Turning Thanks to Praise

Among the many elements of Christian worship, praise and thanksgiving are perhaps the most common. Though these aspects of worship are related, they are not the same.

Traditionally, praise has more to do with who God is—his character and his attributes. Thanksgiving concerns God’s actions in time, some of which we observe and experience. Because thanksgiving has more to do with our senses, many people (and churches) gravitate more to thanking God than praising him.

But the Scriptures point us to praise through thanksgiving. The actions of God reveal his character. We see this in the opening chapters of the book of Ezra.

The Book of Ezra

After the Israelites had been in exile in Babylon for several decades, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, the king of Persia (Ezra 1:1). Cyrus issued a decree sending Jewish people back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of God that had been destroyed (Ezra 1:3–4). He sent back the tools and utensils which the Babylonians had taken from the original temple, and he made sure that this construction project was funded (Ezra 1:5–11).

The rebuilding begins in Ezra 3. The people built the altar of God first (Ezra 3:2) and immediately resumed burnt offerings, feasts, and sacrifices (Ezra 3:3–6). Of chief importance, the altar was built before the foundation of the temple had been laid.

Completing the foundation was a huge step forward and an occasion for praising the Lord (Ezra 3:10–13). The priests and Levites made music and everyone “sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord” (Ezra 3:11). The biblical author gives us a glimpse of their song.

For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel. (Ezra 3:11)

This was a significant worship time, so this quotation is likely just a summary of their song. But it is instructive.

God is Good

The people gathered to worship God “because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid” (Ezra 3:11). The occasion of worship was thanksgiving. Yet the Israelites used this moment of thanks to declare God’s goodness—not just the good things God had done, but the fact that he himself is good.

When we confess that God is good, we are not only declaring that he is upright, consistent, and free from every bit of evil. To say that God is good means that he is the very definition of what is good. He is so fundamental to the creation and to our notion of morality that we understand what is good by understanding him.

As always, the historical context is important. Israel had spent decades scattered in an unfriendly land, driven from the promised place they loved and, because they were unable to worship the Lord, they were in danger of losing their very identity as a people. These are the people who sang about the goodness of God!

His Steadfast Love

This song was not only about God’s character. The people also recognized his posture toward them.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). A version of this description of God shows up repeatedly in the Bible and it is a consistent confession of God’s people. God’s steadfast love is related to his mercy and grace, to the way he pledges himself to a people who are frequently disloyal.

When the Israelites sang this in Ezra 3:11, they confessed God’s mercy toward them. He relented of his anger; he made a way for them to return to Jerusalem; he provided this reconstruction of the temple. Though God had every right to wipe out the nation because of their rebellion, he preserved a remnant and stayed true to his word.

God’s steadfast love was set upon Israel—not because Israel earned his love, but because God is gracious.

His Love Toward Israel Forever

The last phrase in this worship summary is stunning. God’s people celebrated his love toward them forever.

In singing like this, the Israelites highlighted the promises of God and how deeply they shape our hearts and hopes. If God loved us now but his love tomorrow were uncertain, that would be of little comfort. But God has made promises to his people, and God does not break his promises.

If God’s steadfast love toward Israel endured forever, they could count on it. They could move into the future knowing that whatever happened around them, God’s love would endure. This brings a deep security to God’s people, both then and now.

Resolved in Christ

The returning exiles sang about the character of God, the grace of God, and the promises of God. These are excellent foundations for our worship too.

But consider how much deeper and clearer our song can be now that Christ has come! He has shown us the character of God in the flesh (Hebrews 1:3). God’s grace was demonstrated through the sacrificial work of Jesus (Hebrews 2:9). The many promises of God find their fulfillment in the Son of God, sent to rescue sinners (2 Corinthians 1:20).

So, let’s continue to thank God for all he is doing and all he has done. But let’s also spot God’s character in his actions—and praise him!

Post credit | Photo credit

My View from the Worship Team


I’m on the worship team at church, so when it’s time to sing, I’m looking out at the congregation. I see it all—the joy, the struggles, and the boredom. I’m reminded how Jesus welcomes all of us, that his body is made up of all sorts of different people.

