Cheap Praise and Costly Praise

One of the more popular devotional/praise songs when I was in college, and one still used on our campus, was "The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases." The lyrics:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion says my soul.
Therefore I will hope in Him.
The lyrics come from Lamentations 3.22-24 (the exact wording is from the ESV). It's a great song but I have some problems with how we sing it. Specifically, the song is taken out of context.

What is missing when this song is sung is Lamentations 3.1-21, all the verses leading up to this outpouring of praise. These verses are critical if we are to properly understand the sort of faith being expressed in verses 22-24.

Here are verses 1-21 (NLT). They are an extraordinarily raw and heart wrenching expression of lament and accusation:
I am the one who has seen the afflictions
that come from the rod of the Lord’s anger.
He has led me into darkness,
shutting out all light.
He has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.

He has made my skin and flesh grow old.
He has broken my bones.
He has besieged and surrounded me
with anguish and distress.
He has buried me in a dark place,
like those long dead.

He has walled me in, and I cannot escape.
He has bound me in heavy chains.
And though I cry and shout,
he has shut out my prayers.
He has blocked my way with a high stone wall;
he has made my road crooked.

He has hidden like a bear or a lion,
waiting to attack me.
He has dragged me off the path and torn me in pieces,
leaving me helpless and devastated.
He has drawn his bow
and made me the target for his arrows.

He shot his arrows
deep into my heart.
My own people laugh at me.
All day long they sing their mocking songs.
He has filled me with bitterness
and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink.

He has made me chew on gravel.
He has rolled me in the dust.
Peace has been stripped away,
and I have forgotten what prosperity is.
I cry out, “My splendor is gone!
Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”

The thought of my suffering and homelessness
is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
And it is here, at this moment, where, inexplicably, the song of praise breaks out:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
His mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion says my soul.
Therefore I will hope in Him.
Now here's what I want to ask you. Isn't it cheating a bit to jump to verse 22 without first singing verses 1-21? And yet, that's what we do in worship. We skip to verse 22. Literally and metaphorically. Skipping over the lament we jump straight into the praise. We skip over the brokenness. The sorrow. The tears. The grief. The despair. The anger. The pain. The doubt. The god-forsakenness.

We skip over it all and start worship at verse 22.

And what sort of spirituality does that create? Answer: It creates a false, cotton-candy sort of spirituality. A spirituality that wants to jump to the happy ending without the dark and painful journey of lament. It makes me think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's distinction between Cheap Grace and Costly Grace. I wonder if we should start talking about Cheap Praise and Costly Praise.

Cheap Praise starts with verse 22. Costly Praise starts with verse 1.

To be clear, I'm not saying that we shouldn't sing verses 22-24. I'm just saying it's cheap to skip ahead. Skipping ahead you skip over the experience where God is a wild animal who drags you off the path and tears you to pieces, leaving you bloody and broken. Skipping ahead you skip over the experience where God stands you up against the wall and uses you for target practice, shooting his arrows deep into your heart.

If we start the song, as we often do, with verse 22 we get one sort of spirituality. A spirituality of cheap praise. But if we start the song in verse 1 we get something very different, costly praise. A praise that is hard-won, honest, and truthful.

And it all boils down to where you start the song.

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34 thoughts on “Cheap Praise and Costly Praise”

  1. This is one reason why - while I'm a very, very long way from being an "exclusive psalmodist" - I think a marked increase in the singing of psalms would be healthy for the church. The psalms "start with verse 1", as you put it.

    One point I would make is that very often people will be bringing verses 1 to 21 with them into church that day, so starting from verse 22 isn't necessarily "Cheap Praise" for them. But singing verses 1 to 21 would still be a public acknowledgment of, and outlet for, those feelings and experiences that can easily be downplayed (or even denied outright) in our collective worship.

  2. This is yet another example of how some churches confuse targets with outcomes.  To make such praise our target is to pursue a short cut spirituality - bringing impoverished praise which leads in train a whole host of unintended outcomes - guilt, judgemental attitudes, exclusion, to name but a few.  Our purpose (our duty, MacDonald might say) in our journey with God is to expect Him to be better than He seems at the time, to cling on to His character though the storm does its best to wrench us away.  The outcome is an outpouring of praise of the order found in verse 22. 

  3. Brilliant post Richard. A similar point may be made about lectionary readings (and even more so in non-lectionary churches where the implicit lectionary is even more narrowly circumscribed).

