I’m a worship leader. I think about musical worship in church all the time. I love singing, I love music, I love being in a congregation and being in His presence. From a young age I’ve also felt deeply about injustices in the world. And it confused me because in the churches I was in, I didn’t always see a passion for worship and justice. It felt like some churches and people wanted to sing all the time, and others wanted to go out and do things. There just didn’t seem to be many people who cared about both.
So often in Western society we take complex truths then simplify and separate them. Especially truths about faith and God. We let our experiences, our desires, our need for control, and our fears shape how we operate.
This is something God’s people have always struggled with. We see it throughout the story of the Bible. God calls his people, the Israelites, to put Him first, to be His witnesses, His hands and feet on the earth. And so often they don’t get it. They try to simplify and separate God’s calling.
God is massive and complex and sometimes seems contradictory. And we all want to understand and control and do things our own way. So the Israelites simplified what God asked them to do. He asked the Israelites to do sacrifices as a symbolic ritual to turn them away from sin, to provide some form of “payment” for their sin, to cleanse and purify themselves and to ask God to keep His presence with the people. The death of an animal or giving up of something vital symbolized the high stakes of sin and selfishness. It was to show the Israelites how devastating sin was. But the Israelites simplified, turning it into a mindless ritual to make God happy with them again.
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humblywith your God” (Micah 6:6-8).
God doesn’t want us to just “do” things. He doesn’t want mindless sacrifices. There is nothing we could offer that would be good enough for God. Instead Jesus pays that price for us now, and instead we are called to a loving relationship with Him through which action flows out. What could a ritual or mindless sacrifice look like for us today? Maybe it’s saying grace before a meal, putting your hands up in worship, reading the Bible. These are all great things, but not when they are done without the heart.
We simplify. And we separate. God called the Israelites to be His witnesses to the world. To point people to Him. To be His hands and feet. But the Israelites separated their calling. They took what they liked. They said, “We’re God’s chosen people. He’s for us. He will protect us and love us.” But often they left out the other stuff. They forgot about loving others, and doing justice and obeying God, and that they would be a blessing as was promised to Abraham. They separated God’s promises and calling and just focused on the parts they wanted. So much of the Old Testament, especially the writings of the Prophets, is God calling His people to live in the complexity of both worship and justice, rather than separating out parts.
This is a dichotomy we still struggle with today. We are called to both love God and to love others, but we simplify and separate. We see this in churches today. Some churches are obsessed with the idea of the Holy Spirit, some churches love the bible. Some people love worshipping God with songs, free worship, hands waving; other people love to advocate for causes and feed the homeless. But God calls His people to instead live in the tension of seeking everything he has planned for us.
God is complex in His very nature. He is angry and He is kind. He judges sin but He loves us enough to die for us. He calls us to radical dangerous obedience, but He also carries our burdens. Complexity is also what He calls us to. He calls us to worship Him in song but also with our actions. He calls us to love Him but also to love others. He calls us to fight for the rights of people who are voiceless but also to listen gently to people who need to talk. He calls us to walk in power and freedom, but to use that with humility and kindness.
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 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 5:21-24).
This isn’t saying that God hates our music, or our singing, or our church services. He loves them. But He hates when they become the main game. When we do the religious acts and motions yet forget the heart behind them. He wants us to love people as well as him. He calls us to live lives of justice, righteousness, mercy and humility. Worship is giving God honor and glory and our hearts, and that includes obedience. We can’t love God but not love who He loves. We can’t separate worship and justice.
When we simplify God’s calling and commands and separate out the parts that we prefer, we are missing out on the fullness of faith. Just as God is in His very nature complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory, we need to hold the tension of both loving God and being in His presence, and loving others as an affirmative action. If we simply worship and don’t seek justice, we are hypocrites in God’s eyes. If we seek justice and not worship, we are not living how we were designed.
Worship is a key to pursuing justice. It shapes how we see the world and shows us God’s heart. Worship through music is one of the ways the Holy Spirit can shape us into people who know they are loved and then can love others. And we are called to do justice, to love being merciful and to be people who are humble enough to ask God where He wants us to walk and what He wants us to do. True worship happens when our lives become a declaration of who God is and a practice of trying to give Him the honour He deserves. We can’t do that without obeying His commandments. And we can’t do that without having the same heart He has for His people. As we worship God for who He is, we will be drawn into having His heart for the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the hurting.
If we are just worshippers who seek after God with just a song, we are ignoring the world He has placed us in and called us to love. So what do we do? As we worship with music, let’s let the Holy Spirit change our heart. When we hear a prompting whisper, let’s try obedience. When God moves in our hearts, we will be compelled to worship and compelled to love His world.
God doesn’t simplify or separate His love for us, or aspects of who He is. So we hold the tension of musical worship and doing justice, like God has always held the tension between our sin and his love for us.
Our God is a God who is worthy of worship, and He will do the justice our hearts cry out for. One day, as foreshadowed by the cross and resurrection, death will be defeated, and the broken dead things of this world will rise. We long for the New Creation, when we will truly be free to worship for eternity, and where justice will reign. We will experience true justice and true worship for the first time, and it will be glorious.
Melanie is a young Australian who works with young people, focusing on leadership and wellbeing. She is passionate about the local church, and leads worship and youth at Northern Life Baptist Church.