The Idols in Our Lives

John Calvin said, “The human heart is a factory of idols. Every one of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”  It is a good reminder for me of how prone I am to set up idols in my own life.

Idolatry is mentioned frequently in the Bible. As you read through the passages of the Old Testament, it was a constant failing of the nation of Israel. Despite continual warnings from God, the people repeatedly returned to idolatry. Today, God is still warning us about idol worship. It is not an issue of the past, nor does it only apply to religions who worship idols or other gods. It takes place in our meetings, small groups, worship services, Bible studies, devotion times, or as we live out our daily lives. As we go through the next few weeks, I will examine some of the idols I have recognized in my own life. Today, I want talk about why idolatry is something to be taken seriously.

Idolatry is the worshiping, valuing, or treasuring of anything more than God. When this happens in our lives, it warps our worldview. It skews our perspective and permeates the various aspects of our lives. It impacts our desires, pursuits, our families, our friends, our church, and our relationship with God.

God’s relationship with His people is often referred to in terms of a marriage. It is no surprise, therefore, that idolatry is frequently presented as spiritual adultery (Jeremiah 23:9-12; Ezekiel 16:30-43; Hosea 2:16-20; Hosea 3:1-5). In the New Testament, the church is referred to as the bride of Christ. Thus, as in a marriage, we need to guard our hearts and minds against those things which impact and damage that relationship. Otherwise, the results can be significant and devastating.

God is God. He alone is God. He is the creator and sustainer of all things. God, in Christ, is our Redeemer. All things are from Him, and through Him, and to Him (Romans 11:36). He alone is deserving of glory and praise. He is passionate about His glory and will not give it to anyone or anything (Isaiah 42:8). Therefore, if something in our life reigns higher than God, we have given it the glory of which God alone deserves.

As believers and followers of Christ, we are set apart for God alone. Anything that takes the place in our lives reserved for God becomes a barrier in that relationship. Therefore, idolatry hinders and damages our relationship with God. Our pursuits and affections are driven by something else other than God and His desires for us. Our perspective becomes earthly rather than heavenly and eternal (Colossians 3:1-17).

Idolatry hinders the work of the Spirit in our lives and ministry. We begin to make decisions for our families and churches based on worldly principles rather than the truth of God found in His Word (Galatians 4:8-9; Hebrews 5:11-14). We can even find ourselves in a position where we are fighting against those who are following God’s will for the church, all the while, thinking we are on a noble mission.

In addition, our growth in Christ is hindered because we are finding our strength and wisdom from the wrong source. The Word instructs us to be rooted in Christ and in His Word. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This transformation will deepen our relationship with God and produce lasting fruit (Colossians 2:6-8; Romans 12:1-2). Idolatry produces no good fruit and nothing that is eternal in our lives (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-5).

Ultimately, idolatry results in stealing any true and lasting joy from our lives. There is nothing in this world that will satisfy our needs and desires as God can. Anything else will fall short. This world has nothing to offer that will last. It is a dry and weary land, with no water to quench our spiritual thirst. God will truly satisfy our souls (Psalm 63:1-8; John 4:7-15). The lie of idolatry is that it will satisfy. But it never does. In the end, we are left with empty hands and empty hearts. Scars from the devastation of sin are also left in the wake of idolatry.

God loves us with an eternal love, beyond our comprehension. He has gone to great lengths to redeem us and bring us into a glorious relationship with Him. The cross of Jesus Christ, and the price paid there, gives testimony to the depths God has gone to bring us back to Him. I pray that we, in our pursuit of the life of worship, would take hold of the greater joy offered to us. Let’s not be satisfied with anything less than what God desires for us. Let’s find our true and lasting joy in Him, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Together for His glory…

Fooling Each Other: Authentic Worship, Part 3

Since I lead part of the worship service most weeks, someone will occasionally comment on something I say during the service or maybe on a prayer that I led during the service. During our conversation, they might comment on the difficulty they have praying or maintaining a consistent prayer life. I respond by telling them that I can relate to their situation. My prayer life is one of the most difficult aspects of my relationship with God.

At this point, maybe with a confused look on their face, they tell me that I don’t seem to have any trouble praying. They are right. For some reason, by God’s grace, I am able to focus and pray during most of those times while leading. I am not pretending or trying to sound spiritual when I pray in the service. However, I tell them that it is not representative of my personal prayer life. These times are almost always a struggle to focus and stay on track. I pray for someone or something and it brings to my mind something else. Then, before I know it, my mind has jumped, in a matter of seconds, to a series of other thoughts or activities that are totally unrelated. Before I know it, prayer has stopped and my focus is somewhere else completely.

It is terrible. I am a scatterbrained person at times. I have trouble focusing. I am very easily distracted. Any sound, flicker of light, or thought can totally trip me up and my concentration is gone. Prayer is a discipline. It is something very valuable in our relationship with God. Therefore, I continue in it, and continually try to grow in this area. I have known prayer warriors in my life. I am not one of them. But I long to be and will continue to pursue prayer, in spite of fumbling through it.

