The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship
Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning
What we’ve seen now is that the inward essence of worship is being satisfied in God. What are the implications of that for worship? I’ve got four of them and I think these are in your booklet if you have it. These are where the rubber starts to meet the road. I’ll tell you it is life-changing for worship when your people start to get this.
Implication One: The Necessary Pursuit of Joy
The pursuit of joy in God is not optional, it is our highest duty. That was the liberation in 1969 and 1970 in reading Lewis, reading Edwards, and reading the Bible to discover that all of my guilt feelings during college of enjoying worship and enjoying ministry and wondering, “Is that okay? Am I messing it up by enjoying it? Because if I enjoy it, it seems like it’s satisfying to me and not really done for God.” And all that stuff was just messing me up in the head for four years plus and suddenly I hit upon these truths.
This is about the pursuit of joy in God and that of course is the key, not in his gifts. This is not a prosperity gospel. When I wrote the book Desiring God, a mission leader at the time — I didn’t know what had become of him because I hadn’t heard from him for 20 years — just lashed out at the book in a missionary magazine as being another typical American, self-centered, health-wealth kind of book. I read the review and I thought, “I don’t think he read the book.” I wrote to him, I think, but I don’t know if he ever changed his mind. So, when I say your highest duty is to pursue your joy in God, I mean pursue the kind of satisfaction that enables you to suffer and die for Jesus. Is that clear?
This is not a pursuit of an easy life now. It’s a pursuit of such a profound satisfaction in God that when he does strip away everything else, we’re still okay because we have him. There are millions of Christians who have absorbed a popular ethic that comes more from Immanuel Kant than from the Bible — that it is morally deficient to seek our happiness, to pursue joy, to crave satisfaction, and to devote ourselves to seeking it. They think that’s morally deficient.
You’ll hear pastors speaking, saying, “Pursuing your joy is the problem.” It’s not the problem. It’s where you pursue it that’s a problem. This is absolutely deadly for authentic worship. To the degree that this ethic flourishes that says it’s morally defective to pursue your own joy, worship dies.
Coming to Give or Coming to Get?
The essence of worship is satisfaction in God. To be indifferent to, or even fearful of the pursuit of what is essential to worship, is to resist worship. Many pastors foster this very mistake by saying things like, “The problem is that our people don’t come on Sunday morning to give, they only come to get. If they came to give we’d have life in our services.” I’ve heard that. That’s not an accurate diagnosis of the problem.
People ought to come to get. They ought to come starved for God. They ought to come saying, “As a deer pants for the flowing streams, so my soul pants for thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1). God is mightily honored when people know that they will die of hunger and thirst unless they have God. It’s the job of pastors and worship leaders to spread a banquet for them.
Do you see what difference that will make in a service. If you hammer away at people, saying, “You come in here to give. You don’t come here to get.” If you don’t qualify that it’s a problem. In the best mouth that means you come to give praise, which is okay. I’ve got no problem with that. But frankly, I’m a realist, and I know 95 percent of my people are not coming brimming. They are coming empty. They are 60 percent empty, twenty percent empty, ninety percent empty, ten percent empty. Nobody’s much better than ninety percent full ever. And that’s the way they’re coming.
And they’re hoping they might meet him and that he might do something to them that would make life livable another week in his presence with some measure of joy. And they’re looking to me and they’re looking to this 30 or 40 minutes of singing. They’re coming with the thought, “Could you help me get connected with the spring, with the fountain?” And I’m doing everything I can to cultivate that mindset.
I’m not going to call that names, saying, “Selfish, selfish.” There are a lot of pastors and a lot of ethical people who develop an ethic that says, “Your desire on Sunday morning for your joy is defective.” It’s kind of in the air. You just breathe it. And I’m here to say with C.S. Lewis, our problem is not that we are seeking to be pleased, but that we are far too easily pleased. We are like children making mud pies in the slums because we cannot imagine what a holiday day at the sea is like. That’s C.S. Lewis from the first page of The Weight of Glory and it changed my life.
The problem on Sunday morning, if there’s a lull, if there’s a downer in the congregation, isn’t that people are too eager to be happy. That’s not the problem. It’s that they don’t have the spiritual sensitivities to seek it in the right place, and the spiritual illumination to see it coming from God in the songs, the prayers, the silence, and the preaching.
So this is hugely significant for worship. Recovering the rightness and indispensability of pursuing our satisfaction in God will go a long way to restoring authenticity and the power of worship. That’s implication number one. Here’s number two.
