Summary: What is worship? How do we worship, and what prevents us from worshiping?
We probably all have some kind of mental picture of what it means to worship. Depending on your church background, when you think of worship you may think of classical sacred music - a great choir, singing the Hallelujah chorus. Or perhaps what comes to mind is the image of a traditional brick church on a Sunday morning, filled with people singing one of the great hymns of the faith - "A Might Fortress is Our God", or "How Great Thou Art". Maybe you’ve been to a charismatic or Pentecostal church, and you envision a scene with hands raised, eyes closed, people singing praise choruses, or even something more active - hands clapping, feet moving, shouts of "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!" Or you may not think of singing at all. Perhaps for you, the word "worship" brings up images of people sitting quietly in church with their heads bowed, praying or meditating. Or even someone bowing down or kneeling.
Well, because people have many different ideas of what worship looks like, I’d like to begin by defining what it is. What are we doing when we sing, or pray, or raise our hands, or kneel down? What makes those activities "worship"?
First, worship is attributing ultimate worth to something - whether it’s an object, or a person, or even an idea. Worship is valuing one thing above all else. It’s literally "worth-ship". So when we sing praises to God, we are worshipping, because we are proclaiming that He has the greatest possible worth; that His value is above that of gold, or silver, or jewels, or houses, or land. We are testifying that His power exceeds that of every king, President, or dictator in history; that the glory of his holiness outshines the billions of suns in every galaxy. When we worship God, we are saying that nothing compares to Him. He is above all, He is greater than all. Everything in creation pales to insignificance next to the sovereign Lord of the universe. Listen to what the Scriptures tell us:
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being." - Revelation 4:11 (NIV)
"In a loud voice they sang: ’Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’" - Revelation 5:12 (NIV)
God alone is supremely worthy of our praise, and our love, and our devotion, and our service; both because of who He is, and because of what He has done. Saying that is worship.
The Psalms are the hymnbook of ancient Israel, and they are full of examples of worship and praise to God. Listen to Psalm 148 [Read Psalm 148:1-13]. That’s worship - to exalt and lift up the Lord for who he is and what he has done.
But second, worship is not just making an objective judgement that one thing excels all others; it’s actively desiring and seeking after that thing. To worship something is to make the pursuit and enjoyment of it the overriding goal of your life. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’" (Mark 12:30) That’s worship: valuing something so highly that you give everything you have for it. Listen to what Jesus said about God’s kingdom:
""The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it." - Matthew 13:44-46 (NIV)
Worship is treasuring the things of God so highly that we will give everything we have in exchange for them. It’s an attitude that says, "whatever it takes for me to know and experience God, I will do."
Is it possible to worship someone or something other than God? Of course! In fact, everyone worships something, because God created us to be worshippers. It’s hard-wired into us, it’s part of what it means to be a human being made in God’s image. If we refuse to worship God, then we will be driven to find something else to worship. And so it’s not a matter of whether we will worship, but what we will worship. As Paul writes:
" . . . although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles . . . They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised." - Romans 1:21-25 (NIV)