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What is Worship?

Rev. 4 (04/22/01)

by Tony Grant


I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Revelation and follow along as I read verses 1-11. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).

1 After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.

2 And immediately I was in the spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

4 And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.

5 And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.

6 And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.

7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.

8 And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

9 And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,

10 The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.


Response to the Holy

Worship is the response of the creature to the holy: nor need we limit this definition to the human sphere. We may think of the whole life of the Universe as an act of worship, glorifying its Originator and Sustainer.

The existence of worship is a damaging criticism of all merely material and physical explanations of the universe. For worship is an acknowledgment of something beyond the material. Worship acknowledges a Reality that is always deeply colored by mystery, and that precedes from what we might call "ordinary" reality. Worship even on primitive levels points to humankind’s profound sense of the spiritual. There is no material reason why we should worship at all, therefore our instinct to worship indicates a recognition of a spiritual reality, which is behind and in and above the physical reality. In other words, worship is based upon an intuition of the spiritual. This intution is overwhelming, fearful, and attractive all at once. It is a vision of god. Whether it be the puzzled upward glance of the primitive or the delighted love of the saint, it derives from a vision of god.

Atheists regard worship as a human fantasy. An atheist would say you have no reason to be here on a sabbath morning. Worship is a total waste of time. But to a believer, worship is the most profound human response to reality. Worship points us towards the Reality of God. Worship gives, expresses, and maintains that which is the essence of all religion, namely a theocentric basis to life. F. Von Hugel says, "The first or central act of religion is adoration, sense of God, His otherness though nearness, His distinctness from all finite beings, though not separateness-aloofness-from them." [F. Von Hugel, Selected Letters, p.261]

God Alone

As worship rises towards purity and leaves human centered concerns behind, God becomes more and more the only fact of existence, the one Reality. Then the very meaning of creation is seen to be an act of worship, a devoted proclamation of the splendor, the wonder, and the beauty of God. Thus, God alone matters, God alone Is. Creation only matters because of God. "Wherein does your prayer consist?" said St John of the Cross to one of his penitents. She replied: "In considering the Beauty of God, and in rejoicing that He has such beauty."[Given by E. Allison Peers, Works of St. John of the Cross, vol I, p. xxxvi]

Worship then at every level always means God and the priority of God. To whatever degree we lift our heart and mind toward God, God responds with an outpouring of incomprehensible grandeur. We, in our worshipping action, may have mixed motives. We may even have incorrect ideas about God. None of that matters. The mighty Object of our worship stands beyond and over all this. When we speak of what God can and cannot do, of how God is and is not, we speak out of our limited experience and not of God as God is in himself. This is why the field of religion is so messed up. If we study all religion, we find a field littered with human misconceptions and mistakes. Not that the people who made those mistakes were bad people. They were good people. From the lowest most primitive of pagan idol worshippers to the highest and best of Christian saints, they all intended to worship, and God accepted that intention, even when offered in ignorance.


The first point about worship is its theocentric character. Worship centers on what Nicolas of Cusa called "the Absolute and Eternal, standing beyond the present and the past ", [Nicolas of Cusa, the Vision of God, cap.10.]. This indicates then that worship is not something we human beings do on our own. Worship is not an invention of the human mind. That awed conviction of the reality of the holy, which in one form or another is the beginning of all worship, does not and cannot originate in us. Our awareness of the Absolute, our sense of God, comes to us where we are as a message from another order. It is God disclosing Himself to and in His creation.

In this respect worship stands alone, and cannot be equated with other human discoveries or inventions. In all other reactions to our environment, we are pressed by the needs of the situation, or by the prick of our own desires, but in worship, we move outside the ordinary to acknowledge something that gives meaning and goal to the world of our ordinary life. This reality of the holy lies at the root of all worship. Worship looks toward this spiritual Reality not simply because it consoles us or protects us, but for Its own sake. Thus, fundamentally worship is not about dependence or gratitude, it is about adoration. In Isaiah 6, the hymn of the seraphim is: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory." Glory be to thee, 0 Lord Most High." That is worship. In RV4, we are presented with a vision of the throne of heaven, "and one sat on the throne." And round about the throne sat 24 elders clothed in white raiment, wearing golden crowns. "And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne were four beasts full of eyes before and behind."(6) And the beasts were singing, "Holy, holy holy, Lord God almighty, which was, and is, and is to come." (8) and the 24 elders fell down before the throne and worshipped saying, "thou art worthy, O Lord to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created."(11) The beasts represent all creation singing a song of adoration to its creator. The 24 elders represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles, that is to say the whole people of God. RV4 is a vision of what worship is, It is the adoration of the creator.

The First Worship

If we go back to the first worship, It may be true that God was at first recognized by human beings in a imperfect and distorted way; and God was acknowledged in acts that may bear little apparent resemblance to the practices that we regard as religious. Yet already these first acts of worship have a distinctive mark. They point beyond this reality, to a spiritual reality.

Professor J. B. Pratt writing in The Religious Consciousness ( p. 262) says that it is probable that the earliest form taken by the genuine religious sense was "a feeling for that indefinable, impersonal, all pervading power which the Iroquois call Orenda, the Algonquins Manitou, the Sioux Wakonda and the Melanesians Mana, but which, under whatever name, is conceived as the ultimate source of power, the controller of happiness, the determiner of destiny." The professor’s point is that from the earliest moments of our history, so far as we can determine, we have always has a sense of some other power, and we worshipped this power under a multitude of names. We have always known the reality of the holy.

