"This could just as easily be about cocaine use," I thought to myself. The writer of this particular worship song, it seemed, went out of his way to avoid mentioning the name of Jesus. The phrases “I’m spinning around” and “I can’t stop moving” were repeated several times. “I need more of you” was echoed throughout the chorus. Because I was in church, I knew the song had to be about God, but I started to smirk when I thought about the words being applied to chronic drug use. I turned to my wife and she gave me one of those half-critical, half-curious stares. Then I leaned in and whispered what I thought was so funny. She glanced up at the lyrics on the screen in front of us; then she giggled silently, covering her mouth (because she has better manners than I do).
While there’s nothing funny about addiction or about worshiping God, I think worship songs that can so easily be misinterpreted as advertisements for illegal substances are hilarious. To quote Homer Simpson, it’s tragically ludicrous, “like when a clown dies.” Well, maybe it’s not exactly like when a clown dies, but there’s something out of place when we make God so small that He can be confused with a sensation as temporary and heartbreaking as the thrill of getting high.
On the ride home from church, I thought about worship and how it’s become this thing we do in church on Sunday mornings, but how it would seem so out of place the rest of the week. Imagine meeting some friends for coffee, and halfway through the conversation, someone says, “You know, I really just feel like worshiping. Anyone want to join in?” Then they pull out their iPhone, select a karaoke track from the latest Hillsong CD, close their eyes, and begin singing in the middle of Starbucks. Or picture the guy in the cubicle next to yours standing in front of his computer screen, hands raised with palms open, silently mouthing “Our God is an awesome God.” It seems out of place, doesn’t it?
If you read through the Gospels, you’ll likely notice a handful of places where people just stopped what they were doing and worshipped Jesus. One of these passages is the famous account of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had gone across the lake in a boat, leaving Jesus to be alone for a while. Late at night, the disciples were dealing with rough waters and a bit of wind. In the distance, they could make out a lone figure walking toward them on the water. At first, they were scared, thinking that what they were seeing was a ghost, but Jesus calmed their fears by revealing Himself to them. When He got closer, Peter asked to join Jesus on the water, and in a moment of doubt, began to sink. Jesus helped Peter up, and as the two of them got in the boat, He calmed the storm. After all this, we read, “Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:33). As a kid, I heard this passage being read and thought this last verse was a bit odd. When it says they worshiped Him, I pictured grown men—gruff fishermen—singing “As the Deer” and “This Little Light of Mine” in rousing three-part harmony to Jesus.
Worship can take the form of singing or reverent awe, but I think it’s sad when we think that’s all it is. When we restrict worship to music and singing, we run the risk of turning it into a mere ritual. While Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly what the disciples’ worship was like after the water-walking incident, he does tell us that their worship came as a result of an awe-inspiring realization that Jesus was the Son of God; they were overwhelmed by His presence. What they were experiencing inwardly was expressed outwardly in worship. And that’s what true worship is all about.
I believe that followers of Christ should be engaged in worship all week long. While I’m not advocating random singing in inappropriate places, I do believe that our internal experience of life with Jesus should be expressed outwardly. That’s one of the reasons why worshiping God and seeking justice should go hand-in-hand. Because we have been loved, we ought to love others. Because God is holy, so should we be. That’s just the natural order of things.
When worship becomes all about our inward feelings, something’s gone wrong. Hear what God said to His people when their worship became nothing more than a shallow exercise, when they had forgotten about justice: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:23-24). It’s not really worship if it’s never expressed in our lives.
Likewise, when Jesus encountered Pharisees who were outwardly righteous, meticulously keeping the Law and the purity rituals of the time—“worshiping” God outwardly—He called them out on their cold, loveless hearts. They had focused on the external so much that they lost the very heart of God, even accusing Jesus of working miracles through satanic power. Commenting on their condition, Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in them.” (Matthew 12:34-35). Though the Pharisees would’ve been considered quite “righteous” in their day, external actions without an internal love for God are meaningless. True worship is an overflow of what’s taking place in the heart. And that’s what’s pleasing to God: a changed heart.
Worship is at the very core of what it means to know Jesus. In fact, worship of the heart expressing itself outwardly is what it means to follow Him. Worship is not an add-on, it’s not an elective, and it’s not an option. Without overstating things, I think I can safely say worship is the Christian life. That puts that small bit of singing on Sunday mornings into perspective. It’s easy to belt out the songs, put on the smiley face and behave like you’re supposed to, but if that’s all it is, it’s not really worship. First and foremost, worship is what we’re supposed to be up to the rest of the week. It’s supposed to be expressed in caring for the poor, honoring God with your eyes, not flipping off the guy off in the BMW who’s riding your bumper, seeking peace and justice down the street and around the world, standing in awe at God’s creative power, making small, everyday decisions that take other people into account, helping a child, choosing to be thankful for what God has provided and, yes, in singing praises to God. There are countless other things that could be listed as well, but worship is not just a list of things to do. It’s a way of life.