The Life of Worship: Is it Possible to Obey the Greatest Commandment?

I am far from perfect. For some of you who know me well, this is no great revelation. I have many flaws and I am frequently discouraged with what I perceive as my lack of progress in growing in my relationship with God and my love for Him. It can be very depressing at times. I can very hard on myself. I am sure some of you can relate to this. You don’t need anyone else to criticize you. You are your worst critic.

Self-critique can be helpful. However, it can also be unhelpful in a couple of different ways. First, if we are only looking at the here and now, we forget where we have come from. It is kind of like when I look and my children now. I don’t always remember what they were like when they were younger. However, then I look at some old photos or movies and I am amazed by how much they have changed and matured. In our spiritual lives, it can be like that. If we could see a snapshot of how we were 10 years ago, we would see that we have grown.

On the other hand, we can overestimate our growth and maturity, especially if are filled with pride and overly impressed with our own abilities and accomplishments. We can think too highly of ourselves and, therefore, look down on those who are less “spiritual” than us.

This is why, in both cases, it is important to have God’s perspective. This is especially true when it comes to living out the greatest commandment, which is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). As Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to live out on a daily basis. All of our life, every breath, is to be a pursuit of loving God with all that we are. This is a high and daunting calling. That is why it is important to keep in mind how God views the fulfillment of this calling.

We do not initiate love for God. In our fallen human nature, we do not love God. Ultimately, we do not even know what true love is. We are dead in sin apart from Christ (Ephesians 2:1). Dead things do not love. They are incapable of love. Therefore, the love we are called to give to God is impossible. However, love was revealed to us by God when He sent His Son to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). Love was demonstrated to us through the life and perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God came to us, to show us what true love is really like.

We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). The only reason we can love is because God loved us first. Therefore, we do not initiate love for God. Our love for God is a response to His love being poured out into our hearts. We can’t whip it up or create it on our own. It is made possible by the work of God in our lives when we receive the gift of His salvation through Jesus Christ. We are made new and, as a result, are able to love Him in response to His love for us.

God perfects His love in us. In spite of receiving this new life and the ability to love God, we are still far from perfect. We have been declared righteous through the blood of Christ. But God’s sanctifying and perfecting work continues in us until the day we die. We abide in God and He abides in us, and through this process, this love is perfected in us (1 John 4:14-17). As we seek to live out this love for God in our daily lives, He gives us the strength and wisdom to grow and be filled with the love and fullness of our God (Ephesians 3:14-19).

As we respond to His love and seek to live a life of worship and to love our God with all that we are, we need to remember that it is not by our wisdom and strength that it will be accomplished. We are called to follow and pursue. We are called to love God, but it is God Who will perfect this in us. Our strength is failing. God’s strength is perfect. Our love is fleeting. God’s love is never ending. We are called to abide, or dwell, in Him. He is the One Who will accomplish His perfect will in us. So, yes, it is possible to live a life in obedience to the greatest commandment. It may not always be pretty, but God will continue to demonstrate His love to us and work in us to help us to live and love more like Jesus.

Together for His glory…

The Life of Worship: The Greatest Commandment

I love my wife. I love her a lot. We have been married for 36 years. We have known each other for almost 45 years. She is my best friend. There is no one I would rather spend time with. No, things are not always smooth and tranquil in our relationship, but we are committed to one another, for life. And I do not want it any other way.

Now, I could be committed to staying with Cheryl, honoring my marriage vows to remain true to only her. However, in our relationship, I could keep myself closed off and isolated from her. I could withhold my love and affection. I could go about my life and never do any acts of kindness for her. I could take care of my own needs and neglect hers. On the other hand, I could be unfaithful, and not remain true to the commitment I made to be faithful to her all the days of our lives together. At the same time, I could do all kinds of wonderful things for her, showering her with gifts, attention, and affection, while being unfaithful.

In both of the situations, there would be a disconnect. Whether one way or another, my wife would be getting part of me, but not all of me. My life would be a contradiction. The actions of my life would be in opposition to each other. I would not be fully devoted to her as my wife. Unfortunately, when it comes to our relationship with God, we frequently have the same disconnect. Well, maybe I should not speak for you. For me, there is.

“And he [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.’” Matthew 22:37-38

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This is basically a restatement of what Jesus is saying in the passage above, which He is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, where the Jewish nation is given this command to love God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Moses gave the command to the people, as God had given it to Him. Jesus confirmed and validated it as the greatest commandment. Therefore, as those created by this Almighty God, this is our highest call.

