by guest author Chris Camareno, also known as my husband. Originally posted on Tempest Index.
Worship is an interesting concept. It’s almost foreign to modern minds. We typically assume it is something anachronistic, practiced by the ancients to fictional gods. Or maybe it’s what religious people do on Sundays. If you’re a Christian, you might think of the songs you sing at a church service. But worship is something far greater than music and antiquated rituals. It is something fundamental to our being. A popular Christian scholar, James K.A. Smith, is bold enough to believe and say that it is what is fundamental to our identity. Many people might think we are defined by our beliefs and thoughts. This might tell us a lot about a person, but I agree with Smith that there is something more fundamental to our being—worship. So what do I mean by worship and why is it so important?
You’ve probably heard it said, you are what you love. Or maybe you’ve heard a similar saying, you are what you eat, meaning, your diet affects your physical health. Likewise, what we consume with our thoughts, our will, and our passions affects our spiritual health. This can apply to just about anything if we examine our lives: sports teams, video games, hobbies, food, sex, music, television, clothes, vocation, wealth, technology, politics…the list is potentially infinite. What we love shapes our beliefs. It determines what we think is true, what we define as moral, and what we believe is good or beautiful. Jesus put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…For each tree is known by its fruit…the good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
What we treasure is what we give ourselves to with our time, our money, and our attention. These are outward indications of our worship. But it also has significant implications upon our being. We are what the Bible describes as imagers because we are created in the image of God. This means a lot things, but the fundamental meaning is more than something we posses, such as reason, moral awareness, or creativity. It is our function to image or reflect that which we worship. And what we worship can either bring life to or destroy the soul. A fantastic example of this is in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and illustrates the point through the exaggeration uniquely afforded by the genre of fantasy. Gollum, a former Hobbit who has become obsessed with the one ring, which he calls his “Precious”, gives us a picture of how we become what we worship. His object of worship, the ring, has completely shaped his identity to the point where he can no longer distinguish himself from it. Gollum speaks in the plural as himself and Precious. He has lost all concept of self apart from the ring and can no longer say “I”. The ring consumed him. This brilliant illustration is a very important lesson because it speaks truth about our own nature as worshipers. If we worship dead things then we remain in death (Isa. 44:9-20, Rom. 1:23-25 Jn. 5:39-40). The image we bear is further marred and corrupted. We were meant to find meaning and purpose in our identity as worshipers of Yahweh. The soul and its facets—the mind, the will, and the passions—each correspond to the highest reality for which they were created: the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. The mind is fulfilled by truth, the will by goodness, and the passions by beauty. Or as it was better stated by Archbishop William Temple:
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; nourishment of mind by His truth; purifying of our imagination by His beauty; opening of the heart to His love; submission of will to His purpose—all of this gathered up in adoration is the greatest expression of which we are capable and therefore the chief remedy for all that self-centeredness which is our original sin, the source of all actual sin.”
As image bearers of God, our souls only find fulfillment in proper relationship to God. Augustine penned those famous words so eloquently when he said, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
C.S. Lewis also offered thoughts on the subject:
“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.”
You’ve probably heard this before, that our satisfaction, hope, joy, contentment, peace and fulfillment are found in God. I’m referring to what the ancients understood as blessedness, a permanent state of the soul, as opposed to our modern definition of happiness, which means temporary contentment. It’s what Jesus was talking about in his sermon on the mount when he said “blessed are…”. The problem is that I have never heard anyone actually explain in practical terms as to how this is lived out. How does this theological and existential truth relate to our everyday lives? The truth of a belief is not only based upon its rational coherence and correspondence to reality, but its practical application. This is something I have struggled with and it brought much confusion about the Christian life. It led to feelings of guilt for not being satisfied in Jesus and, admittedly, finding more pleasure in other things that I enjoy; things that seemed contrary to what Jesus was talking about in the sermon on the mount. My confusion also inhibited any ability to find excitement at the prospect of heaven because of an utter lack of ability to conceptualize it. After all, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” And meanwhile “there are many pleasant recreations on the deck of the Titanic.” It brought about the false belief that if I read my Bible more, prayed more, and did more church that I could somehow find the right combination of actions, spiritualized legalism, to bring about this infinite joy that was promised by Jesus. I simply had to keep his commandments (Jn. 15:10-11). But as the famous philosopher Bono once said, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” There seemed to be things, desires and pleasures that appeared inherently good, that occupied a category outside of my faith that I saw as being in conflict with my satisfaction and worship of God rather than being a part of it. They seemed incompatible.