Implication Two: An Ardent Search for God
Another implication of saying that the essence of worship is satisfaction in God is that worship becomes radically God-centered. Corporate worship becomes radically God-centered. Nothing makes God more supreme and more central than a people utterly persuaded that nothing — not money, prestige, leisure, family, job, health, sports, toys, or friends — is going to bring satisfaction to their aching hearts besides God.
That conviction breeds people who go hard after God on Sunday morning. They’re not confused about why they are here in worship. They do not see songs and prayers and sermons as mere traditions or duties. They see them as means of getting to God or God getting to them for more of his fullness.
Do you see the difference in listening to a sermon that way, singing a song that way, or coming into a room with that mindset? The stuff we’re doing here — the songs singing, the confessions were reading, the praise, the prayers were we’re praying, the silence we have, and the sermon that’s being preached — is not just stuff. This is not just traditions. These are all designed in order to help you get to God and God get to you, so that there’s a connection and an explosive moment — “You’re real, I’m real. You are infinitely satisfying.” That’s worship. That is the apex of worship right there.
If the focus shifts onto our giving to God, one result I have seen, again and again, is that subtly it’s not God that remains at the center, but the quality of our giving, or our singing worthy of the Lord, or our instrumentalists playing with the quality fitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? Just have appropriate structures and proper use of words. And little by little, the focus shifts from the utter indispensability of the Lord himself to the quality of our performances. And we even start to define excellence and power in worship in terms of technical distinction and artistic acts. I’ve been there folks. I don’t ever want to go back.
That raised a lot of questions. I know it does. We have a phrase here. This may address one or two of the questions. We have a phrase here at Bethlehem: undistracting excellence. Now, When you put those two words together, what we mean is this. I saw Mark here last night, our North campus pianist. Carol is our Downtown campus pianist. Mark is our North pianist and we kind of move around down South, but I’ll just mention those two. Do you know why I love their presence in our worship? They are so good that I never think about them.
Chuck and Carol have been here for 10 years. I don’t know how long Mark has been playing, but in my years I have never heard a mistake from Carol Steddom. She’s probably made one and she’s so good that she covers it. And I’ve never heard a mistake from Mark. Now, what’s the big deal about that? The big deal is they’re out of the way. Carol’s musical skill is so phenomenal, she can do every single kind of music there is. And she can do it flowing in and out of it in such a way that you just are not distracted by it. She has an incredible gift for doing stuff so well that you don’t think about how well she’s doing it. The fact that I’m talking about it now is dangerous because you’re going to go and think about it next time.
What about preaching? My only goal is to talk in a way that is helpful to your faith not attractive to my diction. I don’t craft sentences, saying, “How can I make people like this sentence?” That would be what a rhetorician does or an orator. But I do think about what I say. Right now I don’t because I’m just talking. Well, I think about a millisecond ahead of time. I think about what I write down for a sermon.
The national conference is coming in a couple of weeks. It’s on the power of words. My job is to address the topic, “Is there such a thing as Christian eloquence?” And I mainly mean for me as a preacher, should I even think in those terms? Because the Bible in 1 Corinthians 2:1–4 says that Paul did not come with eloquent words of wisdom, but he came in the Spirit and power of God.
So there’s a flag waving in the Bible that says, “Watch out for eloquence. Watch out for eloquence.” And yet you all know that if I began to say, “We was,” all the time or, “They is,” it would be so jarring to your ears and it would so get in the way that you wouldn’t be able to profit. That means there has to be some level of diction that gets out of the way. And yet, we all know too that there is something to a good turn of phrase. I read this morning in the Proverbs:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
That’s a metaphor. The Bible is filled with metaphors. It’s filled with language that could be said a lot more prosaically and simply and without any visual flourish, and God chooses to use language that is often palpably visual and tasty and provocative and parabolic.
Free, Uncalculated Worship
So I’m just pointing out the huge challenge that this paragraph right here presents. That when you begin to take a lot of thought about your performances, whether it’s musical, a prayer, or a sermon, you start to move away from worship. Worship has got to be free from calculated artifice.
We all know the difference between an offertory on the piano that carries us helpfully toward God by the associations that it has spiritually, and one where the point is, “I’m a really good pianist.” We all know that we’ve felt that. And I don’t want to go there. And I don’t want us as a church to go there. Nothing keeps God at the center of worship like the biblical conviction that the essence of worship is deep, heartfelt satisfaction in him, and the conviction that the pursuit of satisfaction is why we are together.