There are many commands and principles in the Bible. Sometimes, it is hard to keep them all straight. However, Jesus said this command, and the next greatest command, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves, encompass all of the Law and Prophets. In other words, every other commandment given by God falls under these two (Matthew 22:37-40). For me, this is freeing. I don’t have to remember a long list of dos and don’ts. I give myself to Him through a life of love and devotion and He will work in me to fulfill the whole of His law.

On the other hand, it is an enormous task. To love the Lord with my whole being is a great challenge. In fact, on my own, it is impossible (more on that next week). It involves a total and complete devotion to the Lord.

It involves loving the Lord with my mind. This means that I seek to know Who He is in a greater way on a daily basis. I must pour His truth into my mind, conforming my thinking to His thoughts. But growing in knowledge is not enough. As my knowledge of God and His character and ways increases, my devotion for Him should grow as well. My relationship with God should become deeper and richer. My love for God and my joy in Him should be expanding every day. Then, as my knowledge and devotion deepen, I should grow in my giving myself in service and living out my life in obedience to God, loving God with all of my soul and strength.

The conflict arises when we think we can have one of these aspects without the others. Even though we don’t think it, practically we live it out. Ultimately, we live a lopsided life, overemphasizing one aspect of our lives. We get a lot of head knowledge, but have little love for God or don’t live in obedience. Or maybe we love God, what we know of Him anyway. But we don’t grow in our knowledge of God and the faith, so our love is ignorant and uniformed and we often live lives based on our own wisdom or fantasies, rather the truth. Or maybe we are very busy serving God, but we don’t spend time renewing our minds with His Word or we have little devotion for Him. Our service has become obligation, not a life lived in joy and love for God.

All of these options are less than best. That is why I think God contained all of the aspects into one command, to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Without one, the others are incomplete. The result is a relationship that is lacking and not fruitful, just as marriage that is not fully devoted in all aspects.

God wants all of us, not just part of us. It is not that God is needy or greedy. He knows that there is no greater fulfillment and joy for us that can be found in any other person, place, or thing. Our highest joy is found in loving Him with all that we are. The pursuit of the life of worship begins with this call. Let us seek to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. There is no higher calling.

Together for His glory…

The Life of Worship – What is It?

“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

Over the past 30+ years, I can’t tell you how many books, articles, sermons, and seminars I have read or listened to on the topic of worship. There are a lot of convictions, declarations, and opinions – some good, and some not so much. I know I have definite convictions on the subject. The majority of my ministry has been spent being involved in studying and seeking to worship and lead worship in a manner that is pleasing and exalting God. Looking back over the decades (I can’t believe I can say that – decades!), there are some things I think I got right. There are other areas that I stumbled through. Today, I am still on the pursuit – some days are better than others.

The declaration made by Jesus, in the passage above, is a radical shift from what people of His day thought about worship and religion. It is a radical shift from what most of us believe. Even for those of us who know all of the right answers, in our hearts, there is always a battle going on. There will always be a struggle to worship God in spirit and truth. The world will not do us any favors in this. They will try to shift our focus to anything but Jesus. To live a life of worship, we must be diligent. In fact, if don’t intentionally pursue it, it is not going to happen.

Thankfully, God is gracious and merciful. He knows our weaknesses. When we slip, slide, fall, or even run away, His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). He is the God of new beginnings. He delights for us to delight in Him, because in Him He knows we will find our greatest joy and satisfaction.

Over the next few weeks, I will share thoughts about the life of worship. As I have said here before, I do not claim to be an expert. I do not claim to even live this well. One of the reasons I call this blog “In Pursuit of the Life of Worship” is because that is exactly what it is for me. It is a pursuit. A journey that will last my lifetime and beyond. Sometimes, I think I get it right. Many times, well, let’s just say I have a long way to go.

However, I want to live out this life in a way that glorifies God and brings me to a deeper, richer knowledge and love for God. So, I keep moving on. And I encourage you to do the same, as you encourage me to do the same. Together, we join the most glorious pursuit of all – to know and love the One Who spoke all things into existence, holds them together by the power of His Word, and has redeemed us by His Own blood. This is Someone worth pursuing a relationship with.

Together for His glory…

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…

Giving Us Himself: God-Centered Worship, Part 2

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)  Continuing with where we left off last week, we are exploring what it means to have God-centered worship. Let’s jump in.

