"Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!"
the submission of all our nature to God.
It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness;
the nourishment of mind with his truth;
the purifying of the imagination by his beauty;
the opening of the heart to his love;
the surrender of will to his purpose.
And all of this gathered up in adoration,
the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable,
and therefore the chief remedy
of that self-centeredness
which is our original sin
and the source of all actual sin."
--William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1942-1944
A few weeks ago during a question and answer period at Gull Lake Ministries in Michigan, I was handed a piece of paper with a simple statement. "Please give us your definition of worship." As I prepared to give an answer, I was trying to recall the famous words of William Temple quoted above. Since I didn't have it on the tip of my tongue, I simply said, "Worship is the response of all that we are to all that God is." As I thought about it later, I realized that even though much could be added to that sentence, it will do tolerably well as a starting point. When we worship, we are responding in some way or other to who God is.
Worship matters because God matters. A few days ago we received a letter from an inmate in a Maryland jail. Matthew is 22 years old and is currently awaiting trial. "I spent a childhood in crime and drug use." Now he is jail facing an uncertain future. But being in jail has brought him to a new sense of purpose in his life. He has discovered the reality of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is how he puts it:
Everything should be focused on Jesus. For me to rely on him for everything. Nothing I do. Nothing can I do. Nothing to come compares to what the Lord has already accomplished. Without the Lord Jesus I'll never be satisfied. Nothing in this world satisfies me. Not women, drugs, money, material things, nothing. I'm always left to feel empty but when I look to the Lord Jesus, I begin to feel whole.
In his own way, in words that speak with homespun eloquence, he has discovered the opening of the heart by God's love that William Temple mentioned. Can you worship in a jail cell? Matthew would answer yes, and so would I.
To frame the matter this way helps because when Christians talk about worship, they often restrict it to what happens when the church gathers on Sunday morning. Obviously that corporate aspect is central to everything the church is to do in the world. Without the worship of God at the center, the church eventually devolves into little more than a social club or a debating society or a random collection of do-gooders who do nice things for others. That's a harsh way to put it but it is true nonetheless. We can even argue that the fundamental truth about a Christian is that he is a worshiper of God. To put it more plainly, Christians are people who gladly, freely and joyfully worship Jesus Christ. They adore him.
"Let's Pray About What to Pray About"
I confess that I know less about this subject than I would like to know. I came to a major turning point fifteen years ago when I visited the YWAM base perched on the banks of the Belmopan River, on the edge of the jungle in Belize in Central America. I spent a life-changing week with 25-30 missionaries and students who had come to study the Bible.
All my life I had heard that worship was to be the foundation of life, but I had never been around people who really acted that way. I discovered that when you are around people who know how to worship, your perspective begins to change. When you get around people who truly know how to make worship the central act of their Christian experience, nothing seems the same.
The first morning I was there, a few of us met for early morning prayers. I had a lot on my mind because I was only mentally "half there." I was still thinking about things back home plus I had to get ready to start teaching Romans. So I wanted to pray and get on with the day. We gathered round a table and I waited for the leader to say, "Let's pray." He didn't do that. We all just sat there silently. I didn't say anything but my mind was racing. At length the leader said, "Let's ask the Lord to show us what we should pray about." That was a totally new concept to me. And to be honest, it irritated me. Like a typical American, I had my list, I had a schedule, I had things to do, and I didn't want to "waste time" asking God what we should pray about. I knew what to do pray about. I mean, I had my list all made up. But we spent time praying and seeking the Lord about how we should pray. We prayed about how to pray. I kept wanting to say, "Come on, guys. Let's move this thing along. We've got work to do. This is going to be a busy day." But they seemed not in a hurry at all. So we prayed about what to pray about, and then we actually prayed our requests to the Lord.
It was like that all week. Fifteen years have passed and I can still remember how shocked I was. It is only with the passing of the years that I see the wisdom of their approach. Romans 8:26 says plainly that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Just recently I had a large burden on my heart, a personal matter, and I did not know how to pray about it. When I would bow my head, there was a great heaviness in my heart. I couldn't come to grips with the matter in my own heart, and I didn't know how to pray other than to say, "Your will be done." And when I think of my brothers and sister in Belize, I know what they would say. "Let's ask the Lord to show us how we should we pray about this." That was a revelation and an advance in prayer that endures in my life to this very day.
Do you know what our problem is? We are so busy that we don’t have time for that which is really important in life. This is an active generation and we are an activist group of Christians. We want to run, run, run and go, go, go and do, do, do. If we are going to worship, we are going to squeeze it in as number 17 on a list of about 45 things we have to do week after week.
