Stuffed into the bottom of a closet in my parents’ home is a cardboard box containing every sports trophy I have ever received. I played four sports growing up, and played one of them until I was 18 years old. I note the length of time played because it is, after all, how long one plays, not how successful he is, that ultimately determines the size of a man’s trophy box. Mine is rather large.
I have no idea if they’ll ever be used for anything; there are no plans to eventually store them in a glass case in the basement for all our visiting friends to marvel at. The seventh-place Pee Wee League Braves were nothing to write home about after all. Truthfully, I’ve just not gotten around to throwing them away. I’m certain that, if they haven’t already, they’ll one day see the bottom of a garbage can and will end up in whatever ominous destination comes thereafter. Those congratulatory remarks – the praise, the claps and high fives, the “good jobs” and “atta boys” – all will find their resolve in the ungraceful clang of plastic on a metal dumpster floor.
I knew something of compliments in my youth that serves me well as an adult. I knew if I didn’t let them go to my head – if I didn’t feel too great about them – I could withstand the sullener moments when praise did not come. I learned to say a sheepish “Thanks” when someone affirmed whatever I was doing, and to go on about my business, determined to do things as well or better than I did the time before. And I learned conversely how to not let criticism ruin my day. I wasn’t completely indifferent, but I walked away from those impressionable days largely unscathed.
Somewhere along the way, things changed.
As I worked through the latter years of school and on into my early twenties, I began to want attention unlike I’d ever wanted it before. It often felt like I needed it. It was a craving foreign to my experience, but I quickly recognized its root.
Now out largely on my own, my life was lacking the one thing that had been persistent in the structured support systems of my upbringing. Call it assurance, support, encouragement, or any number of other things. I needed praise. And there was no one around willing to give it.
In his book, From Weakness to Strength, Scott Sauls writes about this “disequilibrium” that is within us and that surfaces in our relationship with God as well. He writes, “…the quest for inner poise and equilibrium, the quest for the security of having been made complete, is a quest for all human beings, whether they believe in God or not.” He goes on to say the unbalance is especially common for those in leadership and most assuredly for those who do have a relationship with Christ.
We want to be complete and we want to feel complete, too.
The good news in all this is that we are gloriously whole and are being made to feel that way also. But God is not content that we fill up on vainglory. The process of our sanctification is also the process of our undoing in a lot of cases. Repentance doesn’t often feel as jovial as the latest hit Christian radio single makes it sound. In my experience, the weight of it has seemed unbearable at times. But, as Sauls is quick to note, the unbearable burden does not belong to Christ. His burden is light.
C.S. Lewis observed a similar tension with praise, or what he calls “fame.” He reckons with the biblical concept of our glory in heaven in his sermon entitled, "The Weight of Glory":
Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?
When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation’ by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.
The “divine accolade” Lewis recalls remains for us the reverberating truth that fills the hollowed out spaces of our fleshly longing. There’s no trophy box big enough to hold that heavenly reward and we can rest knowing there will be a day when all the praise we thought we needed will culminate in the compliment of Christ: “Well done.”