Monday, May 10, 2010

The heart of worship is a very intense place.

Why do we as Christians worship? Why should we?

This is one of those subjects where I've seen misunderstandings from believers and nonbelievers both...and I deeply believe that how and why we approach can color our entire attitude towards our faith. I'm not talking about high-church/low-church divisions...I believe that the form worship takes is a very individual matter. What I refer to here is the reason for expressing our faith to God.

Criticisms from an atheistic perspective tend to take the form of attributing a vain ego or a toddler-like temper to God. God must be incredibly egotistical, they might say, to make worship a qualification of faith, and incredibly nasty to condemn people for failing to kowtow sufficiently. From a Christian perspective, it's not a criticism so much as a misunderstanding...God demands worship as a duty, something to do to show what good believers we are--and here's the checklist of what you MUST do when, or else you must be going to Hell for not doing enough and in the right way.

Both come from a fundamental misunderstanding, I believe, of the character and nature of God. The truth is, He is both incredibly human and incredibly unlike humanity as we currently know it. One thing the Bible makes very clear, both through His words through the person of the Father in the Old Testament and His actions, through the Persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament, is that God is deeply, deeply passionate. "Cold" is the last word we could possibly assign to our God.

I believe that emotionality frightens some people. And it's easy to understand why. Perhaps the atheist leveling the criticism that God must be vain or temperamental is thinking of what happens when humans' passions become the strongest: we lose control of ourselves. We make ill-advised decisions, we lash out in anger, and we make unreasonable demands. And we should indeed be concerned about the effects our untempered passions can have on ourselves and others. The idea of living with so, so much more than that is terrifying, considering how poorly we do with the paltry passions we have in comparison.

Yet with that extraordinary passion--emotion so strong it would overrun our defenses in a nanosecond, God is able to be both just and merciful. Sometimes I believe that when He speaks of His feelings...and He does it much more often than you might realize...we react badly because we either do not see the underlying logic, or we experience that fear of what would happen if we had to try and control it. I don't know about anyone else, but I get the distinct feeling sometimes that it was hard for God to reduce living a faithful life to an enumeration of laws, as happens in Leviticus. There was a reason for doing it, of course--because we weren't relating to Him in a mature fashion, for starters, and to get us to see how we were falling short and why we needed salvation--but God's words in the Psalms (paraphrased: I want your hearts, not just a burnt offering!) and Jesus' frustration with the coldness of the Pharisees' legalism, and by extension, Christian legalism, really leads me to believe that the separation imposed by such laws hurt Him, maybe even as much as open denials and betrayals (though I can't truly be sure about that one way or the other).

The way God reacted to that hurt, however, was to keep reaching out to us (even after the imposition of the law, the monarchy, and every other institution) to make the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit, to restore that right relationship and help us to draw closer. What wondrous love is this, indeed!

While I think it's always important to understand that God is so much more than we could possibly understand, we must also remember that He did create us in His image--that our spirits are intended to reflect His. What we feel, He drew from something of Himself. When someone we love turns their backs on us, doesn't it hurt? When someone tells us we are loved--even if we already are certain of their love--doesn't that warm our hearts?

God has far, far more emotional maturity than the two-year-old some people describe Him as. He does not "have" to be worshipped as an egotist "has" to have adulation. Rather, I believe that for Him, worship is part of the constant exchange that is LOVE. I'm sure it DOES feel good to be told that He is loved, and for us to express our thanks and our reliance upon Him, however imperfectly our worship is. But just because it feels good does not mean God will become rash or cruel because of it, as we might. I also believe that sincere worship opens us to be more receptive of His love, and that is what He wants--that He cares and wants to see us benefit from that openness.
Certainly obedience is good; it denotes respect. And respect is a good place to start. But love...that's what God wants for us--to be a part of love.

And why should we not take care to respect God's feelings? Just because He is not prone to our excesses with His emotions doesn't give us an excuse, I believe, to trample all over Him. If we know we are hurting someone, shouldn't we stop doing what hurts that person? Just because a person is resilient, and heals from the wounds we inflict doesn't mean we should keep doing it. The hurt that person experiences, and what that does to our own spirits, is a terrible thing. God's may be the unquenchable flame, but what excuse do we have to hurt Him when we know full well that He does indeed feel that pain? How can we turn ourselves cold towards another Spirit?

