In our entertainment-driven “worship experiences,” the life of William Cowper (1731-1800) points us to a radically different, and dare I say, more biblical understanding of the gravity of our coming before God on the Lord’s Day. Suffering acutely from prolonged bouts of depression, Cowper understood his own unworthiness to enter God’s presence. In the conclusion to his The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, John Piper makes a timely observation:
The fruit of William Cowper’s affliction is a call to free ourselves from trite and chipper worship. If the Christian life has become the path of ease and fun in the modern West, then corporate worship is the place of increasing entertainment. The problem is not a battle between contemporary worship music and hymns; the problem is that there aren’t enough martyrs during the week. If no soldiers are perishing, what you want on Sunday is Bob Hope and some pretty girls, not the army chaplain and a surgeon.
Cowper was sick. But in his sickness he saw things that we so desperately need to see. He saw hell. And sometimes he saw heaven. He knew terror. And sometimes he knew ecstasy. When I stand to welcome the people to worship on Sunday morning, I know that there are William Cowpers in the congregation. There are spouses who can barely talk. There are sullen teenagers living double lives at home and school. There are widows who still feel the amputation of a fifty-year partner. There are single people who have not been hugged for twenty years. There are men in the prime of their lives with cancer.There are moms who have carried two tiny caskets. There are soldiers of the cross who have risked all for Jesus and bear the scars. There are tired and discouraged and lonely strugglers. Shall we come to them with a joke?
They can read the comics everyday. What they need from me is not more bouncy, frisky smiles and stories. What they need is a kind of joyful earnestness that makes the broken heart feel hopeful and helps the ones who are drunk with trifles sober up for greater joys (167).
We need to be pointed to the thrice-holy God who is reconciled to believing sinners through the sacrificial death of the Son of God. We need to remember that, left to ourselves, we deserve an eternal hell for having violated this Sovereign’s demands. We need to enter his presence reverently, worship soberly, and leave aware of his blessing because we are reminded that Christ suffered and died for rebels such as we are. And yes, perhaps we need a little suffering during the week for the cause of Christ. A touch of Cowper’s gravity would do us good.