Nicodemus: Isn't Required Worship Unspiritual?

Westmont Horizon, 2001

"Isn't it unspiritual to require people to worship?" – Nicodemus

I feel like I'm watching Friday the 13th or Highlander. Why does this question keep coming up? Why won't any answer put it to rest?

I think it is because here Christian faith collides with something resilient, something fundamental, something impervious to conventional weapons like arguments and appeals to Scripture. It runs into American cultural convictions.

Don't believe me? Read through my answer, and see if you are persuaded:

If requiring people to worship is unspiritual, then God is unspiritual. "Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" is, after all, the first commandment. We are also required to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the case not just when we feel like it, but especially when we don't feel like it – for instance, when our neighbors happen to be our enemies.

All creation glorifies and loves God (Ps. 19), even creatures without wills (like the sun in Ps. 19:5-7). So what distinguishes human beings among God's creatures is not that we alone are called to love God. What distinguishes us is that we resist the call.

And what gifts we display in resisting! A wonderful aspect of our resistance is our ability to rationalize it. One strategy turns the call to worship into a call to be satisfied or have our needs met. God becomes not our object of worship, but our wholesaler. When retailers let us down, we can demand our money back and head to another establishment with better service. Another strategy is to decide that God only wants our praise when it is offered along with certain emotions and attitudes. Confidence, happiness, and joy qualify. Unbelief, disappointment, and resentment do not. So when we don't feel like worshipping, we tell ourselves that God wants us to go away until our attitude improves. (God just hates to see frowning faces in church!)

Even more impressive is our ability to recast resistance as spirituality. We set the emotional and attitudinal bar very high – after all, God is so awesome that we only want to worship when we're at our very best. (God hates to see bored faces too! And distracted ones! And tired ones!) Thus it is dysfunctional, irrational, and unspiritual to force "worship" on resentful or bored or busy people who aren't getting anything out of it.

Yet history's greatest act of worship began with this prayer: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will, not mine" (Matt. 26:39, NLT). The next time you don't feel like going to church, or chapel, or personal prayer, a disclaimer like this might be a good way to begin.

Praying as if required worship is your own private crucifixion might make you feel like a fool. Or, if the way your community worships really is painful and oppressive to you (and to many it is), then praying this will remind you that Jesus is there, enduring it with you in Spirit and in truth.

Don't expect an immediate rush of spiritual ecstasy. A few hours later, Jesus started praying Psalm 22 (NLT): "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief." That sounds not only disappointed, but resentful – even doubtful! (Surely God doesn't want a sacrifice offered with such bitterness!)

Yet the verse that follows is a favorite of today's worship songs: "You are holy, you who inhabit the praises of Israel" (Ps. 22:3). Other translations suggest a God enthroned upon Israel's praises (RSV, NRSV) or surrounded by them (NLT). Apparently even the suffering praises of the last two verses.

On the cross Jesus took upon himself even our resistance to the call to required worship, and overcame it with a perfect sacrifice (Heb. 9:14). That means our high priest is with us and God is glorified even when we wish we were elsewhere.

Persuaded yet? Or does something in you still insist that this just doesn't feel right, or plead that Jesus is a special case?

If so, then I have a proposal. Lent is forty days of intensive training in discipleship. It contemplates Jesus' time in the wilderness in order to prepare to celebrate his victory on Easter. Starting February 13, Ash Wednesday, worship like Jesus. Push through your unbelief, disappointment, and resentment by putting him in your shoes. Use occasions of required worship to repent of your community's failure to believe, hope, and love as he did, and maybe even your own. Hear and trust God's promises – for Jesus offers them not just to the cheerful and confident, but especially to the weary and heavy laden.

After Easter, let me know whether you still think required worship is unspiritual.

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