Aesop wrote a fable about a donkey who discovered a lion’s skin.
He tried it on, strutted around and scared many animals.
Soon a fox came along and the donkey tried to frighten him too. But when the fox heard the donkey’s voice, the fox said, “If you want to terrify me, you’ll have to disguise your bray.”
Aesop’s moral? Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words always give him away.
I had hoped that after the U.S. presidential election the barrage of angry words would settle. But it seems that America is awash in destructive words.
Many people of faith feel stuck in knowing how to do something positive in a culture bathed in negativity.
Proverbs 8:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Every word affects ourselves and the people around us. In a sense, there is no small talk. Every word matters.
Because this is true, there is a powerful tool you can use to combat negativity, harsh words and hopelessness: praise.
We can accept a culture of criticism and harsh words, or we can commit to the opposite practice of the art of praise.
Praise changes things. This is true of the praise we give to God and the praise we give to one another.
When we praise God, we affirm God’s mystery, sovereignty and creative capacity for both stability and change.
When we praise the ones we love, we draw out the best in them, affirming their worth.
When we even find something to praise in our enemies, we open ourselves to reconciliation and peace.
And we find our hearts more full, not drained. Negative words seek to rob us of joy and peace, while praise fills up, builds up and blesses.
In a religious sense, praise lifts us up. Praise lifts us heavenward to see things as God sees them. Praise transforms us, sustaining us through the hardest of days. Praise can flip a situation, bring light into darkness and heal a broken heart.
How can we practice the art of praise?
We need first to learn to offer praise even in the worst of times. What if the worst of situations didn’t bring out our worst selves?
Not long ago I found myself angry and frustrated at an airport. It was clear that the person in front of me could not solve my problem as I would have liked. But it was also clear that angry words were not going to help.
So I paused, dug deep and then expressed a compliment. The result? The person became my advocate rather than my enemy, working for a solution that was better than expected.
This leads to the second idea: Our praise needs to be steeped in humility. When we go off on a rant, it’s all about us. We’re just venting out how we alone are affected. No one is edified by a rant.
Paul counsels in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Aesop was right. Our speech and the type of wisdom that governs our tongues always displays the state of our hearts.
We should consistently ask ourselves: What can I give praise for today? Then we should pause and offer a word of praise: for God’s creation, for a good friend, for food on the table, for breath in your lungs, for life itself.
We should give praise even if you don’t feel like it and commit to offering a word of praise to someone else.
“If anything is excellent or worthy of praise, think on these things,” Paul urges in Philippians 4:9.
Think on it, then speak it, text it or write it out, but do it.
You might be surprised to find the negativity nixed and your heart full.
Brent McDougal is senior pastor of Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas. A version of this article first appeared on Cliff Temple’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @BrentMcDougal.
Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.