HY DO YOU WORSHIP? REALLY now, think about it. Why do you worship? Is it mainly because you want to get something out of the experience? Is it to receive a spiritual and emotional lift? Is worship for you only a way to leave church feeling good? And now for the key question: Do you worship because you want God to get something out of it? Is worship about us? Or is it about God
In this regard I find very instructive the story in 1 Kings 18:16-40 about Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. If the mere thrill of worship could bring down fire from heaven, it surely would have happened that day. The prophets of Baal got their adrenal glands pumping furiously while shouting to Baal. They danced around the altar, frantically prophesying for hours and slashing themselves until their blood flowed.
But all they got out of that spirited activity was a huge emotional high. They did not connect with God. The center of their worship was themselves. (It was heathen worship, of course, but it still makes a point.)
It was different when Elijah worshipped. Everyone received an overwhelming awareness of God and who He was. God, so to speak, got the most out of that worship service. The passage says that “when all the people saw [the divine manifestation], they fell prostrate and cried, ‘the Lord, he is God! The Lord—he is God!’” (1 Kings 18:39). In this setting, God, not Elijah, was at the center of the worship experience. Simply being in God’s presence and worshipping His greatness brought Elijah much more satisfaction than the temporary high felt by the false worshippers, absorbed only with themselves.
Elijah’s worship was determined by the One he worshipped, not by how much Elijah could get out of it.
How We Worship
Besides focusing on why we worship, it is important to consider how we worship. Where is our awareness, our attention, our concentration during the worship service? Is it on the setting, the scenery, the decor? Or are we paying tribute to the One who is the subject of that program and activity?
Are we busy admiring the grade of excellence and the quality of the program’s music and performers? Or are we worshipping the God who created music as a means of praising Him?
Is our attention too focused on the other worship participants, on engaging with them in visiting and conversation? Or is our attention captivated completely by the One who longs to have communion with us?
How we worship is expressed, of course, through the beauty, the activity, the music, and the fellowship. But here’s the danger: The beauty, activity, music, and people can become the center and focus of our worship. All these can give us much pleasure and enjoyment, but if they dominate our attention, God is missing from church.
It’s easy for us to devote our energy and attention to enjoying the special features of the worship service, neglecting the only One worthy of our worship. What we do in worship is meant to aid us in experiencing God, and not become an end in itself. Giving too much attention to the how of worship prevents us from concentrating on the who of worship.
The Who of Worship
Who is God? What is He like? When we have such questions clear in our minds we will then be motivated by our understanding of God to worship in a manner suitable to His character.
The 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel worshipped their false, human-made god in a way that reflected who they knew him to be. He was a hard-of-hearing god, so they had to put up a big show to get his attention. He was hard to please, so they had to resort to extremes to pacify him, creating thereby their own form of worship.
In contrast, Elijah approached God with a clear understanding of Him as the covenant-keeping God who saves His people. Hear his words (from 1 Kings 18:36, 37). At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’”
Here Elijah outlines two issues pertinent to the worship experience. First, he prayed that the “‘people will know that you, O Lord, are God.’” And, second, he described the Lord as the one “turning their hearts back again.”
Worshipping God begins with knowing who He is and goes on to celebrate the salvation He brings. Elijah wanted the people of Israel to return to a true form of worship, a fundamental key to renewal.
That’s also the key to renewal in the church today.
God Is Holy
We should focus on the attributes of God—who He is and how He loves us—in order to create the proper atmosphere in which to respond to Him in worship. That’s what should determine how we worship and why we worship. The Bible describes God as “great” and “good.” God’s goodness has to do with His kindness, mercy, and grace toward us. His greatness has to do with how different He is from us. He is infinite, unrestricted by time and space, all-powerful, majestic, pure, wise.
God’s transcendence is one of the elements that make Him holy. “‘Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?’” (Ex. 15:11). His greatness separates Him from all else. There is none like Him. Not only is He holy, separate, and different from us; He is also involved with us, close to us, and personally in us. “For this is what the high and lofty One says . . . ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa. 57:15).
Our awareness of how great, how holy, and yet how loving God is toward us provokes in us a sense of our unworthiness. This is the proper attitude in which we should approach God in worship. Worship should emphasize “the mystery and awe we feel in relation to God’s transcendence and the relational intimacy we feel with God’s immanence.”1
The beauty of God’s holiness is deeply and very prominently sensed in various worship situ-
ations described in the Bible: Jacob at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-17); Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6); Moses in front of the glory of God (Ex. 33:12–34:8); the psalmist’s call to worship (Ps. 99:1-5), Isaiah’s transcendent experience (Isa. 6:1-8); and Daniel’s penitential prayer encounter (Dan. 9:4-19).
The New Testament presents many stories of people brought into relationship with Jesus through a sense of His holiness—a sense of His holiness that led them to worship Him. A key example is Mark 4:35-41, in which the disciples experience calm after a turbulent storm. “‘Who is this?’” they asked each other. “‘Even the wind and the waves obey him!’” (Mark 4:41).
In another instance (Luke 5:1-11), when Jesus filled the fishermen’s nets with fish—fish that previously had evaded them, they were filled with wonder, leading Peter to say: “‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5:8). Thomas, who first doubted, exclaimed when he came to understand who Jesus was—when he saw the nail marks in his Savior’s hands: “‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28).
It is a sense of the holiness of God that’s often missing in worship today. We emphasize His love and closeness, as we should. But these are best understood and appreciated when we concentrate on His holiness, His greatness, His majesty.
In the words of one writer, “Some [kinds of] worship, rightfully stressing the joy and confidence that the believer has in relationship with a loving heavenly Father, goes beyond that point to an excessive familiarity, treating Him as an equal, or worse yet, as a servant. If we have grasped the fact of the divine transcendence, however, this will not happen. While there are room and need for enthusiasm of expression, and perhaps even an exuberance, that should never lead to a loss of respect.”2
We need to strive for a clear view of God, for once we’ve grasped the truth of His greatness, His holiness, His awesome majesty, we will be filled with enthusiasm of expression in worship. Such a clear view can generate more joy and vitality in worship, as we praise a God who at the same time is intimately involved in the life of the worshipper. Stiff formality and meaningless expressions in worship can’t exist in such an atmosphere. When a high sense of the holiness of God governs worship, there will be no boredom, cold formality, mere entertainment, or an emphasis on emotionalism—all the common problems experienced in worship today.
The Right Spirit
A real sense of awe and godly fear is appropriate and necessary in our worship of God. Without it we could still have a “good time” at church, but God will not be lifted up. He may even be missing.
So how do we worship God without forgetting why we worship? First, we should take time to develop in our minds the biblical concept of who God is, time to dwell on His attributes, until there comes to us a sense of His holiness. Let this sense of who He is lead us to come before Him in awe and reverence, sensing our unworthiness and sinfulness. Then we must listen as He speaks to us words of love and grace. Let’s see what such an approach can do to our worship experience.
I return one more time to Thomas. After three years of walking with Jesus in a more or less casual manner, he finally came to sense who Jesus really is. Like Thomas, we too can fall at His feet and say with all the emotion and depth we can muster: “My Lord and my God!”
That is true worship. And God, appropriately, will receive the greatest lift from it.
1Robert Webber, Christianity Today: October 6, 1997, p. 25.
2Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Baker Book House, 1990), p. 318.