How to Reassess God’s Expectations of Worship

Most theological presuppositions about worship focus on the cerebral, not the visceral—on the mind, not the heart.

“What type of worship honors God?” Or, to look at the question another way, “After all, theologically speaking, what is it that actually makes worship worshipful to God?”

Even though I have practiced, led, studied and preached about worshipping God for over five decades as a Christian leader, I still refuse to suggest I have any expertise on the subject. A lifetime of entering and experiencing His presence has a way of keeping me mindful of how little I know and how dependent I am on Him for today’s guidance in leadership—not my experience.

I open with that context for what follows—my offered answer to the above pair of questions presented to me, with the request: “Set forth the theological basis for our thematic study of worship.” At first, a certain reticence tempted me to conform to what I supposed was expected—a treatise on the glory of God and the propriety of humankind bringing worthy expressions of worship before His Throne. Of course, His grandeur and greatness does recommend our humble and our highest expression of praise, as well as our utmost in devotion and adoration, but I felt the need to get to “the heart” of worship. So I have chosen to press an issue—not less theologically correct, to my view, but one which might seem unacceptable for failing to parrot the usual when a “theology of worship” is proposed.

To my perception, most theological presuppositions about worship focus on the cerebral, not the visceral—on the mind, not the heart. In most of western Christian tradition, a virtual scorning of either the subjective experience or the mystical nature of encountering God finds common approval.

A usual theology of worship centers on an objective analysis of God’s revealed person, nature and attributes, with the accompanying presupposition that worthy worship is essentially constituted of our reciting this information back to him. This focus on the mind’s ideas about God, rather than the heart’s hunger for Him, overlooks the truth that worship is actually a gift from God to us more than one of ours to Him; that He is more interested in helping us than we are capable of interpreting Him. Our Western, evangelical tradition often seems a schoolish insistence that worship is an intellectual exercise. But the words of our Savior still resound the undeniable call to worship that transcends the intellect: “God is a spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”(John 4:24).

We have been inclined to conclude that “mind” and “spirit” are synonyms, when the Bible shows the “heart” is a more likely candidate to answer to the meaning of “worshipping in spirit.” That “in truth” is a companion phrase that indicates the active participation of the intellect as well is undeniable, but it is also inescapably second—and dependent upon the heart’s fullest release in worship first.

This priority is usually held suspect, if not resisted outright, because our intellectualized value system minimizes the worth of emotions, and our hearts, as the more emotionally motivated center of our human response sources, is deemed less worthy for being governed more by affections than by reason; seen as more vulnerable to deception that the intellect because of the heart’s pro-emotional bent. But to turn on these terms, from “heart-begotten” (i.e., “spiritual”) worship to an intellectually based approach is to entertain a dual delusion: first, that the mind is less subject to deception than the heart (an unsupportable concept—2 Corinthians 4:4); and second, that the mind is ever the means by which God is “contacted” in worship (which is denied in the Bible—Job 11:7).

This is not to denigrate the priceless value of God’s gift of human intellect, nor to deny that human intelligence is contributive to worship. But our quest is for an answer to what kind of worship God prefers from us, and honesty with the limits of any human being’s brainpower forces the issue. In the last analysis, His Word indicates that He is not looking for something brilliant, but something broken: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise”(Psalm 51:17).

It is not that our minds are unworthy vehicles to receive divine revelation, but that they are too limited to respond to the divine invitation. The intellect may discover truth about God’s worthiness of worship, and may choose to do so. But to fully enter into the dimensions of our Creator-Redeemer’s presence—to open to the intimacy to which He invites us, as well as to that ecstasy with which Eternal Love desires to enthrall the human soul—only the spiritual capacities of the worshipping heart will suffice. The exercises of our enlightened minds may deduce God, but only our ignited hearts can delight Him—and, in turn, experience His desire to delight us!

That is His desire, without question. His invitation to eternal life and eternal joy is an expression of God’s preoccupying concern from the inception of His ideas about and creation of humankind. Our fathers have taught us this: “The chief end of man is to love God and to enjoy Him forever.” This anticipated joy is not reserved solely for the future life, for Peter says of our present worship of Christ, “Whom having not seen you love, though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith” (1 Peter 1:18).

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Jack Hayford
Pastor Jack Hayford is the Founder and President of The King’s University and Founding Pastor of The Church On The Way, is internationally recognized as a “pastor to pastors.” Dr. Hayford is an acknowledged bridge-builder, helping to forge healthy bonds among all sectors of the Church, while growing believers to stability and leaders to increased effectiveness.