10/09/2014 06:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Praise the Lord or Praise the Person?


A few years ago a friend of mine explained to me that she had left her car door wide open one evening while on her way to an event. When she returned, she realized her negligence. Surprised and relieved that no one had broken into the car, she noted, "God is good." I responded to her, "No! Humans are good." At least they proved that they were that night.

More recently, I watched a viral video of a son surprising his mom with a new stove. Her reaction was one of tears and gratitude, but she did not thank her son, instead, she thanked God.

Both of these examples have several things in common. Both receivers acknowledged that something great had occurred. They were grateful for the event and they believed the object of their praise should be God. Both cases also clearly show that human moral agency was involved, yet neither of the recipients gave humans any credit. I think this is unfortunate.

Let me confess that I get it. Theists believe that they serve a benevolent, personal God. This personal God is involved in their everyday lives. So when good occurs, God had to have orchestrated it. The Bible is filled with passages indicating that one should praise God for his marvelous acts, but must this come at the price of not acknowledging the good in human actions and giving them praise as well? I think it should not.

It is time we give humans their due and we should not be accused of humanism for doing so. Humans do not lack agency. When humans do good, they should be acknowledged and praised for it.

In praising people, we take on a radical yet proper view of human nature. The Christian tradition holds a view that humans were born into sin. Humans are in need of grace because they cannot reach perfection on their own. This view of human nature influences how we view human actions. It not only forces one to accept bad as a human fact (or to only see the bad), but it additionally blinds us to human potential and to the myriad manifestations of human virtue that occur everyday. When praising others, we assert that the bad is not all there is. We admit that we can see humanity's good side.

Unfortunately, if a person does good, one may chalk it up to them being "used" by God or that the person demonstrated godlike virtue, despite their human nature. Sadly, we do not see the good that is in our nature. I believe this should change.

Praising humans for the good they do is also a form of justice. We are giving humans what they deserve. If a person gives to the poor, that person should be praised. If a human saves someone's life, it is disrespectful to call it a miracle, as if human effort was totally irrelevant. While one may object and suggest that God was just "using them", this does not take away from the fact that that person still had some form of freedom and still carried out the action.

Humans should also be praised because positive reinforcement and validation teaches and encourages people to be better. Moral and character education has proven that the more we praise people for their good actions, the more they are prone to continue to do good acts. Mark Alfano argues that if we ascribe moral traits to persons they will take on that trait. This ascribing becomes prophetic fulfillment. Taken together, if we provide praise by thanking people or specifically articulating to them their praiseworthy trait (honest, kind, charitable), humans will become just that. Don't worry! Praising people will not make them gods, it will make them good.

So the next time you leave your door unlocked and no one breaks in, the next time someone buys you a gift, or the next time someone does something nice for you, I'm not telling you not to thank God (if thanking God is what you do), I'm simply suggesting that people are also worthy of praise. One's reverence for God should not deny human credit. Praising people is a matter of justice, shows a proper view of human nature, and it helps with encouraging more goodness in the world. With all the bad occurring every day, we should all want to see more good in humanity. And when we see it, we should thank the person who embodies it.

People may not be good all the time, but when they do, we do not have to get on our knees, or sound the trumpets. We can merely look them in the eyes and say Thank you. Your God will not be offended or transcended. The Divine is probably doing the same thing and wondering why you took so long.