Beyond Morality: Living a Life of Worship
When most of us think of the “good life,” we are not merely imagining an ethical or moral life but a life that is truly worth living, even in the face of the existential problems with which we must contend. Luc Ferry, a French philosopher and self-proclaimed atheist, offers this interesting thought experiment: Imagine we could wave a magic wand and cause everyone living today to begin treating one another perfectly, with equal dignity and respect. There would be no more war, genocide, racism, or xenophobia. There would be no need for a police force or a standing army. Our judicial system and prisons would eventually disappear. And yet, Ferry suggests that even if we were to wave that magic wand, the most profound existential challenges we face would still not be resolved. This is how he puts it,
“Still—and here I have to weigh each one of my words—none (I really mean none) of our most profound existential problems would be resolved if this came to pass. Nothing, even in a perfect realization of the most sublime morality, would prevent us from aging; from witnessing, powerless, the appearance of wrinkles and white hair; from falling sick, dying, and seeing our loved ones die; from worrying about the outcome of our children’s education or from struggling to achieve what we want for them. Even if we were saints, nothing would guarantee us a fulfilled emotional life.”
The point is that morality is indispensable to human life. And yet, it is not enough.
We read in the story of David in 1 and 2 Samuel about the importance of living a life of worship before God. David is far from perfect, but that is not what matters. What matters is that whether winning a great victory or committing an egregious sin, David lives a life of repentance and faith. Whether in triumph or defeat, hope or despair, David does not run away from God. He runs towards God. And that is what fills his life with enduring meaning, value, and purpose.
What Is Worship?
The problem with religion is that it leads us to think of God like a genie in a bottle—rub the lamp and out will pop God to grant you your wishes. Religious people tend to think God is there to serve us, to fulfill all our dreams, and to make us feel good about ourselves. We assume that if we are good enough, pious enough, zealous enough, devout enough, if we say all the right prayers, observe all the right rituals, and keep all of the right rules, then God is obligated to bless us and to make our life go well. We are not really interested in God for who he is—we are merely using God to get whatever we want. And if God does not deliver, then we become angry, bitter, and resentful because he did not fulfill our expectations.
It is critical to realize that the real God will challenge our dreams, not merely fulfill them. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote that a Christian is someone who says, “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” God is not here to serve us. We are here to serve him. In fact, in Hebrew the word “worship” and “serve” are the very same word. God is not here to worship us. We are here to worship him. God is not supposed to follow us according to our terms. Rather we are supposed to follow God on his terms. And if we do, then he promises that he will bless us—not out of necessity, but as a pure gift.
Christianity offers this unique view of salvation: God relates to us on the basis of sheer grace, which means that a relationship with God is not something that we achieve through our own efforts, but something we can only receive with empty hands. Religion leads us to say, “I obey, and therefore, God accepts me.” But the gospel tells us, “God accepts me, despite my sin, through the substitutionary sacrifice of another, and therefore I obey.” We strive to love, serve, and honor God, not motivated by mere duty or obligation, but motivated by gratitude and joy for what he has first done for us—not as a way to try to win God's love, but in order to demonstrate that we already have it. If we know that God has done absolutely everything that is necessary in order to cover our sin and put us in right relationship with himself, then that will infuse our life with insuppressible joy, regardless of our life circumstances or personal challenges.
There is, of course, a rightful place for lament as we mourn those aspects of our lives or within the wider world that are not yet in line with his purposes. Nevertheless, the foundation of a Christian’s’ life must be one of joy. The English author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.”
Why Worship Matters
When Isaiah has a vision of the Lord seated enthroned above the ark of the cherubim in Isaiah 6:5, he immediately says, “‘Woe is me! For I am lost!’” Isaiah acknowledges that he is a sinner and “a man of unclean lips.” But despite Isaiah’s sin, God does not strike him down. Instead, one of the seraphim flies to the altar, the place of the sacrifice, and removes one of the burning coals and places it on the lips of Isaiah saying: “‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” God has now made Isaiah clean.
This, of course, was just a vision. We get something far better.
There are only two places in the New Testament where the Greek word for “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” is used—once in Romans 3 and once in Hebrews 9. In both cases, “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” is used not to describe a place but a person. Hebrews 10 tells us that the blood of bulls and goats could never do anything to actually take away people's sin. This is just a symbol meant to prepare us for the ultimate high priest who does not enter the most holy place within a humanly constructed temple, but rather he enters into the presence of the divine being himself. And there he offers not the sacrifice of an animal, but rather the sacrifice of his very own self. He gives himself for us so that our sin might be covered by his blood, and so that God in his mercy might forgive us and cleanse us so that we can enter into his holy presence and live. Jesus is the mercy seat and the place of atonement. He is the true prince of peace and the one who makes it possible for us to approach the throne of grace and live. And the mercy seat is open, still.
The gospel tells us that God is so holy and you and I really are so flawed that Jesus had to die. There was no other way for us to be able to enter into God's holy presence and live. And yet, at the same time, God is so loving and you and I are so valuable, that Jesus was willing to die for us. When you take these two truths deep into your heart and into your life, then that is what unlocks the joy. Morality and ethics are essential and important, but they are not sufficient to actually live the “good life.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a historic document of faith from the 1600s, begins with this question: What is the chief end of man? In other words, what is the meaning of life? The answer is short: To glorify God and to enjoy him forever. As C.S. Lewis astutely observed, those two commands are actually one and the same. In commanding us to worship him, God is inviting us to enjoy him. The only way in which we truly learn to live the “good life” is through worship, by living our lives before the God of grace. And when we do, it will fill our lives with insuppressible joy.
Adapted from David and The Good Life: Worship, a sermon delivered by Jason Harris on October 16, 2022. Listen to the sermon or read the full transcript.
"Christ and Contemporary Culture" is a journal written by Jason Harris which reflects on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. If you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, the hope is that you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, these posts will serve to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously.
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee