Do We Distract Ourselves in Worship to Avoid Honesty Before God?

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

Discovery of a Great Old Worship Book

Well, I’ve already deviated from my planned reading list for 2014, but it’s been, so far, a blessed departure from the plans. The more I jam on the themes of the gospel’s relationship to worship, the more I am coming to believe that the psychological aspects of ourselves come to bear on how we approach worship. C. Fitzsimons Allison, a now elderly Episcopal priest, wrote a marvelous book on the intersection of the gospel, worship, and psychology, entitled, Fear, Love, and Worship

Allison talks a lot about how fear is the foundation upon which many of our barriers to engaging in worship get erected. He brilliantly points out:

Perhaps even our day-dreaming during worship, our meal planning or replaying the last three holes in the back nine, is not so much evidence of boredom as an unconscious attempt to hide the nakedness that God seeks to clothe with his love.*

William Willimon wrote similarly:

Even the incessant clearing of throats, whispering, coughing, rattling of gum wrappers, and aimless activity that usually goes on in a congregation on Sunday morning may be a direct, if unconscious, attempt to avoid getting too close to the mystery.**

Worship Squirrels and the Voice of the Law

Worship leaders are often vexed as to why people are so easily distracted and disinterested in worship. Usually discussions about these sorts of things gravitate to issues of cultural conditioning, such as the fact that people need more visuals in a visual age, or, people can only handle things in 7-minute chunks before needing a “commercial.” We are an “A.D.D.” culture, they say, shouting “squirrel!” like the dogs on Pixar’s Up every time a thought bolts across our mind. Or, discussions about worship-distraction revolve around people’s preferences and inability to overcome them.

The above things are true. Those aspects of our cultural conditioning entirely affect our ability to engage with and attend to the service at hand. But I think people like Allison and Willimon are pointing to something deeper which may be at the root of why we give in so easily–fear.

In the words of Paul, championed by the Protestant Reformers, the weight of the Law hangs over us in life, and its heaviness is felt perhaps most accutely in worship. Paul said,

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20, ESV)

This is the “mystery” of God’s holiness of which Willimon speaks, and this is the feeling of exposed nakedness that Allison is addressing. In worship, many times in a deeply subconscious way, when we come near to God, our souls feel His holiness and our unworthiness. It is discomforting, disquieting, and spiritually and psychologically painful. It is like being naked on a platform in the middle of Times Square. 

Our subconscious reacts to this “voice,” the voice of the Law declaring us guilty. And we distract ourselves. “My goodness, the drums are too loud.” “I’m craving a cough drop right about now.” “Boy, the man next to me really needs pitch-correct on his voice.” “What is up with the pastor’s shirt today?” “Someone really needs to address that leaky ceiling tile.” “I hate this song!” “Her prayers are always SO long.” “Are we really going to sing these seven words eleven times?”

I’m not saying that some of these thoughts aren’t legitimate or even worth thinking. But I am saying that they may be evidence of our own subconscious coping mechanisms to give in to hiding from the exposure that the voice of God’s law causes.

Don’t Dull Your Perception of the Gospel

Unfortunately, when this kind of distraction occurs, the gospel is often dulled in its effect. When we get to the point in our services of singing, preaching, and tasting and seeing the good news, it can ring hollow. Here’s why. The gospel is only as glorious to us as our recognition of our need makes it.  The gospel only can be viewed as incredibly high and lofty from the vantage point of a sinner who knows they are in the pit of despair. The light of Christ is brightest when it is set against the darkest backdrop of our blackest sinfulness.

What’s the solution? It is, at least in part, to acknowledge that there should always be a part of worship that is very uncomfortable, and we mustn’t run from it. It is only when we feel the heat of God’s burning holiness that the flood of Christ’s grace becomes relieving. It is only when we allow the Law to rattle us apart that the Gospel’s embrace can embrace us, drawing us together again.

So, does worship make you uncomfortable? Stay there. It’s a good place to be.

*C. Fitzsimons Allison, Fear, Love, and Worship (Seabury: Greenwich, Connecticut, 1962), 20.
**William Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 79.

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