In the past, I have contemplated the meaning of various words such as wisdom, forgiveness, mirth, virtue, sincerity, courage, peace, hope, steadfastness, sacrifice, and love. This has been very fruitful, and I am glad of it. But recently, I realized that I had completely missed a tremendously important word. I had not contemplated worship.
It’s weird, because I absolutely have a personality that shouts into worship without effort. At least, I remember being that way. In high school I would be easily caught up, carried along with, and lifted because of a story or event or idea and I would see its beauty and say to myself, “Did not my heart burn within me?” Is happy emotionality a necessary part of worship? That seems naïve. Worship can be a lamentation or a daily task. But I had lamenting and mundane experiences of worship too. It is as if there was an innocence to my life that lent itself to light-hearted worship, an innocence that I’ve lost. A youthfulness, perhaps. A spirit.
But did I worship God, or was I worshiping my surroundings the whole time? Even then, I remember feeling my conscience twang when I realized that the First and the Second Greatest Commandments were reversed in my heart. I would always tell myself, “Love God by loving others.” And this is good. But not if what I really meant was, “Avoid having to love God by focusing on loving others.”
I would get caught up in my community and my activities and the genuinely wondrous things of the earth (literature, fire, music, food, long walks, …), and it was wonderful! I enjoyed going to church. I wanted to go to enter into corporate worship and hear and participate in the aged hymns that spoke ageless truths. I was passionate without hesitation. But when it comes down to it, what were my actions? Was I worshiping God, or the things I could see around me? It is good to be thankful for good things, for this is to have proper values, but those good things are not God. I am not sure what I was worshiping. Is this even a valuable question?
But of course I was worshiping God! Be gone, Accuser, Deceiver! I remember feeling a communion, a closeness to him when I was with the Body or his Creation or in Fellowship or discovering his Word. A fulfillment, a total satisfaction. This nearness allowed me to imagine him, though imperfectly, but enough to know that the One I was worshiping is the One who deserved it.
Ah, but no, it is not true. I rarely worshiped—I thanked. I thanked him for his blessings, and enjoyed them. I embraced the happiness that was generally gifted to me in that time. And this is good. I even did worship Him on occasion, accidentally. But I cannot ascribe the word “worship” to my life. When my dependence on God has been the subject, I have taken to gritting my teeth and saying, “I hate this but I guess it is technically true.” Then, I would make sure to forget its truthfulness at the earliest opportunity, so I could get back to being that self-sufficient, independent man who needs no one. This shows me that no, I did not worship. To worship is to surrender myself to God’s holiness, and that was the last thing I intended to do.
But how has my life changed since then? How is it that to worship now seems to me to be a deep difficulty? It is clearer to me now than it ever has been that in worship I am a child. Oh my life certainly has changed. “The years have been long, and [Wormwood] has taught me well to hide away / All the things that I believed in, you’ve taught me to call them all escapes.”
What I know is that I see the world more clearly now than I did before. I see the work that needs to be done in this life, work of redemption and healing, and I’ve seen that I am called to do it. All the while, I need to keep a close watch on my heart, and be convicted and run to your feet. These are things I know. But a feeling arises in this contemplation; why? Why should I even care about all this? Why should I do the work? What am I living for, anyhow? The other day, I was tired and my reason came out. I said that the purpose of life is other people. But here’s the thing—this is not true. This is a result of my flipping of the first and second commandments. The purpose of life is not people; it is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But my quest for virtuous action outweighed this knowledge. My demand for practicality, a learned demand, destroyed my understanding of the first catechism question: What is the chief end of Man?
What else has changed? Two years ago, it was revealed to me the meaning of the phrase “idol factory.” Calvin got it right. I “knew” about idols until then, but I did not understand that they were actually real. I did not understand they were relevant to me. “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” I understood, and jumped into relinquishing my idols. I started to cease my worship of things, of feelings, of events, of people. But I did not turn my worship upwards. I grew so adamant to not trust in vain things that I did not trust in the Unvain One. I even threw trendy theological advice in the mix. “Perfectly correct and rigid theology can be an idol. Real life is messy, and there is an infinite qualitative distinction between you and God. Do you love God or do you love your small perceptions and systems that put God into a box?” And so, a worm entered my soul and I was compelled by misapplied Christian doctrine to hold my worship at a distance, lest I be worshiping something that is not God.
Losing myself in something, anything, seemed unwise. It held no stability. It was irresponsible. What is this worship you speak of, Church? It is losing self-control. It is for the masses to appease themselves with. It is against the scientific method. It is not for me, an enlightened and watchful one. Me and God have an understanding that we are equals. He respects me and leaves me alone to do my own thing. Oh, I need him to give me strength and gifts and stuff, but he isn’t arrogant. He doesn’t demand that I worship him or anything like that. We have an understanding—I see him as a friend, yeah. An equal. I don’t want to be God, that’d be crazy. He just doesn’t want to destroy our dignity, that’s all. So we are equals. He wants to be friends with us. Yeah.
Then along comes intelligent friends explaining to me why they are losing their faith and here comes Wisdom of the Moderns explaining to me why everyone who is intelligent is losing their faith, and it painted for me the picture of bleak black despair that we must face and this is why: science and testing all beliefs and evolution and William James and the God Helmet and Higher Criticism and honesty and moving past out-dated, sentimental ways of seeing the world and openness and men only want power and you are not only ignorant but lying to yourself if you believe otherwise, and then doubt began.
