Is Worship an Emotional Experience – Or Does It Reveal Our Theology of God?
Can we truly worship God apart from our emotions? The debate over what “worship” in churches should and should not be like confronts us with the idea of whether it is possible to be divorced from our emotions and truly worship.
That question has been on my mind as I rethink what it means to worship. We know that we are to “worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24) But it seems the practical application of worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” is what is up for debate.
Discussions and comment threads over the use of instruments (and the banning of others); the use of dance (and the sin of dance); and the use of traditional hymns versus modern songs (aren’t the Psalms the most “traditional” hymns?) has made the discussion difficult to learn from. Each side is convinced of their right-ness on the issue. And in many cases opposing sides are willing to “agree to disagree”; a nice change from the typical name-calling (“legalist,” and “hippie” come to mind). But this is important.
The worship of God is not like the disagreement of whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. Our worship of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is central to our lives as believers. Refusing to think critically about this topic could be spiritually damaging.
Three biblical accounts in particular have helped me think through what it means to “worship in spirit and in truth.” The accounts of Job, King David, and the woman that washed Jesus’ feet each hold a lesson on worship that is from the heart.
What makes these three accounts so striking is that the central figures in each are praising for very different reasons. This reminds us that praise is not merely something we do in church on Sunday, but a lifestyle. Praise is a heart attitude that has the ability to transcend our circumstances.
Consider for a moment Job. This man that, by all accounts, was as righteous and holy as they come was subjected to unspeakable tragedies in his life. He watched as his property, his livelihood and his family were taken from him. The overwhelming sorrow this would plunge anyone into would be understandable. But Job, certain of God’s sovereign control in his life made a conscious decision to praise God. Job said:
“Oh that my words were written, Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead, they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:23-25)
We can see that praise has the ability to bring strength during difficult times. Praise from a place of quiet confidence in God’s goodness and sovereignty in our life can produce a powerful witness when faced with overwhelming loss.
David on the other hand praised God from a place of triumph. The king that was a “man after God’s own heart” danced and praised God after a victory over his enemies (2 Sam. 6; 1 Chron. 16). His circumstances were joyful and happy and David took time to remember God and praise him for His goodness. David knew it was only by God’s sovereign will that a victory was possible and he wanted to show his gratitude by praising God in an uninhibited way. But David’s life was marked by praising God.
David, a prolific writer of the Psalms, praised God often. He wrote:
“Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:1-2)
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” (Psalm 8:1)
“Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!” (Psalm 150:1-2)
Praising God for his goodness, His mercy, His faithfulness, and His love is all part of living as a Christian. David didn’t spend time praising once a week and then go about his business. David made praise a central part of his life in recognizing that it is only by God’s sovereign hand that he had a life to live.
Then there was the woman that washed Jesus’ feet with her hair. This might be one of the most remarkable accounts in all of the New Testament. This woman’s act is often called one of the greatest acts of worship in all of the Bible. And it comes from a woman the religious people called “a sinner.” You remember the account:
“37: And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38: and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” (Read the entire account in Luke 7:36-50.)
The woman, shamed by everyone around her came boldly, and yet humbly to Jesus because she wanted to give herself entirely to Him. All she had, her most treasured possession came with her, and was broken and poured out at the feet of Jesus. This woman knew that only Jesus could forgive her life of sin and her humble, broken act of worship revealed her repentant heart.
I’m not sure if you picked up on the single element tying each of these accounts together but, it’s there. The one element that must be present in a believer’s life in order to worship properly is an absolute confidence in the sovereignty of God. A steadfast conviction that God is in control of all things can be seen in the lives of Job, David, and the repentant woman. Each of these worshippers knew for certain that God was in perfect control of their lives and the circumstances that governed their life.
Only complete faith in God’s sovereignty could allow Paul and Timothy to praise God from a jail cell. Only complete confidence in God’s sovereignty could allow Christians from every generation to face death with praise. And only an unshakeable certainty in God’s sovereignty could allow Jesus to carry the cross.
This life would make no sense, be worthless and without meaning if it were not for the sovereignty of God and the reality that our lives are meant to praise Him. Sometimes we can be short-sighted and forget that we are not meant for this world; our hope and eternity is in Heaven with the One that oversees each and every day.
What I am learning is that it is possible to praise God outside my emotions. If all my praise is nothing more than an emotional “experience” it may very well be a shallow representation of what praise was intended to be. When we praise God in every circumstance of our lives, we acknowledge that God is both sovereign and good. We confess that He is in control and knows exactly what He is doing, and that everything He does is for our good. I think that’s why many people can’t (or won’t) praise God in their difficult circumstances.
I enjoy a little high energy praise as much as anyone. But I’m finding greater fellowship, strength, and communion with God in the quiet, reverent, and holy times.