“Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
Worship the Lord with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:1-3)
Do a google image search for “worship.” Then do one for “traditional worship.” The results are interesting. The first turns up images with blatant emotion. The second…well… not so much.
We often think of the Psalms as the biblical core of expressions of worship. And that opinion is not without merit.
But on the flip side, we rarely think of the Pentateuch as a hotbed for passages regarding worship. Nor the prophets. Nor the epistles. But are these portions of scripture not intensely committed to the topic?
“On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will WORSHIP there, and then WE will come right back.”” (Gen 22:4-5) [emphasis mine].
Is that the kind of “worship service” you’d like to participate in? If we’re honest, no. Not in Isaac’s place, or in Abraham’s place.
My theory is that we think this way because we associate worship with feelings disproportionately. Even the groups of people I’ve known who are very reserved in their feelings during corporate worship would still admit this about their approach to scripture. The emotion-saturated Psalms are more focused on the concept of worship than the narrative stories and law passages found in Genesis-Deuteronomy. Right? Wrong.
So what am I getting at?
Take a quick definition of worship and hold on to it while you mentally survey your way through scripture from Creation to the Cross. This exercise confronts us with the overall biblical picture of what worship involves. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve been considering as a result of doing this:
Worship was perfect, direct, relational, conversational, intentional, delightful, and central before sin.
Obviously, sin changed everything.
Perfect worship like they had would now be the elusive goal, the light at the end of a long, long tunnel carried in the hands of a Serpent-Crusher Messiah.
Worship necessarily became inseparable from trust in, and obedience to, this overall plan for our rescue by a coming Redeemer. Worship and faith and obedience cannot be separated.
Worship became significantly intertwined with somber, gruesome, yet necessary teaching symbols designed to make the participant think long and hard about his sin and his need for a Saving Lamb. We think of Old Testament worship primarily as dancing, clapping, singing, cymbals, and sackbuts (those of you raised on, or using the KJV will get that one). But what about the entire sacrificial system? Was that somehow less associated with worship than the Jewish festivals and Psalms? No. Worship was bloody and somber by times. Why? To keep them thinking about the costs of sin and their need for a Messiah. Worship and thinking, even somber thinking, cannot be separated.
Worship, no matter how joyful and triumphant, was consistently rejected by God when the hearts of His people were not sincere in their repentance from sin. Our natural gear is self-exaltation and self-worship, which doesn’t jive well with exalting God’s exclusive worthiness for praise (pun intended). Because that is the natural mode of our hearts, it takes effort to approach God in humility and brokenness. Any trace of self-exaltation renders worship non-worship. Worship and a broken and contrite heart cannot be separated.
“You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
Worship consistently bore two great realities as its driving fuel. Both of these realities, when meditated on (there’s the thinking aspect again), drive the worshipper to an emotional expression of praise (whether Moses and Miriam after the Red Sea crossing, or David after his sin with Bathsheba). The first reality seen throughout scripture is the sinful worshipper’s unworthiness to receive anything good from a just God. The second reality is God’s stubbornly loving intention to pour out that goodness anyways through the mediation of the Messiah, offering us mercy and pardon and hope! When dealing with truths of this significance – literally a matter of life or death for us – worship cannot be separated from emotion and feelings.
A note here: Joy-filled, emotional times of worship without an emphasis on thinking about truth, and especially without an effort to acknowledge our sinfulness or to repent, are not truly times of worship at all. To disappear into emotions and to leave your thoughts behind is to leave worship behind. You may leave the service feeling encouraged, lifted up, and ready to face your work week, but you haven’t truly worshipped.
On the other hand, is it possible for you to truly grasp these truths, their significance and their personal impact, and not be moved emotionally in some way?
Worship is not merely thinking about a truth(s).
Worship is not merely feeling something.
It is thinking about a truth’s impact on you and responding appropriately to God about how you feel about that impact.
Have you ever heard it said that we should focus less on what we get from God (ie. what He does FOR us) and put more of our worship and prayer energy into praising Him for who He is?
I get that. I understand the goal. We truly do tend to come to God in prayer with a wishlist and spend the majority of our time asking for what we need rather than praising Him for His attributes. Our prayer life is naturally self-serving rather than God-exalting. And so, in a way, that problem needs to be addressed.
But I’m not fully comfortable with where that admonition could take us. And here’s why:
The reason God has revealed Himself to us (all of His attributes, names, and nature) is because He is intimately engaged in the outcome of our eternal destiny. He wants us to know Him. And knowing Him is – in every sense – the greatest benefit we could ever pursue. Everything He is relates to everything He is doing. Character and actions cannot be separated. He does what He does because He is who He is. And what He is doing has an automatic impact on us. In other words, it is impossible to praise Him for who He is without knowing that we will benefit as a result. But that’s okay. In fact, that’s exactly how it should be!
Maybe it’s my conservative background, or maybe it’s my non-emotive German side, but when I see times of worship where the participants slip into heightened levels of feeling and seem to almost get lost in something like a trance, I must admit that I’m tempted to tap them on the shoulder, interrupt them, and ask, “Hey man, what’cha thinkin’ about?” Sometimes I think that I would “catch” them in wandering thoughts, or in no thoughts at all. If someone is overwhelmed by emotion in their worship and no one knows why – including them, something’s not right.
But, to be fair, I’ve seen emotional expressions of worship that were very clearly connected to a truth being discussed or sung about. The truth, and its importance, was the fuel behind the emotion, and it had a God-ordained, powerful impact on those involved. Sometimes that happens for an individual and no one else knows what’s going on in their heart except them and God. This happened a lot for me after I lost my first wife, Heather. My awareness of the value of certain aspects of the gospel was greatly heightened. And sometimes it’s corporate. But the truth-to-feelings link is present.
In some services, people are genuinely moved by the incredible truths being sung about. The music is well-written, well-played, and it supports the expression of the doctrines of the incredible gospel of Christ, and they want to express what they are thinking – with feelings – to their God and Savior. But they feel they can’t because of the expectations of those around them. Any overt expression of feelings comes with glances and silent assumptions of the expressive person’s motives.
Worship without thinking isn’t worship. It’s feelings.
But, worship without feelings (joy or sorrow, doesn’t matter) is most likely not personally engaged or invested in the truths being thought about, and therefore, isn’t truly worship either.
Chew on it. Personalize it. And maybe even make some changes. I’ve had to change some of my attitudes. But this is important. After all, worship is why we exist. Isn’t it?