Monday, June 13, 2016

In Need of Analysis: Worship as a Lifestyle [Part 1]

The subject of worship is currently getting a little more attention than usual in Christian circles, and that’s not a bad thing. We have John Piper to thank for this, among others who have written about worship as a lifestyle.

Piper starts by encouraging us to enlarge our thoughts of worship:

“… don’t think worship services when you think worship. That is a huge limitation which is not in the Bible. All of life is supposed to be worship.”

and goes on to describe eating at Pizza Hut to the glory of God, having sex to the glory of God and dying to the glory of God. So eating moderately, healthily and gratefully is worship; loving sex within the bounds of marriage is worship; chastity, too, is worship. “You are always in a temple,” Piper says. “Always worship.”

Another advocate riffs on the same idea:
“As we learn to trust [God], our response to life becomes one of worship … a constant attitude of ‘intentionally expressing the infinite worth of God’s glory’ through the way we live our lives.”
— Travis L. Boyd
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Surely a life full of the consciousness of God lived reverently for his sake is something to which we should all aspire.

Piper’s basis for enlarging our idea of worship is Paul’s exhortation to the Roman believers: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” So there’s nothing unbiblical in the idea that something you do with your body can be an act of worship, and an act that scripture encourages. Piper’s interpretation of this proof text and others he cites about “glorifying God in your body” are not in dispute.

An “Act of Worship” vs. “Worship”

Before we go too far here, we need to distinguish between the two senses in which the word “worship” is used in scripture:
  1. It is used to refer to an “act of worship”, which is to say the external form through which worship itself may be manifested.
  2. It is used to refer to a deeply reverent state of heart characterized by total occupation with God in which the worshiper esteems him very highly. This state of heart may give rise to an act of worship, or it may occur during an act of worship, or both. We may call this state of heart “worship” proper. It is this and only this state that actually pleases God. Real worship is consistently accompanied by one or more identifiable characteristics by which we may distinguish it from a mere act of worship.
Abel worshiped, while Cain merely performed an act of worship. God was pleased with Abel’s offering, but not with Cain’s. Nadab and Abihu performed an act of worship, for which they were summarily dismissed from the planet. Isaiah records the Lord’s complaint about Israel: “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me”. The people of Israel were performing acts of worship without actually worshiping. It is equally possible to do so today.

An example may help: Bringing flowers, buying candy, getting an engagement ring, saying vows, etc. may be called “acts of love”. But they are not “love”. We can buy flowers out of guilt, candy out of hope she’ll share, an engagement ring out of possessiveness, and take vows out of a desire to bind her to the same vows. The acts CAN signal love, but do not automatically guarantee love.

Similarly, worship is evidenced by acts. In the Old Testament these acts included building altars and offering animal sacrifices. In the New Testament, these acts include singing, prayer, sacrifice and meditation. But each of those acts can be performed unworshipfully and mechanically as well. Whether worship happens depends on the heart, not on the externals.

It is important when we read the word “worship” in scripture to ask ourselves in which sense it is being used.

The Problem with Worship as a Lifestyle

So what’s wrong with the idea that “all of life is supposed to be worship”? Well, for one, because that is not how the word “worship” is employed in the word of God.

The problem with broadening our understanding of worship in the way that Piper describes is that real worship requires an engagement with the human heart that pleases God, not merely the set of externals that accompanies any act of worship. And the heart cannot be kept incessantly and unremittingly fixed on the holy. At least not until we get to heaven. To turn from the mundane — which, if we are honest, describes most of our lives — and to appreciate God and revel in his greatness is an intense activity, requiring at least a temporary suspension of our worldly cares and concerns. It cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Redefining worship to take in every activity and every moment of life is much like spreading the contents of the oceans over the entire surface of the earth. The area covered by water may be much more expansive than previously, but it is also considerably shallower.