    We get a lot of our theology-in-use from the lyrics of our hymns - perhaps even more so because when we are listening to a sermon or reading, or reading something privately, we have a more critical engagement with the text, but when you sing something repeatedly and with emotional expression, I think it "goes into your beliefs" more quickly, deeply and subtly.

    Pete Rollins also makes the point about the way worship can reduce the life of faith to a mere fulfillment of MY needs, whether that be in the need for individual emotional fulfilment in the popular modern worship genre or the more lofty seeming need for a sense of reverence and beauty cited by fans of older traditions of church music. Its worth a read

    In my experience churches find it easier to be a bit more experimental or risk-taking in the sermon, readings or prayers, but "you don't mess with what people like" in the music.

    If anyone has not heard Brueggemann on the psalms of lament and the psalms of vengeance, I would highly recommend a quick look.

    There, got through the whole post without mentioning Bruce Cockburn, D'Oh! 

  4. It's for this reason that happy-clappy praise 'worship' leaves me cold. And if you're not "into" it, you're the fuddy-duddy sourball who doesn't get how "awesome" God is.  I liked the Brueggeman videos, Simon.

  5.  I only remember reading one reference to Bruce Cockburn since I first started reading Richard's blog - and a quick site search drew a complete blank.  I'd love to know more about this gifted songwriter and impressive human being - mention away, I say...!

  6. I only remember reading one reference to Bruce Cockburn since I first started reading Richard's blog - and a quick site search drew a complete blank. I'd love to know more about this gifted songwriter and impressive human being - mention away, I say...!

  7. "One point I would make is that very often people will be bringing verses 1 to 21 with them into church that day"

    I was thinking the exact same thing.  However, I am nothing if not a very frustrated studio musician (alas -- no talent).  The only thing I feel I have missed out on since I forsook formal church attendance 45 years ago is the music.  Oh how we could sing!  Our church could raise the rafters (being about 80% black in population didn't hurt).

    I have often wondered over these years as to how and why we as a congregation sang so well, in the most beautiful four-part harmony, if not because of our beliefs.  As was stated yesterday by another, it's a conundrum.  To this day I vividly recall such songs as "Be Still my Soul" ("Finlandia"), "So Send I You", and "Amazing Grace".  We all beleived we were singing to "the glory of God", and it certainly felt that way to me.  These were my people.  And I loved them.  I have never again found such a group.  Like *Patricia*, all I ever found as an adult were churches of manufactured emotion, hollow to the core.

  8. "And what sort of spirituality does that create? Answer: It creates a false, cotton-candy sort of spirituality."

    It's been my experience (or my deeply entrenched cynicism, more likely) that MOST of our worship is cotton-candy spirituality.  I worry about reducing Christianity into an intellectual exercise of mental masturbation, but there are too many questions and struggles to simply resort to cheap praise.  I may not be ready to jump to verse 22 because I'm often still on the path between verses 17-21.

  9. I think it's passages like this that rein in dualist (God gives us the good things, Satan gives us the bad things) solutions to the problem of evil. It seems like this author has no trouble attributing both the good and the bad in his situation to God...

    Several years ago, my brother was crushed in a work-place accident by a rail car door. He survived and has, in many ways, healed but still has many lasting injuries. When he was trapped under the door outside where no one could hear him in the middle of the night, he chewed on gravel for something to do. Finally after 45 minutes someone found him and he was freed and taken to hospital where he stayed for many months. In those moments, he was certain he was going to die and equally certain that God was present with him.

    "He has broken my bones...
    He has made me chew on gravel.
    He has rolled me in the dust."

    but yet we still say:

    "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
    His mercies never come to an end.
    They are new every morning.
    Great is your faithfulness.
    The Lord is my portion says my soul.
    Therefore I will hope in Him."


    Thank goodness for passages that embrace the fullness of our experiences in life.

    (Although I don't think my brother's injuries were the result of God's anger against him! This instance falls more under the "in the same way that the processes that create earth and all within allow for good, they also allow for bad" category.)

