Occasionally, I go to an Episcopal church. I enjoy the reverence of the service and the symbolism of the liturgy. Going gives me an occasion to focus for an hour on who God is and who I am, and the service reminds me of some essential truths. One day on my way home, the memory of Jesus’ words to the woman at the well struck me: one day, we will worship in spirit and in truth. I look forward to that day—when we enter into any form of worship from a heart of understanding and profound awareness of who we are and who God is, because our hearts have been made whole.
Attending the Episcopal Church sporadically as I do raises questions for me about the nature of worship and how we evangelicals look at it. I think back to Paul in the first century and consider how he did not encourage first-century Christians to become Jewish, because he wanted them to understand and embrace the difference between grace and law. This is curious to me, since today many Christians consider worshipping a certain way to be essential to their spiritual formation. But because Paul did not require Christians to embrace the obviously God-ordained religious practices of the Jews, I conclude that Paul did not consider “religion” or how we “do worship” to be essential. We, however, like the woman at the well, still squabble about who worships right.
So, I look to Paul’s writing in Romans 12:1-2. I memorized these verses when I was thirteen, but I never understood what Paul was saying until much later. In the context of his letter to the Romans, these words come to life:
I urge you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to you present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
In chapters one through eleven of Romans, Paul has gone to great lengths to distinguish between law and grace. Then in chapter twelve, he says that true worship is serving God—not in our practices, but in our choices, in our lives. “In light of the mercies of God”—that is, the gospel of grace he has presented—a “life lived” is our “reasonable” service; in contrast to the religious rituals the Law required, our true, appropriate sacrifice is not a practice, but a life lived.
Our choices, then, will reflect the inward commitment of a heart that has understood the gospel. They will reflect a reality deep within, a radical transformation that God is granting by His grace. Our renewed mind will show itself as we live a life believing and embracing the gospel. So then, according to Paul, true worship is not a particular practice or a right religion, but rather, it is a posture or attitude of our lives that understands grace; it is living lives that “betray” our deep, inward belief in God.
We must be clear, then, on this: our worship practices do not serve to please God or to get God to act in a particular way. Worship practices can, however, remind us of the reality of who God is and who we are, and thus they can encourage our faith and reflect our humanness. It is our inward posture toward any given practice that matters, not the practice itself as a “right” or “wrong” way to relate to God. Worship practices are not helpful, therefore, if their goal is gaining favor with God. Instead, any practice can be valid, if it helps remind us of what is true. And this is important, because we are forgetful people. We need reminding.
Furthermore, it makes sense that any practice or any experience—whether planned or unplanned—can have a role in growing our faith. It does not have to be “religious,” because often God uses the mundane experiences of our lives to grow our faith. We do not grow our faith by observing a particular practice or seeking a certain experience of Him. We do not grow our faith at all. God grows our faith.
Paul’s emphasis in Romans is this: we can’t gain favor with God; we never could, and we never will. If we understand the gospel of grace, we understand this. The whole point of Paul’s explanation of law and grace is that God is committed to us, not on the basis of our accomplishments or practices, but because, in His mercy, He has decided to be committed to us, and He will finish what He has begun.
Our fallenness, however, inclines us to want to make sure we are “okay” with God. Too often, this desire for security motivates our practices. But our faith and our sanctification—the fact of God’s commitment to working in our hearts—are the work of God. And the result of His work is seen in our choices, as we live our lives in light of the change deep within us.
We can choose to observe any religious practice (whether following an Episcopal liturgy or singing an evangelical praise song), but it should accurately reflect and remind us of the change occurring within us as God draws us to Himself over the course of our lives. Or we can decide not to observe any religious practices at all. Because true worship is not observing a certain religious practice; it is living a life that betrays a deep, inward belief in God. The existential, inward choices we make are evidence that God is growing us up. So, in the midst of mundane or ceremonial life, as we stumble around and try to seek God, God Himself breaks in and does His work. He has committed Himself to this purpose, and He will see it through—regardless of what practices we choose, or do not choose, to observe.
Because God has promised to complete His good work in the lives of believers, we do not need to measure our faith on the basis of a subjective experience of God. And consequently, we do not need to impose our worship practice preferences on our brothers and sisters. If we find a particular practice meaningful, we cannot presume that it will mean the same thing to our friends. Each of us has a different experience of God, based in our different personalities and life experiences; our relationship with Him will be as unique as our fingerprints. The real evidence for God’s work in our lives as believers is not the quality of our worship experience, but the nature of our choices over the course of our lives: our choices reflect what we believe. True worship is living a life that reveals our belief in God; it has little to do with any practice that I may or may not find meaningful.
As we understand the work of God in our lives, we will realize that our worship practices have no intrinsic value before Him. Any practice can be valuable if it reminds us of who God is, but it does not qualify us for a different spiritual existence in this life because God is somehow pleased by it. For instance, at times I find the Episcopal liturgy meaningful. Included is the confession of sin: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone….” Saying this prayer publicly, while kneeling with a congregation, reminds me powerfully of the reality of my weakness and my reliance on God’s mercy to help me see where I fail. From there, the ceremony moves to the Lord’s Supper, the symbol Jesus took from the Passover to proclaim to His disciples that “from now on” the ceremony should remind them about Him and how God delivers believers from sin, rather than how God delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The two Episcopal rituals come together to remind me of both my ongoing need for God to show me how I fail and His provision—the promise of His mercy that gives me hope. But is my observing these rituals essential to my faith and my growth? No, because true worship is not performing a particular ceremony; it is living a life that betrays a deep, inward belief in God.
Because God is the one maturing us in the context of our life choices, any experience—ceremonial or mundane, planned or unplanned—can remind us about God and His character. For example, last spring He used the loss of my cat Tilly. Curious as ever, one day she climbed into a trailer as one of my student renters was packing to move. Unbeknownst to anyone, she made the trip across town, and when the tarp came off the trailer, she fled the scene. The movers tried to coax her back to them, but she wouldn’t have it. In the subsequent hours and days, I posted posters, spoke with neighbors, and returned to the scene repeatedly calling out to her. Just before dawn one morning I decided to try again. I returned once more and called her name over and over.
Finally, bewildered and discouraged, I sat on someone’s front stoop and reflected. I quietly prayed, asking earnestly that God would bring her home to me. I realized that God knew where she was and what had become of her. And, I realized He could bring her to me, if He so pleased. And yet, I had to recognize that, ultimately, she was His, and He could do with her as He pleased, even if it included never returning her safely to me. I was, frankly, upset with God about this reality. And yet, as I settled into remembering His goodness, I realized that we are all His creatures and that even when difficulty and struggle come our way, He is good in His purposes in our lives. Indeed the life of the small cat Tilly is not outside His care. And neither was I outside His good care, even as grief over the loss of my sweet pet gripped my heart, as I sat there watching the rainy spring dawn.
So experiences, whether ceremonial or mundane, are not prescriptive, but rather, descriptive of our individual journeys toward the Kingdom. Many worship practices are valid, and many experiences reflect and remind us about the reality of who God is and who we are. Some of these are beautiful, some symbolic, some mundane, and some very hard. But they are all ultimately good, because they point us to Truth. God graciously reminds us of His goodness, in the midst of mundane, difficult life. And by His grace, we hang on more and more to His promise of redemption in the midst of it.
Our spiritual service, then, our real and appropriate worship, is not a ceremonial practice of any kind, but rather, a life lived from a renewed mind, understanding the gospel of grace. God’s work deep within our souls will permeate to the level of our choices as we see His commitment to us become more and more real. True worship is, after all, living a life that betrays a deep, inward belief in God and His promises.