The sort of worship that may be imagined to take place every waking moment of our day — at Pizza Hut or in bed (with or without spouse) — is necessarily so diluted, such a pale shadow of what scripture teaches, as to be unworthy of the name.

Whether or not this dilution is what Mr. Piper intends to promote, it is evident from the way the word “worship” is used by those who have embraced worship as lifestyle — whether they are taking their cue from Piper or some other proponent of the idea — that they view their expanded notion of worship as replacing expressions of personal or corporate devotion that they find less agreeable, less immediately fulfilling, or more difficult to perform. The casualness with which they employ the word bears no resemblance to the way the word “worship” is used in scripture.

Let’s look at five things that characterize real worship in the word of God, as opposed to mere acts of worship:

Five Characteristics of Genuine Worship

1. Worship is Deliberate

Real worship is conscious and deliberate. It requires intentionally turning one’s attention from one’s surroundings to God. One moment one is not worshiping, the next moment one is. True worship is frequently spontaneous but never subconscious or merely mechanical.

When Abraham said, “I and the boy will go over there and worship”, he had a specific reverential activity and location in mind. He was going to worship “over there”. He planned to engage in a series of specific acts: laying down the wood, slaying the sacrifice, placing it on the altar, setting fire to it and standing over it, or perhaps bowing beside it, as it burned. The state of heart which was pleasing to God required preparation and effort. It did not merely come upon Abraham.

The word is also used of reverent prayer even when an animal sacrifice was not involved. The psalmist says “I will worship toward your holy temple”, which suggests that, though not present to offer a sacrifice, his mind and heart were there. Many of our English translations replace the word “worship” here with “bow down”, which may accurately represent the psalmist’s intention. His “sacrifice” was his humility and his willingness to abase himself.

But whether there was an actual sacrifice involved or not, worship has always involved a conscious, deliberate choice on the part of the worshiper.

You choose worship. It doesn’t happen on autopilot.

2. Worship is Sacrificial

True worship is characterized by sacrifice. David said, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing”, and promptly handed over fifty shekels of silver to demonstrate his conviction.

Worshipers under the Law of Moses were permitted to bring various sorts of offerings to the altar, depending on what each was able to afford. But God commanded that “none shall appear before me empty handed”, so no matter how poor the Israelite, nobody came to worship with nothing. There was a cost to worshiping.

Daniel had no altar and no sacrifice. In captivity, he was subject to the unalterable law of the Medes and Persians and unable to practice the Law of Moses. But worship is costly, so he offered his loyalty and his dignity instead. Like the psalmist who worshiped “toward your holy temple”, he opened the windows of his room three times a day in the direction of Jerusalem, got down on his knees and prayed and gave thanks to the Lord, though he knew it could cost him his life. And it nearly did.

That’s worship. It doesn’t come cheap.

3. Worship is Informed

Worship has its basis in revelation. It is frequently an acknowledgement of something learned about God.

When the Lord appeared to Abram and told him “To your offspring I will give this land, Abram built an altar. He worshiped. When God appeared to Isaac in Beersheba, he built an altar and called on the name of the Lord. When he revealed himself to Jacob at Bethel, he built an altar.

Worship has content, and its content is truth. It is not ignorant or merely whimsical. My personal opinion about God is valueless in worship unless it is securely founded on his revealed word.

4. Worship is Not a Routine

That is to say, acts of worship unaccompanied by the appropriate attitude of reverence do not please God. They cannot be merely repetitious or mechanical. Isaiah speaks for God about a form of worship without the heart engaged:
“… their reverence [or worship] for me consists of tradition learned by rote.”
In other words, the religious acts of devotion were still taking place, but the hearts of the worshipers were not involved, and their worship was therefore worthless to God. There was no true “worship” occurring.

5. Worship is Obedient, Not Casual or Creative

Acts of worship were to be carried out as God had prescribed. Worship is not an act of creativity but an act of obedience. Cain got creative with his offering and Genesis records that for Cain and his offering God had no regard. Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized fire before the Lord”. They were immediately incinerated. That which should have been a recognition of God’s holiness was instead delivered as an insult and God replied, “Before all the people I will be glorified”.

