Friday, July 6, 2012

Peterson on worship

My 3-year-old son Samuel likes to listen to a CD of Christian praise songs called Born to Worship. The CD is right. We come into this world hardwired to worship. The word worship is a derivative of an old English word "worthship". Essentially, worshiping something or someone is to ascribe worth to that thing or person. We all have objects of worship. For some of us it might be our wife or kids or favorite football club (preaching to myself here).

One of the fundamental themes of the Bible is that the triune God revealed in its pages is the only true and ultimate object of worship. Anything else (even good things like family) will disappoint in the end. Indeed rightly ordered worship is the goal of God's law. The Ten Commandments begin by setting the boundaries of proper worship. Worship is the one thing we'll get to do for all eternity! You can't dig too far anywhere in scripture without bumping up against the subject of worship.

Another prominent theme in scripture is that worship with the community of faith is basic to the people of God. We can worship alone in the woods or a prison cell, but gathering together in an assigned place at an assigned time to worship God is a prescriptive pattern found in both the Old and New Testaments. Something happens in corporate worship that can't be replicated on our own.

Eugene Peterson in his great book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction unpacks Psalm 122 as a template for worship. It begins: "I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the LORD!" Notice the spontaneity of this expression of joy. This kind of emotion can't be coerced, and it shows that worship is by its nature a voluntary act. Later on however the Psalmist recalls that this activity of going up to Jerusalem to worship was commanded by God: "as was decreed for Israel to give thanks to the name of the LORD." (verse 4)

So worship is voluntary and compulsory. But what if I don't feel like worshiping? What if I can't approach worship with the gladness of Psalm 122? I like how Peterson resolves this conundrum.

I have put great emphasis on the fact that Christians worship because they want to, not because they are forced to. But I have never said that we worship because we feel like it. Feelings are great liars. If Christians only worshiped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on. Feelings are important in many areas, but completely unreliable in matters of faith. . . We think that if we don't feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different, namely, that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act which develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God which is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.

I think it's easy to get this backwards -- trying to "gin up" feelings that we don't actually have, and feeling like a hypocrite for doing so. The practice of worship is just that. The more we practice worship the better at it we get, and its rhythms shape our feelings toward God and neighbor. It's not magic, but it is grace.

Quote from pp. 49-50 of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (InterVarsity, 1980)

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