Should I Ever Go Through the Motions in Worship?
Happy Thanksgiving! This episode releases on the evening of the holiday, and we pray your day has been full of gratitude for God’s kindness. As we look forward to another weekend, today’s timely question is about corporate worship, from a listener named Scott.
“Dear Pastor John (and Tony), on this show I have heard you say that no one can truly worship God without enjoying him. That’s been a big indictment to me for the many occasions in church when I have participated in the service without any feelings of joy in God for who he is.
“So my question is, Should we still try to worship God even when we aren’t enjoying him? Should we wait for enjoyment to come first — seek it out prior to the beginning of musical worship? I have a feeling you’re going to say we should go ahead and try, and pray for enjoyment. So then, can we work backward from an action to a state of heart? That is, can going through the motions of worship produce in us the sort of heart that would bring forth that same worship spontaneously?”
To Give or Not to Give
The short answer to that last question is yes. It can work backward like that. That is possible if done in the right way.
“Can going through the motions of worship produce in us the sort of heart that would bring forth the same worship spontaneously?”
Before I try to sum up what that right way is, let me point Scott to pages 96 and 97 of the book Desiring God. That’s where I pose this very question and give it the best answer I know how. In that section I actually use the moment of worship and the act of our giving a tithe in that moment as an act of worship. But in that moment I don’t feel like it.
Should I give a tithe when I don’t feel like it? The plate is coming down the aisle, and I have to choose whether to do that act of worship, because I ought to, but I don’t feel like it. But instead of just rehearsing what I wrote on those pages, which seems cheap, let me come at it another way and use another analogy.
Must I Kiss You?
I have been really helped by a couple of books by Edward John Carnell, who used to teach at Fuller Seminary over fifty years ago. He died just before I got there as a student. But some of his legacy remained.
One of his really amazing books is called Christian Commitment. If you can get it, it’s timeless in its penetrations.
It’s not what you think probably when you hear that phrase. He says this: “Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her goodnight. Her answer is, ‘You must, but not that kind of must.’ What she means is this: ‘Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value’” (160–61).
This is like me saying, “No one can truly worship God without enjoying him.” He’s saying, “No one can kiss his wife with any moral value if it doesn’t come from a spontaneous affection rather than simply, ‘I guess I have to because that’s what husbands are supposed to do.’”
This is like tithing, or singing a hymn in church, or whatever. That’s the analogy. But now let’s analyze what Carnell says a little more closely.
Must I Worship You?
He doesn’t give the whole truth here. What he says is basically right, I think. But he points to the truth. The wife says, “Yes you do have to kiss me goodnight.” In other words, it is (for a good husband) a moral obligation.
“Is there an alternative between empty, duty-driven worship and spontaneous, joyful worship?”
What she means is that showing outward affection for a wife is what a husband ought to do. He ought to do that. If there is no outward affection, there is a failure of duty. It’s a duty, and he ought to do his duty. She admits that.
But then she makes the amazingly penetrating observation that there are different ways to perform a duty — some are empty, some are full. Some actions have moral value and some don’t have moral value.
Jesus said, “In vain do people worship me because their heart is far from me” (see Matthew 15:8–9). So Jesus knew exactly what she’s talking about. She probably got it from Jesus, right?
God would say, “Of course it is their duty to worship me, but their outward forms of worship have lost all moral value because they’re empty. They don’t have any affection in them for me.”
A Third Kind of Kiss
Now my question is, Are there no alternatives between an empty, duty-driven, perfunctory kiss on the one hand and a spontaneous, joyful, affectionate, warm, heartfelt, mouth-to-mouth kiss on the other hand? Is there anything in between those two?
Scott asked, “Is it possible to work back from the kiss that doesn’t have affection to the kiss that does have affection?”
I said yes. Can the act of kissing without affection be a proper step toward kissing with affection? So Scott’s raising the very question I’m raising when I wrote those pages (and right now). Is there a third kind of kiss?
I would argue that there absolutely is a third kind of kiss between a mere perfunctory, empty, emotionless kiss on the one hand and a full-blooded, romantic, affectionate kiss on the other hand. That third kind of kiss, while not having robust, full affections of delight and cherishing, nevertheless is not the same as a mere perfunctory, empty, hypocritical, emotionless kiss.
So what are the marks? That’s the key question I think he’s asking, and I’m asking.
What are the marks of this third kind of kiss, or third kind of act of worship on Sunday morning? Here are the marks of this good kiss which is not all it should be. I say good because it’s not fake. It’s not hypocritical.
1. The heart behind this kiss does not say, “Oh well — it’s the action that counts; feeling doesn’t matter. Husbands are supposed to kiss their wife. I’ll just do the act.” The heart on this third kind of kiss renounces such a way of kissing.
“It’s probably not helpful to call this kind of worship ‘going through the motions.’ That has too many ugly connotations.”
2. It regrets the absence of appropriate affection for the wife. This is a sadness to him. He does not justify it. He laments it. He repents of it. He’s not going to say, “Oh, that’s just cause I’m tired or whatever.”
3. He is not content with this state of affairs. Whatever the cause is, he wants it to change. He wants to do all he can to see his proper affections restored. He wants the affections that he doesn’t have. He is like the psalmist in Psalm 51: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). “Restore to me to joy of kissing her.”
4. He whispers a silent prayer to God to give him grace to help him feel for his wife, to restore what’s gone away for a day or gone away for a year. He really prays.
5. He kisses her. He kisses her in hope, humble hope, that the very act of kissing will be part — not the whole, but part — of God’s way of restoring his affections.
6. He takes whatever other steps he can to remove obstacles to affection, and to restore his heart for his wife.
More Than the Motions
So Scott’s question was, “Can going through the motions of worship produce in us the sort of heart that would bring forth the same worship spontaneously?” My answer is that it’s probably not helpful to call this kind of kissing, or worshiping, “going through the motions.” That has too many ugly connotations.
But if he means singing the songs, praying the prayers, giving the tithe, listening to the sermon with these six steps in play, then yes. This is a third way of worship between robust, fully engaged affectional expression on the one hand and lifeless, empty, hypocritical, going through the motions on the other hand.
That third way, as inadequate as it is for our complete satisfaction and God’s fullest honor, is a good strategy for getting to where we ought to be.