Carla Unseth

The Heart of Worship

In a recent newsletter, I talked about spiritual temperaments, which means that different people worship and connect to God in different ways. I’m posting the content of that newsletter as a blog post so you can read it if you would like.

I mentioned in the newsletter that my top temperaments are “Traditional” and “Sensate”. This means that I feel closest to God when participating in a service that uses some ritual, such as a liturgy, that connects to centuries of Christians. It also means that I feel worshipful when surrounded by beauty, and when using my body to worship in different ways.

Now, I must admit that even writing this makes me feel a little guilty. Why? I grew up in a theological tradition that (rather ironically) avoids tradition and ritual. It is avoided purposefully in order to combat worship becoming rote and meaningless. This is definitely a good reason to keep worship fresh and heart-felt. After all, God says through the prophet Amos, “I hate, I despise your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies.” (Amos 5:21). He said this because the Israelites loved their rituals more than they loved God. Though they followed the letter of the law, they had missed the heart – to love God more than anything. Additionally, I studied in a college that focused on the intellectual and avoided the sensory. I got the feeling that sensory worship was just a little too “dangerous”. So many sins are a result of bodily desires, so the way to avoid those sins was to avoid the body.

As I have learned more about worship, I have had to reevaluate my desire for a different kind of worship experience. Is it wrong to worship with ritual? Is it wrong to worship through beauty?

I think the answer lies in what we consider to be the heart of worship. John 4:23-24 says, “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth.”

This verse tells us two things about true worship. First, it says true worship is “in truth”. This means that true worship must be grounded in solid theology and doctrine built on the Bible. True worship must be informed, not just emotional. Second, it says true worship must be “in Spirit.” This little phrase has two meanings. It means that true worship is done through the Holy Spirit. It is through the Holy Spirit that we are drawn to God and empowered to worship Him. It also means in our own spirits. Our inner selves are made alive through the Holy Spirit and we worship God in our own spirits.

Therefore, true worship is a combination of the head and the heart – truth plus emotion. Whatever way we choose to worship God must engage both of these parts of ourselves. John Piper describes it this way in his book Desiring God:

Worship must be vital and real in the heart, and worship must rest on a true perception of God. There must be spirit and there must be truth… Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full (or half-full) of artificial admirers… On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the discipline of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine. Strong affections for God rooted in truth are the bone and marrow of biblical worship. (81–82)

The heart of worship, then, comes from the intentions and attitudes of the heart. Because of this, the “external” facets of worship are not so important. This means both that we don’t have to have certain externals, and also that we can have certain externals.

For me, this means that it is acceptable to follow certain traditions in my worship, as long as these traditions lead me to the truth and help me to love God more. Similarly, using symbols, art, prayer walking, or other types of worshiping with the body are acceptable as long as they reflect the truth and lead us into deeper relationship with God.

It is amazing to me to see how God has created us so differently and given us so much freedom to express our worship to Him. The body of Christ worshiping together in different ways is a fragrant offering to God – a reflection of the beauty and diversity of His creation.