What Is Authentic Worship?

I was doing some Bible reading during lunch in the book of Leviticus, and my eye kept catching the following passage:

The LORD then spoke to Aaron, saying, “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you will not die–it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations– and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:8-11, NASB

This got me to thinking to what true worship is. The warning to Aaron and his sons here concerns how to enter the Tabernacle. They were not to enter it under the influence of wine or any other sort of strong drink. It other words, God was looking for clear-headed priests who were not under the influence of something else. It’s interesting that this passages come after Nadab and Abihu were struck down by God for worshipping improperly. So it’s all about the proper mindset with respect to worship. Show up and your head’s not in the game because you have been imbibing something you shouldn’t? God might very well strike you down. That’s the message sent to Aaron and his sons. We can take from it that God doesn’t want us coming muddleheaded and under the influence of toxins, either. He wants us to understand what’s going on. He wants us at our full capacities.

And this got me to thinking about how we worship today. A lot of folks place a huge premium on emotion. But emotion can take us out of being clear-headed. We can be so overcome with emotion that we can’t clearly understand and process what is happening. Rather, we filter everything through that emotion. Or we get caught up in the expectation of emotion. If the emotion isn’t there in an overwhelming way, we feel like worship didn’t happen. Aren’t we missing something? Is it all about the emotion? Or is there something more?

A reaction or a strong emotion may indeed result when God speaks to us. For instance, if we’re going through a very hard time the overflowing of God’s grace into our hearts may cause us to hit our knees and cry. Or seeing God work in the life of a brother as he pulls him out of an addiction may cause those around witnessing the change to shout for joy. But those kinds of emotional responses are due to God coming through and overwhelming a person. That kind of emotion is from what God is doing and it’s not the kind of emotion I’m thinking of when I say I think we’re missing something.

I’ll go back to a conversation I had with a brother a few years ago. He is part of a charismatic denomination, and understandably, is used to seeing a lot of emotion during a worship service. But he was telling me about one visit to a new church where people were carrying on shouting and crying and he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The person who was supposed to give the sermon was unable to do so because of all of the emotional outbursts that were happening in the congregation. After the service my friend went and pulled a couple of people aside and asked them why they were acting the way they were. The conversations went typically like the following:

“So I see you were crying out and shouting with your hands in the air. Why? What was God doing?”

“I was in God’s house.”

“I understand you were in God’s house. But what brought the praise to your lips? What had He shown you or done for you to cause that sort of reaction?”

“This is what we always do when we come here.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s what we do.”

“Where was God in all of that?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how were you glorifying God in what you just did?”

“Look, this is what we do.”

And at that point, my friend gave up. They weren’t there at a worship service for worship. They were there for an emotional reaction. That was their reason for coming. That’s what he suspected, and that’s why he asked. And he ended up not going back there because the people weren’t clear-headed and focused on worship. Truth be told, they were focused on themselves and what they could get out of it. That goes against the true purpose of worship which is to give glory, honor, and praise to God and to exalt Him. Worship is a time when we’re supposed to open our hearts and minds to Him and express our gratitude and love. And it’s also a time when He can take inventory in us and fill us with His presence, His wisdom, and His guidance. It’s not about who can have the most extreme emotional response or who can throw their hands up the most or who can scream the loudest or who can cry the most tears. God can overwhelm us so that it breaks out into our emotions (like with Jesus and the moneychangers in the Temple). However, that should be the result of true worship, not the definition of it. After all, we can get drunk on emotion just as much as an alcoholic beverage. That’s no good because God wants us clear headed. He wants us to be able to think and comprehend what He’s doing. And He also wants us to be able to see and know what He calls us to do. If we’re not clear-headed, we might miss all of that. And then we’re not glorifying God. And if we’re not glorifying God, we’re not participating in true worship.

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