Worship has become a controversial subject lately. Come to think of it, I suppose it has always been contentious. Is worship for us or for God? Should it be quiet and serious or loud and celebratory? Does worship address the mind or the heart? Before expressing an opinion on these questions, it might be wise to think as deeply as possible about the nature of worship.
Surely every Christian would agree that the object of worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t worship ourselves or other gods or money or other people. We worship God. No one will object if we distinguish between worship and the teaching/learning process. And though loving God and loving your neighbor cannot be separated, we need to distinguish between worship as a religious act and moral acts such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. And I think everyone would agree that worship is an act, not simply a belief or a feeling. Worship, then, is an act directed to God. What kind of act?
As an act directed toward God, worship needs to do something appropriate, something that truly corresponds to God. Since our most fundamental duty to God is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it stands to reason that worship must be an enactment of that duty. It is an act of love toward God. But it is an odd sort of act. An act of love toward a human being would supply some good thing to that human being that enhances their life. Since God does not lack anything, acts of worship cannot supply God’s needs or add to his knowledge, or make him feel more worthy. Worship doesn’t build temples, heal anyone, or accomplish anything in the world. Indeed from a worldly perspective, worship seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources. What appropriate act do we perform when we worship?
Worship is a symbolic act, and its symbolic nature gives to those who do not understand it the impression of waste and meaninglessness. A symbol points beyond itself to something in the real world. It must resemble the thing it symbolizes in some way. Otherwise the symbol would be ineffective in directing our attention to the real thing. A symbolic act points beyond itself to a real act. It compresses, summarizes, and perhaps, dramatizes the real act so that its essential nature can be grasped in a flash of insight. In Christian worship, the body becomes a symbol. We bow down, kneel, eat and drink, raise our hands, and close the eyes; we light candles, sit quietly, or express words of admiration, faith, gratitude, and longing in prose, poetry, and song. What, then, is the real act that the act of worship symbolizes?
Worship is a symbolic expression of love for God. And an act of love must give something to the one it loves. As I said above, however, God does not need anything we can give. But God deserves everything we can give. Worship symbolizes our appropriate response to what God is and what God has done for us. And what is that appropriate response? It is to accept without reservation God’s love for us and to offer our entire being to God to use according to his perfect will. More than that, the real act symbolized by worship is our actual living in this way. And I believe this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Perhaps it’s time for a truce in the worship wars. We might discover that the dichotomies mentioned in the first paragraph above do not really express mutually exclusive things. Worship should be directed to God, but we are the ones who need it. God is so rich in his attributes that it is appropriate on occasion to be quiet and serious in his presence and on others loud and celebratory. God is both Truth and Beauty, so worship should address both mind and heart. Whether worship is tilted toward the head or the heart, whether it is quiet or noisy, we should not mistake the symbol for the reality. The true test of worship is the quality of life it provokes us to live.