Worship and Prayer

It follows from this that worship and prayer, though they are closely related and frequently overlap,are not equivalents. Worship is not just prayer. Worship is essentially an unselfish devotion to God. but prayer is not always unselfish. We do pray about our own needs and goals and ambitons, and that is legitimate prayer. We might say that worship offers, prayer asks. "What shall I say, my God, my Holy Joy!" exclaims St Augustine. That is the voice of worship. "Without thy visitation I cannot live!" says Thomas a Kempis. That is the voice of prayer. "I come to seek God because I need Him." That is a formula for prayer. "I come to adore His splendor, and fling myself and all that I have at His feet." That is the formula for worship.

Worship is all that is involved in adoration. Worship is all the responses of the soul to the infinite soul, all the Godward activities of humankind. Because worship sets the awful Perfection of God over against the creature's imperfection; it includes the "conviction of sin", and hence of the soul's penitence and purification.

In worship, two currents of life meet, one proceeding from God, the other flowing from the worshipper; one descending, the other ascending. The descending current includes all forms of revelation, the ascending current all forms of prayer. But it can be argued that both of these are the same, that God descending action causes us to lift up our hearts in prayer to God.

God Action

Thus, in a sense all worship is initiated by God. Our impulse to worship comes not from us but from God.

The acknowledgment of our total dependence on God is therefore a part of worship. This is what the Lord’s prayer means by the phrase "Hallowed by thy name." How is the name hallowed or blessed? By worship in the widest meaning of that term.

There is an old Eucharistic prayer that reads, "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy name." This prayer is worship because its object is the greater glory of God. Wherever the end is not our comfort or security, but God’s glory and purpose, then the name is hallowed.

As the spiritual life develops, so this sense of the dependence of the spirit on the Absolute Spirit deepens; and God, working with and in His creature is recognized as the only author of all the supernatural actions of the soul. Thus. Worship begins and ends in God. Worship is our total Godward life.

Here we obtain a clue to the significance of those rituals and ceremonies common to almost every creed, which express the deep human conviction that none of life's experiences are rightly understood unless brought into a relationship with God. This is why we ask God’s blessing upon governments and travelers. This is why we have marriages in the church, and funerals. This is why we ask God’s blessings upon our food. All these are acts of worship because they refer to God as a present Reality, and acknowledge His hallowing action. So, too, the adoring recognition of God in and through nature is a real part of a worshipping life; for in such a case the visible world becomes a sacramental revelation of an invisible Reality.

Also that total devotion to the interests of truth or beauty, which is the impelling cause of the scholar's or the artist's career, has a religious character, and is in essence a response to revelation. It is a kind of worship of the ultimate Source, Sustainer and End of perfect Beauty and of perfect Truth.

Soul and Body

Human worship must have concrete expression. We are body and soul. We live under conditions of time and place. Nothing is fully realized by us, until it has been submitted to these bodily and earthly limitations. Our desires and convictions do not become actual until expressed in words and deeds, even though this expression is seldom adequate. Our desire for God is no exception to this law. We are beset by the conviction that we must do something here and now in response to our sense of the holy. Our response is worship. Worship is a spontaneous reaction to God; and this reaction always takes the form of something that is done.

This is why, in every human society worship has concrete expression of its sense of the holy in institutions such as the church, and in ritual acts, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These institutions and acts become in their turn powerful instruments, whereby the worshipping attitude is taught, stimulated, and maintained.

The painted cave of those prehistoric worshippers of an unknown God, the Hindu temple, the Christian cathedral, are all expressions of the same fundamental human need to make visible the spirit of worship. When this embodiment is lacking, when the Godward life of the community is not given some physical expression, worship does not develops its full richness and power.

It is true that worship, when thus embodied in buildings and ceremonies, loses--or seems to lose--something of its purity; but only then can it take up and use all our powers and capacities, turning the whole creature towards the holy.

Unfortunately, when we try to realize the spiritual in the physical, we encounter the greatest dangers in religious experience; the danger that form will smother spirit, ritual action take the place of spontaneous prayer, the outward sign obscure the inward grace. But the risk is one that we are bound to take. We are not "pure" spirit, and is not capable of "pure" spiritual actions. But we should always be aware that whenever we use something physical to represent something spiritual, there is some danger that we will forget the spiritual and worship the physical. That is why some people worship the church and not the one who created the church, or they worship the bible and not the one whose word is the bible.

However, having said that, we must also say again that the demand and action of religion are on people as they are, on beings that are both physical and spiritual. Therefore that revelation, that awakening disclosure of God which is the cause of worship, must come to us in space and time. The reality and attraction of the holy must be experienced in time, if it is indeed to enter and transform our experience.

This is why the Christian revelation of God manifest in the flesh is unique in its power of evoking worship and love. In Christ, God came physically into our world to lead us in a spiritual worship. In Christ, historical fact embodies the spiritual, and presents the deep mysteries of Eternal Life to us in a way that we can, if not comprehend, at least accept.

Why Worship?

There remains the question of the effect upon the individual human being of this deep action of the soul. Why are we called to worship? Because this is the only way in that we can receive the influence of a spiritual Reality. The tendency of all worship is to decline from adoration of God to demand of God. Worship begins as something supernatural and ends as something merely ethical. We are intensely preoccupied with things of this world. We need to remember that Jesus said My kingdom is not of this world. We need something that will help us to focus on the realities of that spiritual universe in which we live and move. Worship leads us out of our entrenched self-centeredness to a knowledge of God, and ultimately to that union with God which is the goal of the soul. By worship alone we enter into that great life of the spiritual universe which consists in the ceaseless proclamation of the Glory of God.

Thus when we worship, we say, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty, which was and is and is to come." Amen.

Source: Evelyn Underhill, Worship, Chapter I, THE NATURE OF WORSHIP



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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