One of the saddest experiences of my childhood happened on my tenth birthday. Invitations to the celebration were mailed days in advance to eight friends. It was going to be my best birthday ever. They all came to my house right after school. We played football and basketball outside until dark. My dad grilled hot dogs and hamburgers while my mother put the finishing touches on the birthday cake. After we had eaten all the icing and ice cream and most of the cake, it was time for the presents. Honestly, I can’t recall even one of the gifts today, but I do remember the great time I was having with the guys who gave them to me. Since I had no brothers, the best part of the whole event was just being with the other boys.
The climax of this grand celebration was a gift from me to them. Nothing was too good for my friends. Cost was immaterial. I was going to pay their way to the most exciting event in town—the high school basketball game. I can still see us spilling out of my parents’ station wagon with laughter on that cool evening and running up to the gymnasium. Standing at the window, paying for nine 25-cent tickets and surrounded by my friends—it was one of those simple but golden moments in life. The picture in my mind was the perfect ending to a ten-year-old boy’s perfect birthday. Four friends on one side and four friends on the other, I would sit in the middle while we munched popcorn, punched each other, and cheered our high school heroes. As we went inside, I remember feeling happier than Jimmy Stewart in the closing scene of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Then the golden moment was shattered. Once in the gym, all my friends scattered and I never saw them again the rest of the night. There was no thanks for the fun, the food, or the tickets. Not even a “Happy Birthday, but I’m going to sit with someone else.” Without a word of gratitude or goodbye, they all left without looking back. So I spent the rest of my tenth birthday in the bleachers by myself, growing old alone. As I recall, it was a miserable ball game.
I tell that story, not to gain sympathy for a painful childhood memory, but because it reminds me of the way we often treat God in worship. Though we come to an event where He is the Guest of Honor, it is possible to give Him a routine gift, sing a few customary songs to Him, and then totally neglect Him while we focus on others and enjoy the performance of those in front of us. Like my ten-year-old friends, we may leave without any twinge of conscience, without any awareness of our insensitivity, convinced we have fulfilled an obligation well.
Jesus Himself reemphasized and obeyed the Old Testament command “Worship the Lord your God” (Matthew 4:10). It is the duty (and privilege) of all people to worship their Creator. “Come, let us bow down in worship,” says Psalm 95:6, “let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.” God clearly expects us to worship. It’s our purpose! Godliness without the worship of God is unthinkable. But those who pursue Godliness must realize that it is possible to worship God in vain. Jesus quoted another Old Testament passage to warn of worshiping God vainly: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain” (Matthew 15:8–9).
How can we worship God without worshiping in vain? We must learn something that is essential in learning to be like Jesus—the Spiritual Discipline of worship.
WORSHIP IS … FOCUSING ON AND RESPONDING TO GOD
Worship is difficult to define well. Let’s observe it first. In John 20:28, when the resurrected Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him the scars in His hands and side, worship is what happens when Thomas says to Him, “My Lord and my God!” In Revelation 4:8, we’re told that four creatures around the throne worship God day and night without ceasing with “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Then in verse 11 the twenty-four elders around the throne of God in Heaven are said to worship Him by casting their crowns at His feet, falling down before Him, and saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” In the next chapter, thousands and thousands of angels, elders, and living creatures around the heavenly throne of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, cry out with a loud voice in worship, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (5:12). Immediately following comes worship from every created thing saying, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (5:13).
Now let’s describe what we’ve seen. The word worship comes from the Saxon word weorthscype, which later became worthship. To worship God is to ascribe the proper worth to God, to magnify His worthiness of praise, or better, to approach and address God as He is worthy. As the Holy and Almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, the Sovereign Judge to whom we must give an account, He is worthy of all the worth and honor we can give Him and then infinitely more. Notice, for instance, how those around the throne of God in Revelation 4:11 and 5:12 addressed God as “worthy” of so many things.
The more we focus on God, the more we understand and appreciate How worthy He is. As we understand and appreciate this, we can’t help but respond to Him. Just as an indescribable sunset or a breathtaking mountaintop vista evokes a spontaneous response, so we cannot encounter the worthiness of God without the response of worship. If you could see God at this moment, you would so utterly understand how worthy He is of worship that you would instinctively fall on your face and worship Him. That’s why we read in Revelation that those around the throne who see Him fall on their faces in worship and those creatures closest to Him are so astonished with His worthiness that throughout eternity they ceaselessly worship Him with the response of “Holy, holy, holy.” So worship is focusing on and responding to God.
But we aren’t yet in Heaven to see the Lord this way. How is God revealed to us here that we might focus on Him? He has revealed Himself through Creation (Romans 1:20), thus the right response to the stunning sunset or the spectacular mountain view is worship of the Creator. More specifically, God has flawlessly revealed Himself through His Word, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20–21), and His Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14; Hebrews 1:1–2). Therefore, our responsibility is to seek God by means of Christ and the Bible. As the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of our understanding, we see God revealed in Scripture and respond. For example, we have just read in the Bible that God is holy. As we meditate on this and begin to discover more of what it means for God to be holy, the desire to worship Him overwhelms us. But God is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ, for Jesus is God. If by means of meditation we will focus on the Person and work of Christ as found in the Bible, we will understand what God is like, for Jesus “has made him known” (John 1:18). And to the degree we truly comprehend what God is like, we will respond to Him in worship.
That’s why both the public and private worship of God should be based upon and include so much of the Bible. The Bible reveals God to us so that we may worship Him. Bible reading and preaching are central in public worship because they are the clearest, most direct, most extensive presentation of God in the meeting. For the same reasons, Bible intake and meditation are the heart of private worship. Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are sung either to express truth about God or in worshipful response to God. Prayer is a response to God as He is revealed in Scripture, and so is giving.
Since worship is focusing on and responding to God, regardless of what else we are doing we are not worshiping if we are not thinking about God. You may be listening to a sermon, but without thinking of how God’s truth applies to your life and affects your relationship with Him, you aren’t worshiping. You may be singing “Holy, holy, holy,” but if you aren’t thinking about God while singing it, you are not worshiping. You may be listening to someone pray, but if you aren’t thinking of God and praying with them, you aren’t worshiping. There is a sense in which all things done in obedience to the Lord, even everyday things at work and at home, are acts of worship. But these things are not substitutes for the direct worship of God.
Worship often includes words and actions, but it goes beyond them to the focus of the mind and heart. Worship is the God-centered focus and response of the inner man; it is being preoccupied with God. So no matter what you are saying or singing or doing at any moment, you are worshiping God only when you are focused on Him and thinking of Him. But whenever you do focus on the infinite worth of God, you will respond in worship as surely as the moon reflects the sun. This kind of worship isn’t in vain.
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 85–89.
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