When I was growing up there was never any doubt in my mind that the only mood appropriate for worship was happy. As the Creator, God was the natural object of our worship. As the created, it was natural to feel that a happy joyful spirit was the only way to approach God. Anything less would dishonor him.
Attending church on Sabbath reinforced the connection between acts of worship and a happy mood. Church services brought people together in shared beliefs and happy fellowship away from the world. Mission stories always concluded with happy endings. Children sang from the book “Happy Songs for Boys and Girls” filled with pictures of smiling children. We were often reminded before the offering that God loved a cheerful giver. And after the offering we stood to sing our joyful response, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” Even if the sermon did not hold our attention there was the happy anticipation of The Sabbath Meal, the supreme dining event of the week.
Anyone attending church with a furrowed brow, downcast eyes, or aloof manner would have been perceived as a pitiful witness to the gracious God we were gathered to praise. Church was a time to set all personal problems aside and focus only on God and in that experience feel strengthened to resume the challenges “left at the door” or waiting until sundown. Yet with the highest motives to plan the Sabbath hours as a series of joyful uplifting activities, life can thwart our best efforts. On Sabbath problems from the week can infiltrate the sacred hours. Misunderstandings, accidents, death can occur. When these happen do we abruptly disengage from worshiping God because we no longer feel happy? When our hearts cry out in sorrow and personal pain must we wait until those feelings subside before we can say we are worshipping?
The Psalms can provide some answers to these questions. The Psalms were songs and poetry used by the Israelites in their worship of God. Soaring passages of praise describing God’s roles as Creator, Redeemer, and Judge gave the Israelites revelations of how intimately God connected with human experience and gave them endless reasons to come before God in deep humility and profound thanksgiving. These themes are just as relevant to Christians today. We no longer have the original melodies of the Psalms but we have the words and can share in this heritage of faith in God marveling at how he works in the life of an individual as well a people.
But there are also a significant number of psalms with a much different tone, psalms that lament human travails and cry to God for deliverance from all varieties of adversity. These laments, whether personal or communal, do not mince words but rather explore headlong, the experience of doubt, impatience, remorse, grief, and anger. Are these laments better described as complaints? Are they mere whining of the “chosen” who have become spoiled by providence? Should we read quickly through these portions to get to the “correct” way to express ourselves to God?
Yet, in each passage above are found these corresponding statements:
These examples reveal the distinct pattern in the Psalms of the shift from need-centered lament to God-centered praise. Sharply contrasted feelings are thus coupled in the worship of God. Strong accusatory statements and bold questions ask whether God is indeed present and has noticed the travails. Then the Israelites answer their own questions by recounting their past history of God’s mercies and promises for future restoration. In all the cries, regardless of the origin of the problem, whether one was a victim or was guilty, in need of mercy or justice, God was the solution. The Israelites knew that lament that rises no higher than complaint of circumstance was limited to human initiative alone. Lament, however, submitted to the grandness and goodness of God opened them to divine interventions beyond imagining.
Psalm 22, considered to be a messianic psalm in its prediction of Jesus’ suffering on the Cross, records the most gripping imponderable lament ever made, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Hebrews adds, ”In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:7,8). Jesus’ faith in the Father did not spare him from suffering but rather sustained him through suffering. In this darkest hour of all time, Jesus modeled the role of lament - being real in our feelings before God and he modeled the role of faith – being confident that God could be trusted in the darkness.
Hannah’s life gives us a story about lament and worship (1 Sam. 1:1-28). She and Pininnah were both married to Elkanah but whereas Pininnah had given birth to many children, Hannah had remained childless for years which was considered a shameful state. Taunted by Pininnah and misunderstood by her husband with his words, “Am I not better than 10 sons?” Hannah had repeatedly appealed to God over the years for resolution but she remained barren.
On the annual family trip to the temple in Shiloh, Hannah, knew she needed to again bring her plight before God. Where could she go to lament her profound sorrow? The place of worship – the temple. There Hannah prayed and wept with such demonstrable angst that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk. His inquiry of her behavior prompted her story of longing and grief. Eli was inspired to tell her to go in peace, that God would grant her petition. Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son she name Samuel. Later, as she had promised, she brought her son to the temple to be dedicated for service to God.
Hannah’s story helps us recognize that we can bring our burdens and our unanswered prayers with us to church. When he invites us to come to him “weary and heavy laden” he is saying to come even if we feel more like crying than smiling. Church is a place to be real with God. Worship embraces both joy and hurt. We worship God when we direct our cries to him with the confidence that he listens, that he can deliver us fromour suffering, but if not, that he will deliver us throughour suffering. God is our Redeemer, the One who has promised us a future redemption from sorrow and sin, but he is also Redeemer in the nitty gritty of everyday life. He blesses the choices we make to take responsibility for actions needed and he strengthens our spirit to face the challenges that remain in our lives.
We do not lose our salvation when we are feeling despondent, hurt, confused, angry. Feeling guilty for these emotions can become a barrier to worship. God wants all these feelings to be a reason to come to him because he alone can offer the forgiveness, the healing, the solace for which our hearts so deeply long. Only God can move our laments into praise.