So that right there, I think, is a guard. It’s a protection lest our artistic excellence, preaching skill, singing skill, playing skill, or our architecture — those beautiful things — begin to take over and that’s really what entertains the people, gets them coming back, and keeps them happy. Is it because we’re so good at what we do in a lot of ways that people are happy, or is God through the word because of truth the reason they’re here and happy? That’s implication number two, here’s number three.
Implication Three: Worship Is an End in Itself
The third implication of saying that the essence of worship is satisfaction in God is that it protects the primacy of worship by forcing us to come to terms with the fact that worship is an end in itself. Now, we have to think about this for a minute because it is not obviously clear what I mean by that. So let me try to help you.
What I’m arguing is that if you try to make real, authentic, inner worship a means to anything you destroy it. That’s controversial, and you’ll see why. If the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, then worship can’t be a means to anything else. This is why defining it that way is so important, so that we don’t become expedient in our worship. That we don’t do what we do to get something else to happen.
You simply can’t say to God, “I want to be satisfied in you so that I can have something else.” In saying, “So that,” it would mean that you are not really satisfied in God but in something else, and that would dishonor God. It would not be worship. God is an end. He’s not a means. You don’t step on God to get where you want to go. You step on other things to get to God. And when you’re there, it’s over. And if you don’t like it there, you’re not there yet.
The Endpoint of Godward Affection
In fact, for thousands of people and pastors, the event of worship on Sunday morning is conceived as a means to accomplish something other than worship. The thought is, “We worship to raise money. We worship to attract crowds. We worship to heal human hearts. We worship to recruit workers. We worship to improve church morale. We worship to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling. We worship to teach our children the way of righteousness. We worship to help marriages stay together. We worship to evangelize the lost among us. We worship to motivate people for service projects. We worship to give our churches a family feeling.”
In all of this, we bear witness that we do not know what true worship is. Genuine affections for God are an end in itself. I cannot say to my wife, “I feel strong delight in you so that you will make me a nice meal.” That’s not the way delight works. It terminates on her. It does not have a nice meal in view. I cannot say to my son, “I love playing ball with you so that you will cut the grass.” If your heart really delights in playing ball with him, that delight cannot be performed as a means to get him to cut the grass.
I wish I could impress upon you how profound this is. It’s profound for relationships. It’s especially profound for worship, and it’s profound for corporate worship and how we think about our services. Because I’ll tell you the temptation is huge to think, “Let’s do it this way because we have a financial campaign going on,” or, “Let’s do it this way because we know that so-and-so is here,” and so on. There are always these other ends.
The Good Fruits of Genuine Worship
Now here’s the qualifier that you’re thinking about probably, and you should be. I’m not denying that worship will have a hundred good effects on the life of the church. It will, just like true affection in marriage makes everything better. My point is that to the degree that we do worship for these reasons, it ceases to be authentic worship. Keeping satisfaction in God at the center guards us against that tragedy. Now there again, that’s really difficult, isn’t it?
I’m aware that if we succeed spiritually in an authentic meeting with God so that people are trembling with a sense of his greatness and thrilled with the sense of his mercy, they will walk out and their marriages are going to get better. Their parenting is going to get better. Their citizenship is going to get better. Their giving is going to get better. Everything’s going to get better morally in their lives. I know that, but I better not do it for that. Because It’s like saying I’m satisfied in you this morning so that . . . And the response would be, “So wait a minute, are you satisfied in me or is it the so that?”
So that is not evil. It’s a wonderful spillover. Wives ought to make good meals for their husbands and the husbands — now and then, I suppose, if they’re cooks — can go make a good meal for their wives. But you don’t say to your wife, “I love you so much. You are a delight to me. And I really hope that the effect of this statement is that you make a good meal for me tonight.” You just never talk like that. It ruins it. It’s not an authentic moment if you do that, and so we shouldn’t think that way at church either.
Implication Four: All of Life Is Worship
Finally, the last implication of saying that the essence of worship is being satisfied with God is that this accounts for why Paul makes all of life an expression of worship. You have worship services and you have Monday morning at the office. In Paul’s mind, these are worship. How can that be? And my answer is that he is defining the inner essence of worship as being satisfied with God.
All Christian behavior is to be done out of satisfaction in God — all of it. It’s not just singing here and listening to sermons here, but rather going to the office on Sunday morning and the way you type on your computer, the way you fill out a report, the way you make phone calls, the way you do emails, the way you saw a board, lay a brick, or hammer a nail is out of satisfaction in God. Your attitude in hammering that nail and the excellence with which you want this kitchen to come together is an outgrowth of your contentment in God.
