By Jesse Jost
We just visited a church while on family vacation, and as I walked into the darkened auditorium, I felt tears welling up in a rush of strong emotion. Was this the presence of the Holy Spirit or a physical reaction to the pulsating music? The gathering was a campus church broadcasting a service in which a visiting worship band led music.
I grew up with the belief that drums and back beats were sensual or even demonic. While I now believe all musical styles can be redeemed and proclaim the glory of Christ, my staid and proper past sometimes colors my experience of worship music.
At first I settled in at the service, marvelling at the wonder of God, letting the music focus my mind on His glory. But soon, I found myself critiquing a style I am not used to. Thoughts cloaked in an air of righteousness intruded: Those pants are too tight. That dancing borders on sensual. Are they really worshipping God or simply performing? Do they have to jump around so much?
I stopped, forced to consider: Are these thoughts from God or some other place? What effect is my “discernment” having on me? Chastened, I closed my eyes and focused on God again.
My experience stirred up plenty of age-old questions. How should worship be done? What is true worship? Does God like the music loud or quiet? These questions split church after church, and bring division and tension into relationships as people contend for the righteousness of their view.
“We need to sing more hymns; these modern worship songs are bland, shallow and repetitive.” “These acapella hymns sound terrible and are putting our young people to sleep.” “We need excellence in our music, and a sound system that truly honours God.” “How can I be expected to worship when that song leader is dressed like THAT?!”
These complex issues do need to be discussed, but I wonder if obsession over them distracts us from true worship. Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father is seeking those who will worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24) Many theologians have argued that the true worship of God is one of the most vital things we humans were created to do.
One of the most important reasons worship matters is the question of what shapes and controls us. We worship what enthralls us, and what we worship ends up controlling us, whether it is sex, food, glory, fame, power, position, or pleasure.
We can become so enamored by good, God-created things that we become blind and forgetful of the soul-satisfying glory of God Himself. Only when hearts are captivated by the beauty of God, and cleansed through holy fear of His awesome power, are we set free from our slavery to earthly passions.
The more we forget God the more our hearts are led astray and enslaved to destructive forces:
When we are not satisfied by the pleasure of God’s presence, the driving search for pleasure drags us through dark and fiery forests that burn up our marriages, spiritual vitality, health, and consciences.
When we are not knocked down flat in awe of the power of God, we become devious and often cruel in our pursuit of power and the control of other people.
When we are not feeling the satisfying tremble of the holy fear of God, we live in terror of life’s chaotic and seemingly random calamities.
When we do not have a defining passion for God’s glory, we develop a psychotic need for our own recognition and glory, made miserable when others fail to notice us.
When we forget the abundant ways that God has lavished his undeserved generosity and kindness on us, we become obsessed with our rights and bitterly complain how life has been one continual disappointment.
A heart distracted from God or blind to His glory is easy pickings for Satan’s malevolent strategies.
Times set apart to worship God are meant to restore our spiritual eyesight, refresh our memories, and captivate and heal our emotions, as we get lost in the wonder of who God is and what he has done for us.
This is, of course, devastating to Satan’s agenda, so he brilliantly neutralizes our times of worship by appealing to our pride, whispering dissatisfaction with the lyrics or annoyance with the repetition. Surely the fact that we would rather be singing a theologically rich hymn is proof of our righteousness, right? Or when his hissing leads to our condemning the outfits or movements of the song leaders, and we feel that because we are bothered by these things, well, this has got to be proof of our purity and spiritual sensitivity, doesn’t it?
Rather than have our hard hearts broken, and our spirits set free, we self-righteously cluck away, professing our godliness, and all the while Jesus weeps. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Mark 7:6-7)
We can and should be seeking God’s Word about how to best worship God in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 96:9). We should seek out lyrics that truly display the wonder of God and the power of the gospel. We should strive for excellence that honours Him in our musical skills and presentations. We must “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” (Heb. 12:28-29)
But ultimately, the quality of the worship will only match what is going on in your own heart. The lyrics will only have as much theological depth as you have let the word of God shape your mind in the preceding week. When you’ve prayerfully pondered the promises of Romans 8 or the majesty of Isaiah 40, you can be moved to tears by simple lyrics as the Holy Spirit draws you deeper. On the other hand, if you have been setting your mind on “things below” (Colossians 3), you can belt out great hymns by Watts or Wesley, and remain a shallow person enamoured by your own harmonies.
When you have humbly offered your mind and body as living sacrifices, what God calls “true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1) then your emotions can soar, even though musical quality may be lacking and voices are off-key. Conversely, it is possible to mistake atmosphere-induced euphoria for spiritual fervour.
God designed our emotions to be stirred by music. But His greater desire is for us to give our entire beings over to Him in worship: Minds that are pondering His truth, wills that are surrendered to His purposes, emotions that are overflowing with gratitude.
When we start judging the motives of the musicians, or the dress of other worshippers, or the depths of the lyrics, or the volume of the drum, we have stopped worshipping and are missing out on the life-giving water and power our parched souls are craving.
If we recognize this happening in our hearts during a time of worship, let’s please step down from the judge’s chair, and put down the gavel. We are in no position to judge what is going on in another’s heart. We are blind, forgetful, rebellious dust. It is only because of God’s mercy that we are not consumed.
Fall on your face in awe of the One who made you, who fills your life with good things, who gave His life for you, who intercedes for you daily. He is for you and not against you. He longs for you to know Him in all His fullness.