To the passionate, early 40s woman—It lifts my heart to see you worship God. You close your eyes, lift your hands, and focus on every word. Not all of us are so demonstrative with our bodies in worship, but your love for God can’t come out any other way. I see the joy in your face and I see the children around you—they’re watching. You’re giving them a picture of devotion to our Savior. I’m so glad you’re part of our family.

To the young father near the front—I love to see you teach your son to sing. You crouch down and point to the words on the screen, helping him to follow along now that he is starting to read. The church needs men who sing, and it’s great that you’re training him in these early years. You’re helping build up the body of Christ; I’m glad you’re part of our family.

To the silent man in the back pew—you sit as far away from the preacher as possible. You stand during the songs, but you don’t sing. You don’t look bored as much as you look angry. You sit by yourself, though you act like someone is forcing you to attend. I hope you find our church is a safe place to doubt, to ask questions, or to simply show up as you are. I don’t know you well, but I’m glad you keep coming back.

To the two older ladies in the back—you are a treasure! You have trouble standing during the praise songs, and you might not be able to see the screen. I know we don’t always make our services easy for you, but I love seeing you here. You are models of faithfulness, wisdom, and grace, quick with a hug or an encouraging word for anyone that needs either. You point me to our Savior with your steady trust in him. I want to be like you as I grow older; I’m glad you’re part of our family.

Our church isn’t perfect. We’ve got a lot of learning and loving and growing to do. But as God gathers his imperfect people around his perfect Son, I’m glad to be a part of this family.

This post is an imaginative essay. I don’t sing on the worship team, and none of the people in the essay are specific individuals in my church. These characters are amalgams of people I have seen and known (and imagined) over time.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.

Photo Credit: John Price (2015), public domain

Fireworks and the Gospel


Like many other families in the States, we enjoyed fireworks a few weeks ago. As long as we can keep our hearing intact, my children love fireworks. But their reaction this year was off the charts.

One of my daughters was awestruck. She clapped, laughed, and shouted in delight. She cheered just as loudly at the end as she did at the beginning, thrilled at each explosion as if it were her first. It was 20 minutes of pure enjoyment—she did not hold back, and she was not embarrassed.

Lack of Joy

Adults rarely express such unashamed joy. Exuberance just isn’t cool; and we, of course, must be cool.

This distance makes sense in our culture, but life should be different within the church. Though we have the best of all reasons for joy, some Christians are the least joyful people around. We’ve taken sober-mindedness (see 1 Peter 1:13) in the wrong direction.

A Dangerous Immunity

We’ve developed a dangerous immunity to the wonder of the gospel. Though the good news about Jesus is serious and important, it should produce rejoicing not reluctance.

In most evangelical churches we hear the gospel a lot, and we start to tune out. We treat the most glorious, earth-shattering news like numbers on a stock ticker. If we’re honest, the gospel bores us at times. And nobody shares a boring message.

The gospel we believed at the beginning of our Christian lives is the same gospel we need every day. The good news about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is what should energize our obedience and fuel our hope. The gospel is not the door to the house of God’s kingdom—it is the whole house. We live and move and have our being in the shelter of what God has done for us.

Cultivate Wonder

Some people, when bored with one message, add to that message or turn to another. Instead, we need to cultivate wonder at what God has done, how he accomplished it, and what it secures for us. In other words, the solution is not less gospel but more.

With the eyes of faith, and with the Spirit’s help, we need to look at the gospel again. We need to consider our sin and our hopeless state without Christ. We need to meditate on what Jesus gave up in coming to earth, his spotless obedience, and his suffering. We need to ponder the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. We need to look forward to the new heavens and earth, new bodies, and the end of the curse.

If you need to wonder afresh at the gospel, read through the two lists below. They are not exhaustive, but they survey how Spirit-inspired authors in the New Testament talk about the gospel. I grouped them into two categories. What is the gospel? And what does the gospel do?

