Many of us struggle to see gathered, corporate worship as helpful to our spiritual growth and vitality. And even if we find it helpful, we might lift an eyebrow at anyone who might say that it is instrumental or (dare say it) necessary. The irony for those of us who take lightly the weekly gathering of the people of God is that the spirit which rises up within us that says “I don’t really need this that much” is the very same spirit that worship intendeds to kill. If worship had a Twitter profile, its brief description would have to include “Murderer.” Worship was built by God to be a blood-thirsty attack dog with a keen appetite for something very specific in us. My favorite worship theologian, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, explains:
To declare that [worship] is optional, that it is not necessary to the continuation of God’s work of salvation, is to despise the source of grace. … By worship, if not by worship exclusively, the Church keeps open the wound which the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit have inflicted on the self-righteousness of the world, and in this way too the process of salvation is continued.*
God designed worship to slay our self-righteousness.
We human beings are “bruised by the Fall” (Philip Bliss) in such a way that we are hell-bent self-justification machines. We know no other pattern than to hide our weaknesses and manufacture pseudo-strengths. Our instinct, when accused of wrongdoing, is to deny and defend. Our default, when we do the right thing (no matter how much we say it’s “for the glory of God”) is to pat our spiritual selves on the back and believe that God is more happy with us because of what we’ve done. When the Holy Spirit applied the work of Christ to us, God the Father delivered the mortal wound to the beast of our self-righteousness. But the beast, while bleeding out this side of eternity, is still snarling, clawing, lashing, biting, and lunging. It is this disgusting creature that Paul is talking about in the latter half Romans 7, when he finally cries out, “Wretched man that I am!” This tormenter of souls rises weekly, daily, hourly within us.
But we’re not without hope. God has equipped a warrior to unsheath his gospel-sword every week to deliver another thrust into the thick flesh of our self-righteousness. That warrior is worship.
What von Allmen meant was that worship, rightly done, takes us on a needed weekly journey where we are reminded that we must come to the end of ourselves before we can fully see, appreciate, appropriate, and drink in the gospel. The beginning of worship should cast such a vision of God that we are blinded by His glory and leveled by His perfection. Worship gives us a picture of God’s holiness that is so high and so “other” that we are jarred out of any sense of being able to attain it. During the week, our amnesia begins to set in, and our eyes go blurry, such that the mountain of God’s glory starts looking like a gently-sloped hill. “I can climb that,” we think. (“I can avoid these pet sins for a few days.” “I can please God by being faithful in my devotions and Bible reading.” “I can be a good mom and not lose my temper.” “I can avoid those channels and sites.”) We think, “God must love me more this week, because I’ve been pretty good.”
And worship grabs us by the collar, slaps us in the face, and says, “Wake up, man!” It yells, “You’re far worse than you ever imagined, because, look, look at God!” And, once again, the scales fall off our eyes and the placid, green, hills-are-alive peak you thought you were looking at is really a hulking Himalayan cliff. And there it is: the moment of impossibility, where God’s gracious sword enters the beast yet again. Worship is God’s gracious murderer.
But God is in the business of killing precisely so He can make alive again. However, instead of reviving our self-righteousness, He gives us an alien organism–His very Self, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. This is the moment in worship where, after we have seen God’s glory and confessed our sin, God delivers the word, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The gospel is good news, indeed.
Worship should be that epic…every week.