Suffering: The Elephant in the Sanctuary

Zac HicksCulture, Personal Stories & Testimonies, Worship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought2 Comments

What does slap-happy, pump-you-up worship do?  (1) It makes you feel great for a moment.  (2) It marginalizes those who are suffering. 

If all we’re interested in as worship leaders is planning a worship service that has the spiritual effect of being a “holy pep talk,” we’ve done a great disservice to the body of Christ.  But, oh, is it tempting.  There have been several times in my past where I’ve sold out to what I knew would give me positive feedback.  I had planned a set of fast, happy, and at least partially superficial songs.  It sure makes you feel great as a worship leader when everyone is engaged and comes away energized and excited. 

But when that kind of worship is the people’s diet week in and week out, you really leave very little room for the processing of pain in the presence of God.  In fact, sufferers who are exposed to those types of worship environments can often turn inward and ask, “What’s wrong with me?  I don’t feel like everyone else.”  They begin to wonder if the life they experience matches the Christian expression they see in their local assembly.  One of two results occurs.  Either they become incredibly disenchanted with their local church’s Sunday worship, or they become disenchanted with themselves, their faith, or (worse yet) THE faith.  Either way, when worship does not leave room for sufferers to connect with God in their pain and in the context of the corporate community, they begin to feel like they don’t belong.  Let it be clear.  Every Sunday, there’s a big elephant in the sanctuary, and the elephant needs some attention.

I was encouraged to see Worship Together’s recent blog post on suffering and trial.  I was further encouraged by a recent issue of Worship Leader magazine, whose focus was on pain and suffering.  This was not always the case.  CCM worship avoided the topic like it was the devil, and our churches did, too.  (I’m recalling that the famous chorus of the 1990’s, “As the Deer,” [as great as the song is] stripped Psalm 42 of all its lamentation.)  The problem with avoiding suffering is that we may, in a backhanded way, communicate that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has nothing powerful to say about suffering.  We may be neutering the glory of the good news by truncating its full-orbed message of healing and restoration.  In doing so we may be communicating not even a partial Gospel, but a false one.

What are some practical ways our worship can make room for the experience of the sufferer?

1) Select songs which give voice to the sufferer’s cry.  “Blessed Be Your Name” (Matt & Beth Redman) is now a codified modern evangelical hymn, and I’m glad.  Its text makes room for the sufferer’s experience.  Keith & Kristyn Getty’s call to worship song “Come, People of the Risen King” also does this, inviting the joyful as well as the sufferers to enter into worship.  “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” (an old hymn to new music, redone by Indelible Grace) links our suffering with the suffering of Christ, powerfully providing hope to the sufferer.  Our version of Frances Ridley Havergal’s forgotten hymn “Light After Darkness” is one that I would also recommend.  It sets suffering in an eschatological light.

2) Make room in your Confession of Sin for sufferers to express themselves.  A few blog posts ago, I argued that Confession should be about much more than personal sin.  It should also be about global, structural sin–the brokenness of society.  It can take the form of a lament.  It can become a more broad “Confession of Need.”  When you set Confession in those kinds of Isaiah 53 terms, you make room for the sufferer’s confession of need and brokenness.

3) Utilize Psalms of lament.  It’s an ironic travesty that the only inspired and infallible hymnbook, the Psalms, is filled with lament, but those psalms or sections of psalms are rarely used by evangelicals in corporate worship.  Sure, they feel weird.  And sure, many people who are in a current state of blessedness and peace don’t identify with the reading or singing of a lament psalm.  But what about all those sufferers who had been singing about God’s “blessed peace” who really don’t feel that way?  The Psalms of lament can be their songs for that Sunday.  They can be read, prayed, and/or sung.

4) Craft your prayers with sufferers in mind.  Perhaps it’s as simple as, in your prayer, identifying the different types of people who are in the room.  “Lord, some of us are feeling [x].  Help us know the hope we have in the Gospel.”  Perhaps it’s being even more overt than that…you can just flat out pray for those who are hurting.  You can pray for God’s healing hand and comforting presence to be sensed, felt, and known right in the middle of the service.

If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them.  The elephant needs a voice.

2 Comments on “Suffering: The Elephant in the Sanctuary”

  1. Good reminder Zac. Ironically, I have been accused of the opposite. People have said that my songs are too depressing and focus too much on sin and death. I would be fine if every Sunday all we ever sang was "Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy."

    Blesses Be Your Name is the happiest sounding song I do, and really the words are quite Jobian. (Is that a word?)

  2. Zac, this is great stuff. Not enough people are talking about this.

    A few months ago Keller posted a great article on the Redeemer City to City website about issues facing the Church in the West and how we need to address them. He made a great point about how we in the West have, because of our prosperity and lack of suffering, come to really believe that it is God’s job to give us a safe and happy life. In other words, we have lost our grip on a good theology of suffering.

    Keller points us to the Church in the third world to help us develop a good theology of suffering. As someone who has been a missionary in third world contexts, I think he is right. I think, too, that Christians of past centuries, who lived in cultures which had not so effectively eradicated physical pain and visible suffering as our has, have much to teach us about how to wrestle with pain and darkness. That’s one reason why at my church we tend to gravitate to old hymn texts.

    Further, I think we need to push for newly written songs to do more than simply mention suffering. I think it’s great that a song might have a phrase in it that seeks to include both those who are feeling good and those who aren’t. But we need songs that will go further than that and actually give us language and theology to wrestle with doubt, struggle, pain, and darkness.

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