His divine power has given us everything we need to experience life and to reflect God’s true nature through the knowledge of the One who called us by His glory and virtue. Through these things, we have received God’s great and valuable promises, so we might escape the corruption of worldly desires and share in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:3,4 The Voice)
I knew a dear lady who became profoundly disappointed with God. She made a bargain with him, that if she threw herself into church work to the edge of her physical energy he would give her the desires of her heart — a husband and children. He didn’t keep up his end. When menopause hit and she realized she would never have a child and would probably remain single she was devastated. Her hope was the hope that disappoints.
I’ve realized lately that many of us test God with our presumptions. We tend to present him with bargains of our own design and don’t hang around long enough to find out if he agrees. It hit me last night that praise and worship services can fall into this category as well. I went to a large gathering of believers at a conference not long ago. I was really looking forward to it because I had heard stories about how “God showed up” last year. I had hoped that if I joined in singing loud rock-style praise songs for 55 minutes, if I knelt or waved a flag or swayed or shouted, whatever, I would feel experience a sense of God showing up — because it happened to those guys over there.
I felt nothing and was profoundly disappointed because I had thrown my whole heart into it. Other people seemed to be experiencing some sort of ecstatic moment while I felt nothing.
The truth is, I was presenting God with a bargain presuming that he would agree to it. “If I move out of my comfort zone and really get into this music even though it is a style and volume I personally find irritating, if I stretch out of my introverted personality and do things I fear would draw uncomfortable attention, if I sacrifice my time and money to be here, You will give me the desires of my heart, right, Lord? Because this is the way praise and worship is done, right? Because if You are pleased with my efforts You will take away the feelings that come with burying my dad yesterday and fill me with happy happy joy joy and allow me to experience Your Presence, right? ”
Can I confess I was actually angry when I left? I spent days wondering what is wrong with me that I was more aware of an out-of-tune guitar string than the majesty of God. Then I remembered an experience I had in Israel.
I was standing in the shell of an abandoned building in Gibeah — that place that was known as “The School of the Prophets” in the time of Samuel. I was excited when I found out this would be included on the itinerary, because the story in the Bible was that the presence of God was so strong there that even King Saul prophesied. I was secretly hoping for some special experience — at least some goose bumps.
The same thing at Bethel… and Shiloh… and Jerusalem. I told the Lord I was disappointed I didn’t have a sense of his presence there. That’s when I felt him say, “Because I’m not there. I’m in you now.”
In the past God has made his presence known in a burning bush, in a wind, in a voice like thunder, and in other ways. I believe that he has delighted the hearts of many people who have gotten together to offer him full-out singing and playing, but he doesn’t visit them by “showing up” like he did for a few in the Old Covenant. He inhabits them now. We are his temple. Worship is not something we do to earn a feeling. Using singing-style worship to manipulate our emotions so we can escape the unpleasant ones is making ourselves the object of worship. If I feel good this must be God, right? No. I was treating a praise and worship service like a drug.
I was wrong.
It made me re-think the point of actions we turn into rituals. It’s like giving a loved one the same birthday gift every year because we remember how happy their reaction made us feel the first time we gave it to them. We sensed God`s pleasure and his presence in us when our hearts turned to him and we expressed it through contemporary music. Now every meeting starts with obligatory rituals of a praise band and repeated choruses — because that worked before. For those whose hearts are in the right place it still does, but it’s not the method that connects them; it’s the heart.
Yesterday I read Psalm 109. It is not a feel-good psalm. In fact it’s rather embarrassing the way David spills out his feelings. I wish that one had been edited out. But in spite of his intense anger, grief, and disappointment, the psalmist offers the sacrifice of his right to want revenge and offers it to God.
Perhaps that is what would have made a finer gift of praise that day at the conference — my tears, my grief for what would never be on this earth ( a fully restored relationship with my dad), my honest feelings — the pure distilled worship of lament that says, Nevertheless I will give You first place in my heart because I choose to trust You. Christ is in me, and right in the middle of my disappointments You continue to show me the hope of glory.
Worship is acknowledging that God is God and he is good. And that does not require a sound system.