Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
DEUTERONOMY 6:4-5 (ESV)
Have you ever been in a church service and felt off? Perhaps you’ve stood quietly discouraged as others were moved, listened as voices stretched to breaking points, watched as tears streamed down faces, all the while wondering what part of you was missing that could enable such a response. Maybe it wasn’t lack in this case. Maybe it was the presence of something heavy in your life. Despair, worry, pride, sin. Whatever the cause, the symptoms in moments like this are undeniable. We feel disconnected. We feel insufficient. In a room full of people we somehow feel alone.
This is not how worship is supposed to be. The worship we see illustrated in the Bible is vibrant and faithful and emotional and thoughtful. It is lifted by the swelling of God’s manifest presence. It is participative and deeply communal. Most of all, it is authentic.
That’s usually the part that stings the most. Try as we might in these moments we cannot make the feeling of worship happen. We can’t seem to generate a sense of proximity to God. And the more we try, the less authentic we feel. It all seems like a show, our bodies responding more to fit in than to pour out. We cannot escape this reality: in the house of God there is no “fake it ‘til you make it.” We find that we cannot make this life of worship fulfilling on our own. There is no perfect formula or thought or emotional response to sanctify our devotion, to make it real. God is relational. He is never transactional.
In his book, For the Glory of God, Daniel Block notes that the Hebrew words God uses in His command in Deuteronomy (known as the Shema) point to three distinct arenas of worship: internal, external, and contextual. This word we translate here as “heart” was a Hebrew word for “inner being,” for the seat of our thoughts and feelings and attitude. Worship from a heart after God responds with faith and fear, fostering trust and obedience, and pours out from there. Before it can be “incarnated” in a physical response, devotion to God is an internal reality.
How does one love the Lord with all her heart, as He commands? When her emotions seem disconnected and her thoughts corrupted, does she “force” it? I believe we respond best in these moments in two ways. We reset expectations, and we seek God.
We talk often in church about when worship “breaks out,” about services where something was different, where the singing seemed extra powerful or the sermon felt uniquely moving. Perhaps we should reconsider our language.
These moments are certainly great gifts, beautiful manifestations of our devotion, but all they can ever be to us are signs. These will always be reflections of a deeper reality. When we come to worship chasing a feeling we often find we have skipped the first step. As we stall out in a church service, perhaps God is telling us it’s time to restart our engine. The truest worship, the kind we most desire, should really be a breaking in, a strike deep into the center of who we are. That’s where worship starts, and only God can turn that key.
In some ways, being with God should be an uncomfortable experience. He is holy. We are not. Worship is not a meeting of two parties on equal footing. It is a bowing down. It is a desperate soul finding joy in the lavish grace of an omnipotent God. We shouldn’t be so quick to shake off a sense of need. Sometimes the discomfort reminds us that we are still alive, that for all the world has taken from us it has not removed our hunger. It’s in these moments, when we feel like we’re fighting off the lies of loneliness and inadequacy, that we can be most honest with God. This is the kind of worship that honors Him, that trusts Him, that waits on Him, that loves Him with a whole heart, empty and eager to be filled.
God I confess my restlessness. How often do I wave off your guiding hand as distraction or discomfort? How often do I see Your invitations to draw near as problems to solve? Renew in me a desire to worship from a heart that hungers after You alone. Be my focus today. Break into my thoughts and emotions and desires so I might enter joyfully the day you have set before me. AMEN.
Take note of the moments or experiences when God feels far today. As the feelings of loneliness or absence tempt to distract you, remember that He sees and hears You. In prayer, turn your anxiousness to hunger and watch how God responds.