The Pitfalls of Praise

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Gabriella was my omelet maker in Costa Rica. Her actions went above and beyond as she remembered my order each day, and by the end of our stay, she told me to go sit down instead of remaining standing in line. Then she brought my food out to me.

I’ve always been the kind of girl who thrives on praise.  Notice my word choice here.  I didn’t say that I “like” praise, or that I “enjoy” praise.  I feel my heart swell up like petals greeting the morning.  I find joy and energy in doing tasks that make other people say “Thank you!”  Today I learned that this tendency of mine…is not exactly on the heavenly wall of fame.

This month I’ve begun a fresh way of reading the Bible.  Finding that my “Read through the Bible in a Year” plans left me more interested in “getting through” the words rather than interacting with them, I decided to try an inductive method of study. Inductive study simply means carefully examining each word in a passage.  There is no right or wrong way to do this.  I fell back on my grammar training and mark up the subjects (nouns) and the verbs.  This study means I read less in terms of quantity — but I’m learning much more than I did when I was reading the Bible like I read the newspaper.

Luke 17:7-10 has always perplexed me.  Sandwiched in between a request from the disciples that Jesus give them more faith and the account of the grateful leper, it’s a rhetorical question Jesus asks his disciples about duty…and praise.

“Would any one of you say to your slave who comes in from the field after plowing or shepherding sheep, ‘Come at once and sit down for a meal’? Won’t the master instead say to him, ‘Get my dinner ready, and make yourself ready to serve me while I eat and drink. Then you may eat and drink’? He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he? 10 So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Can I be brutally honest here?  I’ve never particularly liked this passage because I thrive on praise.  When I do everything I’m supposed to do, it feels nice to get a nod and an acknowledgement.  Thanks for washing my skating clothes, mom.  That lemon cake is delicious, honey!  Did you vacuum?  The floors look great!  Your daughter is a fantastic writer — she must have had an excellent teacher!

When I do not receive acknowledgement, I feel a little bruised. I don’t know why I even bothered to fold and put away Mount Laundry.  Nobody noticed, and it’s only going to grow again.  Nobody even ate the dinner I made tonight except me (easy to happen when you only have a family of three, the husband works late, and the daughter is a very picky eater). Next time I’ll just eat potato chips.

When I took the time to carefully examine that passage from Luke, I circled the subjects and drew squiggly “action” lines under the verbs, like this:

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Then, while I was frying eggs this morning, I wrestled with these words of Jesus: He (the master) won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he?  So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, “We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.”

For a moment there I felt as if the Lord was beating me over the head with the frying pan, eggs and all.

Do I really expect special praise just for doing my duty?

And what exactly is my duty?

Laundry. Cooking. Cleaning. Homeschooling. Mothering. Wifering. Discipling.

All those actions of mine that I crave praise for are different aspects of my duty.

Another translation for the word “duty” is “that which is due,” or “the goodwill due;” the notes in the NET Bible put it this way: “We have only done what we were supposed to do.”

So where does this leave me, praise-craving sucker that I am?  It leaves me holding the wrong end of the stick, with the wrong attitude and the wrong motives for doing what I do.

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6)

Why do I thrive so much on praise from people?  Is people praise always a bad thing?

People praise is a bad thing when it’s the sole motivator.  When I do something altruistic and above and beyond, not out of the goodness and love overflowing from my heart, but out of a desire to be seen as righteous, and therefore to be thanked and praised, then I’ve got it all wrong and backwards.  I’m like the hypocrites in the synagogues, blowing trumpets as I bring alms to the poor.  Look at your tired, overworked wife/mother, family. Watch her search the house for missing socks/keys/iphones.  Jesus sees my heart.  I can’t hide my motives from him.  Besides that, I want to be more than just “seen” as righteous.  I want to BE righteous.

As I flipped an egg and buttered a piece of toast, I suddenly remembered a parable where righteous people did receive special praise and recognition not from ‘people’ but from the master (metaphorically, from the Lord)…for going well above and beyond:

14 “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more.18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it.  (Man comes back)  20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, (and here’s the praise!) ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’(Matthew 25)

Consider if this story was set in modern day times.

Once upon a time, a rich man named Gates summoned his stockholders and entrusted the earnings of Microsoft to them before going away on a two-year Safari.  To Alex, he gave $100K, to Brenda, he gave $50K, and to Charlie, he gave $10K.  Alex immediately put the $100K to work and gained $100K more.  Brenda put the $50K to work and gained $50K more.  But Charlie carefully packed the $10K in a metal box and buried it in his backyard. When Gates returned, Alex wired the original $100K plus the additional $100K into Gates’ account, saying, “Sir, I’ve doubled the money you asked me to manage.”  Gates said, “Way to go, Alex!  You’re the man!  You’ve been faithful in a few things — now I’m giving you control of the XYZ Division!”  Then Brenda met with Gates and wired him his $50K plus the $50K she earned.  She said, “Mr. Gates, I’ve doubled the money you asked me to manage for you.”  Gates said, “Excellent return, Brenda!  You’re a fantastic manager — because you’ve been faithful, I’m now trusting you with management of the QPR Fund.”  Then Charlie scooted in to Gates’ office carrying a dirty metal box.  “I kept this in the ground, because I knew you were a difficult man, and I was afraid of losing it.”  Gates exploded in anger, saying, “You’re evil!  Why didn’t you at least keep the money in a savings account so it would earn interest?” Then Gates took Charlie’s $10K and gave it to Alex.  A security team escorted Charlie out of the building and shoved him out on the sidewalk.

The moral of this story? God rewards those who go above and beyond.  Notice the story has no people praising the efforts of Five Talent Man and Two Talent (Wo)Man.  No..they did their job of keeping their employer’s money safe — and then some.  They went the extra mile.

Do you know where that phrase, “Go the extra mile,” comes from?  I don’t know if it was originally an idiom, but Jesus used it to describe how we should behave when we are wronged:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5)

Going above and beyond is a value that seems to be losing ground in today’s culture.  Children receive “participation trophies” — even for lackluster performance.  Teachers are forced to “award” a “70” as a lowest possible grade. Some waiters (NOT Gabriella!) expect to be tipped 20% — even when they perform below average. And I want praise from my family — even when my work is subpar.  We [I] seem to think that just because we work hard/tried/got out of bed/put on a bra/did our homework/read our daily Bible verses/threw together dinner/fillintheblank, we should get a pat on the back.  I’ve totally bought into this mindset. Ugh!  Lord, I confess this sin of entitlement of praise — will you renew my mind?

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12)

Lesson for me?  Doing my duty is the baseline.  Realize that praise from people is full of pitfalls, especially if it is just for doing the minimum duty.  If I want praise from above, I need to kick it up a notch, in secret.  Go the extra mile.  Stop expecting to be thanked so much when I’m only doing what I’ve been appointed to do as wife/mother/homeschool teacher/daughter/sister/fillintheblank.  Stop training my daughter to expect praise for doing her duty: finishing homework/practicing with great effort/finishing chores on time.  Praise her as Jesus praises: when she goes above and beyond.  Be on the lookout for those times when people around me go the extra mile, and acknowledge it.

My hope is that the Lord will transform me — renewing my mind so I no longer ride the waves of people praise, but rather the waves of righteousness — doing what is right for the sake of it because that’s what the Lord has told me to do, not because I want to be seen doing it. May my motives and my heart be pure in His sight!

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