So, why do I tell this to you or anyone who brings up the topic? Transparency. I don’t want them to think I am someone other than who I really am. Do I really like being known as a person who struggles with prayer? No, but this is another part of pursuing worship that is authentic. Not only do we need transparency before God, but we need transparency with each other. We need to view ourselves correctly, we need to be honest with each other, and we need to actively encourage one another. These are all a part of pursuing authentic worship.

First, we need to view ourselves correctly. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector. While the Pharisee exalts and praises himself, both to God and anyone who is listening, the tax collector pleads for mercy from God. Jesus makes it clear that the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee. Boasting in ourselves or in our righteousness never fools God (see Fooling God: Authentic Worship, Part 2). Even if it does fool others, or even ourselves, it does nothing to build up the church. In fact, it tears down the church and hinders the worship of the congregation.

We need to remember that we are sinners. Apart from the grace and mercy of our God, demonstrated by the cross of Jesus Christ, and the salvation provided through His blood, we have no hope. End of story. We can boast in the cross of Christ alone (Galatians 6:14). Our righteousness is the righteousness of Christ. Our glory is in the glory of God. We have been freed from the prison of sin, guilt, and the grave by the love of our God, through Christ alone. Proclaiming the gospel, rejoicing in the work of Christ in us, and remembering where we have come from – this is authentic worship and glorifies God.

Second, we need to be honest with each other. As the church, we are called to bear each other’s burdens and come alongside each other (Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:1-3; Philippians 2:1-11; Colossians 3:12-13). How can we share each other’s burdens if we don’t know what they are? By clamming up and keeping to ourselves, we detract from the body of Christ. We cut ourselves off from work that God wants to do in our lives. We also hinder others from using their gifts to minister to us. Also, other believers often need to know that they are not the only one who struggles with something. By sharing, we help them to find hope and draw near to God and find strength in Him. We, in turn, also find out we are not alone in our struggle.

In addition, honesty is required when we have been offended or wounded by someone in the church. If you have an unresolved issue with someone, avoiding it will not make it go away. It only allows the hurt to fester and gnaw at us. It can cause us to withdraw or leave. Worse, if we share that hurt with others, it now becomes gossip. Now, it not only tears us down, it tears down others in the church. It hinders the work of the gospel and does not glorify God. We need to be diligent to stop gossip before it even starts. Seeking to resolve these issues appropriately builds the body of Christ and encourages us to draw near to God together.

Honesty is an essential part of the pursuit of authentic worship within the church. This leads to the third point, which is actively encouraging each other within the church. We need to be diligent to continue meeting together in order to encourage each other in the faith (Hebrews 10:24-25). As we meet together, it is important to remind ourselves of the gospel and the work that has been done for us. We need to encourage each other that Christ is working in our lives to transform us to be more like Him. We need to remember the promise of His glorious return.

We can’t be in the mindset of just showing up at church and then going home. When we come together as the church, we need to come as active participants. Engaging in worship is not just me connecting with God. We are called to teach and admonish each other and to sing and address one another with songs (Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:19-21). Corporate worship is not for the sole purpose of me connecting with God. I am called to encourage those around me through singing the truth of the gospel. If I am only focused on myself, then I am neglecting an important aspect of authentic worship, which is my call to encourage others to worship God. Yes, we sing to God and worship Him alone. However, we also speak and sing to each other in order to encourage and spur one another on to pursue God.

Authentic worship is about transparency and humility. It is about viewing ourselves as we truly stand before God. It is about being open and honest with each other. And it is about encouraging each other in our pursuit of God. Authentic worship requires us to humble ourselves before God and each other. No self-promotion. No hiding and withdrawing. No attempts to fool each other. No harbored bitterness. No gossip and backbiting. It requires us to share in each other’s lives and bear one another’s burdens. It requires repentance and forgiveness and a willingness to love and serve others. If we don’t, we rob ourselves and we rob others in the church. Let us draw near to God and worship Him together.

Together for His glory…

Fooling God: Authentic Worship, Part 2

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Isaiah 29:13

Years ago, I had an employee who was not very motivated. I would have to check up on him constantly. On one particular day, after he left for the day, I went out to see what kind of progress he had made on a project. It quickly became apparent that he had done nothing for most of the afternoon.

The next morning, I asked him for his project list. He disappeared into the warehouse and returned a few minutes later. I took a look at the list and there were several items checked off, as if he had already done the work. He said it was not complete, but he had gotten a good start on it. I knew he had not done any of it. I asked him to verify whether the checked items were completed and he told me that these were done.

Then, I informed him that I already knew he had not completed anything on the list. The expression on his face quickly changed and he launched into string of excuses. He thought he had fooled me, but now he was trying to cover his tracks because I had found him out.

How often does this represent our approach to our relationship with God? The verse above is a part of a larger section, Isaiah 29:13-16, where God is addressing His people. It speaks of a people who honor God with their mouths, but their hearts are far away from Him. Verse 15 reveals the attitude that they think they can hide their evil deeds in the darkness: “Who sees us. Who knows us?”

