While I seldom get any feedback after I lead worship songs at church, many years ago someone came up to me right after the service and asked in earnest: “Next time could we sing something that’s, er… more joyful?”
I asked him what made him say that, and he reminded me I had just led the congregation in singing a “sad song.” It was a song about repenting of our self-centeredness and desiring to worship God for who He is. But to him, this did not constitute “joyful worship.”
Since then, over the years I’ve heard this oft-repeated mantra claiming that “worship must be joyful or it’s not worship.” But what they really mean usually comes down to how exuberant one feels after a time of singing praise songs employing major scales, vibrant-sounding chord progressions, perhaps accompanied by grandiose instrumentation. I find this very troubling, because not only does this project a diminished view of what “worship” is, but also a diminished view of what “joy” is. I fear we’ve been blinded by our feel-good culture and a world accustomed to postmodern reductionist thinking, because many have reduced the measure of “worship” only to this so-called “joy” that’s not even close to true joy.
We need a more comprehensive understanding of “worship”
Most Christians acknowledge that “worship is not just singing,” but few understand how they worship God (or fail to worship God) in all of life, because there’s been a lack of proper teaching about the essence of worship.
In short, worship is our response to who God is and what God has done. We worship when we acknowledge God as God and that we are not, and when we acknowledge His infinite qualities while admitting our total dependence on Him in our finitude. We worship when we plead our case before God in humility and brokenness because only He can do the impossible in our lives, and also when we receive grace from Him with a heart of gratitude. Our response to Him could be in the form of direct communication, for example, in singing or praying or crying out to God. But our response can also be lived out, when our lives reflect and testify that He is Lord, for example, as we serve others in love and in attributing glory to God, or as we endure suffering for the sake of the cross of Jesus.
Because worship is so rich and so comprehensive, we cannot limit it to joy, although joy is one element of it. So while it’s true that Psalm 33:1-3 asks us to worship God in joyful singing and shouting, Psalm 32:5-6 asks us to acknowledge God as the merciful Lord as we come to Him with a heart of repentance. Also consider Psalm 22:23 which asks us to glorify God in a spirit of awe and reverence, and Psalm 71:4-6 which declares trust and hope in God in the midst of suffering and difficult circumstances.
If we claim that worship must be exclusively joyful and must not include tears and crying and sorrow, we’ve turned ourselves into Eli the priest, who mistook Hannah to be a drunken women even though she was actually pouring out her heart to the God who hears her (see 1 Samuel 1:13).
We need a more abundant pursuit of “joy”
But even more seriously, we’ve shortchanged the abundant joy that the Bible speaks of. Joy should not be primarily conjured during times of singing in church as a result of manipulative “worshipful experiences” with the aid of lighting and music and lyrics.
Many of us are familiar with 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 which says:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
… but did you know that the verbs “rejoice” and “pray” and “give thanks” here are actually plural verbs in Greek? In context, Apostle Paul was asking the church to rejoice together, as well as pray and give thanks together. And the reason for the terseness of the language is because it’s a summary of what Paul had said earlier in the same letter, where in 1 Thessalonians 3:8-10 Paul expressed his heartfelt longing toward the believers in Thessalonica:
For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
… so the joy and prayer and thanksgiving that Paul was talking about was intimately connected to his desire to see the believers in Thessalonica face-to-face, so that they could be able to encourage each other.
You see, our usual understanding of “joy” is too individualistic; if you really want “joyful worship” you could just watch worship song videos on YouTube all day long. But we need to recover the joy that Paul spoke of. It’s a type of joy that happens in the midst of fellow Christ-followers, not something you can get sitting in front of YouTube. It’s a more costly type of joy, yet at the same time a more rewarding type of joy, because there are times when you don’t feel like going to church, but you know you’re going there not to make yourself happy, but to be a part of the joy among the community of believers as you mutually “supply what is lacking in your faith.”
No wonder James also connects joy with “the testing of your faith,” a phrase that sounds painful and yet James 1:2-3 declares to his “brothers”:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
One of my most favorite movies is “Inside Out,” because (spoiler alert?) it helps us understand that joy is not just born out of happy feelings, but a fuller joy can emerge out of times of sadness. I hope fellow Christians can take this lesson to heart as well.
Ultimately we should know that joy cannot be manufactured artificially, but it’s an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, which implies that joy does not come from a “religious transaction” but an organic maturing relationship with the Holy Spirit, where the growth of joy must also happen as we grow in patience and faithfulness and self-control as well. So in closing, it’s good to remind ourselves of Galatians 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.