Going to Church when You are in Despair

Friday, January 11th, 2013

I was praying through Psalm 142 yesterday and was struck by how alien such a prayer is to the forms and structures of modern Christian worship. Psalm 142 is not a particularly unusual Psalm but is one of a whole class of Psalms which are known as laments. The whole Psalm emerges out of a sense of despair in the life of the Psalmist. Phrases such as, “I am in desperate need,” and “rescue me from those who pursue me,” and “set me free from my prison,” are all found in the anguish which is known as Psalm 142. The verse which really jumped out at me was the end of verse 4 when he says, “I have no refuge, no one cares for my life.” Some of the older translations say, “I have no sanctuary.” It reminded me that most churches once called the most sacred place where we corporately worship the “sanctuary.” It was, to put it plainly, “a place of refuge.” It was a place you fled to for mercy, grace and consolation when you were caught in despair like Pilgrim’s “slough of despond.”

Today, the word, “sanctuary,” is out of vogue. We now call these sacred places, “worship centers” or “celebration centers.” We must, of course, always be happy in these spaces. We may sing and clap and shout or at least watch those on the “stage” sing and shout and clap. But, if we are ready to burst into tears and weep over our sins or cry out in despair over a situation which has us hemmed in on every side, this just might not be the time or place. I heard someone tell me recently that they just “couldn’t go to church” the previous Sunday because they were “feeling so depressed.” Hmmm.

Maybe there’s something going on here. Certainly, Psalm 142 would enter a typical contemporary service like that strange cousin who shows up at family gatherings and is greeted with a forced smile and and the obligatory handshake but inside we quietly regard him as kind of “weird.” Psalm 142 really has no place in a “celebration center.” So, alas, Psalm 142 is left out in the cold along with the Apostles’ Creed and prayers of repentance, because they weren’t “contemporary” or “seeker sensitive” enough.

I often wonder about the sustainability of any Christian movement which gives the appearance that Christianity began three weeks ago. I wonder why we rob ourselves of so many “means of grace” in the “contemporary Christian scene.” I wonder if I was 20 years old again and I walked into one of these services if I would ever have become a Christian, or even taken the whole thing seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many times when I clap my hands and shout with joy in the presence of the living God. That’s part of worship, too. Psalm 150 is also in the Psalms. But, we need to provide space and time for those Psalm 142 moments as well. Brothers and sisters, don’t ever lose your confidence in the power of the gospel. We don’t have to “dress it up” to make it palatable to contemporary people. We don’t have to “downplay” the tough, difficult road of discipleship. We don’t have to cherry pick the Psalms or other parts of Scripture in public worship so that everyone “stays positive.” These are all bad instincts. Let the gospel tell its own full story. It is messy, nuanced and demanding. It’s not always “tweetable.” It’s not always fun. But, praise God, it’s always true.


  • Rich says:

    Thanks for these words. There is a reason we have 2,000 years of church witness to the fullness of God’s work, including for those who are in despair, hurting, etc.

  • And this is why I, a cradle Methodist, am a stranger in a strange land.

  • Bob Kaylor says:

    It would be interesting to track this trend in contemporary worship juxtaposed with the loss of weekly Eucharist in many Protestant churches. We recently began weekly communion at all of our services, which provides space every Sunday for people to respond to the Word, come to the rail, and receive whatever grace they need at the moment. I have been amazed at the change in the way we worship because of re-engaging both Word and Table.

  • Years ago I heard a Pentecostal pastor say that alot of churches are trying “to stir the Spirit up rather than pray for Him to come down” In these kinds of worship services its all up, all loud. all peppy. all the time. As Timothy says that is good to have the up moments but it must be a blend of loud praise and quiet reverence. It takes both to reflect life.

  • A hearty Note of agreement and appreciation for highlighting this point. I can remember years ago praying with a brother deeply groaning after a service allowed him to see a stronghold in his growth. As we prayed and he sobbed deeply broken before The Lord, it seemed so out of place that some elderly women inferred that he should be removed from the sanctuary, as it was upsetting their upbeat church experience! Their thought was that we should have an ambulance take him to a hospital for An evaluation. The truth was He was doing the business of God! He was experiencing a psalm 142 sanctuary experience to God’s glory!

  • Dr. Tennent,

    I went to church today with a heavy heart, concerned for my 96 year old grandfather who is in the hospital and may die in the near future. During or greeting time someone asked me if I was doing good and I shook my head. They then told me that I had to be doing good because I was in church. This person did not know what I was concerned with, but I did not appreciate being told that I had to be happy because I was in church.

    I am usually a joyful person in worship but somedays my mind is preoccupied, and I come to worship to meet God in my place of need. Why is the church no longer a place where we can come as we are joyful, depressed, or lamenting and be accepted?

    Thanks for bringing this issue to the church.

  • “I often wonder about the sustainability of any Christian movement which gives the appearance that Christianity began three weeks ago.”

    Well said.

  • A very welcome and honest message! I hope it will encourage us in ministry both to be more transparent, and also more accepting of people who aren’t always in a frame of mind to be “happy-clappy” during worship.

    Reflecting in my own life, the ability to go to church when I’m grieving sometimes has to do with the size of the church and its cultural “gestalt.” I remember a time when I was so utterly bereft due to family tragedy that, even approaching the church doors, I would break down in tears. If the church is very small, we might be reluctant to attend under those circumstances, because our presence in that emotional state would be disruptive, and would call attention away from God and onto ourselves.

    Another factor in our freedom to come to church in a troubled state might be where the church meets: if it’s in public space, where one can be a bit more invisible, then to come depressed and unable to be gregarious seems more “doable” than to show up in a tiny, house church, where everyone is expected to hug and chat. For that reason, I’m sympathetic with people who prefer slightly larger churches where they can have some privacy and anonymity when they feel the need for it. In this day of small groups, house churches, and church plants, I think we can judge those who want something larger too harshly. I have heard church planters accuse such people of being “consumer Christians,” but the pressure in a very small church of feeling on display is real. We are learning that the church needs extroverts, ambiverts, and introverts — and both introverts and people going through hardship often prefer larger churches, where they can come, worship God, soak in His Body, get some healing, and return home unjudged yet refreshed.

    Thank you for broaching this needed topic, Dr. Tennent.