In response to my previous post on theology, a friend asked me, “What does worship mean to you?” I concluded in that previous post that theology should be more than a luxury or a tool: it should be worship. But I neglected to define what worship is — or how I understand worship to be. What is worship? What does it entail? And what makes worship worshipful? My thesis in brief is: worship is proper response to God and grace.* Each italicized word will be further elaborated as follows: (1) response as the core of worship, (2) God as the object of worship, (3) grace as God’s knowable gifts, and (4) proper as the characteristic of worship.
“RESPONSE” AS THE CORE OF WORSHIP.
Response as worship incapsulates gut-reactions and thoughtful meditations.
Response is the verb or action of worship. A response is usually defined as a reaction to something, someone, or some event. To put it curtly, a response is an effect of a cause. Different kinds of causes can evoke different kinds of effects. At times, our responses are more like gut-reactions: for example, how beauty moves us or how loss grieves us. Other times our responses are poised and thoughtful, like exercises of meditation or prayer. Response as worship incapsulates both kinds: gut-reactions and thoughtful meditations. For the Christian, the cause of our worship is and should always be God. In fact, if the cause or reason for our worship is any other than God, then we risk idolatry. God also determines the kind of worship we ought to give: God as the cause of worship makes our responses proper. But we are jumping ahead of ourselves; let me say a few more on response as the core of worship.
If worship is a creaturely response — with God’s aid — to God, then the act of worship is always less than the object of worship. Suppose a heroine rides into a village tormented by a fearsome, fire-breathing dragon. After seeing the village’s depleted morale, she then gladly, gracefully, and fiercely storms the dragon’s lair. After what most likely would have been an epic battle, the heroine rides back into the village, but this time with the dragon’s head. The village roars with thankgiving and celebrates her and her victory, knowing that what the village does for her or in response to her deed cannot match what she did for them. And in an even infinitely greater sense, who God is and what he did for us in his grace is beyond what we could ever hope to say or do in our worship. The act of worship is always less than the object of worship. Thus, worship or whatever we can do should not be focus of worship — instead, God is the obsession of worship.
“GOD” AS THE OBJECT OF WORSHIP.
God is an immense being, beyond — utterly beyond — us. We cannot fully comprehend such infinite majesty with our feeble, finite minds. Libraries cannot be filled with enough books attempting to describe who God is. Thus, it would be foolish to assume a paragraph or two is capable of depicting the depths of who God is, but pray that it would be suffice.
God is the obsession of worship.
God’s immensity is a great starting point, and such immensity is far greater than we might initially or conclusively think. It is not that God is the most immense being in comparison to less immense things, say, human beings. No, God is immense precisely because God is incomparable: there is nothing in creation that can compare to God. For example, even the ever expanding universe — the largest spatial thing — cannot be used to measure God’s immensity! So, to say that God hold the whole universe in divine hands as an analogy to God’s immensity still falls short.
But God is not just incomparably immense, or we hope that’s not all who God is. The God of the Christian faith — the God of Israel who incarnated in Jesus Christ — is also the God of love, beauty, truth, justice, mercy, and grace. So, God is not just incomparably immense, but also incomparably loving, beautiful, truthful, just, merciful, and gracious. Indeed, this God is the proper object and obsession of worship. But God’s incomparable immensity paralyzes us here: how can we be sure that this God is the God of these wonderful attributes? If God is beyond our comprehension, then how can we ever feel the warmth of divine embrace, the touch of divine love? By the mystery of grace — God’s knowable gifts.
“GRACE” AS GOD’S KNOWABLE GIFTS
Since God is unknowable and utterly beyond our comprehension — indeed, God’s “immensity” dwarfs our puny minds — how can we know who God is? It is, I think, only by grace.
Grace, like God, is a wide field of study. Tomes can attempt to describe what grace is or what it entails; sometimes they are good and accurate, other times woefully off. A good litmus test of whether the description of grace is accurate or not is whether or not the reader or listener naturally — without being told — worships after reading or listening. For our condensed purpose, grace is understood as God’s knowable gifts. By grace, and only by grace, can we ever know who God is. There are two parts of grace I wish to emphasize: grace as the act of God giving and as the object of God giving; the two are also inseparable.
Grace is the act of God giving. Grace is the reason why God gives. God is gracious. We are saved, sustained, and loved not by our efforts or merits but by God’s infinite grace. We do not and cannot warrant grace apart from God. What’s more, grace makes us capable of receiving what God gives. When we are blind, God makes us see; when deaf, God makes us hear. Grace makes God knowable and us teachable. What a profound and gracious giver! Indeed, God is gracious.
God is gracious, and God is grace.
Grace is also the object of God giving. Not only does God give and we made recipients but also grace is the gift. Grace nourishes and delights us, not just because God gives us food and other goodies but mainly because God ultimately gives Godself to us. God is the gift because God is grace. God is the incomparable gift we receive. Goodness embraces us, mercy showers us, and love warms us because God is the grace we need and, as we’ll learn, what we ultimately want.
Allow me to conclude this section with an analogy. Grace is like a campfire deep in dark woods. A campfire not only gives us light to see, but also draws closer and warms us. The campfire’s light refers to how God is made knowable and us teachable.
“PROPER” AS THE CHARACTER OF WORSHIP.
It has been hinted above that grace has transformative powers: we are made teachable. But grace goes even further: we are made proper worshipers. Anybody can worship, but to determine whose worship is better or more appropriate is the task of this section. In short, worship’s proper-ness is what makes worship worshipful, or appropriate.
Proper worship must have God as the sole object of worship; God is the obsession of our worship. But without grace, we risk idolatry. Without knowing who God is and what God has done, we always risk fashioning God falsely and inaccurately — often, according to our own image and desires! Therefore, proper worship is not static but dynamic and fluid; it should always go deeper into grace, deeper into God.
Proper worship is not a set of steps (though it can help) but about action and posture. Proper worship demands action, more specifically ethical living. Worship encompasses the whole of the worshiper’s life, and his or her social realm cannot be excluded. Ethics can easily get complicated, though it seems to me to be simple in principle: love your neighbor. So, let it suffice to say that proper worship includes loving your neighbor well. And this, too, is dynamic: loving better and better as one goes deeper into God’s grace.
Vulnerability aids us in worship.
Proper worship also demands a certain posture, more specifically vulnerability. I first started writing this post this past February. Back then I thought proper worship required the right attitude, mostly a positive and hope-filled one. But after the loss of my mother two months ago, I’ve changed my thinking (again, all this is a dynamic process!). I now think that the right posture includes anger, sadness, and disappointment as long as they are directed to God. We do not need to mask real emotions and anguish under “being optimistic and hopeful.” No, these are gut-reactions, and they are included in our worship as response. And we do not need to fear of our emotions: God is not fragile. God is much bigger than our emotions — God is incomparably immense! — no matter how wild they can get. The key is vulnerability, which leads to intimacy. Jesus is Lord, yes, but he is also our brother and friend. We can and, indeed, are invited to be vulnerable with him. This is good, because being vulnerable makes us more open to God’s grace. Proper worship is a dynamic process, and vulnerability aids us to be molded by God’s hands.
Worship is the proper response to God and his grace.
* This short answer has obvious inspirations from Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (2014), but his is a bit longer and thicker (requiring 400 pages to expound): “True worship involves eventual human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in accord with his will.”