  10. Andrew, Something for your Christmas list...

  11. Ah ... Bruce Cockburn and George Macdonald in the same blog - what more could you want?

    of the Starfields" and "Facist Architecture" are two of my favourite
    "worship" songs (...singing to myself at home of course) .... Fascist
    Architecture especially being (for me at any rate) one to sing in times
    of / remembering times of Costly Praise as Richard puts it.... here is a

    Bloody nose and burning eyes

    Raised in laughter to the skies

    I've been in trouble but I'm ok

    Been through the wringer but I'm ok

    Walls are falling and I'm ok

    Under the mercy and I'm ok

    ...the full lyrics are online, and also youtube videos

  12. Totally agree. It'd be interesting to think further on how this relates to the sacred/secular dichotomization that's everywhere. I kinda/sorta HAVE to attend chapels and church for my job, and it's all I can do to grit my teeth through ANY of the music. It's not that their aren't any good musicians making good music that is even occasionally explicit about Christian faith, but the "official" church isn't interested in it because these are usually the same artists who are sometimes actually HONEST about some of their less party-line feelings on things (like, say... DAVID). 

    I like Dr. Beck's thought here, but I kind of doubt it's likely to change.

  13. Wow.   Poignant, powerful, true.  Thank-you.  This is very validating for those who are told their faith is too weak when they lament.

  14. Perhaps Karen Armstrong's comments on the Abraham/Isaac story are notable on this topic. What type of converstaion would that father and son have had leaving Moriah? How did Isaac feel in that situation? Why didn't his father bargain with God like he had for Sodom? Perhaps God expected him to. He had sacrificed Ishmael to the Wilderness, now Isaac on a hill top. The only lengthy account we have of Isaac is when he is lying down- on an altar and on a sick bed, blind and crippled for 20 years. And, the promise of God was given to him 'for the sake of your father Abraham.' Genesis says Isaac mourned his mother after her death, but only says he buried his father along with his brother Ishmael.
      The 'cotton candy' aspect of worship extends as well to our rose colored glasses views of biblical characters and their relationships. It is dangerous to be close to the sacred.

  15. Lamentations is one of the books of the Bible we tend to skip over.  As someone who has lived in chapter 3 verses 1-21 for much of my adult life dealing with one catastrophic loss after another, I have with varying degrees of success always reached out for the hope of verses 22 through 24.  The hymn "Great is Thy Faithfulness"  got me through many sleepless nights  and it wasn't the version with drums and guitars!

  16. If you were to see me at church on Sunday morning, you might characterize me as a 'happy clappy mental masturbator.' (I'd probably really bug some of you.) I am encouraged by songs such as 'The Steadfast Love of the Lord.' It's not because I'm not aware of verses 1-21 of chapter 3. It's not because I haven't experienced some of verses 1- 21. It's not because I haven't struggled with doubt and a lot of 'why God?' It's simply because I need the reminder of why I follow God in the first place. It's also not because I want to avoid those hard verses. On the contrary, much of the time those are the verses I comprehend more than 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.'

    I do see, however, how those words mean less by not including the previous verses. Many times, though, that's (metaphorically) all I've focused on throughout the week- the part where God made me eat rocks and shot arrows at me or a loved one. I long to be someone who 'inexplicably' acknowledges that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.

    I am an extremely unprofessional, non- Biblical scholar, college drop out, stay at home mom who hopes that if you see me with hands lifted singing about the steadfastness of the Lord you will not assume my praise to a God I scarcely understand, get incredibly angry with, and question more than I care to admit, is cheap.

  17. As a perpetual doubter and someone with a naturally melancholic disposition, I'm seldom, if ever, moved by a cotton-candy praise song. But beyond my proclivities, I concur wholeheartedly that cotton-candy worship is cheap spirituality. Not only does it ignore the people who find themselves in circumstances akin to verses 1-21, it makes it difficult for those who don't to empathize with those who find themselves in dark places.

    On a less serious note, Richard, I know you're not suggesting to literally add v. 1-21 to the song "The Steadfast Love of the Lord," but singing them to the cheery melody of the song gave me a good laugh this morning. 

  18. Hi Erin, I'm also a stay-at-home mom. It's not those who can find joy in the singing that bug me. It's a matter of those who judge and assume against me as lesser because mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially and introvertedly, I just can't go there. At least, not at this stage in my journey. However, when my son's high school band closes every football game and concert performance with "It Is Well With My Soul," it lifts my spirit. I hope you can find this as a safe place to express where you find God incomprehensible, because it's a pretty good support group for those who have been casualties of church and life.
    Blessings, Patricia

  19. I've talked to Christian musicians that can't get some of their songs produced because they aren't happy enough. What do we have against honest feelings? How does this attitude reflect our beliefs about God? Personally, I like that the Psalms have words for such a wide range of human experience. Real and authentic.

