Juliet writes in to ask, “Hello, Pastor John. I have a simple question. What does it actually mean to be a worshiper?” Pastor John, what would you say?
The key text for me is Matthew 15:7–9: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me.’”
From that I see, first, that worship is about honoring God. A worshiper is one who honors God. “This people honors me with their lips. . . . In vain do they worship me.” In other words, they are failing in what they are attempting to do rightly.
So it is right to want to honor God. That is what worship should be — to show God to be of highest honor in the universe, highest value, highest worth, highly worthy of praise, worthy of the most admiration. That is what God is, and worship shows him to be that. Worship reflects that. Worship is an echo of those excellencies of God. That would be a way to think about it.
Worship Starts in the Heart
Then the second thing I notice in that text, besides honoring God, is the prominence of the heart. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me.” Their worship is empty because they are doing it with lips without heart. There is no authentic worship where the heart is not engaged. It is empty worship. It is vain worship.
“Worship is about honoring God. A worshiper is one who honors God.”
So the essence, I am going to argue in answer here, is that worship is not the movement of your lips, not the movement of your hands, not the movement of your knees, not the movement of your tongue. The essence of worship is the movement of your heart — that is, your affections, your spiritual emotions. And those other acts, those outward acts, become worship when they are expressing what the heart is authentically feeling.
What is that? Well, it is not mere willpower, because these folks had enough of that, because they were doing this lip moving. “This people honors me with their lips.” They had the willpower to go to church and move their lips and sing the songs. And so that is not worship. Worship is not the willpower to make yourself do stuff that is religious.
What is missing is spiritual affections. “Their heart is far from me.” They are not the direct power of willpower. You can’t make yourself feel gratitude if you don’t feel it. You can’t make yourself feel admiration from somebody you find boring. You can’t just turn it on and off like a switch. It is not willpower. These are real, genuine, authentic emotions that are quickened and awakened by true perceptions of God.
And so here are some examples of what I mean. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sins.” So the emotion of contrition and the emotion of sorrow for sin is a beautiful act of worship because it reflects the value of God from which we have fallen so short.
Then we mingle with those feelings of contrition feelings of longing and desire. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). Then with our contrition for sin and our longing for mercy, we mingle fear and awe. “I will bow down toward your holy temple in fear of you” (Psalm 5:7).
“Worship happens when we see God truly and feel him duly.”
Then we approach him with fear and trembling, and he crowns us with his mercy, and we “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” (Psalm 100:4). Then mingled with all that gratitude and joy is hope: “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (Psalm 32:11). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my god” (Psalm 42:5).
See Truly, Feel Duly
So those texts combine contrition, sorrow, longing, desire, fear, awe, gratitude, joy, and hope. These are the things that are the essence of worship. These are the heartfelt affections that respond to the beauty of God.
So here is my answer to her question, Juliet’s question: A worshiper is one who experiences these affections for God more and more. Worship happens when we see God truly and feel him duly. It is worship in spirit and truth. Truth shows us true views of God, and then spirit awakens with the kind of affections that correspond to that truth. So that is what it means to be a worshiper.