"Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you." James the brother of Jesus gives these instructions in his epistle among other words of exhortation and encouragement. Only he doesn’t exactly say how to do it. Have you ever wondered how to successfully resist the devil? Maybe you’ve thought it was a matter of will power like simply ignoring him and the forces of darkness until they go away. Perhaps you’ve thought it could be done by distracting yourself with some activity or preoccupying your mind with something else.
There are probably a number of techniques to get the forces of evil off your back, but one of the most powerful is often the furthest thing from our minds when we are under a severe attack. When the enemy comes in like a flood to make you miserable and you are feeling angry or depressed like you are in some hole that you will never be able to crawl out of, remember your basic level of contact with God. Remember the favorite praise song that puts you in connection with him and always has the effect of lifting your spirit. In the words of Hebrews, “offer to God a sacrifice of praise,” and the word sacrifice has most meaning in the time of being afflicted or downtrodden because it requires work and effort on our part to do. And if we can believe that this sacrifice is worthwhile we will find a real antidote for the rigors of trial and temptation to sin.
We are amenable to praise when things are going well and when we are feeling in a good mood, but when things are not going our way, it is not our first instinct to begin praising God. Even though we may not feel like worshipping him at times, the words of David in the Psalms as well as numerous other examples of the people of faith encourage us to praise God continually. David says, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” He doesn’t discriminate between good times and bad but makes a point of indicating that it should be all the time, a background constant independent of circumstances. In Psalm 42 David appears sad or depressed and he laments, “Why are you downcast O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
After David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, she conceived a child and after it was born the child became very ill as a punishment for his sin. During this time David fasted and prayed that God would be merciful to the child, but after seven days it died. The servants of David were afraid to tell him the bad news fearing that the king would be angry but to their surprise when David learned of his son’s death, he got up and washed, put on clean clothes, and then went to the house of the Lord to worship. In a time when the natural response might be to become overwhelmingly sad and depressed, David did the counterintuitive thing and began to worship God.
Perhaps he knew that praising God was not only the right thing to do but also very importantly was the only way that he would be able to weather his own distress without falling into resentment, anger, or depression. But why is this so? What is the nature of praise that it should buoy our spirits in the time of trouble?
We can think of how this works by a spiritual analogy. Each one of us is connected to God by a channel (or aqueduct) like a river or stream. This link to God though always present may at times be like a mighty torrent and at other times like just a small trickle depending on our degree of closeness to God. The water that is flowing is the life-giving force of God that proceeds from his own eternal being. This idea is depicted in the final chapter of the book of Revelation where the Apostle John sees that “the river of the water of life was flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.” It is this channel or link to God that sustains us at all times without which we would sink low and fall. The power of praise lies in the fact that it tends to widen this channel so that what might have been a trickle can turn into a formidable stream. The act of praising God strengthens this link to him and allows us to readily soak up his life force within us.
But how would we define this praise? What do we mean by saying that we are praising God? I think that the definition may be broad but the essence of it may be captured in the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Judah which was the 4th son of Jacob and ultimately the most prominent tribe means “to celebrate” in Hebrew. Each one of the 12 tribes denotes one of the spiritual faculties that we are to cultivate in our nature, and Judah from which the Savior descended brings with it the idea of celebration. And this is none other than the celebration of our connection to God. The act of praise revitalizes and renews our link with the Ancient One from whom we all have our being. And that Judah was such an important tribe in the scheme of God’s plan, we may also infer that praise needs to be a big part of our own spiritual lives.
On an even more fundamental level, praise as a celebration of our link with God may be understood as an affirmation of spiritual truth. It focuses on who God is and his divine nature. It meditates on his mighty deeds and actions. It recalls our own interaction and relationship with the Lord of all creation. The remembrance and reiteration of spiritual truth recharges us and puts everything into right perspective including all of the problems that we have blown out of proportion. Satan often works to blow up our issues much bigger than they really are causing us to despair and lose hope. The recollection of truth that happens in the midst of praise has a way of making us settle down and smile in the midst of our own trials and temptations as we again catch a glimpse of who God is and who we are in relation to him.
Others have experienced the secret of praise through their own crises and in the Old Testament there is probably no better character than Job to epitomize the lesson of praise in the midst of trial. His testing began at the request of Satan who charged that Job was a friend of God because of the material benefits that the Lord bestowed upon him. God gave permission and Satan saw to it that Job lost his enormous wealth of livestock through natural disaster and attacks by raiders. And to make matters worse the roof collapsed upon all of his children while they were feasting together in one of the sibling’s homes. The reaction of Job like the reaction of David was once again counterintuitive and perhaps we could even call it unnatural. Rather than raise an angry fist to God for depriving him of his wellbeing and his heirs, the passage says that he fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
Not satisfied that Job was thoroughly tested, Satan came once more and sought permission to push Job to his limits and the second time he was afflicted with painful sores all over his body. At this Job’s wife encouraged him to give up to resentment and despair, for she is quoted as encouraging him to “curse God and die.” But Job in his wisdom countered, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
Now of course the whole story of Job is more complicated than this narrative from the opening chapters, but the principles that appear at the beginning of the story teach a lesson in and of themselves. And this lesson has inspired others in their journey of faith even ages after Job’s testing.
