“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
A dear woman from our church died on a Saturday night, unexpectedly, and we found out on Sunday morning an hour before worship. She was a model of Christian service, running our small children’s ministry with patience and love, and I was very affected by her loss.
As our church’s music director, I did not look forward to leading the music shortly after such a shock. It was not merely that I was concerned about holding it together during the songs, but also that I simply no longer felt like worshiping God. I was sad, and I didn’t much want to sing about God’s goodness and sovereignty at that moment.
Thankfully, through God’s grace, we all made it through the service. We acknowledged the tragedy and our grief, but that did not stop us from worshiping God in word, sacrament, and music. We still sang and prayed, still celebrated Jesus’s death and resurrection, still received God’s grace and communed with him. Worship continued despite our emotions. Then when we had finished, we all left the church. I, for one, was still sad.
For many, the point of worship, especially musical worship, is to get a sort of pick-me-up. Musical worship should make us feel good, many think, and if it doesn’t do that, it has failed. Musical worship should pump us up in the victory of Jesus, or slow us down into soothing meditation. Whatever it does, it should never fail to arouse some sort of pleasing emotional state. Endorphins and worship should rise and fall together.
But this is not the picture of worship we find in scripture. Consider Job. Within the first chapter of the book of Job, all Job’s children have died and his wealth has been erased over the course of a few hours. But in the middle of his pain, Job’s response is to worship:
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.'”
Job’s worship had absolutely nothing to do with his emotions. He doesn’t worship because he feels good. He doesn’t worship in order to feel good. Job worships despite his emotions, simply because of the objective reality of God’s greatness and sovereignty. Nothing about Job’s circumstances indicates a diminution of God or the hope Job has in God. God is still supreme, he is still good, and Job’s faith is such that he realizes temporal misfortune is no indication of a change in God’s status or his promises.
God is sometimes compared to a strong rock of refuge in scripture. We might think of a mighty mountain like Mt. Rainier near Seattle. We can all be inspired by the majesty of such a mountain on a clear day, when the air is crisp and the view is beautiful. We can look at the mountain and easily appreciate its greatness.
But it is harder to value the mountain’s greatness when it is surrounded by a storm, or even more so when we ourselves are lost in a blizzard. We cannot see the mountain. We are cold, scared, and stumbling. But the mountain is no less great for our inability to acknowledge its greatness. It’s still there, being awesome, while we are lost and afraid.
So too is the worship of God. It is good to worship God when we are joyful and see him clearly before us. But true worship continues to acknowledge the objective reality of God’s greatness even when we can’t see God very clearly for the blizzards of life. True worship blesses the name of the Lord even amidst misfortune because the worshipper understands that God is the source of all good things and thus deserves our worship even when we don’t feel good. And, importantly, worship signifies our faith in God to make good on his promises, to one day wipe every tear from our eyes. For God’s greatness alone, without his overflowing generous goodness, would only lead to fear, not worship.
Thus, true worship is always an act of will, not emotion. It is an act of chosen submission and obedience, an acknowledgement of our own smallness and dependence on God. Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes, “’Reality’ in worship will not, therefore, mean that the worshiper expresses warmly his own feelings and needs; it will mean that he identifies himself by his will with the Name and the Glory of God in the one divine action” (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 169).
When we lose a loved one, or we get laid off, or we find out we have cancer, those are the moments when we are tempted to believe that God is not who he said he is. He is not good; he is not in control; he is not on our side. When we continue to worship God in such moments, by an active choice to carry on despite our trouble or our doubts, we are acknowledging that there is something more real than our suffering. There is something more objectively true than any trouble we could ever face.
And of course that something is God, the God who loves us so much that he became a creature and died on our behalf, the God who will one day show us the surpassing reality of his greatness by redeeming us out of our suffering into resurrected life. Our worship in the midst of suffering is not only an act of will, it is an act of faith and hope that we will one day fully enter God’s reality, and stay in it forever.
Eugene Peterson affirms this truth, but goes further still:
Feelings are great liars. If Christians worshiped only when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship. Feelings are important in many areas but completely unreliable in matters of faith. Paul Scherer is laconic: ‘The Bible wastes very little time on the way we feel.’
We live in what one writer has called the “age of sensation”. We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.
– A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 47
While emotion is not a reliable guide in matters of faith, and an emotional outcome is never the goal of worship, God still wants to use worship to redeem our emotions. God gave us our emotions, and while they are fickle and easily pointed in the wrong direction, they can also be good, affirming, and helpful when properly trained. And as Peterson says, the habit of true worship, along with other spiritual disciplines, will train our love for God to the point that our emotions will begin to line up with our wills.
But that is the work of a lifetime; we will all be on that road until we meet the Lord face to face. In the meantime, it is important that we simply start walking in that direction. While it is a blessing to worship when we are joyful, worshipping God in no way requires us to feel a certain way. It simply requires a choice, a choice that, if persistently followed, will lead to ever greater faith, hope, and love.
In this fallen world we will often feel less than spiritual when Sunday rolls around, and we will often be emotionally unmoved by worship. But it is in such moments, when we continue to come to the Lord’s table despite our lackluster emotions, that true worship is found.