When life is tough, worshipping God can be the last thing we feel like doing. But is there a way through?

Though the fig-tree does not bud / and there are no grapes on the vines / though the olive crop fails / and the fields produce no food / though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls / yet I will rejoice in the LORD / I will be joyful in God my Saviour. Habakkuk 3:17-18

Claire slips into the service ten minutes late and stands at the back so she doesn’t have to speak to anyone. It hasn’t always been like this. Once upon a time, she and her husband were the life and soul of the church, had an open home to anyone who needed a meal, and led The Marriage Course. Eight months ago, he was killed in a car accident. Exhausted by the grief, Claire finds her only coping mechanism is to withdraw. So she goes through the motions – mainly to avoid the concerned looks of the congregation – but her heart and mind are elsewhere.

Trevor is in charge of the visuals tonight, and as always he busies himself with the technicalities of the job to avoid engaging in worship. The vast divide between the exultant singing and the way he feels makes him believe that it’s hypocritical, wrong even, to join in. When he looks back at his life, he can’t really work out how it came to this – middle-aged, few friends, unmarried, and a dead-end job. He has found it harder and harder to form meaningful relationships; he knows other people find him awkward to be around, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. Instead, he has resigned himself to a life of loneliness.

Alana’s too angry with God to join in praising him. This week, her parents’ divorce was finalised and her father, the biggest influence on her faith, has moved away to live with another woman. As the worship gets under way, the anger gives way to pain and she leans against the pillar and sobs. She feels betrayed by everyone, including God. These unexpected bouts of emotion during sung worship leave her feeling disconcerted and embarrassed – it’s really not the done thing at church, but she can’t seem to stop it.

It’s not just the three of them. As the third chorus of ‘How Great is Our God’ thunders its way to a triumphant crescendo across the church, eyes are closed and arms are raised, but some hearts are struggling.

Whatever the source of heartache might be in our own lives, we are all familiar with the tension of worshipping when it hurts. InThe Shack, William P Young calls it The Great Sadness – the ache of life not being as it should in some area or other – and it is a heavy thing to bear. Niceties, sympathetic looks and upbeat songs fall short of touching the void, and can leave us feeling isolated, empty and hopeless. It can be the most difficult thing in the world to worship at times like this.

As anyone who has carried a ‘Great Sadness’ will understand, there are no quick fixes, straightforward steps to instant healing, or ways to guarantee an ‘intact’ spiritual life on the other side of a crisis. But as God himself is familiar with pain and suffering, how can we connect with him in our darkest hours? The following perspectives may shed some light on our most common misconceptions about worship as we navigate our way through times of trial.

Worship is Costly

My suspicion is that much of the disconnectedness we can feel during worship is due to a misunderstanding about what it actually is. You don’t have to be full of joy to do it. In fact, it is not reliant on feelings at all. Worship is an affirmation of who God is, and that doesn’t change, whatever our circumstances. But it doesn’t necessarily come easily. True worship requires sacrifice.

In Genesis 22, the costly nature of worship and obedience to God is painted starkly. God tells Abraham to go to Mount Moriah and build an altar to worship him, taking his son, Isaac, and presenting him as the offering. As they reach the altar, Isaac says to his father: ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ In other words, ‘Everything appears to be in place, but where’s the sacrifice?’ That is always the key question when it comes to real and meaningful worship: ‘Therefore, I urge you...in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship’ (Romans 12:1).

Sometimes in our worship meetings, the ‘fire’ and the ‘wood’ are there – everything outwardly appears to be in place, and we think we’re set for ‘great worship’; a talented music team, perhaps, and an inspiring speaker. But something is missing. In our worship, we need to ask the same question that Isaac did: where is the sacrifice?

When we hurt, we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances, desperate only for answers or some relief. Often, so consumed by the horror of our crisis, we feel drained and empty, with nothing left to give. And this is when worship is costly, because it requires us to give out. But worship was never meant to be comfortable. The Bible refers to it as a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15). We sacrifice our own feelings, and put to death our self-ness, because worship was never intended to be for us; it is not meant to make us feel better, or to fit our own personal tastes. It is about something bigger than that.