And so I found myself at a point where I struggled to trust Jesus’ words when he said the Kingdom is here, now, and ready to be experienced (Matt. 4:17, Jn. 10:10). It seemed necessary to discover the secret to my spiritual living in order to experience this fulfillment that seemed so elusive. But I wasn’t finding it and, sadly, the church wasn’t helping. It felt like I was surrounded by faith that hoped it would become what it was supposed to be, as if below the surface we were all struggling to find the same thing, but no one was brave enough to say it. I soon realized that this type of faith is anemic, truly weak and deficient of the power of Jesus’ blood, because its deficiency becomes apparent in its testing. When we are faced with the suffering and struggles of life, this kind of faith does nothing to carry us through because it still seeks something beyond itself. It is merely hope in hope. Many still hold on to belief because deep down they know it must be true (Jn.6:68) but struggle to find answers, waiting for them to emerge. But life is too short to settle for cheap Christianity that believes in the hope to bring life to a dead world but fails to do so, because “if the dead are not raised, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” I’m reminded of the story of John Wimber. Shortly after his conversion he started attending a local church. Becoming frustrated, he approached the pastor one day and pointed to his Bible asking when they were going to do what was in it. The pastor replied that that was exactly what they were doing. Wimber, dejected, replied, “You mean I quit drugs for this?!”
I also reasoned that if I’m to be any sort of evangelist and apologist of the Gospel, how could I share this one great hope with someone else if I couldn’t give a reason for the hope that is in me? While the analytical aspect of apologetics is essential, it had to be more than a rational case for truth. There had to be real joy and transformation in my life. Philosophical arguments offered to someone who is suffering do nothing to aid them in their struggle. It’s like giving them a lecture on their dehydration with an analysis of the nature of water instead of giving them an actual drink of water. Could I offer the water of life to another if I longed to taste it myself? I once threw that question out like a hand grenade at a church small group I was in. I had framed the question by asking that if we claim to have this hope that brings life, joy, and restoration, then could it really stand the tests and trials of life? Do we posses an authentic hope to truly share with someone who doesn’t know Jesus? If so, how? The answer was silence and eyes avoiding contact.
This was my struggle for a long time. Christianity made sense rationally but I could not make sense of it practically. Something was missing. And I am certain there are many others that have also struggled with this. Many people simply give up and move on. There are many rivals to God that compete for our worship in a world that seduces the soul with the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. What sort of apologetic could we give to counter them? James K.A. Smith says, today, we have no countermeasures against cultural liturgies. Meaning, what sort of beauty in our expression of worship could possibly rival the world’s if all we do is imitate culture and put a Christian label on it? The answer is that nothing short of an authentic and transformed Christian life can rival it. So how do we get there and what does worship have to do with it?
I narrowed the answer down to the gospel of John. In John 15:1-17 Jesus draws the connection between keeping his commandments and joy. As a philosopher this reminded me of Aristotelean ethics known as eudaemonism. It is a system of ethics that states that right action, which is virtue, brings about happiness (blessedness). But I couldn’t escape the apparent legalism of it. It seemed as if my joy was the result of obedience to God’s commandments. This didn’t work. It’s the spiritual hamster wheel, doing more good works got me nowhere. It also seemed to be the same way that all other religions defined salvation—through good works. But the Christian Gospel claims the opposite. No one can keep the law because we are spiritually dead. We can’t possibly pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps to become morally perfect. This is exactly what Jesus was getting at when the rich man approached him and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to be saved?”. Jesus’ response was genius. He asked the rich man why he called him good. Only God is good. It turned the question on its head and cut straight to the assumption being made: if I do good works, then I earn salvation. But Jesus saw right through it. If only God is good, who does that make Jesus? And if only God is good, how can anyone hope to be saved by being good? He then tested the rich man by asking him about which commandments he had kept. By our standards he seemed to have been a good person according to his response, but he failed the test when Jesus challenged him on giving away his material wealth. I used to always think this was cruel of Jesus because it says the man left disheartened and sorrowful. But there is more to the story and it allows us to see the rich man in a different way.
