Spiritual Discipline – Worship
Relationships are many things. No two are the same but all relationships have at least one thing in common. Relationships are “messy”. The closer the relationship the “messier” it is. More is expected and more is required. The closer the friendship, the more hurt a friend is when one cancels plans at the last minute to go hang out with a different friend. A spouse is hurt and offended when their significant other offers acts of “love” from a standpoint of duty. We’ve all experienced how even the tone of voice used can create problems.
We’ve all heard it, that Christianity is not about religion but about a relationship with God. Very true. Also true is that we bring the “mess” into that relationship. This month we’re looking at the spiritual discipline of worship.
We’ve talked extensively in the past about worship, what it is, what it isn’t, various forms it takes, etc. I won’t reiterate all the basics here. If you have questions about the basics, please let me know.
So, moving on from the basics, let me begin with a question. Is it possible for Christians to worship God in vain? Before you answer, consider the definition of the word vain. Merriam-Webster defines vain (not “vain” as in pride) as: marked by futility or ineffectualness – useless, unsuccessful; having no real value – idle, worthless. Now, with that definition fresh in our minds, is it possible for Christians to worship God in vain?
Ouch! It is very possible, and I think we all know it happens more than we would like to admit. Jesus even quoted the Old Testament when referring to vain worship in Matthew 15:8-9: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (quoting from Isaiah 29:13) So, how do we grow in the spiritual discipline of worship so that our worship is not in vain?
First, remember that “worship” means to ascribe worth to, or as Donald Whitney writes, “to approach and address God as He is worthy.” (pg. 104) Note the scene we are shown in Revelation of the throngs worshiping God. Seeing God, in His presence, they understand and appreciate and respond to his infinite worth. They can’t help but to do so!
A glimpse into worship
Think of the creatures surrounding the throne, forever in the past, present, and future saying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8) I’ll admit, there was a time when I read that and thought, “that’s odd, and it seems a bit insincere to create creatures simply to fly around you and proclaim your holiness.” But here’s the thought that later dawned on me. While that seems to be the only responsibility those creatures have, I don’t believe God created them and programmed them like robots to mindlessly repeat their phrase for all eternity. Based on the rest of scripture, that doesn’t fit with God’s character. Instead, he created them, possibly with some ingrained value for holiness and worth, and in His presence, being witness to his infinite value and worth, they can’t help themselves but to respond! Their attention and response are captivated by Him!
How do we respond?
Even this side of heaven, we Christians can see, have experienced, and know enough about God that we too should be responding in worship. And our worship should grow as we grow in spiritual maturity. Sure, sometimes it’s more like a winding road through a mountain range than an interstate highway, but still it should grow. “And to the degree we truly comprehend more of God, we will in turn respond to Him more in worship.” (pg. 105)
Worshiping with the gathered church is essential. So much so that we are explicitly instructed in scripture not to neglect it. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Within the gathered church, singing, Bible intake, prayer, giving, baptism, and the communion are all forms of public worship. But what about private worship? In private, our worship should include Bible intake and meditation on the Word, singing, and prayer. That’s not to say that worship can not and does not take place through the ordinary tasks of life. It can and does. As Whitney says, “In one sense we can say that all things done in obedience to the Lord, even everyday things at work and at home, are acts of worship. But these do not substitute for the directly focused, exclusive-of-any-other-activity, biblically based worship of God. Worship often includes words and actions, but it goes beyond them to the focus of the mind and heart. Worship is the God-centered focus and response of the soul; it is being preoccupied with God.” (pg. 106)
How do we make sure our worship isn’t in vain? Remember John 4:23-24 where Jesus told us, “…true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Obviously, before worship in spirit and truth can take place, one must be a believer and have the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17) within themselves. As Whitney explains, “To worship God in spirit involves worship from the inside out. It also necessitates sincerity in our acts of worship.” (pg. 107) Worship in truth is worshiping according to the truth of God revealed to us in Scripture. We don’t make God in our image or as we’d like, or think, He is. We worship Him as he’s revealed himself to us, his character and traits, desires, will, and commands in Scripture. “In spirit and in truth” is the balance that keeps us in check. Neither worshiping purely from either the often unstable or hard-to-control feelings of/or about God or from a rigid, legalistic, impersonal, often dictatorial version of truth.
“I’ve got a pulse here…”
One essential element to worship is what we call “heart”. It is the part of us that sincerely and genuinely desires and yearns for the object of our affections and adoration. That part with which we truly pledge devotion and then act on that pledge. Now, we must remember that, this side of heaven, our “best” worship is still imperfect. We still must press on and strive, trusting in the blood of Christ covering us and relying on the Holy Spirit working in and through us. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, the book by Donald Whitney that this series is based on:
“Whether engaged in public, family, or private worship, realize that unless the heart is plugged in, there’s no electricity for worship. One pastor and author [John Piper in his book Desiring God] put it bluntly: “Where feelings for God are dead, worship is dead.” Here’s how he illustrated that: “Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of His worth. This cannot be done by mere acts of duty. It can be done only when spontaneous affections arise in the heart.
Consider the analogy of a wedding anniversary. Mine is on December 21. Suppose on this day I bring home a dozen long-stemmed roses for Noël. When she meets me at the door I hold out the roses, and she says, “O Johnny, they’re beautiful, thank you,” and gives me a big hug. Then suppose I hold up my hand and say matter-of-factly, “Don’t mention it; it’s my duty.”
What happens? Is not the exercise of duty a noble thing? Do not we honor those we dutifully serve? Not much. Not if there’s no heart in it. Dutiful roses are a contradiction in terms. If I am not moved by a spontaneous affection for her as a person, the roses do not honor her. In fact, they belittle her. They are a very thin covering for the fact that she does not have the worth or beauty in my eyes to kindle affection. All I can muster is a calculated expression of marital duty….
The real duty of worship is not the outward duty to say or do the liturgy. It is the inward duty, the command – “Delight yourself in the Lord!” (Psalm 37:4)
The reason this is the real duty of worship is that this honors God, while the empty performance of ritual does not. If I take my wife out for the evening on our anniversary and she asks me, “Why do you do this?” the answer that honors her most is, “Because nothing makes me happier tonight than to be with you.”
“It’s my duty,” is a dishonor to her.
“It’s my joy,” is an honor.
How shall we honor God in worship? By saying, “It’s my duty”? Or by saying, “It’s my joy”? (pg.108-109)
For further study, get a copy of “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life” by Donald S. Whitney.