A while back I came across an article where the writer elaborated on his distaste for the “worship” industry, and how it muddies what “true Christian worship” is for him. Now, despite some of the more Catholic-y bits scattered about, the author’s main points felt pretty spot on, and more importantly it got me to revisit a topic that has troubled me for most of my Christian life: “what is worship”?
In modern Christian life you quickly learn to divide the church service into 2 main parts: “Worship time” and “Preaching time.” Once in a while they’ll mix things up. Maybe “worship” lasted the whole service, or it was at the end, or maybe it became an intercession thing. But overall those were the two primary Sunday morning activities. “Worship” as a child mainly meant “when everybody sings,” with the addition of dancing, flag waving, and/or small instruments, depending on the church. There was also a clear difference in the songs as well. There were some songs that you definitely wouldn’t dance to, but rather sit quietly at your chair, kneel, and usually pray through. Normally, this is also when people would cry and raise up their hands.
In my youth, the latter is what I began to define as “real worship.” That’s not to say the former was “fake” or anything, but rather it was a “lower level” while the more emotional version was the one you were supposed to try and obtain because it was when you “truly connected with the Lord,” or so I imagined. I’ve always felt (and I imagine many other believers, new and old) that I have great difficulty reaching this “super emotional state” that apparently most “normal” Christians achieve with relative ease. Sure, I could clap my hands for the active songs, and I could talk to the Lord during the more quiet phase of the music, but boy was it hard to get myself to cry. It seems like pastors and Christian leaders are constantly drilling in the notion that when you are truly thankful, truly in awe of what the Lord has done for you and your life, you can’t help but cry. It’s the natural thing to do. When you reach this level of gratitude, then maybe your sinful heart may open up to a state where you can truly “worship the Lord.” So begins my dilemma: Why is it so hard for me to reach this state?
From youth to adulthood I had felt that this state was really a foreign concept to me; something that, despite having many years in the Lord, I think I’ve only experienced a handful of times. Surely, that’s unacceptable for a true Christian to claim. I’ve also felt that leaders have drilled into congregations the idea that if you can’t “worship” the Lord, then you should probably look at your relationship with God because you’re clearly not doing well. What’s someone who shares in this “emotional difficulty” supposed to feel when he hears a message like this? You can dedicate your life to the Lord from childhood, do your best to walk according to His Word every day, praying, studying, but then you can’t seem to nail down this “worship” thing and suddenly that whole relationship is in jeopardy. It’s incredibly disturbing to think that somewhere, deep inside, you could have some issue that you can’t seem to take control over simply because crying during some slow music with the lights dimmed is a challenging task.
Understanding that there are believers suffering a mental struggle like that in their daily walk, let’s return to the question the article sparked back up, “what is worship.” I’ve had this idea all my life of what it is (and how much I suck at it) but one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve become an adult is that it’s always a good idea to revisit things you once believed and get a solid understanding of it, because when someone comes across and challenges the idea or notion, you need to be able to defend whatever it is you believe (and if you can’t, perhaps you need to correct something/learn more about it). First thing’s first: What does the Bible have to say about worship? A quick search shows me that the word worship shows up in 102 verses of the KJV. So, I began going down the list:
The very first instance of worship was Genesis 22:5, which states:
Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship and then return to you.”
For context, the chapter continues with (my emphasis):
So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
Then he said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together. Then they came to the place that God had told him. So Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on the wood. Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not lay your hands on the boy or do anything to him, because now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your only son from Me.” Then Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.
Interesting, is it not? The very first mention of worship ends up being a sacrifice, nothing regarding music in this passage. Now, of course you don’t need music to “worship” but I don’t even see Abraham praying or anything in this chapter, you know, maybe “prepare his heart” a bit? However, Abraham himself claims that he was going off with Isaac to worship. The Genesis verse is just the start of the pattern:
If you ever forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, then I testify against you today that you will surely perish. – Deu. 8:19 (MEV)
But the Lord, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great power and a stretched out arm, him shall ye fear, and him shall ye worship, and to him shall ye do sacrifice. – 2 Kings 17:36 (KJV)
All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. – Psalms 22:29 (MEV)
And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. – Isaiah 66:23 (MEV)
There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. – Daniel 3:12 (KJV)
Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands. – Micah 5:13 (KJV)
Are you seeing the pattern here? Interestingly enough, the MEV translates the passage in 2 Kings a hint differently, with a key to this whole study clearly revealed:
Rather, the Lord, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great power and an outstretched arm, Him you shall fear, to Him you shall bow down, and to Him you shall sacrifice.
Almost every single instance of the word worship in these examples (99 total in the Old Testament) comes from the Hebrew word shachah, which means to bow down. Daniel’s verse (and 12 others) uses cĕgid which means to prostrate oneself (basically the same thing). The New Testament isn’t much different, with the vast majority of verses having the same keywords as the Old: sacrifice, offering, bow down, serve, kneel (and the OT in particular, usually towards idols). At this point it was absolutely clear: at the very least, worship has nothing to do with music. In fact, only one verse in those 102 seemed to indicate anything music-related: Psalm (surprise) 66:4, which says “All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee….” However, with our “new” definition, we can clearly see that this is more along the lines of “they’ll bow down and sing” which separates the 2 actions a little more (unless they were literally singing while bowing down).
The notion of “bowing down to idols” shouldn’t be anything new to even the most beginner Christians, but the realization of the Bible’s definition for worship was quite the revelation. It literally meant to bow down. I’m sure there were emotions involved in bowing down, but the only requirement to actually worshiping then seems to have been “bend your knees, have them touch the floor, and lean forward.” That being said, the study obviously doesn’t end here, as if worship were mainly some Old Testament concept that doesn’t apply to a modern Christian. There were two key verses in the New Testament that really popped out to me and nailed down an answer to my question: The first was in John 4, and the other in Philippians 3. I’ll break down the relevant chapter segments in part 2 of this post.