Wednesday, January 26, 2022

What is Worship?

At our church here in Chicago, we have been talking about the nature and purpose of worship. I was asked to respond to the question that is the focus of this essay: "What is worship?" Here are my thoughts. I hope they are helpful to someone! -Troy


What is Worship?

reflections by Rev. Troy B. Cady



Intro & Thesis


What is worship? There is no easy answer to this question; however, we could start by acknowledging that to worship God is to glorify God.


But that begs the question: what does it mean to glorify God and how do we glorify God?


I suggest that, at its core, worship is devotion; whatever captivates your greatest devotion is what you worship. To worship is to love; a life lived in love for God and others is what brings God glory. To live in love is to worship God.


In this essay, I look at what the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles of the New Testament have to say about worship as I describe various forms of false and pseudo-worship in hopes of helping us understand worship in terms of devotion to God, love for God and love for others. 


The nature and forms of idolatry

To see how worship and devotion go hand-in-hand, let’s take a step back from the question of God-worship. It is possible to worship something that is not God or someone other than God. The Bible identifies this as idolatry.

            Whatever you are devoted to the most in life…that is what you worship. The fact is: many Christians in America today are more devoted to their political philosophy than they are to God. It is easy to make an idol of politics.

            Still others are most devoted to upholding a certain vision of family life. Though God desires us to be nurtured in the context of loving community, when we insist that such a community must look a certain way, we have made our ideal of family into an idol.

            In a similar way, if you devote your life to the accumulation of wealth, you worship riches. If you are most devoted to achieving society’s standards of success or popularity, you are really worshipping some arbitrary ideal of accomplishment or the ever-elusive high of gaining fame and human esteem. The sobering truth about worship in our society today is that humans have perfected the art of finding almost anything else to worship if it means they can avoid devoting their entire selves to God. 


Some common Christian idols

Ironically, a common object of worship for many Christians is the Bible. Let’s face it: when we would rather just talk about what the Bible says than to devote ourselves to God and practice God’s way of love for others, we are really worshipping the Bible…not God.

            In the same vein, Christians are even capable of worshipping the idea of worship. We do this most commonly by defining worship in reduced terms, equating it to the act of singing “worship” songs with other believers once a week (typically on a Sunday morning for about an hour). Many Christians have come to worship worship by insisting their worship be offered in a certain way and with a certain style. If it is not in our preferred form (usually singing) and style (usually a particular genre of music), it doesn’t feel very worshipful to us. This is not to diminish the value of singing our devotion to God; it is simply to remind us that worship is so much more than singing.

            I think one of the saddest expressions I have ever heard in my life is when Christians talk about the “worship wars” that take place in the church today, as if worship is something to fight about. When we start fighting about worship, we could well wonder whether we have, in fact, stopped worshipping God. 


What Jesus says about true worship

In John 4, Jesus addressed our propensity to substitute God-worship with the worship of the trappings of religion itself. In this text, a Samaritan woman asks Jesus where (and, consequently, how) the true God-worshipper should worship. Jesus’ reply is telling. He says that true worship is not about where you go to worship (“neither on this mountain [in Samaria] nor in Jerusalem”), but true worship is about the spirit.

            In other words, the real place of worship is in your heart. Worship is simply the act of devoting our hearts (the entirety of our being) to God. 


To worship is to love God

This picture of true worship coincides with what is perhaps the greatest confession of all time. Significantly, it is a confession that has been used for millennia in communal worship settings

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

                                                                                                            (Dt. 6:4-5)


            Perhaps the best way to define worship, then, is to define it in terms of loving God. After all, to love God is to cultivate our devotion to God. As such, this confession to love God with all of our everything represents the height and depth, the breadth and length of our worship to God. To the extent that we love God in everything and with everything—to that extent—we worship God. 


Where and when to worship

It is no mere accident that the text in Deuteronomy 6 goes on to describe where we are to practice loving God with our everything. Not surprisingly, the location of this kind of devotion is…everywhere. And the time is…all the time: “…when you sit at home…when you walk along the road…when you lie down…and when you get up.” More than the tabernacle, the temple, the synagogue, or the church building, the text tells us that the true place of worship is in “your hearts.” In other words, every place and every time is a place and time to worship. As the poet Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”


How (not) to worship

But how do we show our love for God? There are many ways to do this but the Bible is clear that one can do many religious things to express one’s devotion to God while still missing the very heart of worship.

            God addressed this with these words spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 

“These people come near to me with their mouth

    and honor me with their lips,

    but their hearts are far from me.