God’s rebuke is clear in verse 16. “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?”

When we approach God with the attitude that we can profess praise or worship with our lips, or do acts of service for Him, and yet have hearts that do not really seek after Him, we are mocking God. In fact, God says that we are turning things upside down. We are acting as if He did not make us or that He does not know everything about us. We are treating Him as merely human and exalting ourselves to His status as God.

As Christians, we come to church on Sundays and worship God. We might go to a small group and attend other activities of fellowship or service. We may even have frequent times of Bible reading and prayer, if we are really spiritual. However, if those activities are merely done as lip service to God, or to check off our spiritual “To Do” list, do we not think that God sees right through that? Or if we pursue activities which contradict His Word and will, do we actually think these escape His attention?

There is a real danger here. If we continually live our lives in this way, it is possible that we are not even believers. When God says that their hearts are far from Him, it echoes Jesus words to those who claimed to know Him, but did not: “Depart from me. I never knew you.”

No one is perfect. Even after salvation comes to a person, the sanctification process is a lifelong journey that only ends when we enter His presence at our death or at His coming. However, a truly redeemed person should have an inner desire to follow Christ in all things, because God has placed His Spirit within us to fill and transform our lives. Outward acts of religiosity cannot create this or even begin to fool God.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” Psalm 139:1-4

Another area where we try to fool God is by hiding our thoughts, feelings, and emotions from Him. In Scripture, God shows us the brutal honesty of many who seek after the Him. They do not hide their thoughts and feelings from God, as if it were even possible. If they are blessed, they openly praise Him. If they are angry with God, they say it. If they are afraid, they tell Him. If they don’t understand, they cry out for wisdom and release.

God does not fear our response to Him. He is not challenged by it. He calls us to come boldly to Him (Hebrews 4:16; 10:19-23). He is the One Who has all wisdom. He is the One Who has all power. He knows our thoughts. We need to express these before Him. We need to commune with God, expressing the depths of our hearts.

Authentic worship does not hide from God. It does not hide behind empty outward acts, while our hearts our engaged in pursuing ungodly pursuits. It does not hide behind closed lips and buried feelings and fears. Hiding from God does not hide us from God. It only robs us of the joy and peace and transformation found in His presence.

Authentic worship comes honestly before God, with all of our joys, fears, questions, and failures. It does not hide. It is open and transparent before the One Who sees and hears everything. He knows everything about us, from beginning to end. This same God of wisdom and power and holiness bids us to come to Him and receive mercy and grace in our time of need. Our time of need is every second of our lives. He is all in all. In Him is everything we need. May we pursue Him with all that is within us.

Together for His glory…

Believing Worship: Authentic Worship, Part 1

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6

What do you think of when you hear the word “authentic?” I know it brings to my mind something that is genuine. It is the real deal. It is not fake or phony or misleading. For the next few weeks, we will investigate what it means to authentically worship God.

Our verse from Hebrews 11:6 speaks of drawing near to God. This is at the heart of worshiping God and we know from our previous stops on this journey, that drawing near to God is only possible through the sacrifice and blood of Jesus Christ (see Only Through Jesus: God-Centered Worship, Part 3). Drawing near requires something other than what we can bring through ourselves or our own works. It requires the holiness of God which is only bestowed on those who believe and trust in the sacrifice of Christ for their salvation. Apart from Christ, there is no provision for our sins. Apart from Christ, there is no drawing near to God. Therefore, apart from Christ, there is no genuine worship.

Worship that comes from faith is worship that believes or trusts in the God of the universe. It is worship that is built on the foundation of Christ, the Lamb of God. It is worship that believes that it is God Who provides and rewards those who seek Him. It is grounded in the trust that God is Who He says He is and that He will do what He has said He will do.

The worship of our world is not based on such a foundation. It is worship that is based on our own goodness or what we bring to God. We earn His favor or earn our way into heaven by our good works. It is the belief, or faith, that we can, or have to, do this ourselves. If we had but a mere glance of the holiness of God, we would know this is impossible and those assumptions and aspirations would be shattered (Isaiah 6:1-7).

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame.” (Isaiah 44:9).

The full passage from Isaiah 44:9-20 speaks of a man who uses wood to build things and to use for fuel for a fire to cook his food. Then, with the same wood, he carves out a god and falls down and worships it. The prophet Isaiah exposes the ridiculous nature of this action. The man has made something with his own hands and now he is worshiping it. At least we are much more intelligent and sophisticated now. We would never do this ourselves, right?

Any worship brought before God which is not based on the truth of the truth of Who God is and on and through the sacrifice of Christ is idol worship. Our world is full of people who go through hourly, daily, weekly, and annual rituals as part of their worship to their gods. Even within the church, I fear that much of our activities could fall in that same category. If our actions or service are grounded in the intention that we are earning God’s favor or salvation, this is worship that is not based on faith. Or it is a faulty faith based on our ability to please a holy God on our own.