After this Jesus says how difficult it is for a rich man to enter heaven. The disciples respond in despair and ask who could possibly be saved? And that’s the point. We can’t keep the law. No one can save themself by being a good person. This is why Jesus answers the disciples by saying that with man it’s impossible. But with God all things are possible. This takes us back to John 15 and the promise of joy in keeping commandments. I approached Jesus’ words thinking that by sheer will power I could keep his commandments and find joy. I was the young rich man making the same assumption that somehow I could find life by being a good person. But I had completely ignored the first part of the passage. I also seemed to have forgotten that the wisest philosopher who ever lived (runner up to Jesus), Solomon, had performed the same experiment and come to the same conclusion. Being moral doesn’t bring fulfillment, it’s just another vanity under the sun (Eccl. 4:9-11). In that first part of the passage, Jesus said that apart from him we can do nothing, which sounded strangely like the problem I seemed to be having. I had missed the whole concept of abiding. Abiding is everything. It is the secret to our existence. When a philosopher raises the great existential question, “what is the meaning of life?”, that’s it. John 17:3 recorded the answer to the question that has plagued every philosopher and every longing heart of man since the beginning of time: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The rich man’s problem to his salvation wasn’t keeping commandments, he worshiped his wealth. He was seeking the living among the dead.
I was recently completely floored by this realization when I heard a song by Gungor titled “Am I”. Every line of the song is a question of meaning and identity. Am I? Am I? Am I? over and over again as the haunting tune and mantra of our existence. It’s that ultimate question of philosophy again, the struggle to find meaning, value, and purpose in our identity. The song perfectly captured the struggle. If the words of Ecclesiastes were notes of music this would be its melody. The great irony is that the question is turned back on the questioner like the pages of Job as God speaks his name: I AM. As imagers of God the question “Am I?” is the inverse of the name of God: I AM. It’s the reflection of his name in the mirror of our being. There could be no greater profound imprint upon all of creation, no greater artist’s signature upon his masterpiece than this realization: that the greatest mystery that has vexed the mind of every philosopher and tormented the heart of every man from the beginning of time in the search for meaning, the telos, framed as “who am I?”, is only answered by that which transcends any who pose the question. The Great I AM is the one who answers, and the meaning of the answer is only understood in our function as imagers. We are vessels meant to be filled by him. Lost in the chaos and misdirection of our rebellion, as Paul opens his letter to Romans, the soul is haunted by the Fall and is beckoned by its longing to find its meaning and dwelling in the love of God. Chesterton’s words capture this poetically:
“The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; . . . . on that proverb that says ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,’ which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and skeptics: ‘We look before and after, and pine for what is not’; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.”
But we worship dead things. We exchanged the truth for a lie and worship created things rather than the Creator.
When we worship, righteousness is a byproduct, not a primary goal. That’s a controversial statement but it’s not a false dichotomy. It’s the principle of first and second things. When we make secondary things primary, we get neither primary nor secondary things. When we make first things first we get both. It’s like making happiness the primary goal in life (the American dream) and making everything else secondary. The result is that you don’t end up happy and everything else is expended in its pursuit. You’re left with nothing but the profound sense of meaninglessness. We often think that the whole point of the Gospel and Jesus dying was primarily for a moral purpose. So naturally we think that we should try and be better people. But we were saved from sin for something. We make righteousness the first thing, but this misses the main point of our existence. Ravi Zacharias once said it this way:
“Man is not just unethical, he is lost and dead. If man is only lost in guilt then what I have given to you is bad news. But he is lost in sin and our great privilege is to tell him that we have a savior. Now hear this: The biggest difference between Jesus Christ and ethical and moral teachers who have been deified by man is that these moralists came to make bad people good. Jesus came to make dead people live. East or West, North or South, ancient or modern, the problem is the same and the solution is the same.”
