Why is Worship So Happy?

It’s go time. Get your game face on. Pump yourself up. Smile big. We’re heading into church service. The music will swell and rise, hands will rise with it, voices that can scant be heard over the band will be lifted, and faces will turn to the rafters. Everywhere we look we see smiling, enraptured faces. This is a celebration.

But what about those of us used all our energy and emotional reserves just to get there and all we have left is enough to slump in a seat? Life just hurts. It’s a burden to great to bear and definitely too painful and ungainly to lift to the heavens with a smile on our faces.

Most people hurt. They are exhausted, grieving, dry, overwhelmed, empty, or some combination of the above. Westley famously said in The Princess Bride “Life is pain.” That may be overstating a bit, but life is certainly full of pain our culture cannot deal with. We seek therapies of all kinds from substance to distraction to sex to religion. For many people church is that therapy – the smiling place of happy songs. But we don’t need happiness therapy; we need balm. The thumping beat and crescendoing chorus doesn’t get us on our feet. It drives us deeper in our seats.

Proverbs 25:20 says that happy songs sung to a heavy heart are like stealing a garment on a cold day or pouring vinegar on a wound. They don’t help – they exacerbate the problem. Rather than lifting spirits they simply delineate the gap between out broken spirits and the gladness of others. Trying to comfort the grieving or empty with happy songs makes about as much sense as having toasts and dancing at a funeral.

We must make room for life’s pain in our worship, not make light of it. We must do it in tone and content, in song and liturgy (I know this word makes Baptists nervous. No need – at its simplest it means the structure and ceremonies of worship.) The Bible is full of pain, of living with it and enduring it and finding hope in the midst of it. But hope is not the same thing as happiness. Hope is a reason to keep plodding and hold on to faith. Hope doesn’t always smile; it just refuses to die. So we need to stop pushing for smiles and become dealers in real, genuine, Psalmic hope in the midst of life’s misery.

We need more “It is Well With My Soul” which sings of “when sorrow like sea billows roll” and “though Satan should buffet; though trials should come.”

We need more “We Rest on Thee” which sings of “our own great weakness feeling.”

We need more “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” which sings that ‘Thou changest not; thy compassions they fail not.”

We need more “There is a fountain” proclaiming that “redeeming love has been my theme and shall be ‘til I die.”

This is not a call for a stylistic return to hymns of old but rather a plea for deep, biblical, profound response to people’s sadness. There is no place for sadness in worship today, yet that is what many people bear with them. How can we jump and clap and smile with a burden on our shoulders and stabbing pain in our hearts? The Bible is bigger than happiness and deeper than smiles. It runs deep and flows red. Can we tap into the deeper currents of hope to balance out the happy?