Praising, Worshiping, and Giving Thanks to God — What’s the Difference?

Today’s scripture: Psalm 148 (NRSV) (The Message) (KJV) What might God be saying to me?

My thoughts (Bradley Compton):

On its face, this psalm doesn’t seem to offer much on which to comment — it simply categorizes creation (angels, spirits, the physical world, humankind, etc.) and encourages it to praise the Lord. However, including all of creation (the celestial bodies, oceans, sea creatures, and weather) rather than just humans and angels is interesting. Jesus concisely expresses the same sentiment in Luke 19:40 when he says, “If these [disciples] were silent [with praise], the stones would cry out.” Psalm 148 also brings to mind a delineation that as Christians we, or at least I, seem to overlook when using the term “praise” interchangeably with “worship,” and “gratitude” or “thanksgiving.” So, let’s take a personal examination together based on some authoritative commentary regarding this psalm and the meaning of “praise.”

Churches like LifeJourney (represent . . . raise the roof!) denote what we do every Sunday as “worship services.” Our talented, Holy Spirit-filled singers and song leaders always encourage the congregation to raise our voices and hands to “praise” God. It’s safe to say that we worship and give thanks/express gratitude to God through praise. However, even though praise is a way to both worship and give thanks, “praise,” “worship,” and “thanksgiving,” have distinct meanings although the activities they denote may take place simultaneously.

We often speak of praise outside of religious contexts. We praise our leaders, heroes, children, and significant others for accomplishments and good deeds. On the other hand, even though we may say someone worships a person, it’s usually a kind of hyperbole; we most often reserve true worship for God. In fact, scripture forbids the worship of anything but God — to do so would be idolatry. We can think of worshiping God as a sort of acknowledgement of one’s “fear of God,” i.e., not fear in the sense of a tip-toeing apprehension of being turned into a pillar salt, but rather an awe of and respect for God’s holiness.

What tone do you think of when it comes to worship? Probably quiet solemn behavior like kneeling and placing one’s forehead to the ground. Whereas with praising God, we tend to think of dancing, waving our hands, shouting, and singing. Individual Christians and different denominations may lean toward one of these tones rather than the other. For example, the sacramental rituals and chanting choirs in Catholicism seem more like worship, whereas the charismatic Christians such as Pentecostals are known for praising God by speaking in tongues, hollering, frenetic singing, and dancing.

The secular philosopher Nietzsche drew a similar distinction in culture between Apollonian and Dionysian orientations — Apollo is the ancient Greek god associated with the sun, among other things, and Dionysus is the ancient Greek god of wine and fertility.  Apollonian culture is stoic and rational. In contrast, Dionysian culture is ecstatic and emotional. Nietzsche would likely say contemporary Catholics exemplify Apollonian religion and Pentecostals Dionysian.

Despite the typical characteristics attributed to worship and praise, the two, as well as thanksgiving, are not mutually exclusive.  Obviously, one can worship, praise, and express thanksgiving to God all at the same time through singing, testimony, prayer, etc. In fact, it’s safe to say that the enthusiasm of this psalm about praise is also an expression of worship. In sum, we praise God for the beauty and greatness of the world despite the many terrible things in it, worship in reverence of God’s holiness, and give thanks for the blessings God provides us — we can do each of these together or one at a time.

Thought for the day: Knowing the differences between and importance of praise, worship, and thanksgiving in my walk with God, how can I more conscientiously and liberally employ them in my spiritual life?

We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the suggestions on the How to Pray page.