Whenever a church leader asks for words of praise, those in the congregation usually turn that into words of thanksgiving. We are instructed to praise God for who He is, yet so often it becomes thanksgiving for His actions, particularly those done on our behalf.
When Mary was told that she would give birth to the long-awaited Messiah, she sang a song of praise. She began with praise for the great things God had done for her, then added praise for what He had done for others. From her words, what do I see about the character of God? From her example, can praise for who God is be separated from thanksgiving for what He has done?
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46–55)
Mary praises God for being mindful of sinners and blessing lowly people. He could have chosen anyone to be the mother of Jesus, someone esteemed in society. He did not do that.
She praises His holiness, a difficult concept for us. We are living in a muck-filled world to the point that absolute purity is unimaginable. Yet holiness goes beyond purity and embraces omnipotence, eternity and glory. It evokes awe. From Bible times, even profaning God’s holy name was a serious sin. His name gives holiness a personal dimension, fusing it with divinity in contrast to lesser gods and our human creatureliness. His holiness expresses his divine perfection. Again, we have difficulty defining something so far above and beyond what we are, flawed and imperfect.
God is merciful. Mercy means withholding from people what they deserve. As a sinner, I should be punished, but the mercy of God put that punishment on Jesus Christ. I can praise God that He is merciful, but with this characteristic particularly, I realize how difficult it is to separate praise from thanksgiving. In mercy, God acts. His qualities are never static.
Mary praised God for being strong, yet how did she know, or how do we know that apart from the evidence of His actions? This is also true about His love. We can praise Him for being a loving God, but how would we know that if He did not demonstrate it?
The idea of separating praise from thanksgiving likely has a purpose. It is to help the self-centered think more about the goodness of God than “what’s in it for me.” Instead of keeping the spotlight on myself, it elevates Him in my heart . . .
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4)
In this instruction, the idea of who and where God is reveals the connection between His character and His actions, particularly actions on behalf of those who have been raised from sin and spiritual death to new life in Jesus Christ. Because God so loved the world, He sent Jesus to die for sinners. That same Jesus has been raised from the dead and sits at the right hand of God. Because of what He did and where He is, I can consider myself dead to sin and alive to God. Because of His character and His actions, I am able to seek eternal matters and set my mind there instead of remaining in the muck.