I stood in the darkened auditorium, surrounded by the overwhelmingly loud, pulsing, praise music filling every inch of the large space from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. The worshipers who filled every seat were as much in motion as the worshipers on the stage, leading the rest of us. Raised hands were clapping, feet were stomping. Shouts of praise echoed throughout the room. With voices and instruments at full volume, there was no mistaking the enthusiasm or devotion of those gathered for worship.
I thought back to a Sunday not so long ago when I sat in a sanctuary full of light streaming in from the stained glass windows. There was a hushed quiet despite the large number of people already filling the pews. Some solemn notes sounded from the organ as on cue, the choir, fully robed, filed silently into their place at the front of the church. We stood as an invocation was given, then sang a hymn, one worshipers had sung centuries before, handed down over the generations. Our voices rose, blending in the space surrounding us, with the organ as a back drop.
I remembered what it was to be surrounded by Zambian worshipers. Their voices rising up in praise, no instruments, just the harmonies rising and falling as the group would echo the notes and words of the leader. Back and forth, back and forth it would go, building in intensity from it’s quiet beginning to a full voiced chorus at the end.
I thought of the reverent flow of a Catholic mass, solemn recitations of words of worship, words of acknowledgement of who God is, of the honor and the glory that are due Him. Here we worship by kneeling, by bowing heads and by standing silently still as we listen to the priest and then recite words both familiar and full of faith, words that have remained unchanged over the centuries. (God does not change nor does His word)
I found myself wondering, does God have a preferred way for us to worship Him? Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess His name.” So our praise, our worship, is a sacrifice that God desires from us but this doesn’t say what “form” God prefers that our worship take.
Cain and Able both offered sacrifices to God as part of their worship of Him. God accepted Abel’s offering but He did not accept Cain’s. What was the difference? Is God judging our worship of Him? Does He accept some forms of our worship but not others? How can we know?
Does God prefer the organ to the electric guitar? Does He prefer kneeling or jumping up and down? Does He prefer heads bowed or hands clapping? Which best demonstrates our love for Him? Is the volume at which we sing the true measure of our devotion to Him? Or do we show how much we esteem God by our reverent, solemn silence? Are Handel’s hallelujah’s any holier than a contemporary chorus?
Isaiah 29:13 gave me an answer to these questions. “These people come near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is made up only of rules taught by men.” There’s the answer. God isn’t concerned with the outward form our worship takes, He’s looking at our hearts! And God is the only one who is able to do that.
” . . . The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) That’s why God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Outwardly all appeared to be in order, but God knew their hearts. One was right before Him, one wasn’t. God is a God who judges justly and He is never fooled.
God’s concern is with the posture of my heart, not the posture of my body. Whether I am standing or kneeling is not what God is taking note of. God is looking at my heart as I worship. Whether He accepts my sacrifice of praise or not doesn’t depend on how loud I sing or how reverent I appear to be, it all depends on the rightness of my heart in regard to Him, whether my heart is “far from Him” or not.
Joel 2:13 tells me to “Rend your (my) heart and not your (my) garments.” It’s all about the inside, the unseen; about what is unseen to those worshiping around me and with me, but not unseen to God. He is my audience of One. I must not compare myself to those worshiping around me, thinking I need to clap louder, jump higher, shout more Amen’s or bow lower to get God’s attention or to prove that I am truly worshiping to those around me. God knows my heart. So whether I am genuflecting or jumping, God is looking at my heart.
We tend to judge ways of worshiping that are different from our own. Some say of the quieter, more prescribed rituals of worship, that worship becomes no more than rote repetition of words mindlessly recited without thought or feeling. They make the assumption that people are just going through the motions of worship without truly worshiping. Equally discounted, some say true worship is lost in the loudness of the music accompanied by the jumping, shouting, clapping of those worshiping. This latter form of worship is accused of lacking reverence while the former form is accused of lacking feeling and fervency.
My own heart rends when I realize that I have too often been “that worshiper” in Isaiah 29:13, physically present, going through the motions along with those surrounding me, but my mind was elsewhere and my heart was not fully present. My heart was not right before my Heavenly Father and my heart was not seeking Him nor praising Him in those moments of cooperate worship. My body was present but my heart was elsewhere. And this when I had come to worship the Lord on the Lord’s day? Could I not even spend these few moments fully entered into His presence? Could I not spend this time with Him, fully focused on Him?
And here is the real revelation. Looking back, I have been the Isaiah 29:13 worshiper while on my knees reciting repeated phrases and while clapping, shouting, singing as lights flash and music echoes off the walls. The worship setting doesn’t matter, but the state of my heart does, and the state of my heart can be equally “far” in any worship setting. The attitude of my heart matters to God. My heart is what He sees. (a reminder to me to never, ever judge the worship of those around me because God knows their hearts, I don’t) I can “fake it” with others but never with my Heavenly Father. My desire is that my “sacrifice of praise” be found acceptable in His sight.
I think God must delight in the diversity of ways of worship just as He delights in the diversity with which He created each one of us to begin with. From the rhythms of the drum beats praising Him across Africa to the silently graceful sign of the cross made by worshipers as they enter into His presence, God welcomes and receives all the praises of His people. Indeed, God inhabits the praises of His people. (Psalm 22:3)
All the ways of worship have their own inherent beauty and purpose. Sometimes I feel like shouting His praises. Other times I am so humbled by His presence that I long to lie prostrate before Him, knowing no words will ever come close to what God deserves and what I would desire to express to Him.
The form my worship takes is not the deciding factor in whether my worship will be found an acceptable sacrifice to my Heavenly Father or not. It is the form my heart takes, (yielded, repentant, rended and ready to glorify Him) that will determine the acceptability of my worship before God.
So I will, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise, give thanks to Him and praise His name.” (Psalm 100:4)
and I will “Sing and make music in your (my) heart to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19)
sincerely, Grace Day