One modern example is the popular artist Steven Curtis Chapman who has been big in the Christian music industry for over 20 years. Last year he was deeply impacted by tragedy when his youngest adopted daughter was killed in a freak accident at the family home. One of his older teenage boys was backing out of the driveway in an SUV when he ran over the little girl who was too small to see in the rearview mirrors. This freak accident deeply shook has family of eight, but the ability to keep going and get back on tour was enabled by the words of Job which Chapman now begins every concert with.
His opening number is the contemporary praise song by Matt Redman, “Blessed be your Name” which is an arrangement based on Job’s famous response to suffering:
Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name
Blessed Be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name
Every blessing You pour out
I'll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name
You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name
For Chapman these words of praise have been the source of sustaining power to endure his family tragedy and keep going. The need to keep singing it regularly is presumably part of his own healing process. Concentrating on the words there is an affirmation that accepts God as the one who makes sense out of tragedy. According to God’s great plan, he gives and he takes away according to what is best for us, and so the words are an acknowledgement that he knows what he is doing even when situations seem senseless from our point of view.
The lyrics reiterate that it is not important that we as humans understand why. Rather they affirm the truth that God is in control and things happen according to his wise plan for creation. Job’s ultimate truth is celebrated in the song as we meditate on how God is to be blessed in the time of plenty as well as the time when we are stuck in the desert. God is to be praised when there is abundance as well as the time when we are in the parched earth of the wilderness.
And to reiterate what has been said earlier, the Lord does not call upon us to praise him continually in the good times and the bad because he is demanding and insensitive to the stress of our hardships. Rather, he wants us to praise and celebrate him in the rough times for our own good and survival. He is in effect pleading with us to tap into his reservoir of power which will get us through the trial or temptation we are facing. The power is there but it has to be accessed. The strength is there in abundance but it has to be pulled down. God will not do it for us; he wants us to cooperate with him and celebrate truth which will open the floodgates of his life giving power.
Returning again to the contemporary song “Blessed be your name,” those who are familiar with it will notice another important aspect to the way it is arranged. There is a clear refrain that is repeated a number of times throughout the song. Actually most contemporary praise songs repeat the refrain many times, and for some this musical technique may seem boring. At least to the conscious mind or logical brain there doesn’t seem to be much point to repeating the same idea over and over again. Singing it once, we clearly get the idea as certainly does God, but there is more to the practice of repetition in praise than meets the eye.
It is not the logical brain that is benefitting by retracing the same words over and over again but rather the spiritual and intuitive mind that is getting real value from it. On one level the use of repetition serves to deeply ingrain the idea in the spiritual brain where it can take firm root and deepen the connection with God. We can say that a certain aspect of truth that is being celebrated in the song needs to be “beaten” into us until it really takes hold. (And sometimes when we are struggling in a specific area we will need to keep reveling in a certain spiritual idea to sustain us over and over again.)
This concept of repetition in worshipful songs is certainly not something new in the Christian faith and for that matter other religions of the world. We see it employed in the Psalms of David particularly in Psalm 136 where the refrain “His love endures for ever” is echoed over and over again. This style is known as litany or mantra and has been used in praise and prayer for ages. The idea is that the repetition of phrases attaches a large amount of spiritual power to the words being sung, and this is especially true when the words have been in use by many people for a long time.
One favorite contemporary song of mine was composed by Rich Mullins before he died tragically in a car accident in the late ‘90s. It was entitled “My Deliverer” and it recalls the time when the Holy Family went to Egypt to escape King Herod. In that land Jesus hears the ancient words of the Israelite slaves who labored in that dark land looking for deliverance. And Mullins captured their cry in his powerful mantra, “My deliverer is coming; my deliverer is standing by.” The overtones foresee not only Israel’s release from Egypt but also the redemption of the cross which would come many centuries later.
It was a message like this that was the food of the African slaves in this country up until the Civil War. The popular Negro spiritual was a Christian song of hope for deliverance from the dark days of bondage. It wasn’t just in Church that the slaves would sing their songs but the whole week through while doing heavy manual labor whether in the fields or gristmills. Even prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs when they worked on the road or on some construction project.
Many of their songs were written in code so that only Christian slaves could understand them and they reflected a personal relationship between the slave singer and God. Many of them had to do with escaping to a free country and shared a double meaning with application to both escaping from the South through the Underground Railroad as well as reaching their ultimate destiny of heaven. Such was the case with the popular “Swing low, sweet chariot” where the slave sings, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see coming for to carry me home a band of angels coming after me coming for to carry me home.”
It was the African slave who understood well that worship was not just to be confined to one hour on a Sunday morning. He knew that it had to continue throughout the entire week and so he integrated praise as part of the fabric of his life. And again this was the key to his survival amidst an otherwise hopeless situation which continued for many decades in this nation.
The same lifestyle needs to be adopted by the 21st century Christian who should view the Sunday worship service as a continuation of the worship that he has been celebrating all week long. This was actually in the mind of the early Christians who never announced that the formal worship service had ended when the people began to exit the church building. Some denominations in mimicking this tradition have concluded their formal worship services by saying, “The service never ends; it must be lived.” And so it should be with us today who can work on carrying the uplifted spirit of Sunday morning into the entire week by celebrating God at all times.