Starting with Worship

I remember as a seminary student being overwhelmed, not just by reading assignments and papers due and practice sermons to preach, but by the great, motivating exhortations we heard in the daily Chapel services.

Cross cultural missionaries, family counselors, Bible translators, pastors, adoption agencies, ministries to the homeless, caring for pregnant teens, discipling groups – almost every one was persuasive or even compelling about the importance of that expression of the Christian life.  Add to that the frequent calls to personal holiness and sanctification and spiritual growth, more fervent prayer, and other important issues of character development and it was easy for every day to become a crisis in direction for life and ministry.

Having now been out of seminary for a few (?) years, I think we need to see worship as the starting and integrating point for our Christian life.  The pieces begin to fit together as we grow in our worship.

Worship shows us who God is and what He is like.  A common theme in contemporary Christianity is that we are about a relationship, not a religion.  But without diligent, persistent study of God’s attributes and works we will only know what we imagine (or want) Him to be like, rather than truly knowing Him.  And worship is both the response to Him and the means of knowing Him better.

As we begin to see more of what it means to engage an infinitely merciful, loving, just, compassionate, eternal God, worship and adoration and awe are the natural, even spontaneous responses of the creature before the Creator.  Isaiah in the temple and Peter in the boat were overcome by even a limited glimpse of the glory or power of the Living God.  Awe was their immediate response to meeting Him.

And as we worship, as we acknowledge and affirm those attributes, we open ourselves to His further illumination in our lives, to enable us to further understand and appreciate (and be more deeply awed) by new facets of His variegated grace (1 Peter 4:10).

Worship also builds a clearer view of ourselves.  As we engage Him and know His mercy and grace and righteousness more clearly, we will better understand the tension we must maintain.  We are objects of the infinite love of an infinite God.  And we are fallen, corrupt rebels, former enemies who still struggle with our loyalty and obedience to Him.  He has redeemed us and given us new hearts, but even our regenerate hearts resist and ignore and openly defy Him more than we want to admit.  But true worship shows us both sides of that tension in proper perspective.  We cannot but be humbled by worship of the Holy Creator as we exalt Him.  Charles Simeon, a Puritan, may provide the best expression of that tension (in spite of how it may grate on modern ears):

I have continually had such a sense of my sinfulness as would sink me into utter despair, if I had not an assured view of the sufficiency and willingness of Christ to save me to the uttermost. And at the same time I had such a sense of my acceptance through Christ as would overset my little bark, if I had not ballast at the bottom sufficient to sink a vessel of no ordinary size. (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948 134f.)

With this sweet hope of ultimate acceptance with God, I have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men; but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humiliation before God. (William Carus, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, 1846, 518f.)

(Both quotations from John Piper, Meditation on the Life of Charles Simeon Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, April 15, 1989)

Only worship (frequent and significant, not an occasional thought about God while driving to work) can build and maintain that balance.  Our tendency (and that of our culture or family background or previous church experiences and other influences on our life) is to one of the extremes.  Our modern cult of self-esteem runs with hands over ears from any suggestion of genuine humility and self-abasement.  Or we savor our guilt and wear it as our mark of spirituality.  But worship, engaging the Living God, exalts Him and His grace and mercy and justice, and moves us to genuine humility before Him.

In addition to humility, worship builds other parts of our character and conforms us to His standard.  Seeing His mercy or righteousness or any other attribute gives us the measure we need to keep in mind.  As we grow in our character to be holy as He is Holy, we can become self-satisfied, or at least feel like we are making progress and can “coast” a little.  But worship takes our ideas of godly character and exposes them as anemic shadows of the character He calls us to.  Worship can move from adoring God for His mercy, to asking Him to show us more of what mercy means in His character, and then to what it would mean for His merciful nature to be more fully expressed through our lives.  As we know Him better through worship, we become more like Him, ultimately when we meet Him face-to-Face (1 John 3:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Worship gives us a genuine motivation for mission and ministry to others.  If God is a vague source of love and truth, and if people around us need Him only to improve their lives and solve their problems (with a vague idea of heaven somewhere in the future), then our concern for them easily can be crowded out by all the other demands on our schedule.  But worship reveals more of God’s awful clarity and, like it did Isaiah, at once terrifies and humbles us as well as compelling us to mission and ministry.  It shouldn’t take long, after we have realized (like Charles Simeon) our pitiable state before God, for us to know that those around us are in the same condition.  Apart from worship that lets us see at least a glimmer of God’s true nature as a consuming fire, we know we are sinners, but not really all that bad.  And, as a corollary, those around us may not be so bad, and their need for God’s grace seems less that urgent.  But even a flicker of that fire illuminates our true nature (and theirs).  Our desperate situation, only remedied by the Good God’s grace, has to motivate us.

Finally, worship gives us a foretaste.  Too many Christians (including pastors I have heard) seem to think of heaven as boring.  They may acknowledge Paul’s dilemma between earthly life and heaven, but deep down the current ministries and events and activities seem much more relevant and important.  That can only be an indication of the shallowness of worship.  John Piper describes the continually growing depth of appreciating God’s character in the life of John Owen:

With regard to his immense learning and the tremendous insight he had into the things of God he seems to have a humbler attitude toward his achievements because he had climbed high enough to see over the first ridge of revelation into the endless mysteries of God.  (Reflections on the Life and Thought of John Owen, Bethlehem Conference for Pastors; January 25, 1994)

If we expect heaven to be boring (or if our own worship now is boring), it probably means we haven’t worshipped enough to see enough of a glimpse of God to realize how much more there is.  The attributes He has revealed to us in Scripture may be the “first ridge” Piper describes.  Only as we have studied and immersed ourselves in them and mined every possible gem can we expect to see the peaks beyond.

If worship is truly our starting point, then the implication is clear.  Whatever aspect of our life we are struggling with needs to drive us back to worship.  As we seek to develop our character or to overcome a persistent sin, or when we feel disinterested in mission or ministry or the things of God in general, we need to seek the Living God.  Church programs to stir up outreach efforts or the latest self-help book to develop moral integrity are poor substitutes.  Worship that truly meets God will honor Him and transform us.