All things are from God. The apostle Paul states this clearly in the passage above. This is a simple statement that many followers of Christ would agree with, for, of course, God is our creator. He has created and given us all things. He provides for our needs, etc. However, when it comes to worship and acknowledging the work of God, I think it goes far beyond what most of us have in mind. Or maybe I should say, the way we practically live this out.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)

God is our sustainer. God is the constant maintainer of all existence in the universe. He is at all times aware of everything – whether large or microscopic, audible or inaudible, visible or invisible. He is at all times holding all things together and making them exist (Colossians 1:17). If God removes his hand or “blinks”, we stop breathing. The universe dissolves or unravels. Nothing can exist or continue to exist apart from God’s will.

God is sovereign over all. There is nothing that slips through His fingers and happens behind His back or catches Him off guard. He rules the universe with perfect wisdom and knowledge. There is nothing that He does not know. No person or thing exists apart from His will. He uses everything to accomplish His will in the universe and in the lives of every person. Masterfully, He weaves the tapestry of our lives, using all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). He takes the tragedy and devastation caused by sin and somehow creates beauty and restoration in the lives of those He created and sustains. And He bore the entire penalty for that sin and devastation through Jesus Christ. Our very lives and salvation are a gift of His love and grace.

God is a giver. He is the Giver. When we worship, there is nothing we bring that was not first given to us. There is nothing that we bring that we even own, whether it is money, talent, or praise. We are simply returning to God what is His in the first place. All that we have and all that we are belongs to God. When we give our lives to Him and receive His gift of salvation, we come because we have been drawn by God (John 6:44). We cannot earn our salvation through any work or effort of our own – it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Even the works that we do for Christ and the kingdom are prepared in advance by God (Ephesians 2:10). When we love God or others, it is because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). When we serve, we are offering back the talents and spiritual gifts He has given to us.

Therefore, much like the analogy I used last week, when we offer anything to God, we are actually giving back to Him what He already owns. As Paul said in Acts 17:24-25, God needs nothing. We cannot give Him anything that would increase what He owns. We cannot say anything to Him or do anything for Him that increases His worth or value. We worship a God that is self-sufficient and lacking nothing. So, why do we worship? What can we possibly say or do that is of any worth or value to God?

Oh, my friends, in our self-sufficient and self-focused world, we have lost the simplicity and wonder of what God has for us. We have allowed what we offer to God in worship to become an end in itself, when God has something so much greater for us. What God wants to give us in worship is Himself. It was never about what we bring to Him. As God has revealed Himself throughout the ages, this life was never intended to produce a group of adherents to a pile of rules and regulations. It was intended to produce wonder and delight. It was for the purpose of finding delight in the only One Who can satisfy the hunger and thirst of our souls.

Our offerings to Him were intended to be a response to the wonder of Who God is and what He has done in Jesus Christ. Obedience was meant to magnify the holiness of God and protect us from the ravages of our own sinful nature so that we could enjoy the wonder of fellowship with God. As we come to Him and offer ourselves, He pours out even more of Himself for us to see. When we sink our roots into His Word, we gain greater insight into what has been done for us in Christ. As we trust Him in our victories and battles and sorrows of life, God meets us. He gives and gives and gives. He works in us to transform us into the image of His Son. God is waiting to give us the greatest gift – Himself. May we come to Him and drink deeply.

Together for His glory…

It Begins and Ends with Him: God-Centered Worship, Part 1

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:33-36

When our kids were younger, we would occasionally help them buy Christmas gifts for each other. We would also help them by gifts for my wife and me. Other years, there were a lot of homemade gifts. The kids did not work and so they, of course, did not have money of their own to buy gifts or the materials to make gifts. My wife would go with them to buy gifts for me and each other. I would take them to buy gifts for her. The kids enjoyed this, I think. They were able to pick out something special for each other or for us, even though they really had no resources of their own to do so.

As we progress on this journey together, I will be discussing several foundational principles which I feel are essential to worship that is biblical. These ideas do not originate with me. For one, I would hope that principles for biblical worship would be, well, biblical – grounded in Scripture. That would seem to make sense. In addition, I have had the privilege of listening to and reading the works of godly people through the years. As they search the Scriptures and seek God’s wisdom, these wise individuals have helped me grow in my understanding of worship. Or, as the case may be, grow in my understanding of how much I don’t really know. Either way, I don’t claim that these will be my original concepts or ideas on worship. I just hope to faithfully share what God has taught me.