  20. A point well taken and often emphasized throughout your writing. HOWEVER, it is quite possible the editorial process produced a "relief" passage to allay reams of totally devastating anguish. Context is always important. But we don 't have to slavishly bend to context in our praise. The outburst of praise and confidence cited here was set to music by a very dear friend of mine who knew singleness and died at a
    Relative early age full of the faith and hope that such outbursts of celebration bolster. No, all assembly or private devotion time shouldn't be a blast of artificial joy whether we want it or not or whether we are in a constant avoidance mode. Your cautionary admonition is well spoken and hopefully well taken, but no wonder people lean toward the joyful, hopeful strains of holy writ! The texts of our lives often demand it! And, after all the Gospel IS good news. We just need to keep the joy and blessing of Christmas and Resurrection balanced by the profound implications of the Cross in our existence informed by our life in the Word and our life in the world which is what I expect you are trying to say.

  21. Thanks Richard, you have hit the nail onthe head once again. Brueggemann'c chapter in The Psalms and the life of faith, 'The Formfulness of Grief' has shaped my understanding of this movement in Lamentations. If you haven't already seen it, it is definitely worth a look. You can get a taste here

  22. Thanks, Patricia!! I hate that you have been judged. My husband is extremely intellectual and introverted. He, also, has felt judged- like the church caters, mainly, to extroverts. He feels closest to God when he's on the top of a mountain. Music draws me in and this is when I feel closest to God. I would never think of him as lesser and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't think of me as lesser. (And I would never think less of you, either, and I hope that earlier post didn't come across as "holier than thou." That was not AT ALL my intention.) Our learning styles/ preferences doesn't make any of us immune to big questions or faith struggles. And that's where we are right now. Which is why we've been reading Dr. Beck's blog for a many times it's like he heard a conversation we had and is speaking right to us. 

    I think hearing your son's band play "It is Well With My Soul" would be uplifting to me, too.

  23. Costly praise is not only Biblically sound, it also matches with human experience. I've definitely had thoughts similar to those that you highlighted in Lamentations 3; I work with a population who experience the hopelessness of those thoughts every day. To exclude these ideas and themes of lament and confusion from our worship settings would be to invalidate the legitimate experiences and thoughts of many congregants. Healing doesn't come from avoiding or minimizing our issues, as cheap praise, at its worst, seems to suggest; rather, healing comes from sharing and accepting our pain with others, through admitting that we sometimes feel we've been "led into darkness" and "had arrows shot into our hearts" and forgiving others (and ourselves) for our contributions to communal pain.

  24. Richard, 

    Sometimes, transforming a cotton candy melody into a minor key contextualizes the human condition.  Try "The Steadfast Love of the Lord" that way.  Not cotton candy at all.Blessings!

  25. Al, I'll see your Fascist Architecture and raise you Pacing the Cage...

    Sunset is an angel weepingHolding out a bloody swordNo matter how I squint I cannotMake out what it's pointing towardSometimes you feel like you live too long Days drip slowly on the pageYou catch yourselfPacing the cageI've proven who I am so many timesThe magnetic strip's worn thinAnd each time I was someone elseAnd every one was taken inPowers chatter in high placesStir up eddies in the dust of rageSet me to pacing the cageI never knew what you all wantedSo I gave you everythingAll that I could pillageAll the spells that I could singIt's as if the thing were written In the constitution of the ageSooner or later you'll wind upPacing the cageSometimes the best map will not guide you You can't see what's round the bendSometimes the road leads through dark places Sometimes the darkness is your friendToday these eyes scan bleached-out land For the coming of the outbound stagePacing the cage Pacing the cage

  26. I sort of agree with some of the other commenters on the point that many come to church already living through verses 1 to 21. It's a tight balance with that, and there's perhaps a separate conversation in there about the why and how of corporate worship (a bit of a narrower focus than the why and how of worship and posture towards God in the life of the church more broadly). I think, though, that the real meat of things (and perhaps this is what you meant, Richard) lies in where we start the song *in our lives*.

    On a more personal note, I experienced v1-24 today, as I wrestled with the depths of my sin - my laziness, irresponsibility, lack of love, and self-focus. The following song ("When I Go Down" by Relient K) helped me walk through v1-21 to the exuberant joy and hope of v22-24. I hope it is a blessing to some/many of you as much as it was for me.

  27. Thank you Richard Beck for this read. Thanks always to Bruce Cockburn. 'Circles In The Stream' is a good place to start listening. Bruce's 'Strange Waters' is a fine listen as well.

  28. "churches of manufactured emotion, hollow to the core."
    Yup. That is a dangerous trajectory that some churches have been on for 30 years now....

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