What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word “worship”?
If I were to invite you over to a “night of worship” at my house, you’d probably expect a couple guitars, some bongos (because I love bongos), and some bad singing. Some of us might be excited. Others, particularly the not-musically-inclined, quail. Singing doesn’t grab everybody.
Which is why it’s a vaguely guilty relief for some, then, to find out that worship and music aren’t the same at all. Worship is much bigger. I’ve consistently been reminded of this vital truth in the evangelical circles in which I’ve flown, and I’m grateful for it.
But what is worship, then?
The answer I most commonly hear is that it is a lifestyle, one that we struggle to maintain. Real worship involves our actions and our obedience; we truly worship not through a one-time experience, but through our daily lives. Hands raised in church are trumped by choices raised in surrender. This is closer to the right answer, I think, and a much more spiritually productive definition than “what we do on Sunday”.
Yet that doesn’t seem to quite nail it down. In Jeremiah 2:23-24, God laments over the Israelites’ idolatry with words that make us squirm: “You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving — in her heat who can restrain her?” Or Jesus’ sobering words to his disciples: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
There seems a fierce momentum to worship here, something not to be flipped like a light switch, but resisted like a gale.
A new definition of worship hits like a nor’easter.
Worship is constant.
We human beings are in a constant, unstoppable state of worship. We cannot stop. Bearing as we do a deep gash in our souls, we are ever seeking something to fill it. There is never a time when humans are not worshiping, anymore than our neurons ever stop firing or our pulse ever stops beating. It is a built-in, irresistible function of our design.
The only question is what we worship.
And that object can be identified by answering a simple question: What are we unwilling to let go of?
Oh, if only our answer was God. Yet other things compete. Some dream or goal or desire, perhaps even one that originally came from God. And it’s probably the thing we’re least willing to let go of.
Worship is anything to which we look for joy.
Define worship in that way, and our lives instantly snap into focus. We see our idols for what they are.
For everyone searches for joy. It’s a faculty of humanity, like our groping for water. The disciples thought money would ease their insecurity towards life, and we carry on their misconception today. Judah expected the Baals to do it for them. I used to think marriage would do it for me. Put worship in this light, lift the religious connotation, and we suddenly see worship as an ongoing, moment-to-moment faculty we’ve been performing all along. It never stops; it merely shifts its object. God made us to reach for joy; he made us to worship.
But he never meant us to worship idols. And with every hard revelation if our idolatry that comes along every once in a while, comes a new chance to destroy those high places.
This is a wonderful purging. Every once in a while, both when things go well and when they don’t, I find myself asking, “What is deciding my state of mind right now?” Is it blessing or circumstance? Some hope on the horizon that seems to be getting brighter? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying God’s blessings and thanking him for them. But what would happen if they evaporated tomorrow? Is my joy dependent on that, tied to the amount of blessing like a thermometer’s mercury to the temperature?
I’m a worshipful creature. I’m going to worship. That much is decided. But I can decide what I worship. I can learn to lift the hood and examine what’s fueling the engine of my joy.
And when I rise each morning, I can choose which fuel nozzle to lift – that of feeding my idols, or of choosing God.