One of the foundational principles for biblical worship is that it is to be God-centered. This may seem obvious. In theory, yes, this may be true. However, I think if we evaluated our lives of worship, we would often find that it is more self-centered than God-centered. If we consider all of the attention and money focused on preferences related to styles of worship, worship marketing, and catering worship services to appeal to certain demographics or target audiences, it would seem that God and the gospel can get lost in there somewhere. I am not saying that styles or target audiences are unimportant issues, but they are not foundational. They come further down the line in importance and should flow from a solid foundation of worship built on biblical principles.

In the story I shared at the beginning, I provided an analogy of a God-centered approach. My children were given the opportunity to buy a Christmas gift for me. However, they were using my money to buy me a gift. They received from me in order to give back to me. It was through the resources I had provided for them that they were able to offer something to me. So, in the end, they were giving something to me that was already mine. It had never really been theirs in the first place. Yet, in the process, they were able to experience the joy of sharing and giving because of the resources I had provided to them.

Romans 11:36 is a great snapshot of this God-centered worship. From Him: He is our great provider. He is the creator of all things. All power and wisdom come from Him. All that we have belongs to God. He gives to us according to our needs. Through Him: He is the sovereign God. He is our refuge and sustainer. Christ is author and finisher of our faith. He is our mediator before the Father. He enables us to serve and worship Him. To Him: He alone is deserving of glory and praise. He is the recipient our praise and we reflect His glory back to Him through our worship.

In other words, our life of worship begins with God, is enabled by God, and is for God. He provides all that we need in order to know and worship Him. He makes our worship possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As believers, we come into His presence clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He quenches our spiritual hunger and thirst. He enables us to find in Him the greatest joy available in the universe – knowing Christ. As we go through the next few weeks, I will expand on these to try and help us get a better picture of what this means in our lives and worship. For now, let us remember that if our focus in worship is on what we can produce, that is all we will get. If our focus is on God and what He offers to us, we will receive from Him a greater and lasting joy.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” 1 Peter 1:8

Together for His glory…

We Were Made for This

The alarm goes off. My arm quickly moves to snooze it before it wakes up my wife. I sigh (or groan). Why does morning come so early? My mind turns to what is next (if I stay awake). Depending on which day it is, my schedule is different. Some days, I head downtown to my job in the city. Some days, I go into church for the day.

So, as I eventually turn off the alarm, my mind starts to run through what the day will hold. Depending on the day of the week, there are different levels of anticipation or lack thereof. So, I swing my stiff and crackling body out of bed and start moving toward the first task. I usually wake up pretty groggy, not overwhelmed with eagerness and expectation. As my day progresses, I find that I can frequently navigate the day without a much sense intentionality or purpose. That is not to say that I don’t strive to do my tasks well or set a good example. However, I can just go methodically through the day, checking things off my list and dealing with things as they come. My focus can easily become getting through the day and not on the purpose for the day that I have been given. Can you relate at all?

Did you know that you and I were made with a purpose? We are not just random results of chance or human reproduction. We were created with purpose and each day we are given comes with a purpose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this purpose in the response to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This answer is based on continuous references throughout Scripture. I have included just a few here. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11). “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36). “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11).

We have been created for the glory of God and in His presence is fullness of joy – not just a little joy, but fullness, richness, and completeness of joy. This means that each day I open my eyes, I have a purpose – to glorify God and to enjoy God. Whatever else is on my list for the day is secondary to this. Whatever else is on my agenda should flow through and out of this purpose. I have heard the statement before that someone “was so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.” Personally, I think this statement is neither Biblical nor true. For when we become heavenly minded, with our heart and mind set on God and His work in our lives, it is only then that all of the rest of our lives can truly come into proper focus (Colossians 3:1-4). Our lives and daily tasks become a life of worship (Romans 12:1-2) and in the midst of this, we find joy in God.

This does not mean that life does not come with challenges, hardships, and sorrows. However, in the midst of these, we can continue to live a life of worship as we seek to bring glory to God and receive joy from Him. This is truly a gift and only possible by the hand of God, through life in Jesus Christ. As we focus our gaze on the wonder of Christ and yield to His work in our lives by the Holy Spirit, God will transform us day by day, As we sink our roots deep into Christ and the Word of God, our desires will become more like His and we will not be satisfied so often with cheap imitations offered by the world. We will hunger more for things that are eternal.

As it is, I find that I am often satisfied with less than what God has offered to me. C.S. Lewis put it this way. “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory, 1942). This will be a constant struggle, but the battle is worth it. Let’s not be so easily pleased. Let’s hold fast to our hope in Christ and continue to spur one another on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:23-25). May we pursue lives of worship, finding satisfaction in our God as we glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. It was for this that we were created.

Together for His glory…