What Does it Mean to Worship?

One of the most startling developments of the last few years, if not the last several decades, is the collapse of trust in our society’s institutions: governments, police, businesses, churches. Across the board, trust has plummeted from post-World War 2 highs. We see all around us the signs of a corresponding loss of authority — moral authority, intellectual authority, and even political authority. The result of this is polarisation, violence, conspiracy theories and aimlessness.

This loss of authority is seen in a concurrent rise of hyper-individualism, a triumph of individual choice over external authority — all this under the banner of ‘liberty’. This includes not just about what might be permissible, but what is true. This attitude is perhaps best summed up by US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a 1992 decision on abortion where he wrote:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

In other words, my life, my identity, is whatever I choose it to be. I am defined by myself alone as an individual, owing little or no consideration or allegiance to my family, my community, or anything outside myself — least of all a god or creator.

But is this really true? Is a human just a self-defined, shape-shifting entity that can be whatever it chooses to be? Do we define ourselves? Or are we defined by something, or someone, beyond us?

The apostle Paul describes this kind of person in Romans 1 as people who have ‘suppressed the truth’ and ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’ (1:18, 25). The fruit of this philosophy or lifestyle is then made painfully clear in ways that resonate strongly with our own culture and experience: wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity.

What, I think, is at the heart of the error of such people is that not only have they ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’, but they have ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being’ (Romans 1:23); they have ‘worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator’ (1:25). In other words, the problem is a disordered sense of what is ultimate.

Paul describes a world with a God and Creator who has fashioned humanity and the rest of creation. That is to say, according to Paul there is a fundamental divide between God, the creator, and humankind, the creation. As Paul writes, losing sight of this is not only ‘foolish’ but destructive in all the ways he describes. Proper worship, or properly directed worship, orients us with a proper understanding of this creator/creature relationship. Perverted worship (because it’s possible to argue that there is no such thing as the absence of worship) turns its back on this relationship and sends the worship impulse into all the wrong places.

Fundamental to this perversion is the elevation of ourselves from creature to creator, not in the sense that our creativity reflects the image of the Creator God in us, but that it supplants that image. We become our own gods, creators and masters of our own destiny.

This is apparent in many controversial issues in our society today, including genetic engineering, abortion, euthanasia, transgenderism, and transhumanism. In all these areas (and more) there is a rejection of the givenness that comes with being a creature instead of a creator. To be a creature implies that there is a specific nature we are created with, an image we are made to reflect: we are created to do this and not that; to be this and not that. But this implies that there are necessary limitations placed on us as creatures, things we cannot or should not reject or change. You can see how this directly contradicts Justice Kennedy’s formulation of liberty, where anything not explicitly chosen by an individual is seen as an unwelcome imposition, burden, or violation of rights.

However, when we reject the limitations imposed on us as creatures, we also fail to see them as blessings in their own right. We miss seeing their very existence as paradoxically liberating. Paul didn’t see the blessing of freedom in Christ as a licence for selfish indulgence (Galatians 5:13–14), or as a removal of obligations towards one another (1 Corinthians 8:9–13). In other words, freedom isn’t the absence of limitations or obligations. Freedom is the grateful acceptance of those limits and the exercise of proper actions within those limits: actions demonstrating love for God and one another. A fish removed from water may have transcended its natural limits but is certainly no freer for having done so.

This is what true and proper worship directs us towards. It’s an attitude of awe towards our transcendent Creator and Father (‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ — Psalm 19:1); it’s having a heart of humility as his creatures (‘what is mankind that you are mindful of them’ — Psalm 8:4); and it’s a life of obedience to his will for us and accepting that will and framework for our lives (‘dominion belongs to the Lord’ — Psalm 22:28).

Is that our experience of worship? I don’t just mean what we might do together on a Sunday morning church assembly. That’s because, in a sense, we can offer our entire life — what we do ‘when we sit at home and when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up’ (Deuteronomy 6:7) — as a sacrifice to God, and allow it to direct us towards proper worship. Does what we sing leave us in awe of our creator? Does what we read leave us humble as his creatures, his beloved children? Does what we speak about inspire us to lives of obedience? Does what we think about as we go about our day lead us to worship our Creator?

Or are we merely listening to what the world around us tells us about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — worshipping only ourselves and other created things?

This article first appeared in InterSections, August 2021.