It has been several months since my trip to Rwanda but I’m still chronicling the lessons learned while ministering there. Among them is a lesson about worship and some musing over the extent to which worship is, to borrow a phrase from New Testament studies, “prescriptive or descriptive”. In other words, does worship shape our emotional state (prescriptive) or does it merely reflect the state we’re already in (descriptive)? If I’m sad, should I sing a praise song that will draw me out of my sadness and into the glories of God or should I sing a lament in order cathartically to expunge my darker emotions? Most would conclude that both are important but I observe that by culture or by personality, we tend to emphasize one side or the other. At the very least it is important to be aware of the dynamic.
On the one hand, it is crucial to know that we can come to God as we are and bring our broken emotional selves to the worship experience. There is no gain in feigning happiness. God sees through it. That Christ knows our sorrows from personal experience from his personal trials on earth encourages us to bring them to God with the knowledge that he understands. In the Psalms, David also models a kind of emotional rawness before the Lord that invites us to be ourselves in the presence of God, even when being ourselves is not all happiness and joy.
On the other hand, it is also true that worship is a transformative act. Sometimes, like a child rocking back and forth for just the right moment to step into a whirling jump rope, we simply need to jump in and let the worship take us to an emotional place beyond where we are. Such a leap is an act of submission. I submit my current feelings to the reality I know is true but cannot feel right now. Often the emotional power of the music will help me to bring my emotions in line with what is really true. This, by the way, is the proper use of the emotive power of music. If it brings us out of falseness and into truth, it has served a godly purpose. If, on the other hand, the emotive power of music is used to take us away from truth, the music is serving evil ends.
The other night I was in my kitchen after a particularly difficult day, preparing to tackle the dishes. I put the headphones on and punched in my new favorite jazz album. Immediately there came upon me a strong compulsion to start dancing. (I’ll let you picture what happened next…) As I “did the dishes,” I remember thinking to myself, “there is really no reason for me to be dancing right now, this has been a really difficult day.” Deep down, however, I also knew that God’s goodness was greater in that moment than my struggles. The music helped me connect on an emotional level with what I know to be most real.
The Rwandans I met leaned hard to the worship-as-prescriptive side. Out of a suffering many of us in the West have not experienced, they routinely explode in raucous singing and dancing that, to my perception, is carefree, selfless and nearly entirely on the joyful exuberance side of the continuum. Their worship is a kind of rebellion against the darkness of this world. And that is the truth of the gospel!
At the end of the day, it might be wise for us to look to David the Psalmist as our guide. David does not merely go to lament, he almost always goes through lament to praise in the Psalms. Failure to lament is spiritually unhealthy. At the same time, we (self-focused Americans) need to be careful not to “relish” the negative place we may find ourselves in. Though it might be descriptive, worship has a prescription for it.