When I don’t want to worship…

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to preach to our whole congregation at Sunset Church. While at other times I might consider this a privilege, the past week in preparation felt more like torture. A large reason was because I was assigned the dreaded text of Romans 9. While I was fairly confident in my ability to teach the text and handle the issue of predestination, God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, God’s remaining goodness, and all the other paradoxical questions tied up with the topic, I was pulling my hair trying to figuring out how such a passage could relate to me and my church. But as hard a task as it was to prepare a sermon on this passage, the harder task was preparing while feeling in distress and distant from God.
Last week marked my third week of living in San Francisco after moving from the Orange County in Southern California, starting full-time as a pastor at my church. Between settling down into a new home, unpacking, healing from the flu, adjusting to foggy, it-feels-like-winter-everyday weather in SF (from sunny, it-feels-like-vacation-everyday weather in SoCal, mind you), and beginning the long-distance phase of my relationship with my girlfriend, sermon prep was the last thing on my mind. After about the fourth straight day of not seeing the sun (and waking up in weather that made getting out of bed feel like the death sentence), missing girlfriend and friends back “home”, and feeling overwhelmed and anxious about Romans 9, I found myself questioning God’s faithfulness, His sovereignty, and mostly His goodness to me.

Sunday came, anxiety piled up, words came stumbling out of my unprepared mouth, and I sat down after preaching Romans 9 feeling half-relieved, half-wondering what just happened, and wholly still realizing that my circumstances had not changed one bit; it was still just as foggy as it had been 6 days earlier, my community of the past 8 years was still 425 miles away, and my girlfriend was a 7-hour drive away.

The worship team started playing their response song after I had sat down, “God You Reign.” But instead of joining in and singing after preaching a message about God’s faithfulness, sovereignty, and goodness, my initial thought was, “Clark, you can’t sing this in good faith; you’re still in distress. How can you joyfully sing when your heart is still troubled?” After asked to stand by our worship leader, I still stood there, lips motionless, wondering what to do. If I sing, I’m just giving non-genuine lip service to God; if I don’t, the church will see a pastor who is not worshipping.

But then I remembered the words of David in Psalm 103, how he commanded his soul to “Bless the LORD, O my soul,” and to “forget not all his benefits” (whether or not David was actually in a time of distress is uncertain, but we can speculate that the fact that he had to tell his soul to bless the LORD, and remember that he “heals all your diseases” may indicate a time when David was not already blessing the Lord in in his soul). I remembered the words of the psalmist in Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you…”

As I considered the psalms, I realized that sometimes I have to tell my heart what to do. Sometimes, my heart isn’t going to burst out in joyful chorus to God. Sometimes, I’ll feel that there’s no reason whatsoever to praise God. And when those times come, I have to sing – not only to God, but to my own heart to remember God’s faithfulness.

Almost reluctantly, I raised my hand and began singing along with our church, “God You reign, forever and ever…” Nothing had changed about my circumstances in that quick, 1-minute exchange with myself; God had not given me a divine message or prophecy that things would get better in the coming days or weeks. But as I sang to my heart that God indeed reigns, my circumstances stopped seeming so big. As I told myself to rest in a sovereign God, my worship of him was no longer reluctant, but necessary.

Worshipping God when circumstances seem bleak may not be our first response. Singing to him in trials may even be the last thing on our minds. But when circumstances arise that cause us to question God and his goodness (“when” not “if”), we need to remind ourselves to hope in God as the psalmist did. We need to command our hearts to rejoice in the God who remains sovereign and good. We need to sing to ourselves of the benefits and blessings of living for a God who is living and reigning over all things.

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” – Psalm 103:1

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