And why shouldn't we do what we can to warm His heart as we would want done for us? If you read the Gospels, can you imagine the way Jesus' eyes would light up (figuratively, unless we're talking about the Transfiguration) when people treated Him with kindness and compassion? Yes, He still retained that emotional maturity in His incarnated state, but it's readily evident how much it meant to Him when someone was kind and loving. It feels good--and it opens the door to a relationship, a cycle of giving and receiving love that continually amplifies itself with each iteration. Even when someone gives a gift that is not needed--as we do when we worship, for God's survival does not depend on us as ours does on Him--it's still heartwarming to know that someone cared. It's the same, I believe, for God.

To sum up--for Christians who have gone into the rut of seeing worship as mere duty, something to check off the list, maybe spending some time reading the Bible to observe the depth of God's feeling would prove a comfort. His yoke is indeed light compared to the constant litany of rules we invent for ourselves and to share in His love is a salve to our souls and an exercise in kindness and compassion, not just obedience. For nonbelievers, I think that understanding the combination of emotion beyond our experience and control beyond our ability would be helpful--and the relational rather than unidirectional position of worship in the believer's life. Worship is not some appeasement of is an expression of love and a way of opening ourselves to God's voice. And that voice reminds us that we are loved.


  1. Are you saying that worship should be a reflection of our love for Jesus? If that is your point then isn't obedience the sincerest form of worship according to Jesus in John 14:21-24? And since this is what Scripture says, would you agree that there is a very specific way that God is to be worshiped?

    Also, here's a good sermon on how God is impassible. It was given by Kevin DeYoung at T4G this year and is a great theological read.

  2. Worship should indeed reflect our love for Jesus--and I do think we should obey Him and ask for His help in doing so. The thing is, though--it is very easy to reduce this to a checklist, or into something that is done out of fear or that we turn into a burden to impose on others. This is the mistake the Pharisees made...the legalism they engaged in separated them from God rather than drawing them close.

    That loving aspect...the motivation for taking God's commandments seriously...had disappeared. The relational aspect therefore disappeared as well, with the closing-off to the emotional part of the relationship. That's what I see God getting at when He speaks of wanting a contrite heart more than a burnt offering. There is also a passage in 1 Corinthians that includes this verse: "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." (Expressed in poetic fashion, BTW, in this song: )

    If we become that way, then the motive and the reason for worship can quickly shift into something it ought not be. If we love God genuinely, though--then obeying His word wells up naturally. It is not an act out of fear, but a genuine desire to do what is right and what is pleasing to God. And if we are obeying out of love, we will not twist our observances into something that puts others down as the Pharisees often did. That's included when I speak of respecting God's feelings--and if we do what is hateful in His sight, we can add knowingly inflicting anguish upon Another to our list of sins in addition to the inherent sinfulness of the act in question. Thank God that He is all-powerful and not damaged in the ways that we can be--but respect has to be part of a loving relationship.

  3. Something to think upon as well, is the reality of who God is. God IS. Justice, Love, Mercy, Compassion... all the attributes that we tend to experience as phases in our humanity are absolutes of His identity. For example, Scripture goes beyond saying God loves. It says God IS love.

    Why is this so difficult? Because God is far beyond our comprehension. For this alone, He is worthy of our worship. God is infinite; we are finite. It follows that a finite mind is incapable of understanding the infinite. Therefore, the infinite must reveal Himself to the finite in a manner that the finite can grasp.

    Following that, why did God give us the law? Why did God command one of His prophets to take a prostitute for a wife? Why does God give us lists to describe love? Because He is revealing Himself to us. He approaches us in a manner we can receive while we are stumbling towards a state of being that learns to abide constantly in His presence.

    The truth I've discovered in all this is that worship is a natural outpouring of dwelling with God. One who looks on Him and truly sees Him cannot help but worship. However, man without God will do everything in His power to construct a god he can place in a box. It allows him to remain in his ignorance and, simultaneously, his arrogance that there is nothing greater than himself.

