In this post, I’m going to focus not so much on the ‘what’ of the spiritual disciplines nor the ‘how’ but the ‘why’.
Consider Matthew 15:8
This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
(Matthew 15:8 ESV)
Could this be describing a people who do the ‘right things’ with faithful regularity, and yet God is not pleased with them? Is it possible to read our bibles regularly, go to church faithfully, pray with fervor, and worship with fervently and yet have a heart that is far from the Lord?
I want to assist us in obeying the command we see everywhere in scripture to Worship the Lord our God. But first, let us ask the question “What is Worship?”
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd Edition) says of worship in the Church,
To worship God is to ascribe to him the worth of which he is worthy
That’s true, of course, but it only communicates the faintest shadow of the reality of worship. Sort of like how “H20” describes cool refreshing water to a man dying of thirst. This is because while it is true that we are commanded to worship:
You shall have no other gods before me.
(Deuteronomy 5:7 ESV)
…worship involves our emotions as well, as we read later in the same book…
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
(Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV)
Jesus adds ‘mind’ to this command in Mark 12:30
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
(Mark 12:30 ESV)
We are called to LOVE the Lord our God….with ALL OUR HEART (that is our emotion), and SOUL (that is our spirit), and MIND (that is our intellect), and STRENGTH (that is our body)!
How do we do this?
The answer to this question is really the answer to the ‘why’ question of all spiritual disciplines.
Why do we practice any spiritual discipline? Why do we make ourselves pray, read our bibles, and worship? The question gives the answer away – we make ourselves do these things because they are not things we do naturally.
Why is this?
The bible is God’s word to man, and helps us to understand God himself, and has the answer to all of life’s difficulties. So then why do we neglect it?
In prayer, we gain access into the very throne room of God. And our loving father, who hears our prayers, will answer. So why do we neglect so magnificent a privilege?
Before answering this question, let me ask another question: why don’t we have to practice the Discipline of Chocolate Cake? Why is it that we do not have to discipline ourselves through trial and hardship to consume chocolate cake on a regular basis? It is because eating chocolate cake is, for most of us anyway, something we desire to do. And we don’t just desire it in an intellectual sense, that is, we don’t think to ourselves, “I know chocolate cake is tasty, therefore I will try some when it is served”. NO, rather….
…our mouth waters,
…we anticipate having it,
…and when it arrives, we are happy,
….and when we eat it, we derive pleasure!
We have a natural affection for chocolate cake, and so it takes no effort on our part to enjoy it. And this is where our hearts should be with respect to God!
How about classical music?
Listening to classical music has been shown to increase intelligence. It is more complicated, and it is more sophisticated than popular music. Nevertheless, we do not all share an innate love of classical music, do we? And those of us who do appreciate it, probably didn’t always…I know I didn’t. It’s one of those tastes one has to develop. But once developed, it does not take any particular effort to ‘enjoy’ classical music. It may have been unappealing at one time, but now, I enjoy classical music as much as any other kind. My affections in the realm of music have been altered over time.
Our affections can diminish or be eliminated as well. I know of a man who was a salesman with IBM. Before the Lord called him, he was given to coarse language. But, as he shared with me, once he became a Christian, he had no more desire to speak that way … it had become distasteful to him.
And so, we can see that the things we like, that we appreciate, that give us pleasure…these things naturally find a place in our lives, unless something external prevents it. We don’t even have to think about them usually, they are just there.
It is just as true that those things we don’t like, that we don’t value, those that seem bothersome, tedious, or painful…these things do not naturally find a place in our lives. We avoid them.
Proverbs 4:23 says
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
The psalmist is cluing us in to a profound insight:
We must take care about what our heart desires. We must guard ourselves, and be careful about which affections we nourish and which we starve. It is no small thing to desire something – it sets the course of our life.
Paul is really saying the same thing in Romans 13:14 when he says:
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Because that to which our heart is attached will find prominence in our life, and whatever we do not esteem will only be in our life peripherally and by a constant effort of the will, overriding our emotions, if it is there at all.
Think of this another way: when we act, when we do anything, we do what we do because we believe it will lead us to a preferable future. The man who hands over his wallet at gunpoint does so because he believes that handing over the wallet will result in better outcomes than not handing it over, or any other action he may take. The soldier who falls on a grenade does the same thing. The difference is only in where one’s affections lie, or what one considers ‘preferable’. The robbery victim values his life over his wallet; he expects that if he complies with the robber, he will retain his life. The soldier values the lives of his comrades over his own. He expects that by spending his own life, he will save theirs.
Of course, we don’t know what will happen in the future. We act in expectation of certain outcomes. We often have limited or incorrect information, and so we may take actions that lead to outcomes that are different from those we hoped for, but fundamentally, we act because we think our action will lead us towards preferred outcomes.
So I’ll ask again, why don’t we pray? Why don’t we read our bibles? What keeps us from entering fully into private and corporate worship?
It is because our affections are misplaced.
It is because, even though we may *know* on some level, that these things are good, deep down, we don’t believe it. Or we believe that other things will bring us greater satisfaction, and so we engage in those other activities which we actually believe will lead us to greater happiness or pleasure.
Well, if this is the case, and one cannot command the emotions, what are we to do?
I claim that the essence of the Christian life is trusting God in all that he says and then walking forth in obedience.