Someone has said, “Our problem is we worship our work, we work at our play, and we play at our worship.” That is what is wrong with so many of us. We worship something, but not the right thing. In all of life, nothing is as important as learning how to worship. When we learn how to really worship, whole vistas of life open up before our eyes. Until we do learn how to worship, our lives will be filled with religious activity. We will come to church on Sunday morning, we will give money, we will be very active, but we will miss the one thing for which we were created. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with this question and answer: What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever. You were created to glorify God in everything, which means that the whole purpose of your life is to honor God with your life. That brings you face to face with worship.
Let’s see if we can find a working definition of what worship is. The Bible says so much about worship that it is hard to boil it down and get your hands around it. For instance, one of the chief Old Testament words for worship means "to bow down." It has the idea of physically bowing down before the Lord. The New Testament contains a Greek version of the same word with the additional idea of bowing down and kissing the ground. That image tells us that worship is the response of the believer to the greatness, majesty and magnificence of God. Worship means to declare God’s worth. It is to give God the honor that is due him. If you want to say it in a very modern way, it is to pay God the ultimate compliment of referring to him in terms of the honor and majesty that is due his name.
If you were to go through the Bible to see what worship means, you would find it involves things like singing, praying, clapping, praising, shouting, weeping, laughing, kneeling, saying “amen,” speaking, listening, reciting, giving, sitting in silence, chanting, lifting up the hands, standing, lying prostrate on the floor, beating the chest, crying, sharing a meal together, sharing testimonies, reading Scripture, joining hands, singing in the choir, listening to the choir, playing cymbals, horns, bells, pipes, trumpets, and even dancing. What does that tell us? It tells us that worship involves the whole person in every area of life. Please get it out of your mind that worship is something you do at 10:45 on Sunday morning. What happens at that time is the corporate gathering together of the body of Christ, but worshiping God is to be what you do with all your life, seven days a week.
We can understand this better if we take a look at John 4. This is the familiar story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. Behind this story is the debate between the Samaritans and the Jews. The Jews didn’t like the Samaritans and the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews. There was a geographic issue, an ethnic issue, and a racial issue. The Samaritan woman in this story is a timeless figure. She is the perfect picture of the hungry, thirsty, confused, sin-laden seeker who hopes to find an answer for the problems of life. One day as she goes to draw water, she meets the giver of living water. Jesus has a long discussion with her.
We are going to pick up the story in verses 19-20.
“Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
What she is doing here is what lost people often do. She is trying to get Jesus into a theological argument, to get him off the subject. Jesus is not going to be pulled off the subject. Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (v. 21).
Do you understand what those words mean? Those were revolutionary words. Worship in the Christian community is not a geographic issue. You can worship him anytime, anyplace, anywhere. That also means it is not tied into a certain building, a certain time of day, a certain order, a certain way to dress or act. It is not tied into all those outward things. What is the really important thing then, if not the outward trappings? Jesus gives us the answer in verses 23-24:
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
Let me give you three simple statements.
1. God is looking for worshipers.
We are not used to thinking about God seeking anything, but this passage tells us that God in heaven is looking for people on the earth who will worship him. We were made to worship. If we don’t worship God, we will find something else to worship. That explains the unhappiness of so many people in the world. Augustine said, “Oh Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We've all heard about the God-shaped vacuum inside every human heart. If you don’t fill that God-shaped vacuum with God, you will fill it with something else. God seeks worshipers. We were made to worship God. Therefore, only the worship of God can fully satisfy us.
2. Our worship must be in spirit.
God is a spirit. That is the whole emphasis of this passage. Our worship must correspond to God’s nature. That means that true worship begins in the heart. It begins in sincerity, in contrast to hypocritical, outward ritualism. Genuine worship is spiritual. You don’t worship just by coming to church because worship is more than coming to a service. To worship in spirit means to give your heart’s full attention to God. If you come to worship and are distracted about everything else, you might be going through the outward ritual, but you are not worshiping in spirit. When Charles Spurgeon preached on this text, he offered this pointed warning about the dangers of coming to church without having your heart in the worship:
Recollect that if you do not put your hearts into the worship of God, you might for that matter as well be at home as here; you are better here than at home for other reasons, because you are in the way where good may come to you; but for worship’s sake you might as well have been in bed as here.
3. Our worship must be in truth.
The true idea of God and Christ is essential. As Calvin said regarding this verse, “This is the death of merely good intentions." This is also the dividing line between Christianity and the religions of the world. Even though they may be worshiping in spirit, they are not worshiping in truth. This is why it is not possible for Christians and Muslims to worship together. We may find things to admire in the religions of the world, and we certainly ought to appreciate the sincerity of other people and show proper respect for their beliefs, but truth is non-negotiable. I can watch Muslims as they pray and I can appreciate their sincerity, but I cannot in good conscience join with them nor can they join with me.