Authentic worship is worship that is grounded in the character of God. It is based on the realization that the Creator of the universe is Who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do. It is based on the knowledge that we could never please a God so holy and that only through the blood of Christ can we ever come into His presence. Authentic worship is believing faith. It is trusting faith. It is worship that rests in and rejoices in the amazing love of God, through Christ. We, who have no right to come before God, have been provided entrance into His throne room. And as we come to Him, through faith, we come with confidence as the very children of the Most High God.

When I hear someone say that heaven sounds like it will be a boring place because all we will do is worship God, it is clear to me that they really have no understanding of Who God is in relation to who we are. Do any of us, really? When we finally get to behold God in His glory, I think there will be no other response but to worship Him. When we understand more clearly the depths and depravity from which we have been saved, worship will be the only natural and eternal response.

God has revealed His glory and character through the universe He created, through His Word, and through Jesus Christ, the holy Lamb of God. Let us draw near to Him in faith, not based on what we have to offer, but based on His glorious provision for us. Let us believe and trust in His unfailing love and promises. For He is holy and He is good and His love endures forever. May His work in us produce lives of worship which glorify Him.

Together for His glory…

The Gathering of the Church: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 5

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

Jesus emphasizes in John 4:21 that the worship of God is not tied to a specific location or rituals. True worship is an inward experience through which our hearts and minds engage with the Lord of the universe. Therefore, we can worship the Lord at any time and in any place. We can draw near to God at all times. This is a wonderful gift. Yet, in response to this truth, many people over the years have also diminished the importance of gathering together as the church. They dismiss the importance of the church, or “organized religion,” or just say that they “worship God in their own way.”

However, Scripture strongly emphasizes the importance and role of the church in the life of a follower of Christ. I think it is impossible to defend a stance that says we do not need to gather together as the church (Hebrews 10:24-25). So, my focus here will not be on defending the need to meet as the church. I will turn my attention to how Jesus’ call to worship in spirit and truth should impact our corporate worship services.

When we come together for corporate worship, everything that we do should be grounded in the Word of God. Our goal should be to provide the means through which we can apprehend the truth of God. Every segment of the service should be intentionally focused on exalting the person and work of Christ. Our focus should be directed to the wonder and glory of God and how he is working in and through our lives and the life of our church. And as we grasp the truth of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, our heart and minds are drawn to express joy in our Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer. Therefore, we also provide ways of expressing and responding to the truth of God as we worship together as a congregation.

This is why our pastor spends multiple hours each week, carefully studying and preparing to teach God’s Word. It is God’s truth which inspires genuine worship. Flashy presentations or speeches on motivational topics may pump up people’s emotions temporarily, but they will have no long-lasting effects of inspiring godly worship and obedience. It will produce a congregation that relies on quick fixes and who have a shallow, powerless faith. We need the truth of God to transform our lives and to teach, correct, train, and equip us for the work God has called us to do (2 Timothy 3:14-17; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

For this same reason, there should be great care given to the selection of songs for worship services. We want to sing songs that declare the greatness of Who God is and what He has done. They should be God-centered and biblically-based (Colossians 3:16-17). Songs that only work up feelings of emotion, but contain little or no truth, do not inspire true worship. They inspire emotional experiences that do not last. There are many “worship songs” that even contain unclear or inaccurate theology. This can lead people into doctrinal error or confusion. I want songs which will reinforce the truth of God’s Word and are clear and strong in their content. Music can be a very impactful medium. It can be used to create emotional responses and even manipulate feelings. I don’t want people to leave a service with a tune in their head. I want them to leave with God’s truth in their hearts and minds.

The desire to worship in spirit and in truth is why we spend time teaching, singing, listening to testimonies, praying, reading scripture, celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and all the other things that we do in our services. We want to provide opportunities to experience and hear God’s truth and how He is impacting lives. We want to provide opportunities to express the godly passions that well up within us when we are confronted with that truth and the glories of God and His powerful presence. Our duty is to magnify and to glorify God. It is our calling as worship leaders.

That is also why I stress to worship or music teams that they are not to view themselves only as musicians and singers. The worship service is not just an outlet for them to use their gifts. As a part of the team, they are called to lead God’s people in worship. They are the lead worshipers. As a part of the worship team, their top priority is to be a worshiper, not a musician. They need to be seeking God and coming hungry for more of Him. This is also why I think it is essential for worship team members to be believers. Someone who is not a follower of Christ cannot lead others in the worship of Christ.

As we worship together, a call is being issued to those who come hungry for God. Our goal should be to provide them with an atmosphere and opportunity to experience the joy and satisfaction of worshiping the Almighty God in spirit and in truth. It should be our desire to experience the powerful presence of God in our midst. As a result, anyone that would join us on Sunday for worship, even if they are not a believer or seeking God, might also be confronted with the truth and presence of the living God. My hope is that no one would able to leave a worship service without saying, “God was surely in this place” (1 Corinthians 14:25).

This should be the result of our worship services as we are obedient to God and truly seek to worship Him in spirit and in truth. As we proclaim the truth of the gospel of Christ, magnifying the person and works of our God, this truth should inspire worship in our hearts. As we gather as the people of God, our services should be grounded in truth, with opportunities for responding together and engaging in worship with our God. Let us continue to draw near to God together.