In trusting God, we essentially say “even though all my knowledge and experience leads me to conclude that I’m really better off watching more TV than taking some time to pray, I’m going to trust what God says in his word and pray anyway because I trust what God says more than I believe myself”. It’s a crisis of belief and trust: do we trust in our own limited experience, or do we trust in the Lord? Which way do we really believe will lead us to the greater blessing? At first, we may only actually trust God a little more than we trust ourselves.
So, we pray, out of simple obedience at first. I want us to notice that in obeying God, especially when that obedience is at odds with our inclinations, we are proving that we actually trust God, even if only a little. Because our actions show what we truly believe.
But then something happens: as we pray, we begin to see God answer our prayers. And in seeing God answer our prayers, we learn at a deeper level that prayer brings blessing, and we learn to trust Him more deeply. Not only do we have the trustworthy word of God telling us that prayer is a good thing to do, but we experience it for ourselves, and we Taste and See that the Lord is Good.
The value in spiritual discipline is not in brownie points with God. We don’t pray or read our bible or worship as a sort of protestant Hail Mary. Instead, we practice a spiritual discipline – that is we make ourselves do what we don’t naturally want to do – so that our hearts will change and our affections will follow our will, so that we come to trust God more deeply, value what God values, and desire what God desires.
So now let’s return to the topic of worship.
In worship, we are called to do more than merely acknowledge his greatness, though that is a good place to start. To worship God we must love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It requires us to engage at every level in adoring our good and gracious God. Listen to some of these passages which describe worship:
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
(Psalm 9:1-2 ESV)
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.
(Psalm 29:2 ESV)
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.
(Psalm 43:4 ESV)
These passages allow us to see into the heart of a worshiper that is overflowing with adoration and praise. His affections are clearly on the Lord. Why is this so? Why does the psalmist worship God in this way? And what has to be true of us so that we worship in the same way? What must be true of us so that we will Love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Well, just as we don’t have to train ourselves to rejoice over Chocolate Cake, we don’t have to train ourselves to give glory to things we find glorious, right? We naturally give glory to things we find to be beautiful, noble, excellent, or praiseworthy, don’t we?
If I hear a beautiful or moving piece of music, I listen to it over and over again. I rejoice in hearing it. I praise it to others. I’m sure you do the same.
Or when you see a mighty river, cascading into a waterfall, like Niagra Falls…you look at it and marvel at it. Nobody has to tell you to do this, your sense of the majesty of what you behold brings forth praise from your lips.
So it is with worshiping the Lord.
We worship God from our hearts, when our hearts are moved.
So why aren’t our hearts moved, or why aren’t they moved more?
This is where spiritual disciplines come in. We begin with trusting God and walking forth in obedience. We pray, we read scripture, we worship. Our emotions may or may not be engaged at this point, but we make ourselves do it out of obedience. But as we pray, and read, and worship, we see God act. We begin to learn his character. We start to TASTE and SEE that THE LORD IS GOOD. And as we do…as we experience his goodness in our own lives…as we see how very much he loves us (loves ME!)…our affections shift. We move from simple trust, to trust based on experience.
I’ve been a Christian for about 30 years, and in all that time I’ve heard people talk about how the Christian life is about a relationship with God. I never understood what they were talking about. I knew that God is good, that he sent his Son to die for me. I knew I was a sinner in need of his grace, and I was thankful for it. But I did not understand what it meant to have a relationship with God as I have relationships with people. I trusted God, I was grateful to him for saving me, but that was about as far as it went.
But over the past decade, I’ve faced several hardships: I’ve been layed off twice, I’ve had a heart attack, and numerous other difficulties. In each case however, the Lord gave me the faith to trust Him for all I need, and he has sustained me through it all, miraculously at times. Had I never gone through these trials, and had to rely on my God, I would not have known how good God is. I would not have experienced his provision when there was no visible means of support. I would not have experienced on a personal level how much he loves me or seen how tenderly he cares for me. I still have a LOT to learn in this area, but now I can say I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. I understand now what it is to have a relationship with God, though for me it has only just begun. And I am overwhelmed with his goodness and love for me.
And so for me, worshiping God is like laughing with my children, or enjoying a sunset, or delighting in beautiful music, or kissing my wife: it is not something I have to train myself to do, it is the natural response to a supernatural experience.
And if you are in the place I was, not really having an inner sense of God’s goodness and not really having what you would call a relationship with God, let me just encourage you to continue to trust God and walk forth in obedience. We cannot command our emotions (so don’t condemn yourself for how you don’t feel), but we can train ourselves, trusting that our emotions will follow, in time. We cannot orchestrate the events of our lives, nor schedule the time and place where God will take us through a storm, but we can trust him now and acknowledge Him in all we do. As Hebrews 11:6 ESV says,
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
Finally, brothers and sisters, consider what David says in the 42nd Psalm:
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
(Psalm 42:1 ESV)
Let that be the aim of our life, that our affections would all be pointed to Christ, that we would desire more and more of Him, and less and less of whatever this world has to offer.
We WILL grow in authentic worship as we experience Christ in our lives. Let us open ourselves up wide to whatever he has in store for us. Let us set our affections on those things which are good, wholesome, and godly. Let us hate what is evil. Let us walk forth in obedience, trusting that he will take our seed of faith and trust, and grow us to completion in Jesus, our Lord.