In fact, proof of our faith in God is not seen in the times when life is rosy, but in the times of testing and trial. Job 13:15 is a powerful statement that Job gives in the midst of enormous difficulty: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.’ In other words, ‘Whatever the circumstances are, I will keep faith with God.’

‘There is no answer to the suffering in Job, but it does present us with Job, the hero of the story who keeps faith with God, in spite of the lack of answers,’ says Rev Greg Downes, director of LST’s Centre for Missional Leadership.

Worship is costly, but it is never forced on us. It is an act of will, a decision about how to respond. Church leader John Pallant recalls: ‘When my brother died, there would be split moments of decision: whether to fall into the arms of God with all of my questions, disappointment and grief, or to fall into the arms of the next nearest comfort, whatever that might have been. You have to make a decision beforehand that the first choice is your only viable option, and then to fall on God as heavily as you need to.’

‘Whether we sing looking back over our past, or in view of all that may unfold in the future, there is a price tag attached – an intense fusion of trust, abandonment, and ultimately, sacrifice,’ writes worship leader Matt Redman in his book Facedown. He wrote ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ with his wife, Beth. ‘When writing this song, I began to realise that it was a song with a cost,’ he says. ‘These are words you cannot sing lightly, for the price is too high if you do not believe them. Since writing [it] we’ve had letters from people struggling with some of the harshest life circumstances I’ve ever come across. And whether they face the grief of loneliness or the aftermath of abuse, all of these worshippers have one thing in common. They are choosing to turn their faces to Jesus and say, “Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name.”’

Worship isn’t always ‘happy’

Most of us are not used to living with pain, or comfortable with the idea of it. ‘We live in a unique culture,’ says Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan. ‘Every other society before ours has been more reconciled to the reality that life is full of sorrow. We are the first culture to be surprised by suffering.’

Our Western 21st century make-up is deeply alarmed by pain. Often our automatic response is to question where God is in the midst of it. Like Job’s friends who suggest all kinds of theories to explain his suffering, we ask ourselves the same thing when one thing after another goes wrong: ‘This is not right. Either there is no God, or God is not with me. He can’t be with me, or this wouldn’t be happening to me.’ Our simple equation brings us to the conclusion that God and our pain don’t mix well.

While bringing pain before God is entirely consistent with the gospel – think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane – we tend to avoid being real with God. ‘I wonder if we can have a mentality of presenting ourselves to God in worship when we feel presentable,’ suggests songwriter and worship leader Martyn Layzell. ‘It’s rather like hiring a cleaner and then tidying up your house before they arrive so that they might think you are cleaner than you really are. God calls us to worship in spirit and truth. I believe that God wants us to be honest before him and present ourselves warts and all.’

The question of what constitutes ‘authentic worship’ can sometimes be a distraction, observes songwriter David Gate, a member of the worship team at Holy Trinity, Cheltenham: ‘Many people can’t stand what they perceive to be “fake worship” – when people sing and praise even though they may not believe every word they are singing. But in the absence of “authentic” worship, there are two possible responses – to not worship, or to worship anyway.’ Dr Mark Stibbe, founder of Father’s House Trust, adds: ‘Worship is, of course, more than singing. Worship is a choice more than a feeling. We choose to worship the Father in spite of our circumstances, not because of them. We can choose to become bitter or better in times of pain. And the choice is ours.’

Although our biblical ancestors found it much more natural to involve God in their pain, our modern collection of worship songs may not help us to connect with God in times of difficulty. ‘One of the things that I regret is that there are very few songs of lament in our modern hymnody, especially in modern charismatic evangelical churches,’ says Greg Downes. ‘Songs of lament were very much part and parcel of Jewish spirituality; we see them echo throughout the Psalms and Lamentations. The passages do not equate struggle and devastation with the absence of God, which tends to be our modern response; they bring themselves before God, and seek his presence in the midst of it. I remember being in church the Sunday after September 11th. The world was reeling, we had horrific images of suffering on the television, but the following Sunday, a lot of the hymnody didn’t fit the mood. The “Jesus, Jesus, I’ll be happy every day” praise and worship was discordant with what had happened.’

