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Monday, July 24, 2017

A Worship Myth and Misunderstanding

God inhabits the praise of His people.”   This is taken from Psalm 22:3, the very psalm that Jesus references as He is suffering on the cross. While much has been and needs to be said about the psalm, the immediate context is attributed to David writing during a time of great distress, yet as the song continues he gives hope in the ultimate victory of God: “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” [v. 31] Jesus transforms the meaning as He quotes the first line of the psalm [My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?], not so much as a testimony of God’s abandonment, but as some scholars believe that in citing the beginning many around the cross would have been familiar with the entire psalm, which might have been interpreted in a different way, one of ultimate victory.

Please pardon such a brief contextual note. {I would encourage the reader to seek out a good commentary for a more complete study.} The root of the confusion lies with the King James translation of verse 3: “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.”  Which in the last several decades has been not only taken out of context, but the original meaning has been skewed to be understood that “God will come down as we begin to praise Him.”  Later this idea has evolved into “making God show up and do something great.”  The idea is simply, God will begin to inhabit the place where His name is praised.  

Let’s look first at a few translations of verse 3 that are more accurate:

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;  you are the one Israel praises. [NIV]
You are holy; you sit as king receiving the praises of Israel. [NET]
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. [ESV]

As can be seen, “inhabitest” can be better translated, “enthroned, or seated.”   The idea of God making a special appearance because of our praise is not found or even implied. Another difficulty in “causing God to show up” is that it reflects a faulty understanding of worship. God initiates worship, man does not.

This fallacy is also reflected when we pray [or sing] for “God’s Spirit or presence to come to us as we worship,” or to “Welcome or invite the Holy Spirit to come among us.”  We are not in a position to invite: Only He is God, and He through His Holy Spirit already lives within the believer, so there is no need or reason to “invite.”

We can surrender our will and our desires; we can repent, we can acknowledge His nature and character and His great acts. We can thank Him for His presence among us through His Holy Spirit. We can ask for help and courage to proclaim, but we cannot give God permission to join us.   Although done in innocence, when we use such phrases as mentioned, we are placing ourselves in a position of control, which is contrary to the true desire of the worshipper.  

We need to be careful as we gather to be true to the Scriptures and our understanding of worship. Christ is the central figure in our worship. Worship is our obedient response to His revealed nature and character. {For further study, I would recommend Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth’s new book, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship.}

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What About Emotions and Worship?

I would like to respond to a recent note posted on the blog article, “Worship and Entertainment” by a reader:
I thoroughly enjoyed your post and it was very thought provoking. I would like to explore more thought on the role of emotion. While I agree that emotion for the sake of emotion is not worship, there are emotions that well up out of a deep connection with God. I am afraid that we tend to discount emotion as contrived or a surface connection when it can be a part of the most basic expression of our relationship with God. 

I have briefly touched on worship and emotions in previous blogs [Worshiping by Faith, and Worship and Emotions], but this issue is huge in our culture and I believe that there is so much more that needs to be said. Because there are entire books on emotions, I will be the first to say that what is here will not be all that needs to be said, nor do I claim to be the authority to state them. These are only some ideas compiled that I trust can be used without causing too much confusion.

1. Emotions are not evil but are a gift from God. God, Himself, is described as having emotions and we are created in His image.  Zephaniah 3: 17 states: “The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love, he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”  The God who created all there is expressed joy in His creation and rejoices. Surely part of being formed in the image of the Creator means that the capacity to feel and express emotions is also a part of who we are. They can be used for evil, but that was not God's purpose for them.

2. We must remember that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” [Jeremiah 17:9] Our emotions have been tainted by our human nature and must always be subject to the truth of God’s Word. Whether or not we “feel” something is right or wrong is not the basis for truth, but what Scripture. We must evaluate our feelings to make sure that they are consistent with God’s Word.

3. Sometimes our emotions are a result of physical issues and chemical imbalances in the body. These imbalances can weaken our ability to respond correctly, especially in stressful circumstances. I know from personal experience the effects of hypoglycemia [low blood sugar] can have and how now to help control it.

4. When we find ourselves reacting with very strong emotions like outbursts of anger, etc., then they need to become red flags that something is not right in our responses. In these cases, we need to ask ourselves “Why am I responding in this way?” Many times we will come to understand that there is a point of fear, etc., for which we might not have been consciously aware.   Sometimes our emotional responses are tied to a traumatic incident in the past, or the environment in which we were raised. If blowing up and screaming were the norm in someone’s childhood, it is no surprise to find that person repeating the response as an adult in similar situations. As we become aware of the root causes we can begin to process them and respond in a biblical fashion and not just react.   {I highly recommend Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Leader for anyone interested in the subject.  Another good article is by Glenn Packiam and his excellent blog post: }

5. Music and emotions.
Music can express where words alone seem to fail and part of that expression includes our emotions. Music can become an aid for expression for those who have difficulty in expressing how they feel in words. The psalms are replete with examples of praise to God and joyful expressions in the form of a song; many are direct commands to “sing joyfully,” that is, to express joy to God through song. James 5:13 clearly states “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.” Since there are many resources covering this aspect, I won’t go any deeper; it is clear that the Scriptures are replete with examples of music and the expression of emotions. Scott Aniol goes further:

Music provides a language for a right expression of emotion, and good music actually educates our emotions so that they develop to maturity.” “... words cannot adequately express what we feel. Church music– that is, poetry set to music– provides the language we need to express our affections. So in a church service, as we contemplate truth and goodness, we use music to help us take the next step and respond with our affections.” [Scott Aniol: Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, p. 165-166.]

