I’m often amazed at the controversy in evangelical circles concerning worship. So here’s my definition or description of worship:
Worship begins with deep, biblical thoughts about God, robust and expansive truths about who he is and his greatness and glory, thoughts that in turn awaken passionate affections for God such as joy and gladness and delight and gratitude and admiration and love and fear and zeal and deep satisfaction in all that God is for us in Jesus. These in turn find expression in all of life, whether in singing or speaking or acting or the decisions we make or the way we live life in general.
Worship happens when the mind is gripped with the revelation of great truths about God and the heart and affections are set on fire with joy and satisfaction and gratitude and gladness and admiration and the mouth explodes in songs of praise and proclamations of the incomparable greatness of God.
Thus we see that worship begins with intensely profound and inspiring and exalted thoughts about who God is. Worship begins in the mind. It starts with biblically accurate truths about God. Anything that passes itself off as worship that is not based on the biblical revelation of what God is truly like is nothing less than idolatry.
But worship that truly honors God must never stop with big ideas that fill our minds about who God is. These ideas must in turn stoke the fires of our soul with heart-felt affections for God; good theology must stir our feelings and ignite our passions and intensify our experience of love and joy and awestruck wonder and brokenness for sin and longing for God and gratitude for what he’s done and hope in what he has promised. Truth is designed to take our breath away.
These truths that fill our minds and then inflame our affections often are then expressed physically and externally in a variety of ways: singing, shouting, kneeling, bowing, lying prostrate on the ground, raising of our hands, weeping, dancing, and trembling. Or perhaps it is expressed in our observance of the Lord’s Supper or in water baptism or in public prayers or in the giving of our money or in reading of Scripture or in serving those in need or in generously giving to them financially.
That is worship.
Let’s be clear about one thing. To talk of worship or “sacrifice” (Heb. 13:15) or to speak of “doing” anything for the glory of God will always feel like a burdensome weight, an oppressive obligation, even like law, if your heart is not first captivated and enthralled with the beauty and majesty of his glory. If I say to you, “Live for the glory of God,” your instinctive response might be to say: “Ugh. That doesn’t sound like much fun. I don’t even know what God’s glory is. It just feels like Sam put another brick into this moral backpack of heaviness that I carry about constantly. I’m bone tired of it.”
But if I first say, “Let me put on display for you the majesty of God’s glory; let me paint a portrait of God’s beauty and splendor and pray with you and for you that the Spirit would give you eyes to see it and a heart to relish and rejoice in it,” then perhaps the call to live for that glory might strike in you an altogether different chord.
The fact is that until you are stunned by God’s grace and left breathless at his power and overcome by his beauty and enthralled with his knowledge and fascinated by his self-sufficiency and in awe of his love for broken and hell-deserving sinners like you and me, you will never respond to the call to offer up a sacrifice to him as anything other than a religious obligation to be fulfilled or a moral duty to discharge. You must first know God and see God and be ravished by his beauty before you will delight in the service and praise of God. Until such time as your mind is gripped by the sovereignty of God and your imagination is electrified by the truth of God you will hear the words of Scripture that call you to worship God as oppressive and onerous.
As John Piper once said, “work for God that is not sustained by wonder at God is a weariness of the flesh.” That is why my aim in ministry is always to lay before the eyes of men and women the grandeur of God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ. If you don’t see and savor his grandeur, any talk of a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15) will ring hollow in your heart.