[Note: This is an excerpt from a recent sermon I presented on “Engagement in Worship.” To listen to the full message, see the Oak Hills Media page for September 30, 2012. I hope it speaks to you.]
The “heart” of the worshiper is a key aspect of worship, but there seems to be some confusion about what that means. These days, the word “heart” is associated with emotion, experience, and sincerity. In other words, if someone says they mean something “with all my heart,” what they imply is that they really, really mean it in an emotional way. Unfortunately, worship that’s dependent only on our efforts to be increasingly sincere can sometimes be manipulative. We’ve all seen “rah rah” moments when emotions can get whipped up for sporting events, political rallies, and even infomercials.
I’ve heard many stories from people about churches where the worship was fervent and spirited and seemingly alive, but behind the scenes, people never lived their lives consistent with the God they worshiped. You see, if all we focused on in worship was emotive sincerity, we can disregard the larger issue of living the life of a worshiper, and concentrate instead on just having experiences of worship.
But the heart has a fuller and more biblical meaning—as the core of an individual. Dallas Willard describes it as that part, “where decisions and choices are made for the whole person.” If this is true, that the heart also includes decisions and choices, then a worshiping heart is one that worships not just as an emotion, but more so as an act of the will.
I was a part of a wedding last weekend. It was a beautiful and moving event, and the climax of the ceremony, as it should be, was the exchanging of vows. Here’s the thing. I’ve been a part of maybe a hundred weddings, and whenever the vows are exchanged, I always restate my vows to my wife silently in my head, kind of a renewing of my commitment to Debbie. As I said, I’ve maybe done this a hundred times over the past 25 years. Because I think it’s important to remind myself continually of the things I’ve committed to, to my wife and before God.
Now when you state your marriage vows to your spouse, you don’t vow to “fall in love.” You vow to “love, honor, and cherish.” In other words, love is more than an emotion. It is more foundationally an act of the will. Think about that. God commands us to love one another, and even our enemies, which is obviously not an emotional love but an act of the will. Certainly love is an emotion, but faithfulness redefines love to be much more than that. It is also a decision, an act of selflessness, something you express even when you don’t feel like it.
So we choose to love our spouse, or our parents, or our children, or our neighbor, or our co-worker, even when we don’t feel like it. Because the choice is as much an act of love as the love itself. That’s what real love is.
Do you see why this is important? I hear people sometimes talk about the fact that they aren’t “in the mood” to worship. Singing is not “me” they would say. And so they reason they decide that it would be more honest to not sing or come into service later after the singing is over. Or they reason that they don’t feel like raising their hands or clapping, so they decide that it would be more honest to leave their arms hanging. But is that right, really?
Another thing is that this narrow view makes worship simply about our feelings. And we’ve all been in situations where our feelings were manipulated. Just watch any chick flick, and you know what I mean. I watched “The Notebook” once with Debbie. And she’s crying and stuff, and I’m looking at her thinking, you know this is a made up story, right? These people don’t really exist. Feelings are extremely important. Feelings can also be wrong.
When we equate worship only with our feelings, then we’ve made the definition of worship—and the definition of love—too small.
Heart worship begins with a choice. It begins as an act of the will. And if heart worship is an act of the will, then it doesn’t matter that much if we are “in the mood” or not. It doesn’t matter if we like the style or the song or the tempo. All of that becomes subservient to the purpose of meeting God and fully responding to the Truth of His Story, to His action and presence in our lives. All of that becomes subservient to simply giving God glory. We worship because He is worthy.
This is a subtle but important distinction. Instead of waiting for the worship leader or the rock band or the laser lights and fog machines to rev us up emotionally for worship, we instead choose to worship—assuming a posture of obedience and surrender—as an act of our will. Then we can more honestly allow the Holy Spirit to be the One who stirs us up emotionally. Emotions are important, but emotions should follow the will, not the other way around.
So, let me say this more bluntly. It doesn’t matter that much if you don’t like to sing or if you like the song. God is worthy of our worship, so maybe you should sing. It doesn’t matter if you feel like it. Biblical love compels you to choose it.
An act of the will in worship will look different for each person. Maybe it looks like a premeditated decision to set your alarm 15 minutes earlier so you can be at church early. Maybe it looks like a deliberate slowing of your Sunday, you know, really applying the concept of Sabbath to the entire day, so that you are not encumbered by agendas or expectations or hurry. Maybe it looks like a willful surrendering of your body and soul and mind during the worship service, so that hands are raised, voices are loud, without encumbrance or holding back.
Now let me flip around and talk about the emotional part of heart worship. Because I don’t want you to get the impression that we want to downplay emotional worship. Entirely the opposite. Sometimes when I stand here and lead you in worship, and I feel the smile of God upon us, I just feel like exploding. And then I open my eyes and see you guys, and, well, I just want to light a fire under your seats. I want you to move, and raise your hands, and sing really loud, and jump up and down. I want to unleash the inhibitions that keep you from declaring God’s greatness. I want to let loose your emotions! I want to encourage you to let your bodies show the joy that your mouths are singing about.
Unfortunately, I think we may be holding ourselves back. We may be inhibiting ourselves from the fullness of worship that comes from our emotions. And I take responsibility for that, being your worship leader here at Oak Hills. Frankly, I have my own inhibitions and ego and stuff that I have to deal with every time I get up here to lead you all. So we all have some learning to do in the area of emotive worship.
There’s a story in the Bible that bears mentioning here. In the Book of Second Samuel, The Ark of the Lord was physically being moved back into Jerusalem, and King David, the poet warrior, the beloved of God, was pretty stoked about it. As it was being carried in, David gets so excited that he rushes out into the crowd, and right there in the middle of the street, starts doing the moonwalk. He is a dancing fool for the Lord. Now, his wife, Michel, who is the daughter of Saul, becomes disgusted by this undignified display of elation, and she calls him out on it. But David doesn’t care. He turns back to Michel and says this: “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (2 Samuel 6:21-22 NIV)
David, King of all Israel, is not afraid to express the fullness of His joy before the Lord and in front of people. He understood when being “undignified” in the eyes of man was actually the most proper and worshipful act He could express to God in that moment. “Hallel” is a Hebrew word for “praise,” and it actually has the implication that we are expressing ourselves foolishly before God. It’s where we get our expression, “Hallelujah,” which if you look at it that way, can be interpreted to mean, “Crazy praise to You, Yahweh.”
You see, there’s a great deal of vulnerability in worship. When we are truly worshiping God, there is a sense that there is no longer any pretending. We are exposed, revealed, uncovered, to our Holy God. When we are able to embrace our vulnerability before God, it is there where we can learn to accept more and more God’s great love for us.
King David understood—we are God’s undignified people. Maybe it’s time we started acting a bit more like that.