Such is the gravity of this subject. God is not to be approached casually or flippantly. Our creative instincts are not welcome in the holy of holies.

In Summary

To sum up then: worship in scripture is deliberate, sacrificial, obedient and informed by the character of God himself. It is not a mechanical, rote act, nor is it to be engaged in casually.

So while a “constant attitude of ‘intentionally expressing the infinite worth of God’s glory’ through the way we live our lives” might initially seem like a worthy idea, it needs to be modified by the teaching of scripture.

One great difficulty I have with accepting John Piper’s broad redefinition of worship from a verse in Romans is that Revelation was written after Romans was. And in Revelation we find John describing worship that, while very frequent, is just as informed, deliberate and lacking in casualness as that of the Old Testament. Perhaps for believers in glory worship has become their lifestyle for eternity, but the word itself is still used to describe specific heavenly activities, not everything the saints do.

In heaven, four living creatures give glory and honour and thanks night and day. John says they never cease doing it. And part of this heavenly activity is the regular, repeated worship of the twenty-four elders seated on thrones surrounding the great throne of God. At times they are seated, at others they fall down and worship, casting their crowns before God’s throne.

If “all of life is supposed to be worship”, as John Piper contends, why do the twenty-four elders ever sit on their thrones? But they do. So not only is there is a necessary ebb and flow to worship on earth, there is even a cycle, or a rhythm, to worship in heaven. It is certainly unceasing, in the sense that it will carry on throughout eternity. It is not, however, without its pauses, at least on the part of the humans beings involved.

What’s my point? Not even heavenly worship is “constant”, in the sense that John Piper and Travis Boyd suggest is desirable.


  1. Btw, prayer is worship. Here is one of the life events that I am always talking about that can bring you back to God. Pay attention to the next to last paragraph.

    ... 'Hall said she prays daily that she doesn’t fall back into addiction. She has a job working as a boat detailer, a strong support system, and, as of Friday, she has been clean for 78 days.'

  2. I think I'd be inclined to modify that to "prayer is SOMETIMES worship", Qman. "Thanks for this food, Lord. Amen," for example, while it is certainly a prayer, seems to lack a genuinely worshipful component, at least if you are using the word worship the way the Bible uses it. Or, again, "Lord, please help the Falcons to beat Baltimore today", again, lacks any quality I would call worshipful. Or even "Lord, please don't help me fall back into addiction". It's a request that recognizes God's power, love and ability to respond, but I still wouldn't be inclined to compare it to, say, Solomon's prayer at the inauguration of the temple in Jerusalem. Worship, I believe, is something higher and more significant than any request.

    To take something more familiar, in looking at how the Lord taught his disciples to pray, I would say that the lines "Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" all have worshipful elements to them. If prayed sincerely, they are worship. But "Give us this day our daily bread", "Forgive us our debts ...", "Lead us not into temptation ... etc." are merely requests of various sorts. There's nothing specifically worshipful about them. "For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory", though, return to the more worshipful end of things, again, if prayed with a heart genuinely occupied with God rather than merely repeating something by rote.

    That's how I'd look at it anyway, and I believe that's consistent with the Bible's usage.

    1. I'd agree, Tom.

      Qman seems to feel that the worshipfulness of a prayer can be judged by its effectiveness on some kind of real-world problem, such as helping one with one's addictions. But prayer *as worship* does not have the focus of solving our problems (no matter how pressing or serious they may be) so much as of returning to God the rightful esteem He deserves. If that produces any real-world advantages for us, they are mere side-effects.

      Prayer has many uses -- petition, intercession, advocacy, praise, and so on. All these are great, and all are necessary in their times; but not all are worship...even when they ostensibly work for their intended purposes.

      The business of worship is not for us to get something from God, but to give back to God that regard, love and esteem which He so richly deserves.