“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…