In light of the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, we went back and re-discovered this article from Worship Leader’s September 07 issue.
On the Sunday morning following the tragic shootings at Northern Illinois University earlier this year, I decided to abandon the typically peppy call to worship that I had planned. This wasn’t a hard decision, by any means. The daughter of one of my praise team members had been in the classroom when the gunman opened fire, and she, like hundreds of other students, had had to crawl to safety in the midst of the chaos. The collective spirit among the assembled that morning was somber, questioning, even fearful—grieving with this family and with the other local families that had lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. How do we lead young people in worship after they have experienced such tragedy?
Pain in the Offering
Like the displaced Israelites suffering in Babylonian captivity, we were, that morning, understandably tempted to ask, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord” in the “strange land” of our grief and confusion (Psalm 137:4)? Was there any place at all for worship when every single one of us was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care”? My theological training told me the answer was “yes,” but I didn’t have as quick an answer for how to translate that truth, how to make some sense of that which made no sense.
We began our worship with the songbook of all songbooks, for the psalms not only give us permission to feel sad, but also to question, even to be angry. Certainly our omniscient Father knows how we feel anyway (Psalm 139:1). The Incarnate Jesus—fully God and fully man—experienced similar kinds of feelings (John 11:34-36; Matt. 27:46; Luke 22:42). And the Holy Spirit would not be referred to as “the Comforter” (John 14:16, KJV) if there were never anything for us to be comforted about.
Be that as it may, many Christians adapt a stoic response to suffering, as if sadness, doubt, or anger is somehow a sign of an immature faith or a lack of trust—i.e., since we have a sovereign God, He must have been okay with whatever event caused us this suffering, so the sooner we get on with the task of living our victorious Christian life the better.
In my previous ministry, one of the staff members lost her twenty-something daughter to Marfan Syndrome, a cruel disease that attacked the connective tissue surrounding her heart. A few months later, I asked her how she was coping, and I’ll never forget her response: “I have my good days and my bad days, of course,” she said. “But the hardest part of all this has not been losing my daughter; I know she’s with the Lord. The hardest part has been my Christian friends wondering why I haven’t gotten over this yet, why I haven’t gotten on with my life.”
To be sure, Robert Webber famously wrote that worship is a verb, but for those in the throes of painful circumstances, it’s often a verb in the future perfect tense. Like Job, by the time many suffering souls come to the end of their crisis, turmoil, or struggle, they will have, somewhere along the way, found the capacity for worship. But it’s definitely not—or shouldn’t be—a knee-jerk reaction; worship is not the obvious, immediate offspring of suffering. Hanging on the cross, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No cheap, “Praise-the-Lord-anyway” sentiment there.
Still, the fact that worship and suffering can be linked at all is rather remarkable. Eugene Peterson, in his masterful introduction to the book of Job in The Message, writes, “Perhaps the greatest mystery in suffering is how it can bring a person into the presence of God in a state of worship, full of wonder, love, and praise. Suffering does not inevitably do that, but it does it far more often than we would expect.” Why?
In the Thick
There seems to be something inherent in the process of experiencing pain that helps us “experience God” (to use the evangelical vernacular of recent years), whether or not we make a conscious decision initially to ask God to fill the vacuum in our lives that the suffering creates. The fourth chapter of 1 Peter tells us that when believers suffer, at some basic level they share in the sufferings of Jesus. The text, apparently, offers no choice: If you’re suffering, you’re going to end up “in the very thick of what Christ experienced” (Peterson’s rendering of verse 13).
Of course the disciples often serve as reminders that the transformation from theory to practice isn’t always smooth sailing. Mark 6:45-52 tells the story of Jesus walking on the water, and the NIV uses the word “terrified” to describe the reaction of the disciples to being in the presence of Jesus that evening. Mike Yaconelli described the disciples’ response in his book Dangerous Wonder:
“The disciples had been with Jesus for two years. They had seen miracles, healings and people brought back from the dead, and still they were terrified when they saw Him on the water…. But in the midst of their terror they heard Jesus whisper, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’… and then He climbed into the boat with them. What did the disciples do then? Matthew tells us they worshiped Him…. Their worship was a direct result of their experience with Jesus in the dark. Now the disciples knew Jesus even better. They understood now, but only now, that when life gets dark, when we are alone, we aren’t alone. Jesus Christ is Lord even in the darkness” [emphasis his].
Like the disciples, we often come to know Jesus better in the midst of our dark experiences—and not necessarily because of our personal piety. For like the disciples, we all too often manifest residue of The Fall: pettiness, jealousy, ingratitude. Suffering, in and of itself, doesn’t qualify one for sainthood. And yet, also like the disciples, we soon find ourselves in a spirit of worship more often than the outward circumstances of our lives would seem to warrant. Like the disciples, we acknowledge the presence of the swirling winds and the struggle to keep rowing. But, also like the disciples, when Jesus steps into the midst of our chaos—even when we’re too busy or fatigued or worried or self-absorbed to extend the invitation—we become awestruck in the presence of the Savior of the world.
An admittedly simplistic summary: When believers suffer, they will, at some point in the process, share in Christ’s suffering and, hence, experience God in new and profound ways, which will motivate them, eventually, more often than not, to worship Him. Thus, in spite of what would seem logical, worship frequently is the offspring of suffering, although the gestation period seems to vary from believer to believer. We sense from Paul’s writings that he moved fairly quickly into a spirit of worship in the midst of incarceration and physical abuse. Job and most of the rest of us take a little longer. And some never get there. We don’t know what happened to Jonah after the account of his conversation with God at the end of chapter four, but his self-centered ranting doesn’t seem to reflect an attitude of worship.
But then again, maybe he came around in time. A Bible professor friend of mine once pointed out that immediately preceding the most comforting passage in all of Scripture, Psalm 23, comes a psalm featuring as its opening sentiment the anguished lament with which I decided to begin that service a few days after the tragedy at NIU, in an attempt to help us begin that journey from suffering to worship—that cry of David, which became the cry of Christ on the cross. Sometimes we must permit ourselves (and be permitted by others) to ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” before we come to the place where we can once again say with confidence, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have no other needs.”
May the Lord bless and comfort us during our times of trial. And in the midst of them, may He increase our faith and cause us to worship Him. Amen.
Warren Anderson teaches communication arts and worship arts classes and serves as Dean of the Chapel at Judson University. Anderson is also the Worship Pastor at the Elgin Evangelical Free Church, and he serves on the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine, for which he writes a monthly column and occasional features. Warren has been married to Lea since 1991, and they have two children.