Are We Worshiping Ourselves?

Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 6:5-11

Our language shapes our world. This obvious truth has enormous implications. Our language about God is our way of understanding what is beyond our understanding. Perhaps there is an understanding of God that does not require language, but if so we cannot talk about it. As soon as we speak of God, we are speaking of the God of our understanding and not simply of God.

Of course, many Christians claim to have knowledge of God that is inerrant or infallible. Catholics have lodged such authority in the Pope, and Protestants have made such claims for the Bible. Yet, the teachings of the church and the Bible are both part of history and require the use of language. Speaking of God inescapably reflects our understanding of God (or, perhaps we should say, our lack of understanding).

Does this mean that when we worship and speak of and to God, we are worshiping ourselves? It certainly might mean this. Idols are not merely made out of wood and stone, but also out of words. Through our own creativity we try to direct our minds and our hearts beyond ourselves. But can we? And how would we know?

More specifically, how in worship might our use of scripture, music, the sacraments, and prayer point beyond our understanding of God? How in these aspects of our worship can we guard against simply worshiping our own beliefs?

Reading from the Bible and preaching is central to our worship. In these ways we try to understand the tradition of teaching about God passed on to us in scripture. In a "liberal" congregation there may be no need to emphasize that the Bible reflects human understanding, as there is in a more "conservative" or "evangelical" congregation. Yet, liberal Christians need to be reminded that their understanding of the Bible does not necessarily reflect God's will more accurately than the understanding of conservative or evangelical Christians. Whenever we read and explain scripture, we must also acknowledge that we see "through a glass darkly," as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Our faith in God is always at least in part self-serving, and this is especially true if we believe that we are only serving God. 

The music of our worship may simply reflect what a congregation likes, but it should do more than that. There is no style of music that is inherently closer to God than all others, but music may be more or less subtle and certainly may reinforce various human feelings. Instrumental music should reflect the darker side of human experience as well as our desire for harmony and a sense of peace. Hymns with traditional language may do more to challenge our thinking than contemporary texts, if we allow the metaphors of Christian faith to resonate within us.

The sacraments of baptism and communion confront us with physical metaphors for God. They remind us that the God of the Christian Bible is not merely spiritual but in some way participates as well in our material life. Washing and eating together are moments when we ought to remember that our lives are a wondrous tangle of spirit and matter. We may make our own lives, in both respects, and we also shape the lives of others. Yet, we experience life as more than our own making. The words spoken during these rituals should be not try to explain these symbolic acts, as allowing the "enacted metaphors" to "speak for themselves" is more likely to convey God's transcendence and immanence.

Praying to God, in ways that do not merely project our desires and thoughts onto God, is perhaps the greatest challenge. In addressing God as Father or Lord, we use words we want to mean God, and not merely our understanding of God. Yet, all these words are metaphors that reflect human meanings. To refer to God as Father or as Lord or as anything else does not name God, but ascribes to God an attribute of human experience that we believe God has and must have. To say that God is love or that God loves justice is metaphorical language, and even the word "God" is a metaphor. By speaking of God we mean more than any "thing" we know, yet we cannot speak of God apart from what we know. So, how can we pray to God, and not just pray to our image of God?

The Christian Bible offers three suggestions. First, we can pray, as we do in the Lord's Prayer, "thy will be done." This metaphorical language, depicting God as a person with a will who acts, reminds us that we ought not to expect from God or from life only what we will and want.

Second, we can freely use metaphors from human experience, as scripture does, and perhaps the more freely we do this the better. We ought not to limit our prayer to a few favorite metaphors, as though these words are more like God than other words. Let's pray to God as our Mother as well as our Father, and to the God of wonder and mystery, as well as the God of love and mercy. Let's pray to the God we do not understand, and to the God we resent, if we do, and to the God we judge, if we do, and to the God we fear, if we do. Let's pray honestly and openly, in ways that remind us that we are praying for what we want and yet, at our best, that we want to pray for what God “wants” — and for what those who love us trust is best for us.

Third, in addition to praying that God's will be done and freely using metaphors for God, another form of prayer is at least implied by the Bible. In the New Testament Jesus doesn't teach his disciples how to pray until they ask him, and he teaches only the Lord's Prayer. The gospel of Matthew presents a teaching by Jesus about praying in secret, rather than in public, and the gospel of John teaches that true worship is "in spirit and in truth." We may suppose, from the relative silence in the New Testament about worship and prayer, that silence is a way we might turn to God in order to pray.

So, to avoid simply worshiping ourselves we ought to pray without using words that express our thoughts. This kind of contemplative or meditative prayer is not free from our striving. Silent prayer is "our" silent prayer, even if we are able to avoid thinking, which anyone who has tried this kind of prayer knows is very hard to do. Various techniques may be used in silent prayer, but these remain "our" techniques. Even by praying in silence, we cannot escape from "our" praying for "ourselves." Yet, "resting in God" to use a common metaphor for silent prayer may be a way to open ourselves more fully to the Power of life and love.

Of course, there are no guarantees. Our scripture readings and sermons, our music in worship, our celebration of the sacraments, and our prayers will be "ours" no matter what we do. We can, however, guard against worshiping ourselves, and we should. Yet, given the danger of confusing our will with God's, why take the chance? Why worship at all?

In the New Testament Jesus prays and teaches a prayer to his disciples. But Jesus does not worship or teach his disciples how to worship. As a Jew, worship was to be only in the temple in Jerusalem. Yet, in the gospels Jesus rejects temple worship. The last supper, which has become an act of worship in the church, is a Passover meal in the synoptic gospels but in the gospel of John the last meal of Jesus before he is crucified the next day on Passover. In the earliest written account of the last supper, which is in 1 Cor. 11:17-34, Paul emphasizes the sharing equitably of those partaking of the meal. It is not yet an act of worship of Jesus, but a remembrance of it life and Way.

Neither Jesus nor Paul in the New Testament witness commands worship. Faith is necessary, but not worship for the Christian life.

Yet, worshiping God may be the best way we have to avoid worshiping ourselves. Human beings are prone to play god with one another. We all want to think we know what is best, not only for ourselves but also for others, and for the world. Metaphor and history unite to warn us of the danger we pose to our own souls and to the lives of others. The practice of Christian faith, in worship and in the world, may help us live with hope and love.

November 1, 2003 © Robert Traer 2016