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Getting to the Heart of Worship

Brokenness, not brilliance, is what the Father seeks from worshipers.

What type of worship honors God, or what is it that makes worship worshipful to God?

In my perception, most theological presuppositions about worship focus on the cerebral, not the visceral--on the mind, not the heart.

In Western Christian tradition, a virtual scorning of the subjective experience or the mystical nature of encountering God finds common approval.

A usual theology of worship centers on an objective analysis of God's revealed person, nature and attributes, with the accompanying presupposition that worthy worship is essentially found in our reciting this information back to Him.

This focus on the mind's ideas about God, rather than the heart's hunger for Him, overlooks the truth that worship is actually a gift from God to us more than one of ours to Him, that He is more interested in helping us than we are capable of interpreting Him.

Some would insist that worship is an intellectual exercise. But the words of our Savior still resound the undeniable call to worship that transcends the intellect: "'God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth'" (John 4:24, NKJV).

We are inclined to conclude "mind" and "spirit" are synonyms, but the Bible demonstrates worshiping "in spirit" is more likely a reference to the heart. "In truth" is a companion phrase that indicates the active participation of the intellect but is dependent upon the heart's fullest release in worship first.

This priority is usually held suspect, because our intellectualized value system minimizes the worth of emotions, and our hearts are deemed less worthy, being governed more by affections than by reason and thus more vulnerable to deception than the intellect.

But to turn on these terms from "spiritual" worship to an intellectually based approach, is to entertain a dual delusion: first, that the mind is less subject to deception than the heart (an unsupportable concept, see 2 Cor. 4:4); and, second, that the mind is ever a means by which God is "contacted" in worship (see Job 11:7).

This is not to denigrate the value of God's gift of human intellect, nor to deny that human intelligence contributes to worship. Instead, our quest is to determine what kind of worship God desires from us.

God's Word indicates that He is not looking for something brilliant, but something broken: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart--these, O God, You will not despise" (Ps. 51:17).

It is not that our minds are unworthy vehicles to receive divine revelation, but that they are too limited to respond to the divine invitation.

The intellect may discover truth about God's worthiness of worship and may choose to do so. But to fully enter into the dimensions of our Creator-Redeemer's presence, only the spiritual capacities of the worshiping heart will suffice.

The exercises of our enlightened minds may deduce God, but only our ignited hearts can delight Him--and in turn experience His desire to delight us!

That is His desire, without question. His invitation to eternal life and eternal joy is an expression of God's preoccupation with humanity. Our fathers have taught us this: "The chief end of man is to love God and to enjoy Him forever."

This anticipated joy is not reserved solely for the future life, for Peter says of our present worship of Christ: "Whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith" (1 Pet. 1:8).

Thus, I tread the risky territory of seeming to minimize worship by not focusing first on God's holiness and our unworthiness. Instead, I propose that, from God's viewpoint, worship is a means designed to unlock the human heart that God may answer human need and serve His own heartfelt interest in the well-being of His most beloved creatures.

Ultimately, what is on God's mind when we worship Him is not how many grandiose thoughts we have about Him, but how passionately our hearts desire Him. And what He most wants to achieve in the intercourse of our spirits with His is the transmission of love, life and joy.

I propose such a theology of worship upon the evidence of God's pleasure with worship we find in His Word:

1. Worship which treasures His presence. Foremost, God welcomes those into His presence who want Him. Their quest may be one of desperation or of delight, of frantic need or of a loving hunger for fellowship, but the motivation is clearly focused--and so is His pleasure with it.

In Exodus 33 and 34, a tender and powerful exchange takes place between God and Moses, spanning the range of actions from an intimate face-to-face encounter to a dramatic declaration by the Almighty at which time the second set of tablets containing the Law are given to Moses.

Central to this scene is the cry of Moses' heart: "'Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight' ... And He said, 'My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.' Then he said to Him, 'If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here'" (Ex. 33:13-15).

Shortly following this, God displays His glory to Moses--a sure a sign of His pleasure and presence as He ever gives (see Ex. 40:33-38).

It was not until I had been in pastoral leadership for nearly 15 years that a transformation took place in my thinking about our corporate worship.

More than tightly regimented gatherings, concerned over the aesthetics, mechanics and academics of our time together, we began to prioritize providing an unpressured portion of the service for freely flowing songs of praise and adoration--often songs directly expressive of the Scriptures.

Such worship will cause us to be awed by His presence and fall in love with His person.

2. Worship which humbles the heart. Perhaps one of the most memorable encounter between God and man is the occasion of Isaiah's call (see Is. 6:1-8).

The abject cry of a sinful man, "Woe is me, for I am undone,'" was not an achievement of intellectual analysis, but of a self-discovery faced upon entering God's presence with unabashed passion and childlike openness. "I saw the Lord" (v. 1), he says, with neither apology or arrogance, as a breakthrough of grace produces a breakup of pride--a viewpoint even more deeply affirmed later in the same book (see Is. 57:15).

I hold no disdain for the propriety of respecting human dignity. But there is a disposition in both the church and the world that equates dignity and pride--and it is a false equation.

The worth of each individual in my congregation requires that I teach, help and model a pathway for all of us to come as children before the Father.

But the deceptiveness of pride, and its insistence on finding a way to justify its preservation, calls me to find a means to help hearts toward a humility like Isaiah's, that will give place to a fresh view of God, and pave the way to deeply felt confession and purification in His presence.

3. Worship which sanctifies and which expects something from God. Hebrews 11:6 states, "He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."

The text is based on the proposition that worship always involves a sacrifice to God--that "he who comes," whether with praise, an offering, or in the laying down of something being asked by the Holy Spirit's call, is presenting something of themselves to Him.

But simultaneously, we are told that the worshiper is with equal faith to believe something will be given in return by God Himself--something rewarding, enriching, benevolent and good.

It is not unspiritual to remember the timeless fact: Worship is God's gift to us for our blessing and benefit. He doesn't need it. We do.

And as we learn to enter with full and open hearts, we will find ourselves humbled and cleansed, and we will ultimately come with full and opened hands that give.

4. Worship which extends God's love by every means. If God-pleasing worship addresses human need more than it supplies a divine one, it is to be expected that worship will beget reaching hands.

While the greatest commandment is to love God, it is inextricably connected to the second commandment, which is to love one another. The only truly divine approval our worship will find is when it results in hearts being focused on such things as forgiveness, evangelism and availability to assist in human need.

In conclusion, the worship God most welcomes is not primarily intellectual (although it is certainly not unintelligent), and God's primary focus in giving us access to worship Him is to provide an exposure and experience intended for our benefit, not His (although is is unquestionable that He delights in our coming to Him).

Jack Hayford, D.Litt., is chancellor of The King's College and Seminary in Van Nuys, California. He has edited a CD-Rom resource titled, Hayford's Electronic Spirit-Filled Life Library.

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