    From the perspective of a believer, I also find that worship is my greatest protection from this world. When I am weak it is always because I have let myself lose sight of those things God has revealed about himself. When I have a right view of God, I find myself in great confidence and boldness. I walk in victory. And the greatest of these things God has shown me? "Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so."

  4. Abishai--In many ways, the absoluteness you speak of is why God sent Christ to us. How could we stand before God without Him? We've seen law and prophets and the inspired writings of Scripture...but through Christ we actually have a chance to relate. I agree with what you say about how from our love for Him, worship will flow--not because it is imposed upon us by our fellow man as an onerous duty, but because it is natural and it is right.

  5. M.C. Evers,

    You're spot on about the Pharisees legalism. But Christian obedience is different isn't it? The Pharisee's legalism didn't stem so much from a checklist practice, but from their self-deception of self-righteousness. What Jesus is talking about in John 14:21-24 is an internal and external condition: The internal condition that someone loved Jesus (by grace through faith in Him alone) produced an outward condition of obedience (and you'll agree that someone who says they love our Lord will manifest a character like His as they strive to persevere by grace, and will repent of any hypocrisy and legalism because it's a servanthood obedience motivated by love for Him), and someone whose internal condition was one of enmity against God has an external condition of consistent and unrepentant disobedience - because their hearts are darkened and they suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

    I say all of this because I'm afraid that modern Christianity (or maybe Evangelicalism is a better name for it) has trumpeted the gospel of what they have called "God's love" in the brand of "He accepts you just the way you are," and "He's not angry with you," and "He has a wonderful plan for your life," and they have neglected what the great Christians of old, and our Master Himself taught concerning the Gospel - law to the proud, and grace to the humble. You and I will understand those quotes - He accepts you the way you are, but He changes you into what you aren't and can't be; He is angry with you, but has provided Jesus to reconcile us by grace through faith in Him; He does have a plan for you life, and it's His for His glory, and involves rejection by the world, suffering, persecution, temptation, and maybe even death, but reward and eternal life if you give your life away for Him. Scripture says that God's love is Christ laying down His life for wretches, and that love is reciprocated by obedient servants whose lives persevere in the faith - this leaves no room for those who champion God's love but by all evidence remain unchanged and unaffected.

    But when a sinner hears the things I quoted they hear; God accepts me, so I don't have to change; He's not angry with me, so my sin's okay; He has a wonderful plan to give me an easy life; etc and so on. You know that sinners want a god in their own image - who loves them and is okay with their sin (and is that really love at all?) - they want His hands, but they don't want His face.

    I say these things because we should take seriously what our Lord said, that many will say to Him on the last day, Lord, Lord! and He will say to them "Depart from me you worker of lawlessness." I don't want to be responsible for half-preaching the gospel to anyone. Jesus called us to the obedience of faith in Him, and in scripture if you're practicing obedience (not pretending perfection) by grace, that is evidence (not a qualifier) that you belong to Him, as I John says that anyone claiming to be His ought to walk as He did.

  6. Christian obedience should be different, yes. The trouble is that I believe we are just as susceptible as the Pharisees to turning what should be a burden that frees us into becoming more like Christ into one that we use to confine and belittle each other.

    To abuse the offer of relationship that Christ has given us to keep cheating like Gomer did is a perverse understanding of what love really is. And I don't think that's right either. But I do not believe that any person's spirit can survive the sort of deep examination of our sins that we have to undertake, without God to hold our hand along the way. I also believe that if we Christians are cold, contemptuous, or otherwise put stumbling blocks before those who need God, then we will be held responsible for having driven people away. This means a great deal to me because it very nearly happened to me--the unkindness of fellow Christians almost drove me from the church, and in the end it was God Himself who brought me back and showed me that running away from the problem was the cowardly response. It is a matter of calling for me now, to do whatever I can to undo the damage that we have done to ourselves and others, so that we can truly bring healing (and yes, that is both comfort AND cleansing) to those around us.

