Every week, believers gather together in settings around the world to worship. When teaching on worship, however, I run into a lot of people with more questions than answers. We know we are supposed to worship, but we often don’t know how. What if I don’t sing well? What am I supposed to do with my hands? (Tim Hawkins has a very funny skit on the different types of hand-raising seen in church. You can view it here.) I just can’t seem to focus during worship. Then, there are the dreaded “worship wars” stances: “I can only worship to hymns” or “I can only worship to newer praise songs.” So what’s the truth? How are we to worship God? The answer is found most clearly in John 4, when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman by a well. She, too, asks Jesus a question about worship – one centered on location.
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus told her, ‘Believe me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth…God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:20-21, 23a, 24).
According to Christ Himself, true worship is not built around external forms and functions, but on the worshiper’s inward state. True worship takes place in spirit and in truth. David Mathis, executive editor at desiringgod.org, describes it by saying that true worship must engage both our heads and our hearts.
In Spirit and In Truth
“In truth” means that when we worship God, we worship the truth of who He is. That truth has been revealed to us in the person of Christ, who called Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This is the engagement of the head. Jen Wilkin likes to say that the heart can’t love what the mind doesn’t know. We (generally) accept that the same is true in our human relationships. When people ask if I believe in love at first sight, my answer is no. I believe in attraction or interest at first sight, but not love, because you can’t love what you don’t know. The same is true in our worship. Love for God flows naturally from our knowledge of who God is and what He has done. Our worship must, therefore, be characterized by an engagement of our minds. We have to think about what we’re singing, not just repeat the words while wondering what we’re going to make for lunch. Sometimes this requires a little more effort on our part, but He is worth it. As you worship, let your mind really think about what you’re saying (or hearing) and what it means. “In spirit” means that our hearts also engage in worship. As we dwell on the character and works of God, our hearts are moved to love Him more. This is the emotion that fills us in response to God. Just as our worship must lead us to dwell mentally on the things of God, it must also lead us to respond with appropriate love and affection and gratitude and awe. John Piper summarizes it in this way: “Worship must be vital and real in the heart, and worship must rest on a true perception of God. There must be spirit and there must be truth…”
Worship In Any State
So what does this mean for our worship? It means worship is not dependent on external acts or circumstances. It’s about our internal focus. It’s about, to quote a friend, our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection. Far too often, though, we focus on the external things: How we sound, whether we like the pastor, whether the song is a hymn or a modern song, whether the music is too loud or has drums, whether the person next to me is raising a hand or what I should be doing with my own hands. When we do this, we make worship about us. If we like the instruments used and the songs chosen and the message preached, it was a good day of worship. If we don’t like any of those things, it was terrible and a change in leadership is needed. We make worship about how we feel, when the reality is that worship isn’t about us. It’s about God. We don’t gather to make ourselves feel good, but to show love and adoration to our King. And for that reason, true worship can take place in any circumstance and in any context.
David worshiped while hiding in caves from the most powerful man in Israel. Paul worshiped in a prison cell. Jonah worshiped from the inside of a fish. How silly of us to think that we can’t worship because the temperature is off or the lighting is wrong or the song chosen isn’t our favorite. These things might hinder false worship, because false worship (we could even say self-worship) depends on circumstances. Everything has to be just right. True worship, however, is possible anywhere and at any time, because it depends only on God’s character and works, and those things do not change. You might not love hymns, but they teach the nature and works of God and, yes, you can worship with them. You might not love modern praise songs, but they teach the nature and works of God and, yes, you can worship with them. You might not love the way the pastor preaches, but the Scriptures teach the nature and works of God and should inspire worship every time they are opened.
This truth, that worship is about God and not us, also frees us from the anxiety of performance. Many of us spend far too much time worrying about what the people around us think. You aren’t there for them. You’re there for your King. If you feel moved to lift your hands in worship, do so. If you don’t, don’t. God doesn’t care what your hands do, but where your heart is. Whether you sound angelic or just ordinary when you sing, lift your voice in praise all the same. God isn’t offended by your lack of melody. He’s listening to your heart.
The next time you gather for worship, allow your mind to meditate on the truth of God and your heart to respond with love for God. Think deeply about what you are saying and let those truths guide your emotions. Worship is not about the external, but the internal. It’s not about what we do with our hands, but what we do with our hearts. It’s not about the music chosen, but the One we sing to. It’s not about us, but about God. Let’s worship Him in spirit and in truth.