Their worship of me

    is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Is. 29:13)


            In light of God’s never-failing love from one generation to the next, it stands to reason that really all God ever wants from us is to show our worship of him by simply loving him in return. More than our songs, more than our tithes, and more than our study of the Bible…God just wants us to love him in return. If those religious activities help us to love God, great; but church history has shown that Christians can be very good at practicing their religion while at the same time failing to love. While it is true that love for God is often expressed through musical praise, generous giving, and listening for God’s voice by meditating on Scripture, it does not follow that these activities are inherently acts of true worship. True worship is a matter of the heart, not a matter of mere ritual performance.

            This is why Jesus echoed the refrain from Isaiah 29 when he addressed the Pharisees of his day. His words to them were bold because the Pharisees were the ones who were regarded as the most devoted to God, the true God-worshippers. But Jesus exposed their hypocrisy by appealing to the heart of worship in their own tradition. In short, Jesus wanted them to see how they were very good at doing all kinds of religious things for love of God, but had, in fact, neglected love for their neighbor.

            In Matthew 15, Jesus identifies how the Pharisees even used their own devout religious observance as an excuse to mistreat their own parents in old age. In Matthew 23, he describes how the Pharisees faithfully tithed as an act of worship but “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” He admonishes them: “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”    

            Jesus’ critique, then, gives us a clear answer as to the best way to show your love for God: it is to love your neighbor. 


How the apostles describe worship as love

The apostle Paul describes this very dynamic when he says that the entire law is summed up in one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

            That is quite a striking statement. In essence, he is telling us that if we can only keep that one command, we will also be keeping the command to love God. But…how could this be? Could it really be that simple? All we need to do to love God is to love our neighbor?

            The apostle John explains (in refreshingly simple terms) how this could be so: 

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. We love because God first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (I John 4:16, 19-21; italics added)


            For this reason, any act of service you render to your neighbor is an act of service to God himself. To put it another way: to serve another is to render worship to God. That means…when we share food with the hungry, we are really worshipping God; when we companion the lonely, we are really worshipping God; and when we help heal the infirm, we are really worshipping God. Anything you do to love your neighbor…you are doing as an act of love for God.


Worship: living for God’s glory and neighbor’s good

In the local church where I serve, we often like to say that the church exists “for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but Jesus, and Paul, and John take this idea a step further. They tell us that when we live for neighbor’s good, we are really living for God’s glory.

            Again, the prophet Isaiah speaks to this: 

“‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,

    ‘and you have not seen it?

Why have we humbled ourselves,

    and you have not noticed?’


“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please

    and exploit all your workers.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife…

    Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,

    only a day for people to humble themselves?

Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed

    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast,

    a day acceptable to the Lord?


“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

    and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

    and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry

    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe them,

    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

    and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness will go before you,

    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”

                          (Isaiah 58:3-8; italics added)


            It is important to notice that this text about the true worship that happens when we love our neighbor concludes with an image of God’s glory breaking forth like the dawn. If worshipping God means glorifying God, this text helps us make the connection that the glory of God breaks forth when (and only when) we worship God truly by loving our neighbor.

            I was saddened the other day when a friend told me an experience she had one Sunday at a church she attended. After the service, all kinds of people were trying to get out of the parking lot when a man in a large luxury car became upset at her for getting in his way. He was so upset he told her to f*** off with his middle finger raised at her. And this is just one example. As a pastor, I have seen firsthand how church people can enjoy a lovely worship service one hour and the next treat their fellow congregants or pastoral leaders like dirt without so much as an apology ever being offered. What a sham we have made of the idea of worship! How we have cheapened it. When churches have lovely worship services but church members do not even share God’s love with each other, what is happening in the church service cannot really be called worship. Our true worship is displayed in learning to love one another and extending that love to all. 


In conclusion: God’s glory and the common good

In contrast, I want to conclude now by sharing with you a story that illustrates just one of many ways God’s glory breaks forth when we simply serve the common good. It was a conversation I had just this week with a small group of people I know. One of the group members happens to be a teenage girl who wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, advocating for sane measures in school policies in hopes of protecting the vulnerable in the midst of the pandemic.

            As we shared our elation with her on being published in such a prestigious newspaper, we returned to the theme of worship that we have been learning about for some weeks now. And I mentioned to her that advocating as she did for the sake of others was really an act of devotion to God, a way of worshipping God. She said that hadn’t occurred to her but, as she thought about it more, she became animated and excited. I wish you could have seen the glow on her face as she took in the good news of that truth—that anything we do can be done as worship unto the Lord.

            This young woman really knows what it means to worship. She knows firsthand that we really can worship God with our everything at all times and in all places and in all kinds of ways. All we need to do…is love.

            Since God himself is love, may we always remember that the very glory of God is the life lived in love. Let us worship God, then, in spirit and in truth. Let us live in love. 

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