet all the while assume that this blood involves God punishing His beloved Son in my place so that I can escape Him punishing me so long as I trust in Jesus as my Substitute, what kind of god-shaped image will that produce in my own character?
If you noticed, I wrote that last word god using a small g on purpose, for I am convicted that the god(s) worshiped by the vast majority of the world today, whether Christian, Muslim or any other venue including atheism – the god(s) perceived and taught and promoted are strikingly different in character, motivation and methods than what I am discovering in the true God of heaven as revealed by His Son.
This is why I am starting to see more clearly the impact and importance of the content of our praise. We inevitably become like the gods we worship from our gut-level beliefs. This is true whether or not they align with our expressed beliefs. Our real beliefs about God form the nature of the character we are forming for eternity. Thus it is very risky to ignore the content of our praise and worship simply because it is so familiar, gives us warm feelings or makes us feel alive. The content of our praise matters greatly in shaping who we are becoming. This is an unavoidable principle of reality.
We can praise God both with our words and our lives and that is important to remember. But what I choose to thank God for and the attributes about Him that I focus on will reflect the things that are important to me. If they were not I would not feel prompted to praise Him for them. We don't praise people for things we don't like about them, and we don't generally praise God for attributes that we don't want to believe. Yet as we see more clearly the perfect unity of the Father with His Son, we must also come to realize that the character of the Lamb is very different from how God has been portrayed by most religion. Yet it is so easy to participate in going along others in praising Him for things we now are learning are false, and adding music to such praise only dampens convictions God has brought upon us already and can suppress or even extinguish the gentle, quiet voice of the Spirit who is sent to reveal to us the genuine truth about the nature of God's love.
Music is an element of our existence that is greatly misunderstood by many people. Music has enormous power to amplify and instill at a far deeper level of subconsciousness, ideas that are embedded in the messages contained in the music. Thus, when we become caught up with intense emotion during a praise service or related to anything involving music for that matter (emotion is what music is all about), the content and implications embedded in the words we sing, and also to a great degree the subtle insinuations contained in the movement, style and instrumentation of the music itself, all affect us and shapes us at a far more profound level than words themselves could ever begin to do.
The effects of such beliefs injected deep into our hearts through the use of compelling music are seldom paid attention to precisely because they become easily embedded beneath our conscious awareness. A high percentage of our real beliefs, opinions and our true character all lies beyond the reach of our conscious awareness. This is why in a crisis we can instantly act very differently than we would expect ourselves to based on our conscious belief system. We and others around us can be shocked and stunned at how we can react when caught off guard or catapulted into situations that elicit instant reactions before we have time to think logically. It is in these times that what has been hidden, possibly for many years, suddenly gets exposed and we may later feel overwhelmed with shame or even denial as some dark part of our being suddenly gets yanked into the light of public knowledge.
Yet the power of music to inject ideas, concepts, beliefs and paradigms deep into our being is a power that can work both ways. Not only does the enemy utilize music (even 'Christian' music) to assault our senses nearly everywhere we go today to insert dark messages into our soul, but the use of music, especially emotion-inducing music, can be a powerful method whereby we may take positive truth we have been learning with our heads and move it to a much deeper level in our hearts. This is an effective way we can take the emerging truths we are learning with our minds and convince our resistant hearts to embrace the same things using a language that our right brain and heart understands.
What I have been noticing lately is how few songs seem to convey expressions of the fresh truths that are being discovered as the glory of God's true character is emerging in the present loud cry of the angel of Revelation 18. As I have personally been learning more of the incredible, even scandalous-sounding truths about what God is really like and how He treats sinners differently than what religion taught me; I am beginning to look around for compelling music that can help take these truths that are so thrilling to my head, and insert them deeper into the soil of my heart where they can take stronger root and effect a more thorough transformation of my own soul.
It is not enough to simply notice how a lot of praise music works to counteract and neutralize emerging truths about God's character. What we need is a new generation of musicians and artists of every kind who themselves are being transformed by these beautiful truths and who will use their gifts to translate these things into the languages that the heart understands so they can be embraced more deeply.
Jesus said something very profound to the woman He met at the well of Sychar that I have pondered for years. He said that God is a Spirit, and those who worship Him must do so both in spirit as well as in truth. I have long believed that these two aspects correlate to the problem we have experienced for generations, the antagonism between those who prefer religions that primarily arouses their emotions yet who are not willing to challenge their beliefs with factual truths as revealed in the Word of God. On the other hand are those adamantly entrenched in theological correctness but who are terrified of allowing their emotions to be drawn out in passionate responses to God that may be beyond the control of their intellect to control and regulate.
As I have thought about this segregation in how many people perceive what they want to believe as truth, I have realized that when finally a group of people will become willing and humble enough to take hold of both of these vital aspects and bring them together into one body of animated, passionate believers, the explosive power of both genuine doctrinal truth combined with unrepressed passionate love will give the full truth about God an irresistible power in this world. This is what I believe will be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Revelation 18:1-2.
So in summary, it is important not only that we praise and worship the true God of heaven but that we also pay close attention to the content in our praise, realizing that what we believe is important about God's character and ways has a direct effect in the shaping of the kind of person we are becoming. This in turn has a pivotal effect on whether or not we will find ourselves fitted at last to synchronize with the praise teams of heaven, or whether we will find that we prefer the company of those who wait until the last resurrection to gather and sing about their versions of god outside the New Jerusalem.