Have you ever noticed that the attitude we betray when we come into the presence of God in worship stands in stark contrast to the attitude that was characteristic of those in the Bible? When Isaiah came into God’s presence, for example, he dropped straight to his face and said, “Woe is me! For I am undone!” (Isaiah 6:5).
We, on the other hand, worship God with our hands lifted high, our bodies swaying, and our voices full of laughter.
Why the difference?
Isaiah, for one, saw the glory of God. “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts,” he declared (6:5). And such a vision was overwhelming when set against his sinfulness. There was such a gulf between God’s character and his; between God’s perfection, God’s other-centeredness, and his self-centeredness.
The response was automatic – in fact, life-preserving in some ways. To be in God’s presence means to be laid bare and exposed. It means to have sin consumed, which unless cleansed of, means the destruction of all who hang onto it. (My good friend and colleague, Pastor Arnet Mathers, noted in a recent sermon how we all talk about wanting to be with God; but we don’t really mean what we say. To be in God’s presence as sinful people means death. “If He came back today for His people,” he said, “he would defeat His purpose.” See Exodus 33:20.)
Interestingly, after Isaiah received the grace and cleansing of God (v. 7) he still didn’t deem it time to bang a drum or dance a jig. Instead, after God asked “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Isaiah responded “Here am I! Send me.” Worship, for him, was a response to God’s forgiveness and cleansing, manifested in going where God wanted him to go and doing what God wanted him to do.
Isaiah’s response to being in God’s presence matches that of other biblical characters. Daniel, when he encountered God, said that his “splendor” (Heb. hod, “majesty”) “turned to frailty” and that he retained “no strength” (10:8). Whereas he once thought he possessed glory and something of which to boast, when he saw God, he realized his frailty and utter helplessness. His own abilities seemed rather inconsequential.
Lest we think this was simply an Old Testament phenomenon, we see it borne out in the New Testament as well. After seeing God amidst the candlesticks, John the Revelator describes how he “fell at His feet as dead” (Revelation 1:17). And, of course, Jesus tells the story of the tax collector who stood “afar off” and “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
The difference between biblical worship and ours is that they recognized their sinfulness as a barrier between themselves and God; we proudly cling to our sinfulness and demand for God to embrace us the way we are – including our man-initiated worship. Their worship was characterized by “woe is me!”; our worship is characterized by, “whoa, look at me!” Their worship was characterized by “go”; our worship is characterized by “show.” Their worship was characterized by face in hands; our worship is characterized by hands to the heavens. Their worship was characterized by going lower; our worship is characterized by reaching higher.
This last reality is an interesting one because it reveals, in many ways, how we have embraced an Eros-based Christianity which manifests itself in Eros-laced worship. Simply put, when it comes to our worship we have made it about us, about reaching up to God, about proudly displaying our gifts, talents, and abilities and seeking for ways to reach heaven (what Plato called “heavenly eros.” There are also parallels with ancient Near Eastern practices of worship, in which behavior was engaged in – be it of a sexual or violent nature – in order to convince the gods to act. We engage in certain types of worship in pursuit of feelings of ecstasy).
Thus, it is no wonder that we try very hard to work ourselves up into a frenzy in our worship; it’s no wonder that hand-lifting and swaying has become the norm. Many may not consciously recognize it, nor am I implying that everyone who engages in these behaviors are doing it for this purpose, but in so doing, we are trying to scale the heavenly walls. Instead of being humbled by the condescension of the humble and yet holy God who comes down to us, we proudly storm the heavenly gates.
I read a blog a few years ago from a person who made just this point. He used to be Pentecostal but suddenly realized that the worship he was engaged in was based upon Eros, which is antithetical to the God of true love. It was a worship that was trying to reach God rather than a worship that was a response to a humble, loving, holy agape-motivated God. Notice Steve’s poignant observations:
When I was a member of Pentecostal churches there came a time when I became very conscious of the fact that almost every Sunday morning the “worship leader” (read “music leader”) said something to the effect that it was his job to “usher us into the presence of God” through his music. Further, I noticed that this was gauged by the feelings given us by the music. If the “worship leader” didn’t get us all into a certain enraptured, exalted emotional state with the songs he selected and performed, he (as well as the rest of us) thought it was a bad service – we hadn’t really worshipped as well as we would have liked, or the Spirit hadn’t come down like we would have liked. We thought “entering the presence of God” was the point of worship, that music was the key to entering that presence, and that we could tell whether we had got there, or not, by the way we felt. Now all this is pretty much taken for granted in regard to worship even among members of many non-Pentecostal churches, and is seen without much question as the way worship should naturally be, but for some reason, I began to see it all in a different light.
After encountering a study on the difference between Eros and Agape – two opposing Greek words for love – he made these observations about Eros and its manifestations in worship:
Eros is an internally felt love which lifts itself up to God – a self-exalting impulse which is heightened, cultivated, and developed through ritual (the dramatic initiations into and the ceremonies of the ancient mysteries), through experience (altered states of consciousness induced by various means, including drugs or music), through contemplation (elevation through stages of knowledge or spiritual awareness by mental exercises), or through some combination of these elements. Its intersection with Christianity is, however, usually much more subtle than the formal introduction of any one of these elements into Christian worship or practice. It is a tendency of human thought and feeling that is not always clearly dangerous, but in the long run is very corrupting because it tends to focus on what the self experiences instead of on the objective reality of the salvation accomplished for us by the love of God through His incarnation in Jesus Christ. Therefore eros is usually imported into the church by way of incautious or untaught Christians who have been unknowingly seduced by an attractive, seemingly spiritual impulse or vision.
For those who come from my particular community of faith, it would be extremely naive to think that we are immune from this phenomenon. Our worship continues to become more and more Pentecostal and charismatic – and more and more Eros-based (to be balanced, the old “traditional” style of worship can be Eros-based as well). We are being set up for great deception.
So what’s the answer?
I think the blog writer sums it up nicely:
But the point is that lyrics and music should be put together for use in church with the primary purpose of keeping our praise centered on the objective merits of Christ. Lots of experience with it has convinced me contemporary “praise and worship” music doesn’t do that. In over more than twenty years in churches that exclusively use that kind of music, I observed that the people who write, perform, and worship to it think its primary purpose is to produce certain kinds of feelings, or to get people into a certain kind of emotional state, and that alone is truly “worshipping.” It forces worshippers into focusing on getting great feelings instead of on expressing gratitude to Christ for all He has done for us. And there’s eventually a lot of pretending, frustration, and burn-out when believers find great feelings can’t be sustained, and they start to think they are no longer able to worship. Pentecostals and charismatics have been misled by their idea of how music and worship relate into seeking Christ in their feelings instead of seeking Him where he is truly found – in the external Word of God.
The answer is focusing on the perfect and holy God – manifested in His word – and on the “objective merits of Christ.” These two realities force us to our knees instead of puffing our prides.