The key is to keep our focus on God as the center of our worship and not the emotions that the music may evoke, lest we find ourselves worshiping the feelings generated by the music more than God. We have freedom of emotional expression but focused on the root source, not the result.

6. The danger arises when we use emotions as the primary measure of our worship experience; we begin to focus on the result, rather than the cause. Allow me to fall back on the experience I had with my children when we served overseas as missionaries. After a trip that would take me away from home, I always tried to bring the kids something from where I’d been. After a while I noticed that it seemed at times they were more excited about “Daddy, what did you bring me?” than my return. If we are not careful we will begin to focus on the emotions that no doubt come in our worship, but lessen our focus on the reason for our worship.

I hope that this brief discussion helps some and doesn’t muddy the water too much. I do not pretend to have covered it all, but just some talking points for clarity on the subject. Until we are in eternity with God in heaven, I believe there will be this tension between focusing on Christ and our emotions. It is unhealthy to live on either extreme: to deny and refuse to express emotion or to give full reign to whatever we feel. Balance is needed, directed by the Holy Spirit and guided by the Word of God.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Not long ago I was eating at a local restaurant, like many with a series of TVs on highlighting various sporting events, except on one the channel had not been changed and one of the infamous infomercials was on touting a set of cookware that could change your life and destiny... Ok, I am exaggerating, but I'm sure you've seen it or one like it. There were two co-stars, one who was doing the cooking and another who was overawed and amazed with everything the other would do with the cookware. Excitement, smiles, laughter, just seemed as if by just bringing the cookware into your home the whole kitchen would transform itself into a 5-star restaurant, and to top it off, they were going to offer you this one-time special price of just three easy payments of .... Well, you know. You've heard the same ones. Sometimes, they will break in and say, “But wait, if you order now, we will send you another complete set for free! Just pay shipping and handling.

Hear me first say that I don't doubt that what they are selling might be good; this is not a commentary on the quality of the product. Perhaps it's just me, but when I hear those commercials I tend to jump to the defensive and wonder “What are they trying to sell me now? What's the catch?”  I confess that I cannot listen fairly because of some past experiences I have known from others who have made similar purchases and had less than positive results. I tend to lump all such advertisements together. The purpose of the infomercial is to sell the product. I get that, and yet I long for all the information and openness that doesn't tell me “this is the only pan you will ever need for the rest of your life...” Theoretically possible, but highly unlikely.

By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with worship. Glad you asked because I really am not on an anti-advertising tirade. If we are not careful we can allow our worship to morph into an infomercial about a Jesus “who will take all your problems away.” The manner in which we talk about our faith and relationship in Christ can begin to sound like a cheap infomercial and subconsciously be lumped together with those on TV. Authenticity requires transparency.  As we share of the transformation that Christ has made in our lives, we need to share the struggles and failures as well. As Bonhoeffer stated, “Free grace is not cheap grace.” Following Christ includes commitment and sacrifice.

Our worship must be centered around Christ's death and resurrection, salvation, redemption, His return, Who God is, all He has done and how this Almighty God desires a relationship with His creation. At the same time, this relationship demands a surrender of personal desire that welcomes the remolding of our character that is consistent with the new nature He has given.  The benefits of our relationship with Christ should never be minimized, but the cost of the commitment cannot be overlooked. Worship is God-centered. The focus of worship is not to meet our needs but to return to God the praise and thanksgiving to Him who alone is worthy. At the same time, as we are obedient in this recognition, God miraculously meets our needs.

Worship that is designed as an “infomercial” is shallow, gimmicky and lacks depth. Worship must be accessible to those attending, but not compromised just to bring in the crowds. Jesus never did the miracles just to bring in the crowd. In fact, Matthew 5:1 states that “When he saw the multitudes, he called his disciples to himself and when he sat down he began to teach them {the twelve} saying...” Nor was he worried when the crowds didn’t understand what he meant by “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” and began to leave. His desire was to test the commitment of the twelve: “Will you also go?” Peter replied, “To whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life!”   [John 6:55-69]

Worship is that celebration and thanksgiving for all He has done and will do, but it is also that obedient commitment to follow Him, to allow His Holy Spirit to cut away the rough edges of our personalities until we reflect the Son of God. We cannot have one without the other.