This post first appeared here:
The command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37) is central to Christianity. But why? Is this merely a relic of an outdated worldview, a holdout from days when men would grovel at the feet of kings? Is not worship inherently demeaning, even dehumanizing? Worse, is not a command to worship inherently contradictory, an admission that God is not worthy enough to elicit spontaneous praise? Many think so, and view the Christian God as an egotistical dictator who demands worship on pain of (eternal) death. Even if such a God existed, it is sometimes suggested, worship would forever be a compromise, a betrayal of human dignity in the face of divine terror. Better to die a man (or woman), than to live a slave.
Yet who among us hasn’t stood in awe of a waterfall or a sunset? Who hasn’t cheered enthusiastically at a football game or concert? Is such a reaction “dehumanizing”? Hardly, more like an essential part of what it means to be human. How much more, then, ought we to praise the one who created every waterfall, sunset, mountain and valley, the one who dreamed up every star, planet, nebula and galaxy, the one who gave life to every flower, bird, tree and whale, the one who gives strength and skill to every athlete, musician, writer and mother?
If God truly is the source of all these good things, then what other reaction could possibly be appropriate but awe, wonder, praise and worship? Just as our rapture when listening to beautiful music means acknowledging something good beyond ourselves, worshipping God (the highest good) turns us away from ourselves to something better. As N.T. Wright notes, however, this does not reduce our humanity, but expands it:
You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless.
So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the lamb who was slain? The answer comes in the second golden rule: because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive.
So why is it that not all who worship God become better people? Perhaps the answer lies in their vision of God. If you believe God is a cosmic dictator, and worship such a God, you will become more intolerant and harsh yourself. If, on the other hand, you believe God rules through self-sacrifice (cf. Rev. 5:6-14), and worship that God, you will be led to serve others in love.
But, it will still be objected, if God is so great, why should he need to command worship? Doesn’t the very fact that he does so (or rather, that people command worship for him) prove that he doesn’t really deserve it? Not at all. For if God truly is who Christians believe he is, then seeing him in his full glory would without a doubt bring us spontaneously to our knees (either in joy or despair). But we do not see the full glory of God in our everyday lives. At best, we get glimpses of it in the glories of creation and in the story of redemption, but we easily miss these things as we shuffle through life. Perhaps we need to be commanded to worship, because we need to be reminded of something bigger and grander than ourselves, and we too easily forget; I too easily forget.