Obedience brings blessings, but sometimes we are unable to receive them.
Psalms 149 and 150 both say to praise the Lord with the timbrel and dance. This is not a cheeky suggestion from a Bible college sophomore; it is a Holy Spirit-inspired picture of exuberant worship, and it is a command. It is a command that we must sing as we sing the Psalms — a thing we are also commanded to do. Ought we then to dance before the Lord?
Well, yes. If we must sing the command to dance, then surely we ought also to dance. If there is “a time to mourn and a time to dance,” then there is a time to dance. Obviously not every day and every occasion, but there will be times when dancing is appropriate, and when it is, we ought to do it.
If we were equipped to obey that command today, then dancing before the Lord would be a blessing to us all.
But in the overwhelming majority of North American churches, we aren’t equipped. If we all got up and tried to dance in church today, it would most definitely not be a blessing. Some of us wouldn’t have a clue what to do. Some of us have done all our dancing in nightclubs, and would bring a form of dance that’s not really well suited for worship. Some of us would be rightly scandalized by dance moves better suited to the bedroom than the house of God. Some of us would be wrongly scandalized that there was dance at all. Some of us who actually have talent would be badly scandalized by the well-meaning antics of those of us who don’t. It would be an utter disaster. Whatever “praise His name with the dance” means, surely that is not it; “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.”
So to sum up: there’s a biblical command to obey, and we are falling woefully short of it. We ought to obey, and yet we dare not; making the attempt would produce utter chaos — and there are also commands against that. Our pietistic, individualistic upbringing in the faith tells us that God’s commands, once understood, must be immediately obeyed. And yet this is clearly impossible in this case. What are we to do? How are we to think about such a situation?
What we have before us is the result of a long, long disobedience. Once upon a time, Our People knew how to dance before the Lord. By the Red Sea, Miriam and the women went out with timbrels and dances. David danced before the ark. Today, we’ve lost touch with the ability to praise the Lord with the dance. At some point in our history, we decided that it wasn’t that important, and a generation that knew how didn’t pass it on to the next generation. It’s not just about dancing, either. We’ve been worshiping God with our brains alone for so long that we’ve forgotten how to kneel, raise our hands, bow down, and so on — all things that the Psalms also talk about doing. Now we’re so far removed from obedience that the very idea of dancing or other physical action before the Lord — an obviously biblical idea — seems so strange to us that we don’t know where to start.
But this is exactly what happens with long disobedience. What you do shapes how you think, until the habit is so ingrained that doing it another way — in this case, an obedient way — is unthinkable. We have been neglecting our bodies’ role in worship for so long that our disobedience has warped us. We’re so far gone that we are unable to receive the life-giving blessings of obedience as blessings, which is to say that the wages of sin is death.
The solution? Simple, but not easy. We start heading back the right direction. Maybe we can’t dance in church this week. Or next. Or next year. Maybe the first step is a cautious lesson on Exodus 15. Maybe that’s too much; maybe a cautious lesson on kneeling, from Psalm 95. Maybe it’s the worship leader inviting people to lift their hands during one part of one song. I don’t know what it would be in your church. But whatever it is, we need to start moving back in the direction of obedience.
As we move wisely, and God blesses our efforts, we will begin to experience the first glimmerings of the blessings of obedience. With that encouragement, we will need to continue, and just be faithful to do the next thing, as God gives opportunity. The project may take a year, or a decade. Maybe a century — but so what? The goal is to be as faithful as Providence permits in the situation Providence has placed us in.
Meanwhile, we ought not to be surprised that we have unmet needs.
This is not punishment; it’s not God being vindictive. God made our lives rich and multifaceted, and made us to need His grace and provision in every last facet of our lives. To that end, He makes us aware of our needs, and He fulfills those needs. He does this through means — and different means for different needs. We need to talk with Him, and He has given us prayer as a means of grace in that area. We need to eat, and “He has caused vegetation to grow for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth.” But when you need to talk to God, eating a potato doesn’t meet that need; likewise, when you need physical nourishment, praying does little to ease the ache in your stomach. When we cut ourselves off from God’s grace dispensed through a particular means, we are cutting off an area of our life from His blessing.
So when we neglect the commands having to do with using our bodies in worship, we are refusing to receive grace in a particular area of our lives. That area will suffer, because God is trying to give us something good, and we won’t take it.
But then you’re thinking, “I never kneel in worship, and I certainly never dance! But I’m doing fine.”
No. No, you’re not. You’re willfully falling short of something God explicitly says to do; in what universe is that going to be okay? This dynamic — thinking you’re okay although disobedient — is what it means to be “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin,” and it’s another consequence of long disobedience. Let this go for a while, and the Chinese proverb becomes true: “The fake becomes real; the real becomes fake.” The truncated and distorted spirituality that eventually results from refusing to say “Yes” to God’s good gifts becomes “real” spirituality in your mind. You grow accustomed to starvation in certain areas of your life, and deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you that those pangs of hunger and thirst for righteousness really could be satisfied. The real thing becomes “fake” to you; you don’t believe it anymore. At best, this leads to a needlessly painful and truncated life; at worst, to abandoning the faith because it doesn’t work.
Again, the solution is simple, but not easy: obey. We obey to the best of our ability, paltry as it may be, incrementally if necessary, as wisely as we can. We look forward to the blessings of obedience, and to becoming the sort of people who can experience them as blessings. And in the meanwhile, we cry to God for mercy; it’s a prayer He delights to answer.