If you find yourself bored with the gospel, listen to the way God describes its function and glory. Then dive back into the Bible and ask God to restore to you the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12).

The gospel is

  • to be believed (Mark 1:15)
  • a reason for long life (Mark 8:35)
  • a reason for leaving land and family (Mark 10:29)
  • to be proclaimed to all nations (Mark 13:10)
  • the message by which Gentiles believe (Acts 15:7)
  • a reason for Paul to be set apart (Rom 1:1)
  • the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16)
  • something to obey (Rom 10:16)
  • a means of spiritual fatherhood (1 Cor 4:15)
  • about the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4)
  • veiled to some people (2 Cor 4:3)
  • true (Gal 2:5)
  • about salvation (Eph 1:13)
  • the occasion for partnership (Phil 1:5)
  • to be defended (Phil 1:16)
  • the word of truth (Col 1:5)
  • a means of calling (2 Thess 2:14)
  • a means of bringing life and immortality to light (2 Tim 1:10)
  • eternal (Rev 14:6)

The gospel

  • reveals God’s righteousness (Rom 1:17)
  • predicts God’s judgment (Rom 2:16)
  • provides strength (Rom 16:25)
  • blesses (1 Cor 9:23)
  • provokes counterfeits (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6–9)
  • belongs to God (2 Cor 11:7)
  • must be entrusted to others (Gal 2:7)
  • was preached to Abraham (Gal 3:8)
  • involves mystery (Eph 6:19)
  • bears fruit (Col 1:6)
  • gives hope (Col 1:23)
  • comes in power and the Holy Spirit, with conviction (1 Thess 1:5)
  • brings suffering (2 Tim 1:8)

Photo Credit: Jill Wellington (2000), public domain

Great Writing Leads to Worship

Notes from the Tilt-a-WhirlIf you ever read N.D. Wilson’s book, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl (and I’d encourage the endeavor), you’ll probably have trouble describing it. It’s unlike any other book I’ve read. In places, this is frustrating. I suspect this is part of Wilson’s design.

It’s not my intention to describe the content of the book now but rather the effect. You see, lots of books and authors impress me, make me think, even inspire me. But Wilson accomplished something different, something higher—he made me worship. This is certainly part of his design.

This might be due to my own circumstances and temperament, even my experiences. But this book might just have the same effect on you. Two longer quotations from the book’s final chapter appear below. These especially pointed my heart and desires toward God. I know this is part of His design.

We go into the ground, where the moss will feed on us and others will be stacked on top. We go into church floors and graveyards behind grocery stores. We go into the sea and the snow. We are devoured—by each other, by the earth, by time, by cancers and confusion, by the spinning of this sphere as it runs its balanced laps.

We are in Winter, where the light dies and blood runs cold.

But we are not forgotten. Wet, ripped from the trees and trampled, we will not be lost, for we are His words, and when His voice calls, we will come.

Offstage, there is another greater stage.

Come, let us grow old like fishermen. Let us sweeten the air with songs while we fade. Let us die. Winter cannot hold us. Let us go into the ground, and our faces will find the sun. Let us ride the eruption of Easter. — pages 196–197

And this is how the book ends. You might need to read the whole book to feel the impact of the final line, but this is too good not to share.

We will hear the angels sing. We will be the sheep. We will be made new and find ourselves standing in a garden. We will be handed bodies and shovels and joy.

No tree will be prohibited.

Blister your hands. Tend to the ants. Push the shadows back. Sing. Make a garden of the world.

We will laugh and carve FINIS on the earth. We will carve it on the moon. We will look to the Voice, to the Singer, the Painter, the Poet, the One born in a barn, the One with holes in His hands and oceans in His eyes, and on that day, we will know—

The story has begun.

And we will rake the leaves. — page 197

I loved reading this book, not just because it made me think, and not just because it lead me to worship. It reminded me that great writing (ideas and craft in one package) honors God because it imitates God. Living in His art, image-bearers glorify the Giver by creating art in His image.

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