When we think of worship as Christians, the first thing that many of us think of is a Sunday service, and the music in particular. Both of these things are indeed important forms of worship, but it is easy to forget (or at least set aside) the idea that worship has a broader meaning that goes well beyond these specific actions. Over the next few months I will be writing on various topics related to Christian worship, so before exploring Christian worship in particular, I want to first step back and consider worship in a more general sense.
David Foster Wallace, the late man of letters, discussed the broader understanding of worship in his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. – https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/
As a Christian, I of course do not agree with some of Wallace’s implications about “JC,” sin, and the like, but he highlights two key points about worship that we would do well to take with us into our exploration of Christian worship. First, worship is something that happens “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life.” It’s not something that happens (exclusively) in a church or other house of worship. It is about how we orient our lives in both large and small decisions. It is about habits and tendencies just as much as it is about explicit acts of faith or devotion.
Second, Wallace points out that our worship reveals how we “measure value.” This gets to the etymology of the word “worship,” or worth-ship, the ascribing of worth/value to something.If we worship power, orienting our lives around it and cultivating habits that focus on the building up of power, we reveal our belief that power is of ultimate value, and we will measure all else in terms of that value. There is always a pecking order of what we will put first in our lives, even though we can worship many things in varying degrees. But in each situation, we will implicitly choose what is of highest importance—God, sex, money, power, children—and measure the worth of everything else in relation.
And that leads us to a working definition of worship in general: to worship something is to orient one’s life around it as the ultimate source of value and meaning.
Worship is not merely about overtly honoring something, or singing songs, or performing certain acts, though all of these things may be involved. Worship encompasses all of life, and includes both the explicit acts of worship in “sacred” settings (which could be a church, a board room, or a bedroom, depending on the object of worship), and the implicit acts and thoughts of worship, which organize all of life toward a given value.
This life-encompassing worship is what God wants from us. He wants us to orient our whole life around him as the source of all value and meaning. From the Christian perspective, our choices are limited. We can either orient our lives around God, which a Christian would normally just refer to as “worship,” or we can orient our lives around something else, which a Christian would refer to as idolatry.
The first two commandments that God gives the Israelites after the Exodus are both about worship and idolatry, even though the English word “worship” is not used in many translations. Here are the commandments, taken from Exodus 20 (ESV):
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
When God lays down his law about worship, he starts first with the general principle—no other gods (no idolatry)—and then moves to a specific form of idolatry that was very common at the time (physical idols). The Israelites clearly needed to be told not to make physical idols, for just a few chapters later they would set up a golden calf and worship it, but the overarching principle is stated first and encompasses the second.
The term “idolatry” is little-used today, as it sounds particularly judgmental, but in reality every sin is a form of idolatry. When we lie we have made an idol of how we are perceived, or of the power lying gives us over others. When we lust we have made an idol of sex or an individual person. When we hate or our proud we have made an idol of our own value relative to the value of others. When we are lazy we have made an idol of our comfort.
As a result, the first commandment really encompasses all of the other commandments, not just the second commandment. The Ten Commandments are really one commandment with nine specific examples. Every sin implicitly places some other thing or person or idea ahead of God, and is thus idolatry. Idolatry is the scaffold for all sin.
Since all sin is idolatry, and since idolatry consists of worshiping something other than God, we can see that worship is the fundamental pivot of our moral lives. As David Foster Wallace said, we all worship something; it is just a matter of what or whom we worship. We can worship God, which leads to salvation, or we can worship anything else, which will lead to misery.
It is within this context that we then participate in the corporate act of Christian worship. While it is very important, the Sunday service is not the goal of Christian worship. The Eucharist, prayer, teaching, confession, and all the rest are a means by which our whole lives are led into the worship of God. God is not merely after our participation in Sunday worship, though that is a good start. Sunday worship is one of God’s means for imparting grace for our transformation into the likeness of Christ. But God is after our worship in the broader sense. God wants our whole life.
All Christian worship should point us in that direction, and so as we begin exploring the specific context of Christian worship, we will always ask how our practices relate back to this broader understanding of worship. Any particular practice in corporate worship or private devotion should contribute to shaping our whole life into an act of worship. Next time we will begin our exploration of specifically Christian worship by seeing what the Bible has to say about the fundamental elements of worship.