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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Neglected Worship: Learning How to Cry Out to God in Our Suffering

When we think about the phrase, “neglected worship,” we are most likely drawn to some part of worship, like repentance, reconciliation, or some other aspects that are indeed very important. But perhaps one of the most neglected aspects of worship is one that is found in the book of Psalms and comprises the largest single category or themes in the biblical psalter, – that of laments. Granted some of these were individual and personal, yet some were congregational, a pleading for the nation. Rather than a study on a specific psalm, I would like for us to consider an overview of the importance of such songs and why we have neglected them in our worship.

Suffering is a part of life, and certainly a natural result of our human nature. We live in an amazing creation of God, yet we live as fallen creations from God’s original design. The pattern of insisting on our own plans rather than those of our Creator has left us with the consequences of our actions. Jesus’ redemptive work has provided a renewed access to the Father, yet the results of rebellion still echo in our hearts. Even then, God in His grace and mercy take the fruit of this rebellion and uses it to remake us in to His image. Suffering is one way God takes that which is on the surface is not good as we understand or perceive it, and uses it for our good and His glory.

[This is not a treatise on suffering, I am not qualified to speak on it, nor does this format provide adequate space to do so, since entire books are on the subject. Some suffering is a direct result of our actions, while some suffering happens to those who are innocent. Although understanding the reasons for the suffering might make it more bearable, the suffering remains, none the less.]

With all the controversies surrounding worship, I have yet to hear of one caused by someone using “laments” in worship. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve heard many in my life. We tend to steer away from anything painful, and mistakenly think that worship only means “praise.” Yet, Scripture’s songbook is full of these cries and pleas to God in the midst of extreme anguish and they are done in the context of worship, whether personal or corporate. Is our relationship with God so superficial that we only desire to know one small facet of the nature and character of God? Paul tells the church at Philippi, “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death...” [Phil. 3:10] Yes, there is a great desire to know the power of God that will raise us from the death, but Paul gives us a greater insight into the process of becoming like Jesus, the need to share in His sufferings.

This is not a masochistic or sadistic desire, but an honest desire to identify with the One who loved us so much that we desire to be like Him regardless of the cost. Our natural response is to avoid such pain. There are those who would preach such a perversion of Scripture as to say that if you follow God, “you won’t have problems and that God will make you rich.” Unfortunately, there are many with “itching ears” to hear such lies because they are trying to avoid the pain or suffering that they are going through. Pain and suffering are one of the ways that God uses to purge and refine our character as we learn to respond correctly to it. Does that mean that when problems come that we just sit idly by, denying that what we are going through, devoid of any emotions whatsoever? No. Look at the Psalms. The psalmist is anything but devoid of emotion. Sometimes, it is almost frightening to us to hear the psalmist address God as he does. God does not fear our honest expressions of hurt, despair, frustration, confusion. What He does desire is trust in His nature and character. When Job cries out “why” over and over again, God does respond with the answer to “why,” but does so by sharing more of “Who” He is. He reveals more of His nature, His power, His character.

That, perhaps is where we get confused in “our laments.” We are more anxious to just be rid of the problems than have God’s refining, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunity to get to know God deeper in the midst of the suffering. We just want to scream and shout; the psalmist expresses the honest emotions of his soul, but in addressing them to God there is an underlining expression of faith that God alone was the One that could do something about them. We need to teach believers how to mourn, lament, and do it in a context that is consistent with Scripture.

This semester I have been very grateful to Dr. Dennis Cole, in his teaching of the doctoral course on “Music in the Biblical World.” In passing, Dr. Cole mentioned the lack of lament in worship, which, honestly began this consideration a couple of months ago. These past few days have given opportunity to apply some of the things that God has been trying to teach me, and no it is not easy or painless. I used to silently chide the disciples for fearing the sinking of their boat while Jesus was there asleep next to them, until I, myself, began to feel the splash of the storms in my own life. It is making me more sensitive to others going through similar situations and I trust more attuned to the Spirit’s leading in my own life.

I’m not advocating that we all run out and scream out laments during our worship services, but I do think that we need to seriously consider the addition to honest expressions of grief as part of our sacrifices of praise to God. As we offer “all” that we are, we need to offer to Him our fears, our hurts, our cries, our frustrations, and our anger, as well as our thanksgiving. Not to do so is to hold back part of that which God created in the first place. Authentic worship is not one-sided, but encompassing all of who we are so that we can learn to know God in an even more intimate way and allow His holiness to continue to purify the inmost part of our beings.

With that being said, I raise my lament:
I cry out to You, God in my pain, because You, alone, know me and understand all that is going on around me and in You alone do I look for help. I give You my hurt, confusion, and all the mix of emotions I feel now, and ask for Your mercy and grace. I cry out to you for the many that are grieving as well around me and claim the power of Your Holy Spirit to minister to those as well. I thank You, O God, that You are our refuge and strength, our help and our God.”

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