Many years ago, I visited a member of my congregation who told me that she didn’t need to come to our church services because she worshiped God just fine at home. In fact, she reported that she worships with the squirrels and the trees outside her front door, which certainly isn’t possible in a stuffy room where we sing songs that she doesn’t even like. By staying at home, she got what she wanted.
We love to have our individual preferences and desires met, and this craving does not disappear when it comes to worship. The Pharisees, like unfaithful Israel before them, taught “as doctrines the commandments of men” — their individual preferences in worship led God to condemn their practices as “vain” worship (Mark 7:6–8). And when we indulge this craving today, we join the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1–9), Israel (Exodus 32; Isaiah 29:13), Saul (1 Samuel 13:8–14), and others whose worship God regarded as worthless, because ultimately, they worshiped by their own desires and not God’s.
Desiring God’s Desires
Mercifully, God does not leave his people blind to what he desires in worship. In Deuteronomy 12, God instructs Israel in the proper way to worship him. Repeatedly throughout this passage, we see that God — not our own desires — tells us what acceptable worship looks like. This repeated theme makes Deuteronomy 12 a very instructive passage for Christian worship today.
In Deuteronomy 12, God tells the Israelites where to worship him — the place of his “name” (Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 21). God also emphasizes that the Israelites must not do whatever they desire to do. They must not sinfully worship like the Canaanites, following their manner and location of sacrifice. Rather, the Israelites should do what “the Lord your God will choose” (Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 26).
In particular, they must worship the way he desires to be worshiped, and at the place where he desires to be worshiped. This is because God is “the Lord your God” (appearing eighteen times in this chapter). God is the personal God of the people. He alone is the only legitimate object of Israel’s worship.
Notice the subtle indictment on the Israelites. They cannot conduct their own worship services according to their own desires because everyone is doing “whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8). If Israel’s worship was to be conducted in this manner, then who would determine which direction to take in worship? Worship according to our own desires not only exalts our own will over God’s will, but it also renders worship ineffectual by replacing the solid backbone of God’s design with a mess of competing opinions and preferences.
So, the answer for Christians today is no different than it was for Israel: we need to be able to put our personal tastes aside, push out the tastes of the world, and let God himself govern our worship. If the goal of creation is that God’s glory might fill the whole earth (Numbers 14:21; Psalm 72:19), then the goal of our churches should be that the knowledge of God, not individual tastes, might characterize our worship (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14). In short, our desires need to be aligned to God’s greatest desire — the enjoyment of his glory.
Reset the Desires of Your Life
Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, God expresses concern not only with formal worship, but with how Israel would relate to God in their daily living. Israel is chosen from among the nations to be God’s special people, through electing and saving them. In response, since God chose Israel, he also has the authority to choose how they should live: in grateful and joyful holiness.
The Promised Land is full of idols, which God commands the Israelites to destroy, and the basis for this command is holiness. God’s name will dwell there, and his people are to be identified by that name and live by that name (Deuteronomy 5–6). Thus, if they are God’s chosen people they must worship at God’s chosen place according to his command, to “do all that I am commanding you” (Deuteronomy 12:14). In other words, not only our desires for personal worship, but our whole life needs to be conformed in holiness to the desires of the one we worship.
Thus, being chosen by God, we too are obligated to align our whole lives with the God who chose us. This means that we are to desire holiness. When our desires are rightly oriented, they can be put to use as the fuel of our worship, not an inhibitor. Aligning our desires to the desires of God is the root of healthy Christian living, which should motivate acts of sacrificial charity among all people groups — especially the vulnerable and marginalized in society (Deuteronomy 12:12, 18).
We Are Invited into God’s Presence
There is an enormous reward in following God’s desires both in our weekly and daily worship. In truth, we are a disgraced people, utterly devoid of helping ourselves in any way. The last thing we should do is dictate to God or to one another how we might worship him. However, if we are willing to align our desires for worship and desires for living to the desires of God, his very presence is made available to us.
Being invited into the presence of God for worship should lead to a posture of humility and reverence. But these are not postures we adopt out of fear or because we’re worried that God might not have us. Rather, our reverence springs from serious consideration of God’s holiness and majesty. On the contrary, when we enter God’s presence in right worship, we should be filled with joyful confidence that God will bless us there.
The God of the universe has himself chosen us and given us of himself. Now the place of God’s name is on Christ, and we enter his presence by God’s Spirit that lives within us. In worship, we receive a blessing greater than our own preferences could ever win — we are given the opportunity of God’s own glorious presence. Let us therefore rejoice in gratefulness of God’s mercy as we seek to know and love what God desires.