Daily Proverbial, 8 November 2011

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold but man is tested by the praise he receives. Proverbs 27, verse 21.

This is a pretty harsh comparison, don’t you think? I mean, the methods for mining and extracting precious metals really haven’t changed THAT much in 4000 years. You dig it up, you melt it, you shape it and bingo: silver and gold. Yes, I know my generalization displays a shocking disregard to leach mining, toxic chemical runoff and the vagueries of labor relations; all true. Still, I stand by my assertion that things haven’t changed too much; it’s still a fairly basic process. So it would seem with praise as well, and with the fact that this verse offers a harsh comparison in how something seemingly innocuous such as simple praise can be hotly refining, even violent.

That being said, let me ask you something: how well do you handle compliments? If someone tells you “good job,” do you say “thanks” in return or do you defer the compliment? When someone compliments you on your outfit, or your weight loss, or your hair, or your anything, do you respond or do you blush and say “no, not really?”

Me, I am of two minds in things like this. One side of me is uncomfortable with accepting praise. The Lutheran in me has had humility pounded into me with a Law-hammer over and over again. We aren’t to accept praise for anything because anything good that we do is simply God doing well within us. Thus, I accept praise reluctantly, and I’m getting better at it because I’ve wrestled with that Lutheran guilt for a long time. Of late, it seems almost like mocking God to be ungrateful – and thankful – when someone give you praise for doing something well. If God gives you a talent, you should use it to His glory because giving Him glory means He shares His love with you. Humility is needed, of course, but it’s ok to accept compliments. Take that, Lutheranism.

Then there’s the flip side. Do you feel starved if you don’t get praise? I know I do. That’s the weird part: I’m uncomfortable receiving praise, but I’m even more uncomfortable if nobody praises me. There is not enough time in the day for me to stand in the spotlight. Receiving that kind of praise seems different because it’s impersonal. I LOVE the sound of applause or adulation. Just don’t get too close because if you come in close and personal, I fall back on that Lutheran guilt. Again, here’s an area where some work-in-progress remembrance would come in handy.

The verse cautions that praise can be a forge. For the person who is easily manipulated, praise can be a difficult thing to manage. It can become like a drug, something he can’t get enough of and something that is hard to kick once you’re addicted. Ask anyone in Hollywood and I’m betting they would agree with that point. For the person to whom praise is a foreign concept, then such praise can be a rare treat, a good thing. The older I get, the more I think that balance is in the middle; gee that’s an obvious phrase, isn’t it? Feel free to praise me for it.

Or not. I think it goes back to pride. Just yesterday I was reading a daily online Bible commentary (from a site called The Berean) that talked about pride in context of the book of James. James had a few things to say about human pride, all of them cautionary. The site says “A person infected by this deadly quality so admires himself that he is unaware of his paucity of vastly more important qualities. A proud person cherishes independence so that he will not be beholden to others. He is so preoccupied with his self-proclaimed goodness that he never realizes that he has any sin from which he needs to be saved, and thus he will not be corrected. He believes that he is above it all.” There’s something in that, namely that pride can be deadly if you aren’t careful. In the context of this verse, a proud man can thrive on praise but if he isn’t careful, if it feeds his pride too intensely, it can be deadly.

Ask yourself: is your pride really worth dying for? Maybe, maybe not. I believe it depends on what you’re proud of. If our pride is founded in humble confidence in our God-given abilities, then a pat on the back now and then can be a good thing. If not, well, you know the answer. It’s very Lutheran, you know, but in this case, there’s more to it than just years of tradition.

We are each forged by many things in life. Death, divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment, hardship, hatred, gossip, manipulation: they all forge us, separating the good metal from the dross. Happiness, children, blessings, love, appreciation, caring, praise: they too can forge us, though in different ways. The yin and yang of praise and humility do act like a crucible, melting away what’s wrong with both and hopefully leaving only what’s good. Next time I feel like the spotlight is getting cold, I’ll try to humbly give thanks for whatever time I’m in it instead of wallowing in my pity party of how there’s never enough. I hope Martin Luther would approve. Then again, that doesn’t really matter.


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