You’re so content in God, you’re so free in God, you’re so delighted in the kind of God he is that you’re going to make a certain kind of kitchen. And you’re going to give these people a really good deal because God is that way and you’re so deeply satisfied in him. All of life is flowing out of our satisfaction in God.
We relate to people and we do things with a view to preserving and increasing our satisfaction in God. Now, that’s the controversial one — preserving and increasing our satisfaction in God. I’m treating you a certain way, not just because I am contented in God, but to preserve and increase my contentment in God.
Loving the Poor of Loving Ourselves?
I wrote a whole book to justify that sentence (Desiring God). Let me commit it to you with one verse from the Lord Jesus. In Luke 12:33, he says:
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. (Thus) provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.
So sell your possessions, and provide treasure for yourself in heaven. That’s really controversial because what you’re saying is, “I’m selling my possessions and I’m giving alms to a needy person with a view to getting treasure in heaven.” There are a lot of ethical writers who would say, “That’s not love. That’s pure selfishness. You’re not loving this person, you’re just loving yourself.” That’s a really good question.
The treasure in heaven I take to be increased measures of joy at God’s right hand and pleasures in his fellowship in the age to come. Jesus says that we are to provide ourselves with that when we give alms. In other words, make efforts to increase your joy with God in heaven. He says that the way to do this is to sell your possessions and give alms. That is simply illustrative of all the ways we sacrifice and love in the Christian life. So live this way. Be an outgoing, sacrificial, giving person, and thus be aiming to provide yourself with treasures in heaven. Aim, in all you do, to maximize your satisfaction in God now and in the age to come.
Here’s the objection. If someone asks, “Is it loving to give alms to others with a view to maximizing my own joy in God? I’m giving you alms saying that I love you and doing it with a view to maximizing my joy in God.” The answer is a resounding yes. That is loving, and here’s why. In giving up worldly things ourselves so that we can meet the needs of others, our aim is to show them, persuade them, and help them to see that the treasure of God that freed me to give them alms is so valuable is so valuable that they too should embrace it and live for it and so join us in the joys of heaven.
Folding People into Our Joy in God
People will feel loved if they see that they’re joining us in the enjoyment of God will increase our joy. So if I give you alms, if you’re very needy and I don’t have any ready cash and you need some, and I say, “Okay, well let me figure this out. I’ll get cash today.” And then I go in some sacrificial way and I get cash. Maybe I check it out of the bank, or maybe I sell something. And I now have 50 bucks that you need, or whatever, to keep from being kicked out of your apartment. And if I come and say, “I just want to give this to you.” And they say, “Why are you doing this?” Of course, there a lot of different right answers there. One would be, “I love you.” That would be a right and you could stop with that. But worldly people don’t know what love is. They don’t know what interpretation to put on that. That might think you esteem their infinite worth before God or something.
And so you might say, “I’m giving it to you because it really makes me happy to give. And I hope that you see in my generosity, a freedom from the love of things and contentment in God that would draw you into contentment in God so that we together could be content in God. Because if you would join me in being content in God, your contentment in God would make mine bigger.”
I cannot imagine a person saying, “That’s unloving. It’s very selfish.” That’s not the right word to use. They likely wouldn’t say, “That’s very self-gratifying.” I’m saying it makes me happy to give because it displays my freedom from bondage to things and the sufficiency of God in my life. Second, I want you to see freedom from the love of things and the all-sufficiency of God. I want you to see that. And the reason I want you to see it is that then you might join me in it because if you join me in it my joy in God goes up.
The Blasphemy of Ultimate Self-Denial
Frankly, I think the effort to describe virtuous acts in terms of ultimate self-denial is blasphemous. In other words, if you try to turn virtue into a totally selfless act, you’re an atheist. You’re saying, “I’m not doing this because it grows out of satisfaction in God. I’m not doing this because it will deepen my satisfaction in God. I’m just doing right because it’s right.” I think that’s demonic. Immanuel Kant thought it was the essence of virtue. He thought, “Do right for right’s sake, not for reward.” This is very, very controversial.
I believe it can be shown biblically that all our behavior should be motivated by a deep satisfaction in God and a desire to expand that satisfaction by spreading it into the lives of others. Therefore, the root of Christian living and the root of congregational praise are the same. That’s why Paul can say all of life is worship. This is why for Paul worship simply cannot be merely or even mainly thought of in terms of Sunday services, but all of life. His is an absolutely God-saturated vision of Christian existence. When our whole life is consumed with pursuing satisfaction in God, everything we do highlights the value and worth of God, which simply means that everything becomes worship.
May God make himself that precious to us.