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Why Worship?

I must admit that at times I am jealous of charismatic congregations. I often feel that I am missing out on something as I witness their apparent ability to be so tuned in to their praise as they worship God. This goes beyond my inability to simultaneously clap and sing for any extended length of time. I have a habit of analyzing the reasons behind any strong feelings of joy I might be experiencing, rather than becoming immersed in them. While others around me are clapping, lifting their hands to heaven and singing with all the passion they can muster, I am wondering whether my emotions are genuine, or if they are simply being manipulated by a particularly moving chord progression.

It was this need to analyze and study that led me to ask the more basic question: Why should we worship God in the first place?

The historical importance of worship

In the Biblical account we see that the people of God are a people who worship God. Deuteronomy 6:13 tells us that we are to only revere and worship the Lord, and Christ said that his people would worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). Whether it is Moses and Miriam responding to the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15), the psalmists singing of blessings received (Psalm 18 and many others), or the saints recognizing their salvation (Revelation 15:2-4), worship seems to come as a response to the gifts God has given his people. 

Similarly, there has been a theme throughout church history of Christians worshiping for the glory of God. Early Christians chose to worship in secret and to die for God’s glory, rather than to deny Jesus.[1] During the crusades, hundreds of thousands of Christians went through terrible hardships and committed terrible acts of violence. But many of the crusaders, especially those from poorer classes, genuinely believed that they were acting for the glory of God.[2]  The Jesuit religious order was started for the very purpose of bringing greater worship and glory to God,[3] and many great modern Christian preachers and writers have also emphasized the praise and glory of Christ.

God’s need for worship

It is clear that worshiping, praising, and glorifying God has been an important aspect of devotion and spirituality for God’s people throughout history. But why is the act of worship so necessary? Or to put it another way, what “good” might come from glorifying God? After much thought, study, and prayer about this issue I have come to the conclusion that worship and praise are of no direct benefit to God. Three separate ideas have led me to this conclusion:

The first is that God does not have low self-esteem. So often in scripture and in modern experience, human praise and worship come as a response to blessings from Heaven. We might say that praise is a way for us to thank God for what he has given us, in much the same way I might thank a friend or loved one who has given me a birthday present. But while I thank my friend in order to make him or her feel good about our friendship and to show that I have accepted the gift, is the same really necessary with God? Is God so needy for acknowledgment and affection that he asks every one of his followers to shower him with praises, lest his feelings be hurt? This would seem to make our Lord no better than a paranoid king, who demands that his advisors constantly whisper reassurances into his ear. Surely this is not the case.

Secondly, an infinite God, by his very nature, cannot be affected by finite mortal beings. By praising God’s goodness, can I make God any more good? Or by acknowledging his power, will the all-powerful Lord gain any strength? One cannot improve upon holy perfection, nor increase infinite power. It follows, then, that an almighty God has nothing to gain from weak and damaged mortals.

Finally, the Bible tells us that “the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). If God “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8), why should it be necessary for us to sing or speak his praises? Surely he can “read our minds” to discover that we have enjoyed the blessings he has given us. Clearly, then, there must be more to worship than simply the appeasement of a needy God.

Humanity’s need for worship

As I have found to be true time and time again, the way of life that God prescribes for us is first and foremost for our own benefit, and worship is no exception. Many have said that men and women were created to worship, whether the object be Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, the Dallas Cowboys, Prada or Nicholas Sparks. What those in a religious context call worship might by others be called a moral compass, a hobby, an obsession, or an addiction. We humans are born with addictive personalities, so by worshiping God we are choosing to turn our backs on worshiping something self-destructive.

But the importance of worship goes beyond avoiding unhealthy habits or obsessions. When we worship, praise, and adore the qualities of God, we are simultaneously teaching ourselves to emulate those qualities. Psychological studies have shown that the people we choose to look up to have a profound impact on the decisions we make.[4] If this is true about people we look up to, imagine the effect true and honest worship might have on our lives. If we spent time each day focusing on the different ways God has revealed his love, how could we help but become more loving ourselves? 

In thinking through the topic of worship, I have come to the conclusion that God asks for praise not for his sake, but for ours. It is his will that we continue to grow to become better and better examples of his character. Along with study and petitions for guidance, I believe that worship is an effective way for us to train ourselves to be more like Christ. When we learn to fix our eyes on him through worship, we will find ourselves being “transformed into the same image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). So while I may never be able to clap in rhythm, I know that my praises are not in vain.

Jon Campbell is a 2010 theology graduate of Walla Walla University. He is currently completing his MA in linguistics at the University of York in the United Kingdom.

[1] cf. Acts 7:54-60, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, or any other early account of Christian persecution.

[2] Thomas Asbridge. The First Crusade: A New History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] George Ganss, ed. Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, (New York: Paulist Press, 1991).

[4]For a few examples of studies that have been done on the effect role models have on human behavior, see: Penelope Lockwood, et al. “To Do or Not to Do: Using Positive and Negative Role Models to Harness Motivation” and Scott Wright, et al. “The Impact of Role Models on Medical Students.”

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