Together for His glory…

Beyond Obligation and Infatuation: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 4

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

Jesus clearly states that those who worship God must worship Him both in spirit and truth. Previously, I have discussed aspects of each individually. Today, I would like to begin to look at how these two work together because I believe that if both are not present, our worship is not what God has intended for us.

There will always be a struggle of leaning too heavily in one direction or another. People who know me are aware that I place a very heavy emphasis on truth in worship. This is true. Both Scripture and personal experience have taught me that this is essential. However, as I look closely at my life, I find that I vacillate back and forth between two extremes, with occasional stops in some sort of balanced area.

It is very easy for me to get lost in the details. I know what I need to do, most of the time. I know what my obligations are as follower of Christ, husband, father, pastor, employee, etc. I have certain things that I know I need to do every day. And I do them. This includes my spiritual life. I read the Word. I try to pray. I listen to music that focuses on the gospel. I try to live in obedience to what I think is God’s will. However, I find that there is, at times, little devotion or delight in the process of carrying out these daily duties. I am attempting to live out God’s truth, but something is missing.

Then, maybe I swing to the other extreme. I am looking for something that shows me the purpose in what I am doing. Or maybe I am looking for some demonstration of God’s love or purpose for me. Am I following God’s path for my life? Why do I feel so far away from You God? How long will this situation go on? Why will you not give me some sign that shows me I am not drifting in a boat without a sail or paddle? Why can’t I hear Your voice? Why do other people seem to hear You and know exactly where You are taking them? Why can’t I have what they have?  Oh God, please empower me to be the man I need to be! Give me Your strength and wisdom! Show me You are there! As so the conversation goes.

Two different ways of living. Both include aspects that can be present in a godly, balanced Christian life. Living in obedience and wanting to experience the presence of God are great pursuits. However, lived in exclusion of each other, we become unbalanced and I think we miss God’s best for our lives. The first can lead to a life of obligation or duty.  The second, can lead to a life of infatuation and disenchantment.

A life lived solely out of obligation and duty has little or no devotion. It does not move beyond the task or principles to the Person behind the principles. We live our lives, fulfilling our responsibilities, and our relationship with God gets lost in the details. The law of God and the works He has called us to do were not meant to exist apart from our relationship to Him. The coming of Christ, our Immanuel, was for the purpose of uniting us with our Creator, breaking forever the curse of sin. Our God is with us.

The life of infatuation rarely goes below the surface or the immediate. We are looking for experiences or signs that make us feel close to God or prove that He is with us. When the fruit and direction from God are apparent and overflowing, we are on a roll. We are running with God. When things don’t go well or God seems to have gone on vacation, we become disheartened or bored with spiritual things. Even worse, we can feel that God has abandoned us. We don’t move beyond the gifts or benefits to the Giver of the gifts. God wants to grow and build our lives and show us the depth of Who He is and what He has done, but we are grasping for temporary things. Again, Christ is lost in our pursuit.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).” “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).”

Truth is foundational to worship that is in spirit and truth. As we learn from the Word of God, that truth produces wisdom and knowledge in our lives of Who God really is. We better understand ourselves and our utter hopelessness apart from Christ. The Holy Spirit enlightens our heart and minds to understand the wonders of Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. As we fill our minds with the Word of God, He works in us to transform our minds and lives into the image of His Son.

As God’s truth sinks down into our hearts, the flame of worship is ignited by the Holy Spirit.  The expression of our hearts, in response to the wonders of God and His works, is an essential part of biblical worship.  We worship God in spirit, and this response is grounded on the truth of God as revealed in His Word. As our relationship with God grows and deepens, we respond to Him in love, rather than mere duty or obligation. We are no longer trying to produce fruit through our own good works. God is producing the fruit in us, by the power of His Spirit.

The binding together of worship in spirit and truth together produces a treasuring of Christ. As we seek to know God better through His Word, our knowledge of Him increases, and so we grow in love for Him. This in turn, should propel us to seek to know Him more, and so the journey continues. We sink our roots deeper and deeper into Christ and our lives become saturated with Him. He truly becomes our treasure, our First Love. God works in and through us to do His will and to spread the gospel of Christ. Our worship is not based on obligation or pursuing experiences, but it is rooted in truth and producing a life that pursues after Him. What a glorious gift God has given to us. We may come to Him and know Him through Christ.

What greater aspiration could we have? Though this life will be filled with struggles and our relationship with God will have its ups and downs, God will not forsake us. He calls us to draw near to Him, in Christ. It is this life’s great pursuit. Through it, God will transform our lives and use us for the great glory of His holy name.

Together for His glory…

Where is My Heart? Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 3

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

For some of us, a focus on truth may not be difficult. Especially for those of us who have legalistic tendencies. We see the importance of Scripture and its essential part in our lives and in the life of the church. We know the importance of sound doctrine and that the Word of God is foundational for enriching, correcting, transforming, and equipping us for godly living (2 Timothy 3:16).