Jesus is telling us that our worship must have two things balanced—sincerity and reality, heart and mind, emotions and knowledge. Our danger is to stress one or the other, either to get the truth and skip the spirit, or get the spirit and skip the truth. Both are dangerous. To have the heart without the truth leads you to emotionalism, sentimentalism, and ultimately into heresy. To have the truth without the heart leads you to legalism, formalism and ritualism. God searches the heart. That’s where worship begins. When you worship God from your heart, in your spirit, based on the truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ, you then are pleasing to God.
What, then, has to happen if worship is going to become priority number one for us, as individuals, families, and in our churches?
1. A Change in Attitude
Your attitude changes HOW you come to worship. You will come eagerly, joyfully, expectantly. Often our hearts are not in it, our minds are not in it. We sing “There is a Redeemer” (I wonder how the Bears are going to do this year?); “Crown Him With Many Crowns” (It sure is hot in here); “Holy, Holy, Holy” (I wonder if I should put my money in the stock market?) That is the way we are. We come distracted. We come busy, hurried and worried. Maybe we come angry. Husbands, have you ever noticed how many times you will get angry at your wife on Sunday morning? Wives, have you ever noticed how easy it is to get frustrated with your husband on Sunday morning? That is the Devil. He knows you are going to worship. He doesn’t bother you if you’re going to work. You have great days during the week. He is going to try to destroy your spirit before you come to worship.
2. A Change of Purpose
That is WHY you come. There is a tendency today to be very hypercritical about worship. We tend to evaluate everything. We come with a critical mentality. We come shopping for a church, looking for this or that. I remember when I was a first-year seminary student. I had just gotten married a few days before starting seminary. For the whole first year in Dallas, we didn’t settle in a church. We went church hopping week after week after week. Because I was in seminary studying the word of God all week, I didn’t feel any need to go to church on Sunday. I felt I was in church all week long. Bad thought, but that was the way I felt. So I would go from church to church, taking Marlene with me. Marlene was working to help put me through school. I had this terrible practice that whenever we went to a church, I would be hypercritical of the preacher and his sermon. I would be critical of the choir, the organ, the piano, the way they decorated the sanctuary, how ugly the bulletin was. It got so bad that the service would end, we would get in the car, and before we had left the church parking lot, I had started cutting up and dissecting the church service. Finally, after about four or five months of that, my sweet bride sat me down and counseled with me about the matter. She is very powerful when she counsels with people. When she counseled with me, I felt led of the Spirit to stop that for the sake of greater things in my life.
You know how easy it is to come to church and say, “Well, how the pastor do today?” “What did you think about our new worship leader?” “I didn't like that chorus we sang.” How easy it is to get into that mentality and look around at things and get a hypercritical spirit. The question is not what did you get out of this service? The question is what did you put into it? If you leave a church service saying you didn’t get anything out of it, it’s probably because you didn’t put anything into it. When you come to give, you will receive. When you come just to get, with a consumer mentality, two things will happen. You will go away frustrated and you will develop a critical spirit. When that happens, genuine worship disappears.
We need a change of focus if worship is to become a priority. What is the first and greatest commandment? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). It is not church work first and then worship. It is worshiping God and loving him first, and out of that flows everything else.
My mind goes back to a warm spring day in Dallas over twenty years ago. The sun was coming out, the grass was beginning to grow, and it was time to find the lawn mower. I found it and it wouldn’t start. I pulled and pulled, again and again, and finally I broke the rope. I fiddled with this and with that but nothing helped so I took it to a shop where they said they would fix it. A few days later it was ready. We had to replace something in the engine. I asked what the matter was. They said there was no oil in the motor. I said, “Oil?” It never occurred to me to put oil in a lawn mower. When the oil had run out, the motor wouldn’t run anymore.
Worship is the oil of the spiritual life. When you start to run low on worship, your life starts to break down. If you feel a little broken down, it may be because you have run low on worship. When you lift the worship of God back to its proper place, your life will start working again.
In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem says that because worship is a spiritual activity, it must be empowered by the Holy Spirit working within us. "This means we must pray that the Holy Spirit will enable us to worship rightly" (p. 1010). Perhaps we should all pray, "Lord, teach me to worship you." "Open the eyes of my heart so that I will worship in spirit and in truth." "Lord, slow me down so that I will have time to worship you."
There is no substitute for worship because there is no substitute for God. We can exist without God but we cannot truly live without him.
Heavenly Father, there is so much we need to learn about this. We are all students on a pilgrimage together. Teach us what it means to worship you in spirit and in truth. Teach us what it means to love you completely, to give you the adoring response that is due your name. Make us worshiping people, and so transform us and equip us for service to others. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the president of Keep Believing Ministries and author of And When You Pray. He has ministered extensively overseas and is a frequent conference speaker and guest on Christian radio and television talk shows. He has authored over 27 books, including Credo, The Healing Power of Forgiveness, An Anchor for the Soul, and Why Did This Happen to Me?
Here to visit Ray's Crosswalk.com blog