Worship isn’t a program we watch; it’s a meeting with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. We’re God’s people gathered in His presence, reaffirming our covenant with him. That has implications for how we structure a worship service. Worship isn’t about me, or you, it’s about the Lord — and how He meets us for healing, encouragement, instruction in right living, and other benefits of being in His presence.
This leads to a larger question: How do we prepare ourselves for worship, and are we really worshiping if we’re not inwardly prepared and focused? Here’s my “take” on what it means to really be worshiping.
The biblical words for worship, in both Hebrew and Greek, refer to specific actions — usually either bowing or falling prostrate, or “giving thanks” which is a word derived from the word for “hand” and really refers, not to gratitude, but to taking an oath of loyalty to the Lord with uplifted hands. So you can see that the biblical worshiper knew he was worshiping when he performed the associated physical actions. It would never have occurred to David, for example, to ask whether he was really worshiping.
Perhaps some will object that in the New Testament there’s more concern with inward motivation in worship. In my opinion, the two Testaments don’t differ in this respect. The Old Testament worshiper also had a heartfelt motivation to express his loyalty to the Lord, as a member of the covenant community. This comes out, for example, in many of the Psalms.
The New Testament is also concerned with our outward, as well as inward, response. Paul, talking about the Lord’s Supper, says that we shouldn’t receive it in an unworthy manner. But the context of his statement shows that he didn’t mean introspection into our personal spirituality. It was, rather, an awareness of our place within the body — the believers around us — so that in eating and drinking we don’t neglect the needs of our brothers and sisters (1 Corinthians 11). And Jesus makes an astounding statement in the Gospels (Matthew 23:16-19) when he speaks about swearing by the gift on the altar. He says it’s the altar that makes the gift sacred, not our offering that sanctifies the altar. In other words, it’s God, represented by His altar, who validates our worship, and not our motivation. To concentrate on our motivation, or whether we’re “prepared,” is to put ourselves into the central focus — and that’s idolatry.
We in the Western world have become so used to thinking of worship as a cognitive or “thought-type” activity, internal rather than external, that we tend to navel-gaze, wondering whether our motives are what they should be. But when worship has a recognized, biblically based structure, and when we participate along with others in following that structure with the intent to bring honor and glory to God, why should we ever have to ask ourselves whether we are worshiping? Our feelings aren’t relevant to this question, if we’re obeying what God has commanded us to do to honor Him.
Jesus tells this parable in Matthew 21:28-31: “What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus doesn’t even go into the question of the two sons’ motivation; he focuses on how they acted. His answer indicates that the one who did the right thing, after repenting, was the one who pleased his father.
What I’m trying to do here is to offer a word of liberation to those who are under the bondage of excessive introspection and self-criticism. Let’s trust that God is big enough to accept our worship and be blessed by it, even if our motivation — by our standards — may not be as pure as we would like. Is it paradoxical to imagine that we might have standards more stringent than those of the holy God? But perhaps that’s the case!
[This material appeared originally in the January, 2005 issue of ReUnion, newsletter of Union Congregational Church, North Aurora, Illinois.]