However, worshiping in spirit is just as important. When Jesus says that true worshipers must worship in spirit and truth, He is saying something that is very important for the people of His day and for ours. If you look at the religions of the world (and many Christian churches), you see a very heavy emphasis on the performance of rituals. There are certain things that are done on a daily, weekly, or annual basis in order for fulfill the obligations of their religion or faith. Rituals take different shapes and forms. Regardless of what they look like or what they involve, the question is whether those performing them are truly worshiping. I believe this is at the heart of what Jesus in saying.

Performing ritual religious ceremonies, as an end in themselves, is not true worship. The people of Jesus’ day were steeped in religious ritual. Groups like the Pharisees went to great lengths to demonstrate that they were fulfilling the law of God, down to the miniscule detail. However, the law had been given by God as a means of bringing glory to His Holy Name and to show the people their desperate need for Him. But many had taken the law and turned it into a meaningless ritual and a means of demonstrating their own righteousness. They were going through the motions and their hearts were far from God. Jesus proclaimed this as He echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:8-9; Isaiah 29:13)

Essentially, there is nothing wrong with rituals in the Christian faith. The problem arises when the action or ritual performance becomes the focus or an end in itself. The God to Whom the act was supposed to draw us is primarily forgotten or just given lip service. When we are just performing religious activities or saying religious sounding words, with no heart inclination toward God and no inner working of the Holy Spirit, this is not worship that is acceptable to God. God is not fooled.

As I read through the Old Testament, I am continually amazed (and saddened) and the repeated rebellion and lack of faithfulness of God’s people. I keep thinking, “What is wrong with these people?” And yet, are we so different from them? Do we conduct ourselves differently when we gather as the church then when we are at home or work? How often do we come to Sunday morning service, mouth the words to songs, sort of listen to the sermon, or perform other rituals or acts of service without much thought or inclination toward God? Whether our expressions are reserved (sitting/standing in quiet reverence) or more demonstrative (dancing, clapping, raising hands), outward expression can be a complete façade. When we leave, we think that we have fulfilled our obligation to God or filled our God quota for the week. Worse, we leave never having desired or experienced the presence of God in worship. We have done our duty. How does God view this? Have we impressed Him?

I find this a regular struggle for me. I am supposed to be one of the “worship leaders,” but it is very easy to get lost in the details of leading the service. I am focused on making sure everything is organized and comes together correctly. The music team, sound and video all have to be coordinated and prepared. My transitions have to be relevant and delivered clearly (and hopefully without stuttering). In the midst of my focus on these things, where is God? What is mind and heart focused on? Am I focused on making sure everything goes off as planned, with each item checked off? Or am I more concerned that my heart is right before God and that I passionately desire for Him to transform my life and the lives of those who are in attendance? Planning and organization are important, but where is my heart in the process? If my heart is not set on pursuing and hearing from God, my outward actions are merely an act.

When we approach worship in this manner, it is simply a religious exercise that does fool God. Throughout Scripture, the pages are full of God’s rejection of outward acts done by those whose hearts are far from Him. He is not glorified and, in the end, we are cheating ourselves. We are robbing ourselves of the joy that is to be experienced in worshiping God, through His truth and the power of the Spirit. This is the joy that comes when are satisfied in Him above all things – when we cherish Christ above all things. We don’t come to God to fulfill our regular obligation. We come to be filled with the fullness of God in Christ. We come, knowing that we are desperate, apart from our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ, and that knowing Christ is the greatest pursuit to which we can give our lives.

Worship in spirit is an inward response to the God of the universe. It is initiated and empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As God moves in our hearts and minds, we respond in worship. This is when the outward expression is genuine, whether it involves ritual activities or not. Our actions become a reflection of the heart’s desire for God and the working of Christ in our lives. It is not merely an outward performance to try to impress people or God. It reflects a true desire to know and worship God.

Next time, I will address how worshiping in truth and worshiping in spirit work together. Until then, I pray that we will all draw near to our God, through Christ. May we pursue lives that reflect the words in Psalm 73:25-26. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Together for His glory…

Truth Matters: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 2

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

When it comes to worship, biblical truth and doctrine are foundational. This is where we must always begin. Worship apart from truth puts us in the place of basing our worship and our relationship with God on our own wisdom, experience, emotions, or traditions.

In John 4, Jesus is carrying on a conversation with a Samaritan woman. When the conversation became too probing or personal for the woman, she changed the subject to a dispute about the proper place for worship. Jesus addresses her attempted diversion by informing her that her approach to worship is flawed. In John 4:22, Jesus says to the woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know.”

There is much that goes into this statement and to understand it, you have to understand the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews. I will not go into all the details, but, in brief, the Samaritans were descendants from the Jewish people who were left behind when the nation of Israel was taken into exile. Over the years, those who remained were intermarried with people outside the nation of Israel. They set up their own places of worship and rejected most of the Old Testament, except for their own version of the first five books. Therefore, Jesus is stating that her knowledge of God and real worship was lacking. She was focused on the wrong thing. And she was focused on the “where” of worship and had completely lost sight of the “Who” of worship.