  7. This is a great post and an interesting discussion.

    Worship is just a natural response to coming into the presence of an awesome God. Yes when we don't 'feel' the presence of God we should still worship and that is where obedience comes in. The Psalms are a great example of worship in all circumstances.

    I agree with you MC that Christians do need to watch out for legalism. It is very hard, but it is very possible, to balance the obedience with grace.

    For Webster, though I agree in part with what you are saying. Someone who claims to love Jesus should have fruit of the spirit as outwards signs of that. But, as Paul said in Romans, Christians will still struggle with sin and so it is only by the grace of God we can be saved and worship while still sinners. It is a fine balance between confronting fellow Christians about sin, while allowing the Holy Spirit to be the one to convict. Rather than confronting the sins, maybe we should be confronting how well these luke warm Christians know Jesus.

    Hope that makes sense.


  8. M.C.

    I am so sorry that happened to you. If you don't mind my asking how were they unkind and cruel? Does it have to do with the things the Pharisees did - rampant legalism? My question to them, if that was the case, would be if they were truly regenerate to begin with.

  9. @Phil: Welcome to the discussion! Even with fellow Christians I think we have to be careful that we only do what is strictly necessary. There is precedent, of course, for confronting and even asking people to leave if something is happening that is severe enough. But that's a case where we definitely have to rely on God and not ourselves, lest we go after a "target" that really should not be a target (which is what happened to me), or we destroy rather than just instruct or correct.

    @Webster: The status of their salvation I don't know any more than I can ever truly know it for anyone else. I would add that aside from the person in charge of the group--who egged them on rather than encouraging civility--these were teenagers. They were old enough that they ought to have known better, but they had also had very poor examples from the adults around them.

    I do not wish to get into details, but the crux of the matter was that there was something I had a different interpretation of than they did, and they insisted that a different interpretation meant I was going to Hell. They made it very clear, too, that I was not welcome with them.

    So I know very well that one never forgets an incident like that, and that's why I firmly believe that if we act like that "in the name of God," if we are unkind even when we think we have legitimate reason to disagree (and when the same view is presented in kindness, I can respect it even if not agree with it), that we risk driving people away and having their falling away be upon our own heads.

  10. @M.C.
    What scripture did you have a different interpretation for?


    You know, in all seriousness, only Christians (someone who has repented from sin and trust Jesus alone for salvation) will struggle against sin; someone who is in collusion with something can't be in collision with it at the same time in the same relationship. In fact, Jesus said that temptation, persecution, and trials will be a fact of living a life devoted to Him. I hope that I didn't make it sound like you've got to be perfect in the last posts; the point I was trying to make, that scripture makes, is that someone who has been saved by grace lives a life that strives for obedience and grieves at sin because their heart loves the Savior - and alternately, someone who is still lost will practice sin as a way of life.

    As far as confronting sin, the Word commands us to go lovingly to a brother or sister who has sinned against us (or lives in open, unrepentant sin) and plead with them to repent; He even gives us the method to do that in Matthew. There's a difference between going to someone to accost them, and going to rebuke them, which is in hopes of repentance and restoration to the Lord and the body.

  11. I don't wish to drag the conversation off topic onto a secondary debate--however, suffice it to say that the matter is sufficiently unimportant that my own church doesn't see the need to release any official word on the subject. It was an utterly insignificant thing to be arguing about.

    As to the way I understand how a Christian confronts sin in him/herself, I think that in many ways, the Twelve Steps of AA sum up the Biblical principles in question. I think that while many may be able to see that they're having a problem, if we fail to actually take all of the steps (and the key one is surrender to God), then no, we won't make any headway. And I don't exempt anyone from that...people who go to church can be just as bad about it as anyone (which definitely underscores just how badly we need help! ;-) ).

    Others do have a conscience, and attempt to make a difference under their own power. I think we risk severe arrogance if we assume that the conscience, the recognition that something's wrong with us and the world we live in, is unique to Christianity. The key, what my faith has to offer that is special, is the recognition that we cannot do it on our own--that not only do we need help, but we have to surrender completely and rely upon Another's grace. That notion is unique among the faiths, and is the only logical answer I can see to the seemingly insurmountable gap between us and God.