Randy Felton makes an observation that continues to nudge me in a different direction than I otherwise tend to go in my life. He writes,
“In the book of Judges, chapter 1, verses 1-12, Israel is preparing for battle and they inquire of the Lord, Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites? The Lord tells them, Judah is to go. Later, in Judges 20:18, we find, Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites? The Lord replied, Judah shall go first. There were twelve tribes of Israel. Why should Judah be called upon to go up first? The Hebrew word translated as Judah is used many times in English as PRAISE. So the scriptures could be translated as, Let praise go up first. This is good advice for us when facing struggles or battles. Let us first praise. This is both an act of faith and submission. Praise God before the battle is entered; anyone can praise when the battle is over and won. Only by faith can we praise at the start.”
I tend to react to difficult situations with a certain level of dread and discouragement. With that, I have an inclination to run away. When I can’t run, I roll up my sleeves and jump into the fray—but I do so with something of a blind, frantic obsession about simply getting the job done. As such, I am churning with stress, and I don’t do the job very well. I especially don’t do it or with much loving care for others who are involved.
But Felton’s concept of letting praise go first nudges me to go in a different direction, a better direction.
This new direction is the approach taken by Habakkuk the prophet in Habakkuk 3. In the preceding chapter, God pronounces “woe” upon the nation and warns them of great judgment coming upon them. As a result, Habakkuk admits that upon hearing this report, “my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.” The situation Habakkuk faced was terrifying, but he led off with praise. The chapter begins with this declaration, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.” From there he goes on to recall great things about God’s character, and he describes some of the great things God has done.
The act of praise brought about significant change. It is not that praise changed the situation Habakkuk faced, but it changed Habakkuk himself. Cyril Barber points out, “As one compares the beginning of the book of Habakkuk with its closing, it is clear that outward circumstances had not changed. Only the prophet had changed. His former bewilderment and confusion had given way to peace and trust in the Lord.”
Praise changes us because it anchors our souls on a solid foundation. Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God. It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not the declaration that I am happy about how things are turning out in my life; true praise is the declaration that I cast my hope on the goodness of God whether things are going well or poorly for me. I am beginning to learn to let praise go first.
If we actually believe in a living God who cares for us personally, why don’t our prayers match what we say we believe? Why do we spend so much more time talking at God rather than listening to Him?
Sadly, Gregg Lewis captures well what most of my prayers are like in an analogy he shares about a customer at a fast food restaurant:
“I’d barely started to eat when, looking out the window I noticed a businessman in a three-piece suit racing across the parking lot. Throwing open the door, he jostled his way through a cluster of exiting customers and stepped into the shortest line—just in front of a young mother toting two preschoolers. ‘One Quarter Pounder, large fries, a medium Coke, and an apple pie.’ As the girl at the register left to fill his order, the man turned on his heel, strode out the door and trotted back to his car. By the time the girl returned to hand him his lunch, the man was pulling his car out of the parking lot.”
How often my prayers are like that: “God, tell me what to do about this mess I am in. Give me the wisdom I need for this situation. Enable me to discern Your guidance. Oh…I’ve got to run now! I’m too busy to talk to You further!”
I make requests to God for His wisdom, His guidance, His answers, or His peace, but I don’t stick around long enough to be in a position to receive anything He might give.
An anonymous writer observes, “‘Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth,’ said young Samuel. Almost universally we have made the keynote of our praying, ‘Listen, Lord, for Thy servant speaketh.’ It is strange that it has never dawned on us that nothing we say to God can be half so important as what God says to us. And yet, when every prayer ought to be a two-way conversation, most often we make it a monologue.”
Habakkuk, however, takes steps to avoid having his prayer become a monologue.
In Habakkuk 1:12-17, Habakkuk expresses to God his complaint and his confusion. He cannot understand how God could allow people as cruel and immoral at the Chaldeans to invade and defeat his country. In verses 12-17, Habakkuk presents his side of the dialogue. In Habakkuk 2:1, he positions himself to hear God’s participation in the dialogue. He states, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”
This verse is distant from my personal practice, but it is an inspiration and challenge to me. Habakkuk does two things here that I rarely do but want to learn to do:
1: By stationing himself in his ramparts, or at his guard post, Habakkuk moved himself away from the bustle of public life. Apparently Habakkuk recognized that it is away from the flurry of activity that we have the best likelihood of being able to hear God speak to us.
Coming at this issue from the opposite direction, C.S. Lewis offers advice on how to hide ourselves from God: “Avoid silence; avoid solitude; avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you’d be safer to stick to the papers. You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal” (p. 168-169 of Christian Reflections).
By setting himself away from the commotion of activity, Habakkuk improved the likelihood of his prayer being a dialogue.
2: By stationing himself in his ramparts, or at his guard post, Habakkuk gave himself the best vantage point to hear God speak. It’s not just that Habakkuk avoided the distractions of activity, he took the active step of putting himself in a place where he had the best opportunity to hear what God would say. He made the matter of listening to God the single most important thing to him, and he arranged his day so that he had time and location and opportunity to hear God. One way we can do this is by setting aside time each day to talk with God and to listen to Him.
James Hamilton shares, “Before refrigerators, people used ice houses to preserve their food. Ice houses had thick walls, no windows, and a tightly fitted door. In winter, when streams and lakes were frozen, large blocks of ice were cut, hauled to the ice houses, and covered with sawdust. Often the ice would last well into the summer. One man lost a valuable watch while working in an ice house. He searched diligently for it, carefully raking through the sawdust, but didn’t find it. His fellow workers also looked, but their efforts, too, proved futile. A small boy who heard about the fruitless search slipped into the ice house during the noon hour and soon emerged with the watch. Amazed, the men asked how he found it. ‘I closed the door,’ the boy replied, ‘lay down in the sawdust, and kept very still. Soon I heard the watch ticking.’”
We increase our likelihood of hearing God when we set aside time to be silent before Him.