There is something more going on. Sin is a symptom, a condition or status of our separation from God. Sin is the violation of the purpose and order of his creation. We are dead because we were cut off from the only source of life, himself, and we give ourselves to dead things. But we have the offer of life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And as we just read in his own words, eternal life is knowing him. It’s more than just having sin forgiven. It’s a restoration of the original order God created our world to be: to spread Eden across the Earth and fill it with his imagers. This is about worship; abiding. When we live out of a place of intimacy with God, living obediently becomes easier. Righteousness becomes second nature when we truly love him. It certainly requires submitting our wills to him and self-discipline, but the act of the will is first directed toward a person, not merely an act of the will toward an action.
Life as Worship
So how do we abide? How do we worship? The secret is that we all already know how. It’s in the essence of our being. We worship every day. But we have to learn to direct it toward its true object. Every facet of the soul and sense of the body that is capable of pleasure—a delicious meal, a beautiful song, a breathtaking landscape—was designed to arouse in us a picture of the artist and creator of those pleasures. Creation was never meant to be a rival of God, it was meant to be an appetizer, a pointer. The treasure map was never meant to be the treasure itself. My favorite musician once sang “my heart is filled with songs of forever” much like Solomon said, “He has made everything beautiful in its time, he has set eternity in the heart of man.”
The words of Ravi Zacharias explain the point perfectly:
“Anything that violates the soul destroys it; what is permanent is destroyed by what is temporary. There is a hierarchy of pleasure. Each gratifying pleasure is like the rung of a ladder. Each is able to carry you only a little further, but is not able to sustain you. All of those pleasures are ‘under the sun.’ In seeking pleasure, you pursued the body and lost the person. You sought the sensation and sacrificed the individual. In pursuing the sacred, you exalt the person and the sensation follows. Life then makes sense. In pursuing sensuality, you exalt the body and profane the person. It’s like emptying a container and throwing it away. Life, then, becomes just a container. Living becomes senseless…It’s written into the nature of sexuality that perversion empties pleasure of the meaning for which it was created. The body was not made for that. The binding of a man and a woman in the one-flesh union is indicative of the embrace of their spirits. The primacy of the person must always be kept intact. When that’s lost, the sexual act is a stealer of pleasure…The perfect expression of passion is in the soul—when you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. That communion of your person with the person of God enables you to see every other person as precious in His sight. The body becomes his temple. That takes you beyond the sun. Pleasures are meant to point you to the greatest pleasure of all, the presence of your heavenly Father. The closer that pleasure comes in keeping with God’s will, the closer we come to communion with God.”
We must remember that pleasure has a context and purpose. Beauty must always be good, goodness must always be true, and truth must always correspond to reality. If such a pleasure in creation is genuine as God created it to be experienced, then it is a potential opportunity for worship. Every time we find a pleasure in life that we are tempted to worship, realize that the truth, beauty, and goodness that it possesses has an author—Jesus (Col. 1:16). Understand that pleasure is a revelation of who he is just as art tells us of its artist. Do this and fall in love with him. Creation tells us so much of who the Creator is. And while this in no way replaces or diminishes the ways that we come to know God through the intimate speaking of his Spirit in us and working through us, there is much to be gained in our understanding of him as a person through his creation. It is his gift of love to us. We occupy a unique status among creation with our worship that distinguishes us from even the angels. We experience the beauty of creation not only with the soul but also the body. This is why the resurrection of the body, and the new heaven and new earth are so significant. It also might be a clue as to what is meant by our bodies being given as a spiritual act of worship in Romans 12.
Therefore, let our creativity, art, expression, and worship be unrivaled as its source, the one true God, is without equal. Let us image this as his church in his world that he created. He is making all things new. Our world is a shadow of glory and the best is yet to come.