"If it was good, it was God!" I proclaimed, a modest but politely appreciative smile plastered on my face. The very moment my lips uttered that pre-planned, well-intentioned phrase, I experienced the mental equivalent of gagging after downing a gulp of sour milk. Had I really just said that? I must have, judging by the look that flitted ever-so-quickly across the face of the recipient of those gaudy words.
I was in high school and had been asked to speak at a Sunday evening church service about my experiences on a recent mission trip. I knew that people usually said "stuff" to you after you spoke at church; at the very least, one person is bound to say something, even if just an obligatory "good job." And so, somewhere along the line as I had prepared my little speech, it occurred to me that I ought to come up with an appropriately self-denying, God-glorifying catch phrase, so as not to presume to take all the credit for whatever accolades the church-goers deigned to offer me.
Just as I had anticipated, a couple people came up to me after the service to tell me that they were blessed; it was what they needed to hear, etc. Amazing in and of itself because not only had I not followed my notes at all, but I had rambled out a string of fine-sounding nonsense that left even me a little dazed and confused. Then, before I knew it, those words spilled out my mouth … and I spent the remaining minutes at the church smiling and edging away from the crowd.
Thus it began, my years-long search for that seemingly elusive answer, sought after by many who find themselves in a spotlight: how to take a compliment (without feeling rude, stupid or guilty). It was a question with which I grappled even more during college, when my musical abilities landed me in the limelight more often than I was used to being—and sometimes more often than I was comfortable handling, given my introverted tendencies.
Yes, I was probably thinking too hard, but it was tricky for me, finding the balance between a self-deprecating and a self-congratulatory attitude. This was no exercise in false humility, either, because I was very aware that pride was something with which I genuinely struggled and humility something to which I necessarily and earnestly aspired (and probably always will). Being seen and admired can be an enticing and addictive experience.
That’s probably why the most awkward circumstances were those found in a religious context; namely, those of the past two or so years in which I’ve been a part of my church’s praise team. On more than one occasion I’ve come very close to quitting, for fear that I was enjoying the sharing of my talents too much, and that the innocuous little compliments I would receive from time to time were serving to bolster my desire to be admired, something that has absolutely no place in worship.
I remember one time in which I barely acknowledged a woman expressing her enjoyment of something I had played during the service. A nearby friend promptly called me out, and rightly so, because in my attack of confused modesty, I was being rude! I felt like I couldn’t win. I didn’t want to be ungracious, but I also didn’t want to dwell on "my accomplishments" while in "God’s house." Being at church was just different, it seemed, from when I played shows with my band and happily took in compliments as the fruits of my creative labor.
Over time, experience taught me to respond to recognition and praise with unaffected appreciation (and then move on). However, a recent conversation with a friend of mine showed me that there is, after all, much more to it than that.
An artist and performer herself, she too had encountered the compliment conundrum, so-to-speak, and somewhere along the way someone had shared this with her: "Each time you receive a compliment, you accept it as a rose in honor of the Father, a rose that you in turn take and lay at His feet." In all its simplicity, I was immediately struck with the surprising profundity of that image. It made so much sense, echoing the sentiments of those elders of Revelation who lay their crowns before the throne: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:10, TNIV).
It’s liberating. Regardless of the setting, I can feel free to enjoy my talents, so long as I befittingly consider them within the context of their paying homage God’s greatness. Every accomplishment I achieve is a tribute to the One who gave me the ability. Every compliment I’m given, whether I’m helping lead worship or just enjoying myself at a gig, is a compliment to be laid at the foot of my Maker, an offering.
It’s not just a solution to a problem, either; it’s a change of attitude, of perspective, of heart. It’s a change I’m trying to let inform another challenge I face daily: living up to Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (TNIV). Much more easily said than done, at least for me. But if our accomplishments are roses of tribute to the Lord, wouldn’t those tasks still before us be a fertile garden bed just waiting to be cultivated in His honor?
A lot of times—most times—it’ll seem like a stretch, I know. Rose gardens are generally the furthest thing from my mind when I’m taking out the trash or writing another tedious monthly report. Still, doesn’t God’s nature compel us to strive toward a Colossians 3:23 kind of life? Can we do any less than to try? He who created all things, He whose will gave being to everything we are and have, certainly deserves no less.