It has taken me years of reading Eugene Peterson’s books to finally feel like I am starting to understand them.
The first book I read took two attempts. I first picked up Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places somewhere between the end of high school and my first year of college. I did not finish it. It was not until Grad school that I decided to pick it up again. His writing style, with its heavy use of imagery and metaphor, as well as much of the content simply overwhelmed me. Yet, at the same time, all of those elements drew be back again and again.
Last year felt like a break-through. I enjoyed his books. I used Eugene Peterson quotes in three of the four messages I gave at my church last year. I even borrowed the title of one of his books for my ordination message title.¹
Here is a long quote on worship that almost found its way into a couple of the messages:
I have put great emphasis on the fact that Christians worship because they want to, not because they are forced to. But I have never said that we worship because we feel like it. Feelings are great liars. If Christians worshiped only when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship. Feelings are important in many areas but completely unreliable in matters of faith. Paul Scherer is laconic: ‘the Bible wastes very little time on the way we feel.’
We live in what one writer has called the ‘age of sensation.’ We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be relationship with God is nurtured.²
This is deeply practical. We are to worship whether or not we feel like it. Some weeks we are stressed and exhausted. Others we are dealing with conflict or grief. We do not always come to church excited, joyful, or expectant. But we still show up and join our voices with those around us. I would argue that Peterson goes too far in declaring feelings to be liars, but this is an important lesson; we cannot wait until we feel like singing praise before we do so. We cannot wait until we feel like kneeling before we humble ourselves in worship. We are called to worship even when we do not feel like it.
Does doing this make our worship inauthentic? Peterson assures us that this is not the case. God’s wisdom is that, if we continue to worship even when we do not feel like it, we can act our way to a new way of feeling.
What if we take this further? What about how we feel after a time of worship? What if we do not feel like our worship went well? What if we have not been able to act our way to a new way of feeling? The truth is that some Sunday afternoons I feel really good about the time of corporate worship that I led that morning. Other weeks I do not. When I do not feel that it went well it is easy to think that I was unsuccessful at leading worship, or, even worse, that I was unsuccessful at worshiping.
The danger here, at least for me as a worship leader, is that it can tempt me to pursue emotional moments in worship in order that I may feel good afterwards. I can be tempted to pursue emotional moments because that feels more authentic and successful. That feels like God’s presence showed up. I am not saying that emotional moments are wrong. God has given us emotions, therefore worship is going to involve our emotions. What I am saying is that emotions cannot become our empirical measurement of success in worship. If emotions are our measurement of success then we will end up pursuing emotional moments over and above pursuing the exaltation of God.
If emotions are our measurement of success then we will end up pursuing emotional moments over and above pursuing the exaltation of God.
So then, how do we deal with times when we do not feel like worship went well? There is a place for reflecting on our worship and evaluating what adjustments can be made, but ultimately we just keep coming back to it. We faithfully sing God’s praise and trust that God is at work. Peterson writes, “When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be relationship with God is nurtured.” When we continue to lead, to sing, to worship, we are habituating ourselves to God’s praise.
I continued to read Eugene Peterson’s books even when I did not feel like I was understanding it all. Over time, the habit of studying his words proved affective in leading me to a place where I now understand parts of his books. I acted my way to a new way of feeling.
We will not always feel like worship goes well. This does not make our worship inauthentic or unsuccessful. Let us continue to obey the command to worship God and trust that our relationship with God is being nurtured, regardless of whether or not we are feeling the worship.
¹ My message was titled “A Long Obedience” after Peterson’s Book, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction. To be fair, he borrowed the phrase from Fredrick Nietzche. You can listen to my ordination message here.
² Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction: Discipleship In An Instant Society (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2000), 54.