Good worship is really a form of prayer. This has been a relatively recent revelation to me. I am talking about worship as in singing songs of adoration and praise to God. And over the years since I have been unwell it has gradually (oh so gradually, because I am perhaps a bit slow!) dawned on me that prayer can be entwined with private worship.
Worship and prayer are not so separate as I have sometimes thought of them. We can pray during worship and use worship music as a tool to help us pray. As long as it’s the right sort of worship music.
Imagine two different scenarios. First, someone decides to pray. They sit down or maybe kneel. And begin, feeling awkward, and unsure what to say. Perhaps, if they remember, they then turn to the model of prayer Jesus gave us. But spiritually they feel dry. It feels unatural. And before they know it out comes a prayer list, and if they are not careful the prayer time becomes simply an opportunity to worry out-loud. “Oh God please don’t let me lose my job. Oh God please help my sick relative not to get worse. Oh God please don’t let me catch the flu this week as I have that big thing I need to do….” There is absolutely nothing wrong with presenting our requests to God. But without the element of worship, without intimacy, without faith, without love, without the Holy Spirit, and without good truthful content, our prayers become dry and ineffective. To be honest this is a very reasonable description of much of my own attempts at praying over the years.
I think it is not helped because many of us evangelicals despise liturgy and assume that we have to always make up our own prayers. And to be honest, we are often not very creative! But then throw in a major crisis in your life and faith, such as facing a disease like cancer, and well for me at least that made the whole problem even worse. There are only so many times you can cry out “help!” And often there are emotions you just don’t know how to express.
In a previous post I mentioned how the psalms can inspire us as we pray. There is raw real emotion in so many of them that show us it is ok to express ourselves to God.
What I have also finally realised is that there is a second way to pray. The person who wants to connect with God in prayer can carve out some space and time to really listen to a carefully selected set of worship songs. As the songs play you can perhaps sing along, perhaps just echo the words in your mind, and then also pray short bursts of words that are inspired by those songs. This is not the same as simply putting music on in the background. It requires focus. It is really a form of meditation.
It is important for the worship songs you choose to be full of truth, but also to match the mood you are in. For example there is nothing so jarring as to be in a moment of quiet desperation before God and then a song comes on which is full of pace and exuberance! I am learning to select songs that pull on the heart and cause emotions to rise to God, and yes maybe mold them a little. Of course you could also take yourself on something of an emotional journey in that time, similar to the way a good worship leader will do with a whole congregation on a Sunday.
I will explain the way I am choosing my own playlist songs in a mini series of blog posts here. I have made most of my playlists public on Spotify. You are welcome to use them, but perhaps the work of selecting appropriate songs and honing the playlists is actually part of the benefit of this whole approach, so maybe you could create your own playlists, perhaps using some of mine as a basis.
We are looking for the emotion and the passion that I believe does stir our souls and spirits, but we are also looking for the truth to cleanse our minds. We want gospel truth to be drip fed into us, and a good worship song does just that.
We want our Spirits to be moved by his Holy Spirit and not merely the music, though the music can definitely help. When Saul was oppressed by a harmful spirit he would ask David to play the harp for him and that bad spirit was driven away by the anointed nature of David’s playing (see 1 Sam 16:23).
Honestly. if our hearts have not been moved and made alive by the Holy Spirit then we are worshipping or praying in vain. We are like a clanging symbol without the love for God that the Holy Spirit wants to stir in us. Some worship songs seem to be aimed to stir our spirits and that are anointed with the Holy Spirit. They must also be truth based or else we risk deceiving ourselves. Without the Spirit as it is often said we dry up, without the Word we blow up!
It is so sad that so many churches, and hence the Christians in them, tend to be either Word-focussed or Spirit-focussed. Why should Charismatic Christians throw out their brains and pursue only an emotional experience of God? Why should Reformed Christians pursue a form of godliness and truth but deny its power, and not pursue the Spiritual relationship with God at all? Jesus demands us to pursue BOTH truth and anointing:
The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.—John 4:23-24
As we allow our prayers to be shaped both by good worship music and Biblical passages we have read, hopefully our prayer becomes more real, more Spirit-filled and more effective. I do not claim to be any sort of expert in this. But I can say that Spotify has become precious to me over many months of struggle. Worship music can move even a anxious cynical soul like mine to tears. It can connect with emotions I am finding hard to express, and give me the words to say to God. I have found that there are many appropriate worship songs with appropriate words to help you reach out to God even when things are really tough. And that stirring of emotions opens the heart to the Holy Spirit, and to receive the truth which sets us free. Of course worship music is not an aim in itself. And yet when we devote ourselves in worship to Jesus it helps us to live. As one modern song says
Waiting outside, my life it calls
So while I’m here I’ll give my all
You are my peace within the storm
Here at the cross I find my home
And of course if we can extend our times of worship from just the corporate to personal times, the goal is also that our whole lives become worship. As we are reminded again and again of what Jesus has done for us, even when we are struggling ourselves we will find ourselves wanting to see what we can do to serve Jesus, follow his example and do things for other people. Piper puts it well as usual:
“What matters is that we see the glory of God in Jesus (truth), and we treasure him above all else (spirit), and then we overflow by treating others with self-sacrificing love for their good. Few things display the beauty of God more. For followers of Jesus, therefore, all of life should be this kind of worship. ” John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World.
Such times of worshipful pryer helps us to orientate our whole lives towards Jesus. We put Him in first place. We realise that he is truly all we need. We find that we are then longing to give what we can back to him, but even that can only be empowered by him. Knowing him is more important than anything else the world can bring. We are called to be building our lives around his infinite worth.
JESUS is the answer. He is our hope. He is our strength. He gave his everything for us and calls us to give our everything for him, denying our own desires to live for him in every moment and every action. He asks us to simply do what it is that he sets before us each day. Do small things that you can rather than pining for something huge. Maybe this one person you will meet today needs you to be kind to them and show them love instead of being a cleaning cymbal. With the help of God’s Spirit we can sometimes get to be a beautiful melody demonstrating the love of Jesus to someone, rather than messing things up and making it worse like we sadly often do. Just maybe God might help you and I to be a blessing to someone who’s life is full of pain and hurt and ugliness. Eternal consequences can potentially flow from every meeting we have.
As I was writing this post my phone rang and by some technical miracle a Christian I don’t know had been somehow pinged by my phone and we spoke on FaceTime. We concluded that somehow God had intended this and spoke some words of encouragement to each other. The Spirit can perform mini miracles to connect you to someone and it might just be a moment of kindness, or it might be preaching the gospel for them to be saved as a direct result. Or maybe someone you meet has an assignment from God to encourage you today.
Its truly amazing what a difference it can make too us if we actually meet with Jesus during a time of personal worship and prayer. I am sure my own life would be so much more effective if I was able to truly encounter Jesus more often and more consistently.