Worship in Spirit and Truth

you ever had one of those gnawing convictions that you can’t seem to explain to other people? That’s been me and worship lately.

My sister in law talks me through many of my spiritual struggles because I can trust her to do so objectively. And that’s one of the reasons I love her. But she asked me some purposed questions that I then sifted these thoughts through further.

My goal in sharing this information is not to spark a debate, to condemn people with certain tastes in music, or to play the “holier than thou” card. It’s just what has been on my heart and I’ve been wrestling with it in my own mind. My intent is to examine some aspects of American Christian worship practices, specifically our music, and to see whether or not they conform to biblical definitions of worship.

Consider it broadcast sowing; if you get something out of it, great! If not, I offer the same advice as C.S. Lewis- just skip over it, because it’s not worth getting hung up over.

That begs the question, “Why bother bringing it up at all?” For the same reason as any philosophical thinking questions are raised: just ’cause; so other people can think on it too.

End of disclosure. Now, here are the questions I’ve been asking myself lately.

What is worship?

Worship is not merely singing a song, or series of songs, but a lifestyle of giving God the glory He is due in word, thought, and deed. I have accepted that worship in this life is going to be imperfect; we’re imperfect! But does that get us off the proverbial hook of being expected to worship God as He commands? As He deserves? To paraphrase a quote I heard a while back, “The one who authors the covenant gets to set the terms.” God authored our covenant of grace in Christ Jesus; therefore, He alone gets to decide what is or is not appropriate worship.

Specifically in the passage I was reading in John 4, Jesus states in verse 23, “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (HCSB)

So true worship is that which is done in spirit and truth… Naturally, I had to dig in to the language and context of the text… because I’m curious at best and pretentious, and argumentative at worst.

This is what I found:

Strong’s defined the word ‘worship’ as used in John 4:23 as the Greek word, proskynēsousin, which means to do reverence to; to adore on one’s knees; to do obeisance (deferential respect). It indicates a “willingness to make all necessary physical gestures of obeisance.” The literal interpretation is to “kiss the ground when prostrating”

In this context, worship is the humble, physical act of respect, honor, praise before God. Specifically, this word is used here in John, and in Revelation, when Christ’s Bride, the glorifed Church, worships God in Heaven. Therefore, within the scope of this post, ‘worship’ will refer to the physical act of singing praise to God.

Why does God command worship?

To answer in simplest terms, because He rates it. As the Creator and Sustainer of all creation, worshipping God is the appropriate response to the magnitude of who He is and what He has done.

What is worship in spirit? (John 4:23)

The word for spirit in John 4:23 is the Greek word, pneumati. This word can have a lot of different meanings, and which meaning of the word is intended is determined by it’s context.

Pneumati here is either spirit, breath, or wind. As it is not preceded by the word “Holy” and is not capitalized, it is less likely to mean the Holy Spirit. And within the context of the word for worship relating to the physical act of deference, it is likely that spirit in this context means breath; the verbally spoken (or sung) praise of God’s people.

What is worship in truth?

I found the use of the word translated as ‘truth’ particularly fascinating. It is the Greek word, alētheia. It is a feminine noun. Greek is different from English in that when we define terms for concepts like truth, it’s generally a gender neutral term; neither masculine or feminine. All of that to say, this word references the worship of the Bride of Christ- His Church. Which is also referred to in the feminine. That may be arbitrary, but I found it interesting.

The word, alētheia here refers to more than “merely truth as spoken.” It is truth “of idea, reality, sincerity, (I’ll come back to that in a minute) truth in the moral sphere, divine truth as revealed to man, straightforwardness, (I’ll hit this point again later, too) and fact as is verifiably reflected in reality.”

This truth is absolute, and all encompassing.

On the topics of sincerity and straightfowardness:

It is entirely possible to sincerely believe a lie. Our sincerity does come to bear on our worship, but not nearly to the extent which American Christians seem to think; being sincere in worship regardless of its theological or doctrinal truth (fact as revaled in Scripture and reflected in reality) is not true worship. There are wrong ways to worship God. This is seen in the life of Solomon, as He worships God in broken ways, and diverts worship from God alone to other little “g” gods. He was sincere in his worship, but it was misguided. We see the same misguidedness in Revelation in the letters to the seven churches.

For example, the church at Thyatira was showing growth in that their “last works were greater than their first,” but Christ’s grievance with them was their tolerance of sinfulness in the Body; they were apathetic in regards to sin and unwilling to confront it. The church at Smyrna was similar in that they had a reputation for being alive, yet were dead. This likely looked like an active church doing good things, being active within the community, but being spiritually dead and dry on the inside; hollow in their worship, possibly lacking any sincerity at all, and just going through the motions.

