Welcome back to the podcast on this Monday. Last time we were together, you said, Pastor John, that “God enlists us into his service, which means he calls us to have a part in accomplishing his purposes, not in meeting his needs.” Yes. That’s really key. He uses us — and in using us, we meet no need in God. And if that’s true, then comes this question: What do we do with all the texts that talk about what we give to God?
That’s the dilemma in the mind of a listener named Jeff, thinking about Sunday mornings. “Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. You have taught that we are to come to corporate worship gatherings hungry to receive, not to give to God, as if he needed anything. That’s Acts 17:25. Yet there are other passages related to corporate worship that clearly use the language of ‘giving.’ Like: ‘Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name’ (Hebrews 13:15). Or ‘bring an offering’ to him (Psalm 96:8). Or, ‘Give thanks to him; bless his name’ (Psalm 100:4). How do you harmonize these two seemingly opposite perspectives on our role in corporate worship? What do we give to God?”
It’s true that I have said very often that I think pastors make a mistake if they scold their people for coming to worship to get rather than to give. That’s a mistake. They shouldn’t do that. If I hear a pastor say, “If you people would just come to give to God rather than get from God, we would have meaningful worship services,” I think that’s a serious mistake. In fact, I don’t hear that so much anymore, which makes me happy.
Now, I do suspect that such a pastoral rebuke is really onto something true. People can come to worship to get the wrong thing. They can come to get seen for their new outfit — that used to happen on Easter at the church I grew up in. They can come to appear moral in the community as an upstanding churchgoer. They can come to merely see their friends. They can come to merely take their children to get some moral instruction. They can come in the hopes that their marriage will get better. And pastors sense this wrong coming to get, and they know it’s not healthy. “My people are coming to get all the wrong things.”
But when the pastor diagnoses this problem as a disease of wanting to receive instead of wanting to give, that’s the mistake.
It’s not a disease to want to receive in worship. I have argued that the very essence of worship — and not just the outward acts of worship, but the inward essence of worship — is being satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus.
Therefore, the way people should come to worship, if I’m right, is to come hungry to be satisfied in God, to see God more clearly, to taste God more sweetly, to be amazed at the way God is, to feel the admiration and the wonder of his greatness, and to feel hopefulness and thankfulness and confidence of heart welling up because of the bounty of his grace. All that is a way of getting, not giving. And the right posture of that kind of getting is a sense of hunger and neediness and desperation and longing and praying for more of God, more of Christ, more of grace, more power. That’s the kind of getting I’m talking about.
And my point is that when we assume that kind of needy, expectant, Godward posture, God gets glory, not us. And that’s the essence of worship. And worship services and preaching should aim to awaken and satisfy that kind of God-hunger, that kind of God-getting.
Giving in Worship
But Jeff is right to ask if I am contradicting the biblical language of giving to God in worship. Of course, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to contradict the Bible. I love the Bible. I believe the Bible. I’m getting all this from the Bible.
If we read our English Bibles, we will see texts like these:
- “Give praise to [God]” (Joshua 7:19).
- “We give thanks to you, O God” (Psalm 75:1).
- “Bless the Lord” (Psalm 103:1).
- “He gave glory to God” (Romans 4:20).
- “[Give] power to God” (Psalm 68:34).
- “Offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15).
“When we assume a needy, expectant, Godward posture, God gets glory, not us.”
I know these texts are in the Bible. I love them. I aim to obey them. And I don’t think they contradict what I just said about the essence of worship as being satisfied in all that God is for us, and coming to worship services hungry to get more of God.
So, here are five quick observations to support this claim that that’s not a contradiction.
1. ‘Giving’ to God rarely appears in Hebrew.
Now, this is just a pointer; it’s not a kind of absolute statement about the use of giving language in worship. If you look up all the uses of the word “give” (which I did to get ready for this) — the Hebrew word nathan, a super common word for “give” in a hundred contexts — there are nintey-five uses in the Psalms, and only three refer to giving to God. Two of those three deny that we should:
- “No man can . . . give to God the price of his life” (Psalm 49:7).
- “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it” (Psalm 51:16).
The single text says, “[Give] power to God, whose majesty is over Israel” (Psalm 68:34). Virtually all other places in the Psalms where we read in English that we should give to God praise or give to God thanks, the Hebrew has no word for give. It’s just the word praise and the word thank, and we use the word give and so create the problem for ourselves.
None of that says we should not use the language of giving to God; I don’t want to go that far at all. But it should be a caution that maybe the psalm writers were jealous not to put God in the position of being the main receiver in worship rather than the main giver in worship, since the giver gets the glory. That’s number one.
2. We ascribe rather than add to God.
That text in Psalm 68:34 that says, “[Give] power to God” is translated in the ESV, “Ascribe power to God.” And surely that is right. So, I think what we ought to mean when we speak of giving God glory — or giving honor or giving strength or giving wisdom or giving power — is that we are ascribing those things to God, not adding anything to God. We are, in essence, receiving those things as gifts for us to enjoy, and echoing back to God our admiration and enjoyment that we call, “give God glory.”
3. Our willingness to give is a gift.
The Bible teaches that all our gifts to God — whether ourselves or our resources or our praises or our thanks — are already God’s, and he himself is giving us the willingness and the ability to give him what is his. In 1 Chronicles 29:14, when the people of Israel gave generously, David says — I remember I used to use this over and over when I was a pastor to try to encourage the right kind of giving to the church — “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly?” In other words, the willingness was a gift. “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” Now, that means that both the thing given and the act of giving are gifts to us.
4. We are always receivers.
Paul says in Romans 11:35, “Who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” Of course, the answer is nobody. And then he gives the reason: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36). In other words, the Bible really wants to discourage us from thinking of ourselves as originating any gift to God. We are always receivers, even in our giving, and we should love to have it so.
5. Giving is really getting.
C.S. Lewis expresses why it is that our giving in worship is really a getting. Our giving praise to God is really getting joy in God. Here’s this famous quote that I’ve quoted so many times. I love it. “The Psalmists,” Lewis says,
in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards to the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. (Reflections on the Psalms, 110–11)
That’s the key right there.
Okay, here’s Lewis again. Praise is the joy’s “appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed” (111).
So, I end where we started. Yes, we come to worship to give praise to God, but the essence of that praise is being satisfied in all that God is for us in worship, and the overflow in outward acts is the completion of the joy — joy in God — which is a gift from God to us.