After this I enter the worship service and sing “All to Jesus I Surrender” and I want to sing it with conviction, but there I am singing, wondering if it is all just a sham and if God is just a convenient hoax or the imaginary friend of adults and I just don’t know and are pastors to be trusted or are they the keepers of a tomb and am I losing my religion like all the other intelligent people? Has it truly become unbelievable? What is happening? Why do the answers no longer feel powerful? Why do I scoff in my heart at the joyous, like I know they know nothing? What is happening? And I just keep singing, because it’s not that bad, I’m just being dramatic. But why have I never seen Him? Why do I not feel Him? Is it because I have stopped cultivating the illusion of Him, and belief inevitably faded because illusions fade when you let them go?
A ghoul of doubt haunted my steps. The answer to doubt did not seem to be worship, because doubt is an intellectual barrier. The answer is sober thinking and bludgeoning myself with the truths. The truths are: Jesus rose from the dead, the Bible has wisdom that surpasses wisdom and is a true combining of Truth and Virtue and Beauty, beauty is a Reality, and love is valuable. But after Nietzsche’s seductiveness showed me that my emotions lead me to fallacies, I attempted to stop my emotions in order to use my brain fully, and it became more difficult to see beauty. Then that argument faded, and then the reality of love faded, and then the value of wisdom faded, and all that did not fade was that Jesus rose from the dead. But that was enough, and I never really doubted my assurance of salvation, or the validity of Christianity in general.
Nevertheless, somewhere along the line, accidental worship gave way to unworshipful reason, inhuman reason, dishonest reason. I had times of worship before, but only on accident. I never intentionally cultivated worship, so when doubt arrived, it vanished entirely. Mirth became impossible, and witnessing mirth became painful. It only reminded me of how profoundly lost I was. It only exposed my shame, my nakedness. When around the light-hearted, my heavy-heartedness only increased.
What I do is force myself into thinking rigorously about every minute aspect of the Faith and life, because I deem the Faith to be of utmost importance, and I deem myself to be the sole judge of what the Faith declares. I give up on the centuries of wisdom from my predecessors, because of course previous thinkers are no longer valid; the world has changed too much. Of course I am only interested in these thinkers because I was raised and conditioned to be interested in these thinkers. And this other worm, the start of postmodernism, entered my soul as well. It is true that the role You have given me includes thinking. But I must never forget that “I do not understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand.”
Does holding to this quotation constitute giving in to or failing to recognize confirmation bias? No—it is simply remembering what I know, and going from there. We must all do that, and it is standing on the shoulders of giants to do so. And sure, there will be confirmation bias in that. But I know that a sunset is beautiful and that this is because God is an artist. My typical pattern of thought ran like this. When I see a sunset, I immediately think it is beautiful, but because I think that, I have to be careful, lest I am only finding what I expect to find. You fool, Tim! Of course it is beautiful, and of course God is an artist! Stop your hesitation—worship Him for it.
It is high time for me to confront the fact that worship is, in fact, difficult for me, and that this is because of the sin of my heart. Worship is saying directly to God, “I am dependent on You for every aspect of my being and life. You are the Highest of the High, the Wisest of the Wise, the Strongest of the Strong. I throw myself at your feet and give myself to you. I give myself to you. I give up my hold on everything because I want You to be rooted in my soul. That is what I was made for, because you made me for that. I want to find my fulfillment in You. You are truly the Most Peaceful and Most Warrior. All the world means nothing without you.”
Oh God, Oh Father, teach me to worship, for I am a child. I know nothing about Your life, and yet I have matured. You have taught me the worth of love, and begun to teach me to walk your steps, the path of stability. You have begun that. But now I beg you, draw near to me. I seek to know how to worship. I seek to know what that word means. I have avoided it far too long. I do not know it. Teach me. Oh God! Teach me.
I don’t know where to begin. I still have unresolved questions, and I know my role in the life you’ve given me is to think through my unresolved questions, for myself and others and You. It is to not back away from these questions. But even as I ponder, even as I work, may you guide me towards worship. May I lay aside everything that clings so closely, and hold on to you. Teach me what this means, for I do not know. Oh God, forgive me, have mercy on me, a sinner!
You have given me tremendous examples in my life. I thank you for guides that I do not deserve. I pray that you would grant me humility to consider them, and learn from them. I pray that you would lead me to fruitful sages, who can impart wisdom that I desperately need. I pray also that I would learn from the Scriptures. You are speaking to me through them. They are our only trustworthy guide, and they are the only guide I fully trust. They are the foundation of our worship—teach me to see them, and through them, see You.
Lord, I am overwhelmed but you have worked to bring me the peace of Your goodness and Your sovereignty. This peace has been severely tested, and you have sustained it through tragedy, the failings of others, and the failings of myself. May it be sustained again through this realization of my own deep failing. I understand that a Christian who does not understand worship is a Christian who does not understand Christianity. This is me, oh Father. Oh Father, this is me. Here I am, beginning to grow comfortable in my ability to obey You, when the one thing I was made to do, enjoy You and glorify You, produces in me bottomless anguish. Yet I know you are holding me and growing me, and I know you have grown me before by showing me my vast immaturity. I trust you to keep me and sanctify me. You are the wise one.
I desire to be convicted and I desire to repent, but Father, I also know that I am prone to over-shame myself. I am prone to thinking I am confused when I am merely confusing myself over nothing, or the weather is overcast and my head hurts. Keep me from this now, and keep the Deceiver from me. Convict me of my need to worship you in spirit and in truth, but restore me to the joy of your salvation, Lord. Convict me but restore me.