Sound, biblical knowledge of the gospel and Who God is, is absolutely essential in worship. And where does this knowledge come from? It comes from the Word of God. Yes, God does reveal Himself to us through His creation – He displays His majestic power and glory in all that we see, down to the microscopic level. Because of this, anyone who does not believe is without excuse (Romans 1:18-32).

Nevertheless, the Word of God is indispensable. It is within the pages of Scripture that we see the character and attributes of God marvelously revealed through His mighty works and law. We see the prophecy of the coming Christ. In these pages, we have the gospel, which proclaims the greatness of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Who took upon Himself the sin of the world, that we could be redeemed and brought into the glorious kingdom of God. This truth is the rock upon which we stand. It is the anchor that holds us in the storm. It is what fuels biblical worship and living. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2) “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)

As an integral part of our spiritual worship, we are commanded to renew our minds. We do this through the transforming power of the Word of God. If we want to be true worshipers of God, we must be grounded in God-centered, Christ-centered truth. There is no exception. God’s Word in me establishes the foundation for worship. It puts my focus on the God of truth. Otherwise, I am left to imagine or create a god that may have little or no basis in reality – a god in my own image. And that is idolatry. If my worship, experience, or life contradicts the truth of God, I need to change. Otherwise, I will not be drawing near to God. I will be led away in error or self-deception. I will be worshiping some other god or, maybe, just worshiping myself and my own desires.

God reveals Himself to us. He desires for us to know Him better. As we seek and draw near to Him, He will help us grow in our knowledge of Him, through Christ. And we will discover, over and over, the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).

Together for His glory…

God is Testing Us: Worship in Spirit and Truth, Part 1

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

As I have mentioned before, I am not an expert on the subject of worship. I am not sure there is anyone who really is. I am like a man who stands on the shore and studies the ocean. At best, I have waded in up to my ankles. The vast expanse of Who God is and what it means to truly worship Him goes far beyond my ankle-deep knowledge and experience.

What I teach and share is based on what I have learned from Scripture, the works of many godly individuals, and my years of seeking to apply these principles in my life and the life of the church. Yet, it is limited by my knowledge and comprehension and flawed by my own sinfulness. That is why it is always critical to test what you hear from me or anyone else by what God reveals to us in His Word.

A few years ago, I started listening to an Bible on my phone while I drive to work or exercise. I have found this to be a profitable addition to my study of the Word. There are some drawbacks. First, if I am tired, I am not always completely coherent. Second, the recitation moves pretty fast. Third, my mind wanders. So, I can miss things. But it is meant to be a supplement to my study of Scripture, not a replacement. However, because I can listen to large sections at a time, it does provide me with a broad overview of how God works both in the life of His people and in the world.

I am currently in the Old Testament.  As I listen, I am reminded of several things. God is serious about His holiness, His law, and obedience. The human race, including the people of God, is incredibly stubborn and rebellious and sinful. Even when we outwardly practice rituals or “religion,” our hearts are often far from God. God is a righteous judge and He is always right when He judges. He is extremely patient in His dealings with us. Every one of us deserves the judgment and wrath of God. God is a merciful and forgiving God. We are without excuse if we do not receive His gift of salvation.

In Deuteronomy 13:1-6, it speaks of prophets or dreamers of dreams who give signs and wonders which come true. These prophets, in turn, then instructed the people to serve other gods. In other words, these prophets are either deceivers or once-servants who have been led astray and are now false prophets or teachers. So, God says that even though the prophet’s signs or prophesies came true, the people are not to listen to them. This seems pretty straightforward and obvious to me. But then, verse 3 really grabbed my attention. It says that God is using these prophets to test whether the people really love the Lord with all of their heart and soul.

Through the years, I have seen many teachers, churches, or ministries that are proclaiming a new “truth” or “experience” related to worship or Christian living. Writing books, speaking on TV, or traveling around the country to offer or seek out some new work of God. At times, I have been such a seeker. Unfortunately, in reality, I doubt that most of these have much to do with worship or God. Some people who pursue these are just experience worshipers – they want the latest and greatest worship or God “experience.” Some are just desperate to find something beyond the drudgery of the ritual or dead orthodoxy they have experienced in “religion.”

I have also seen and heard many who lay heavy burdens of guilt and obligation on others in the name of God. These are the self-righteous who legalistically impose such obligations on others which, in the end, they neither have the intention or ability to comply with themselves. I have found myself to be prone to being an inflictor of such man-made obligations and rules. Many of the rituals engaged in weekly by church attendees could very well fall under this umbrella of efforts to earn God’s favor by our obedience or performance.

In the end, for all of us, these things, and how we approach God in worship each day, test the true state of our hearts. As the passage in Deuteronomy tells us, God uses these to determine whether we really love Him.

In the passage in John 4, Jesus says that the kinds of worshipers that the Father is seeking are those that worship Him in spirit and truth.  If this is the case, then it is very important that we try to understand what that means. Worship is an inward, spiritual experience and expression of the heart, ignited by and carried along by the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit of God, there is no true worship of God. At the same time, worship is a response to truth about God and is shaped by truth about God. Worship should be an expression of the entire life of the believer and a pursuit after the living God, not a mere performance of religious rituals or obligations.

