Parenting experts tell us that we need to praise our children properly. Generic comments like “What a good boy!” or “What a smart girl!” can be unhelpful. If overused, they lead a child to believe that love and acceptance depends on being good or smart. Proper praise is more specific. It focuses on what the child has done and encourages the behavior you want to see more of: “Thanks for taking your dishes to the sink! I love it when we all work together like that.”
I believe that it’s right and good for children to be encouraged thus. But many of us, of course, have not grown up that way. As adults, we may seek praise, caring too much about what others think, or else shun praise by not caring at all.
That’s where my mind goes when I read these words from Jesus:
I don’t accept praise from people, but I know you, that you don’t have God’s love in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you don’t receive me. If others come in their own name, you receive them. How can you believe when you receive praise from each other but don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God? Don’t think that I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, the one in whom your hope rests. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because Moses wrote about me. If you don’t believe the writings of Moses, how will you believe my words? (5:41-47)
The context, as we have seen in previous posts, is an altercation between Jesus and his opponents, in which he is being accused of breaking the law by healing a man on the Sabbath. The accusers quickly become the accused as their hypocrisy and lack of faith is exposed.
But Jesus exposes something else as well: the social motivations behind some expressions of religion. The truth is that Jesus has come in the name and authority of the Father, and those who claim to worship the Father are rejecting him. Why? Their religion is getting in the way. Put differently: they like what their religion does for them, and they won’t give it up easily, not even if God himself shows up in the flesh.
Jesus says that he doesn’t accept praise (the word can also be translated “glory”) from people, meaning that he neither needs it nor seeks it. God’s love is in him, and all he needs to know is that what he does is pleasing to his Father.
His opponents take pride in their knowledge of the Scripture and in their taken-for-granted relationship to Moses. But though they revere the name of Moses, they don’t have Moses’ relationship to God, and thus don’t understand or believe what he wrote. Their religion has become a self-serving one, sustained by an economy of mutual back-slapping. They gladly receive praise from each other, but unlike Jesus, don’t seek the praise that comes from the Father alone.
That raises an important question for us. Given the experiences we have had in our childhood years, some of us come to communities of worship with a sense of deficit or need. We need a place where we will be loved, cherished, and accepted. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that.
But does there come a point at which seeking the praise and affirmation of others trumps seeking the praise of our Father in heaven?