Sucking up to God.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 November

Matthew 6.9-10, Luke 11.2.

All my life I’ve heard Christian prayer leaders instruct me that before we start asking God for things, it’s only proper to begin with praise. Tell God how great he is. How mighty. How awesome. Supposedly that’s how Jesus demonstrated we’re to start in the Lord’s Prayer, with “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” Because we wanna make his name holy and embrace his will.

This attitude reminds me way too much of the sycophantic prayer we find in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:

CHAPLAIN. “Let us praise God. Oh Lord…”
CONGREGATION. [ritually repeating] “Oh Lord…”
CHAPLAIN. “Oooh you are so big!
CONGREGATION. “Oooh you are so big.”
CHAPLAIN. “So absolutely huge!”
CONGREGATION. “So absolutely huge.”
CHAPLAIN. “Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you!”
CONGREGATION. “Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell you.”
CHAPLAIN. “Forgive us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying.”
CONGREGATION. “And bare-faced flattery.”
CHAPLAIN. “But you are so strong and, well, just so super!”
CONGREGATION. “Fantastic.”

The problem with it? It’s not what the Lord’s Prayer means… and to a large degree it’s hypocrisy. When we come to God with legitimate prayer requests, small or serious, and begin with the fawning adulation, how is this significantly different from a teenager telling her dad “I love you so much” before she asks him for money? I kiss God’s boots; I earn his favor. Now he owes me. Right?

Of course it’s wrong. Yet it’s what we see: Christians figuring the more they praise God, the better he thinks of them. Or as pagans would put it, the more karma they’re generating. The more apt he is to give us what we ask, even when we really shouldn’t ask for such things ’cause our ulterior motives are bad. Jm 4.3 But we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking this is how prayer should be done. It’s not honest praise; it’s a quid pro quo.

In reality prayer requests are about grace. They’re about God giving us what he wants to give us, only because he loves us, and not because we merit or earned it.

Likewise praise is about appreciating God, about reminding ourselves of his greatness. If you wanna do a lot of that, I direct you to Psalms. But the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t actually include praise—unless you’re using the Didache version which includes, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”

And in that case it follows the examples shown in Psalms: The psalmists tended to pour out their heart to God first. Express their woes, state their problem, ask for help. Then—after God talked ’em down, or told them he’d take care of it—then they ended their prayers with praise and gratitude. Honest gratitude.

What those requests actually mean.

As I said in the Lord’s Prayer article, all those statements are requests.

Matthew 6.9-10 KWL
9 “So pray like this: Our Father who’s in the heavens! Sanctify your name.
10 Make your kingdom come. Make your will happen both in heaven and on earth.”
Luke 11.2 KWL
Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father!
Sanctify your name. Bring your kingdom.’ ”

These aren’t praises. These aren’t statements of, “Oh Father, I really wish your name was sacred; I really wish your kingdom’d come; I really wish your will’d be done.” You don’t wish at God. He’s not birthday candles.

Nor are these expressions of solidarity with God: “Oh Father, I know you want your name revered; I know you want to bring about your kingdom; I know you want your will done. I want that too. I’m just as frustrated as you are about these things not happening yet.” Um… God’s not frustrated by these things not happening yet. He’s almighty, remember? Jesus can return whenever he wants, to establish God’s name, establish his kingdom, establish God’s will. If it’s on us to get these things done… exactly why are we praying for God to do it when we’re supposed to do it? But in fact it’s on God to get these things done. And this isn’t our expression of sympathy, but support. We’re on his team. Right?

These are requests. We’re asking God to do his thing. Reveal himself to be awesome and mighty. Reveal his kingdom to the world. Reveal his will and revelation and grace. Do stuff.

These are mighty grand requests, too. So it’s all the more ridiculous how Christians misunderstand this, and think these requests are nothing more than buttering up God before we get to the stuff we really want. It reveals a really shallow, ugly sort of self-centeredness at the Christian’s core. God has to be handled before we can come to him as our Father. Manipulated. Flattered. As if he’s just as shallow as we.

As if he’s like some earthly ruler whose pride is wounded whenever people forget he’s important. Or like a bad parent, who wrongly thinks his children show him respect with their praise and fear… instead of their obedience and love.

God doesn’t do pride. Not that he doesn’t have plenty to be proud of, but it’s not a trait he values, and one he ditched when he became human. Pp 2.6-8 He practiced humility. He values humility. Jm 4.6, 1Pe 5.5 When we approach him in prayer, he wants us to be humble like Jesus: We don’t turn to God because of our own greatness or merit, but because he’s graciously granted us full access He 4.16 and makes us worthy because of our faith in him. Jn 1.12, Ro 1.17

Flattery doesn’t open the door to God any wider. On the contrary: It implies we lack faith, ’cause we suspect flattery is the key to earning God-access. It implies we think we can manipulate God into doing what we want, using our many words which Jesus already told us not to bother with. It proves we don’t really know him: We’re treating him like some elitist instead of a Father.

Praise him authentically, out of real love and appreciation for the stuff he does. Not to appease him. That’s just hypocrisy, and you’re wasting God’s time.

Dealing with flatterers.

First of all, I need to remind you not every Christian who begins their prayers with praises are doing it to suck up to God. Some of them aren’t phony. They really are grateful. They have a lot to thank God for. Let them praise him! Don’t assume the worst of them.

But there are phonies among them. These would be the prayer leaders who aren’t content to praise God by themselves: Everyone has to do as they do. If I don’t start my prayers with praise, same as they, they’ll either take me aside and try to correct me, or they’ll jump in with their own praise-filled prayers, and try to compensate—or overcompensate. Since I didn’t do enough divine shoe-shining, they’re gonna lick God’s boots clean, just in case he takes offense and petulantly won’t answer any prayers today.

Yeah, they’ve got a shaky relationship with God. Not his fault, of course. Like I said, they don’t really know him. They like compliments and honor, so they’re just offering him what they enjoy, figuring he’d appreciate it just as much. It’s not far different from an idol-worshiping pagan who offers whiskey and cigars to his gods in exchange for favor. They honestly don’t recognize how infinitely greater God is than that.

So how do I deal with ’em? Simple. I explain why I’m not always gonna start with praise: I’m worried I might be phony, and I’m trying not to be.

“I’m concerned my ‘praises’ are nothing more than flattery and hypocrisy. I don’t want to pray stuff I don’t really mean. So I’m staying away from false praises; I’m only sticking to honest ones. God understands. But if you wanna praise him for me, hey, go for it.” Most of the time this works.

Sometimes I’ll get a persistent prayer leader who advises me to flatter God anyway—to “fake it till you feel it for real.” You know, kinda like how we submit to the words of rote prayers though we’re still struggling to really mean them. And y’know, sometimes their hearts are in the right place: It’s important to express our thanks to God when he comes through for us. It’s not about flattery, but gratitude. That’s their goal. It’s a noble goal.

But just as often, it is about flattery. So we’ve gotta discern which motive we’re dealing with. Healthy recognition, or unhealthy slobbering? Take the room’s temperature. Listen to the way that prayer leader praises God. And despite their instructions, fake nothing. You know God doesn’t appreciate fakery. Nothing annoyed Jesus more than hypocrisy. Stay far away from it.