Worshiping in spirit and truth. As we go through the next couple of weeks, we will dig a little deeper into each of these and to see how they relate to one another. I hope and pray that it will be a fruitful venture for all of us. I pray that when God tests us, it will reveal hearts that love Him. By His grace and strength, may it be so.

Together for His glory…

The Self-Centered God: God-Centered Worship, Part 4

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36) In the past couple of weeks, I have addressed what it means that all things are from God and through God. Today, I will attempt to unpack what it means that all things are to Him.

In my years of being in worship ministry, I have heard numerous descriptions and analogies of what takes place in the worship of God: giving to God; offering ourselves to God; reflecting His glory; we are fulfilling the command to worship; we are performing for the audience of One; bringing glory to God. And there are many more. These ideas can be helpful as we think through how we should worship God.

When we think of something being “to” someone, we often think of giving or offering something to them, whether it is a gift or something that we owe to them. However, when we try to apply this to God, we need to be cautious because there are aspects related to bringing or giving that may apply to us as humans, but cannot apply to God. The earlier verses in Romans 11:33-35 make it clear that we cannot give counsel or gifts to God that either increase His knowledge or possessions. All wisdom and knowledge are His. The earth and the universe are His. He lacks nothing. So, our worship does not add anything to God. Anything we bring to God is already His.

So, what is the purpose of our worship? Scripture is full of commands to worship the Lord, bring offerings, and even offer ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). There has to be a reason that we worship, other than just requiring us to do this act out of obedience. And there is.

God’s purpose for worship, and all of life, is His glory. Everything, including our lives, exists for the purpose of bringing glory to God. All things are to Him. When creates, it is for His glory. When He reveals Himself to us, it is for His glory. When He provides for us, it is for His glory. When He saves, it is for His glory. When He judges, it is for His glory. When he raises up or brings down individuals, groups, or nations, it is for His glory. When Christ came, suffered, and bore the penalty for all sin, it was for His glory. When Christ rose, it was for His glory. When Christ returns, it will be for His glory. All things exist to bring glory to the Almighty God. And He will not give or share His glory with anyone or anything (Isaiah 48:9-11).

All things are to Him. All things are for Him. All things were created and intended by God to bring glory to God. For many of us, this is hard to swallow. This seems highly self-centered. That is because it is. For us, it would be sin. For God, it is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it is the most loving thing He can do for His creation.

Where is the highest joy found? Our highest joy is found in God through Christ. Any other person, possession, or aspiration will fall short of bringing the joy that can be found in Christ. Therefore, the greatest thing that God can do for us is to glorify Himself and the work He has done. As we see the indescribable wonders of Who He is and heights and depths to which He has gone to purchase our salvation, what greater joy could be found in anything else in life?

God is jealous for His glory. He is also jealous for His people. He knows that anything less than His glory is robbing us of our greatest joy. Therefore, as we come to God in worship and as we conduct our times of worship together, we should give serious consideration to where we place our focus. Worship is for the purpose of glorifying God. When the focus shifts from God and His works to the abilities, performances, or preferences of the leaders or those in attendance, we are seeking to share or steal God’s glory, whether that is our specific intent or not. We should always be mindful of why we are doing something – are we seeking to glorify God or are we just serving and glorifying ourselves?

When my focus becomes being noticed or recognized for anything that I am doing in the worship service or the ministry of the church, I am stealing God’s glory. When I am pressing hard on some issue, I need to seriously ask myself whether this glorifies God or am I just trying to get my own way. Pride and selfishness can be deadly in relationships. It has destroyed many families and churches. God abhors it when it comes to His glory, His church, and His people. As I look back over the years, distant and recent, I wonder how many times I have glorified myself instead of my glorious Savior. As we live our lives and work together in the church, it is important to keep the glory of God before us at all times.

Thankfully, God is gracious. He is forgiving. His mercies are new every morning. He holds His glory up as a wonderful aspiration. As followers of Christ, we have the awesome privilege of declaring the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We testify to what God has done in our lives through Christ. We get to make God look great! That is what it means to glorify someone. It does not mean that we make Him look bigger than He is. It does not mean that we have anything to add to Who He is or what He has done. We just get to reflect His wonderful work in our lives, as He transforms us into the image of Christ.

We glorify God when we find our greatest joy and treasure in Him. It is why we were created. God knows there is nothing else in life that can bring us this kind of satisfaction. That is why He glorifies Himself. Everything else is a cheap substitute and robs us of the peace and joy of God. It can be ours throughout life’s journeys, joys, and trials. Though we will stumble and fall, He will pick us up and sustain us. As we draw near and glorify Him, He will feed and serve us, providing for our every need. He will teach and strengthen us, giving us a deeper understanding of Who is. And we, in turn, will glorify Him. And so it continues, as God continues to show us that He is our all in all, and that there can be no greater joy than knowing Him in Christ.

Together for His glory…