It reminds me of the political correctness of American culture and the tolerance Christians are expected to have for sinfulness, even within the body of believers. There’s a triteness and apathy in our worship that seems to seek to evoke emotion, regardless of theological/doctrinal truth. Both truth and emotion are necessary, and neither is necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes there is no emotional fireworks display in worship; the truth is the truth, whether it feels like it or not. When we have moments where a portion of who God really is and of His Truth revealed in Christ are experienced, emotional response is natural! Look at Isaiah, “Then I said: Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.” -Isaiah 6:5, HCSB. Or John, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last,” -Revelation 1:17, HCSB.

However, we mustn’t demand for our worship that the emotional precede the factual.

Why words matter

Language in our culture is fluid. The speaker changes the meaning of words and intent matters little more than content. Language in the Bible is not arbitrary; Words mean things for specific reasons.

Here are a few examples and why they’re important:

Abram (Great father; he had no children) to Abraham (father of many nations)- Through Abraham, all believers would trace their heritage in Christ

Saul of Tarsus (asked for; prayed for; reflection of his Hebrew status) to Paul (small; humble;)- Latin origin reflects his calling to preach the Gospel to Gentiles.

Jesus -Greek form of the Hebrew, Yeshua, meaning Yahweh saves; from the beginning, his Hebrew parents were told to give their Hebrew baby boy a Greek name; a reflection of how Jesus, God incarnate, came to save ALL people, Jews, and Gentiles alike.)

There are SO many other examples in Scripture, that I couldn’t possibly hope to list them all here, but you get my point; language in the Bible is precise.

God SPOKE creation into existence; Unspoken, silent, or mumbling prayer was not the norm, but rather audible, spoken prayer, as is seen with Hannah and Eli’s interaction (1 Samuel 1:12-18). Words are powerful.

How can half-truths or doctrinal/theological error derail our worship?

Music is powerful in that it combines the verbally spoken word, the visual display of text (lyrics) and the auditory sense of melody. The more senses engaged in a specific instance, the more impactful the result. As a mother, I think back to the births of my children; the physical relief when labor ended, the sound of their first cry, the warmth of their tiny bodies on my chest, the sight of this brand new little person I’d been feeling for months on the inside, the smell of newborn baby. Those cemented that experience in my mind and heart permanently.

In the same way, singing hymns and spiritual songs has a way of cementing doctrinal and theological truth in our hearts and minds. We recall those tunes or lyrics when we face trials, or experience joys.

When lyrics, intentionally or not, modern or aged, contain ambiguous language or theological inaccuracies, we cement those errors or potentially wrong attitudes or thoughts about God into our hearts and minds. And scripturally speaking, even sins committed unintentionally or in ignorance demanded atonement. For that reason, I seek greater intentionality in worship.

While this isn’t an issue exclusive to modern praise and worship music, it does seem more and more prevalent as our “feelings over facts” culture seeps into the Church.

How do we worship in spirit and truth?

I’ve read it’s incredibly Western to desire systematic procedure in answer to all our questions; formulaic steps to follow… And that the rest of the world doesn’t think in those terms..

But I don’t care. I’m going to offer suggestions anyway.

First and foremost, we have to approach worshipping God with the defferance He deserves; acknowledging His holiness and our unworthiness to stand in His presence apart from Christ.

Second, we have to engage our minds, and not merely emotions in worship. What words are we saying? What do they mean? What message are we engraving on our hearts? Do they accurately reflect the character of God as revealed in Scripture?

Thirdly, we mustn’t violate our convictions or conscience. Much of this post stems from my own convictions, which I cannot expect the world at large to hold. That said, there are songs whose lyrics I will not sing because their words in their plainest sense are not true. I am extremely careful with the language I use in worshipping God. Do I expect that of everyone? No. But it couldn’t hurt to have a little more discernment in the music we allow to enter our worship.

In that same vein, we place an enormous amount of trust in our church leadership to shepherd us in the truth and to sift out difficult, heretical, or ambiguous material from our worship. Our tendency as sheep is to blindly follow and mentally disengage, which becomes increasingly easier with repetitious words and phrases, i.e. yogic chanting of mantras.

God desires our entire being in worship; body, mind, and soul. I’ve experienced plenty of times where distraction, or emotions, or the weight of sin have derailed one or more of those components during my worship of God. The key is allowing the Holy Spirit to lead you, illuminate your blind spots, and to respond in obedience.

Maybe this seems arbitrary to you. That’s okay, I’m not going to argue and I don’t believe it affects our salvation, much like eschatology. I simply have an opinion I opted to share, that’s all. May God bless you as you seek to honor him in worship.

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