How would you describe the experience of worship?
The biblical language for worship is rich. It includes not only the actions of bowing down and serving but also the concepts of reverence and fear.
This fear does not stand alone. It appears to be linked with an irresistible attraction to the One True God, revealed as Jesus Christ.
I don’t presume to have the definitive answers about the experience of worship by any means. Here are a few insights I’ve been reflecting on for a while.
The place to start is the Bible.
There is a cluster of words – one of many – that helps us understand worship. That cluster is the Greek word group sebomai/sebō, which is usually translated as reverence, awe, or veneration, even fear.
Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah in Matthew 15:7-9. He’s referring to the Pharisees:
You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship (sebō) me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’.
The Hebrew text of Isaiah uses the word yare to translate “worship.” Yare is the Hebrew word for fear.
Jesus is contrasting lip and heart. In other words, they said the right things, but their hearts were far away from God, and their experience of worship was empty.
Somehow we need hearts that are drawn toward God (attraction) and touched with reverence (fear).
The musician Steve Bell relates an experience of his father that illustrates something of the dynamic between attraction and fear.
He told us of a concrete platform in the Mexican state of Chihuahua that arched over a deep canyon. There were no railings.
As his father walked on to the platform, he moved cautiously. Advancing toward the edge, he found himself needing to get down on his knees and then on his chest as he crept forward – fearful yet attracted to the edge.
It is this visceral mix of wholesome fear and irresistible attraction that may give us some idea of the experience of true worship.
Isaiah tells of us an experience he had in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1-5).
First, he tells us of his vision of the Lord:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Then he tells us of angelic beings, seraphs, and their response to the Lord:
Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
He then tells us of his own reaction:
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
Although Isaiah doesn’t use the word “fear,” he makes this self-assessment: “woe to me,” “I am ruined,” “I am a man of unclean lips.” In the presence of the Lord, he is overwhelmed by God’s holiness, and by his own unworthiness.
I propose that the combined realizations of divine holiness and personal (human) unworthiness are components of wholesome fear.
Despite this, his description of both the Lord and his seraphs is one of rapt attraction. It’s as if he cannot draw away.
Isaiah was in that place between irresistible attraction toward God and wholesome fear of God.
Here are three questions you may be asking.
1. Can’t there be more to the experience of worship than irresistible attraction and wholesome fear?
For instance, you might also experience a profound sense of love or joy or peace. You may have a sense of excitement or deep contentment; of lightness or weightiness of spirit.
My sense is that these other experiences will be anchored in, and guided by, irresistible attraction toward God and wholesome fear of God.
2. Are both irresistible attraction and wholesome fear necessary for the experience of worship?
I am still grappling – and will continue to grapple – with the experience of worship.
At this point, my conclusion is that irresistible attraction toward God and wholesome fear of God are indispensable elements for true worship.
Fear without attraction indicates something unhealthy and destructive. For me, that would be the terror associated with exclusion from God, even judgment.
On the other hand, alleged attraction to God without wholesome fear of God is a crass presumption. Such a condition has little or no sense of divine holiness or personal unworthiness.
3. How can you grow in your experience of worship?
Although I’ll propose other ways forward in later posts, let me suggest one exercise at this point.
Read and reflect upon experiences of worship within the holy and ancient text of the Bible.
Here are a few to get you started:
First, concentrate on the attraction of Isaiah or Abraham or Moses and others toward God. Do you sense a similar kind of attraction in yourself as you meditate on the text?
Second, what do you discern of wholesome fear in Isaiah, Abraham, Moses, and others as you re-read the scenes? Are elements of wholesome dread present in you?
What are you learning that you can build into your experience of worship?
 “True worship” refers to worship consistent with John 4:23-24 – “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Helpful resources provided to 'living theology' subscribers.YES!