‘In the book of Psalms particularly, we find a whole plethora of worshipful response to God even in the midst of suffering, sorrow and sadness,’ agrees Martyn Layzell. ‘Unlike the Psalms, often as worship leaders and songwriters we’ve not given our congregations a wide enough palette of expression from which they can worship. I wonder if occasionally our contemporary worship can become a little narrow in theology, light in doctrine and creatively bland. We need to serve our brothers and sisters by providing them with the creative tools to worship God through the full spectrum of life’s experience. We need to therefore think carefully about our repertoire and our sources for new songs.

‘Much of our worship, I would suggest, is neither truthful nor Spirit-filled,’ he continues. ‘The challenge, I suspect, is more about the forum of our corporate gatherings, which often doesn’t provide the space for people to truthfully and authentically respond to God the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. In order for people to become fully undone before him, there needs to be an appropriate time given. If the Church worshipped in Spirit and truth, I wonder if our services would look radically different to how they are currently.’

We should not be afraid to bring pain before God in worship – that is how it’s supposed to be. Something powerful happens when we invite God into our situations. His transforming power is able to breathe through the broken rubble we can offer him, beginning to rebuild and bring about change. Psalm 100 says that we ‘Enter his gates with thanksgiving’ (v4). Thanksgiving brings us into the manifest presence of God, and connects us with what he is doing and saying in the midst of our circumstances. In those times, we can choose to invite God to be at work in us and the situation we find ourselves in, or to shut him out. If we let him, God is able to use our suffering in ways we could never imagine, so that our testimony might be as Joseph’s was: ‘God has made me fruitful in…my suffering’ (Genesis 41:52).

Worship accomplishes far more than we realise. Something profound happens in us when we choose to trust God in the midst of pain; a refining and a transformation takes place, changing us a little bit more into the likeness of Christ.

Worship gives us a glimpse of heaven

When something awful happens, the illusion that we are in control of our own lives shatters. It might not feel like it, but this realisation is very good for our long term perspective. Pippa Maughan, an artist from Devon, recalls: ‘When I feel utterly powerless to control everything I’d like to in the here and now, remembering that with God I can make responses and decisions that will count in eternity feels like a huge relief. In fact, it feels like the only, silver lining when life crumbles around me. When the world appears something of a dark hole, the brightness of the promise of redemption is all the more beautiful.’

Without realising it, our most natural default position is to prioritise our own happiness, reputation and future; we generally spend most of our time doing the things that please us. We are at the centre of things, and God is there to make us happy. We inadvertently turn ourselves into God, and God into our servant. Worship is essential in reminding us that it is not about us, and that this world is not all there is.

God longs to have men and women who are vessels to shine his light and bring glory to him. We tend to put ourselves right at the centre of God’s salvation plan but, in fact, God is the one at the centre. Counsellor and sometime Christianity columnist Mary Pytches sees Paul’s experience of suffering as marking a unique change of perspective: ‘He doesn’t try to super spiritualise his suffering. He turns into a two-dimensional person. In the world, he knows that he has nothing at all, but he’s so aware of the kingdom. In times of suffering, we need to become twodimensional and see the kingdom. This takes discipline, and that’s where the secret lies – in living a life of praise. We need to put on our kingdom glasses.’

But what does that mean? Tim Keller suggests it has to do with hope: ‘Our hope is the new heaven and the new earth. Our future hope is a restoration of the world and life we’ve always wanted. And that changes everything in regard to suffering. One day, suffering is going to be engulfed and swallowed up. The evil that hurts us now will be the eventual servant of our joy and glory eternally.’

If life is difficult, we may not understand what is happening, and it may seem ‘wrong’ to us. But God wants to be involved in our darkest moments, and it is often in our suffering that we grow in our knowledge of the one who is able to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). We must remember, while ‘weeping may remain for a night’ we have the promise that ‘rejoicing comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5). So we need to trust ourselves to him in our pain, worshipping when we don’t feel like it, in whatever way we feel able – in songs, reading psalms, or in the silence of our own broken hearts – believing that ultimately, because of who he is, all will be well.

In this way, through our suffering, as we raise our gaze to focus on the kingdom, we can really begin to know true kingdom hope, shining in the darkness.