By Justin Rossow
“Do good because God wants you to be happy.”
Yeah, that’s a show-stopper. But it gets worse:
“When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen? Let’s open our hearts to Him today.”
Those comments from Joel Osteen’s wife Victoria in worship at Lakewood Church have caused quite a stir on social media this week. Some have even labeled these words idolatry.
And who could blame them? The logic seems clear: God is happy when you are happy; doing good (like going to church and worshiping God) makes you happy; ergo, worship makes God happy. The more you do it for yourself and your pleasure, the happier God gets, because God wants you to be happy.
This kind of Pharrell Williams theology is worthy of critique; Jesus never promised His followers happiness. In fact, He very explicitly promised them trouble in the world. Then He also told them to take heart, because He had overcome the world (John 16:33).
So it’s natural for a Gospel centered on personal happiness to seem contrary to a Gospel centered in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the sake of sinners. Because it is.
But be careful how you frame your criticism. I hear a lot of people correcting this faulty view by suggesting worship isn’t about us; it’s all about God.
Which sounds right on the surface. But what do you mean by that?
For many Youtube commenters and Facebook theologians, saying worship is all about God appears to mean God is the primary recipient of the action in worship: as we gather and pray and praise, God is honored and glorified and lifted up because, after all, worship is all about Him, right?
Saying worship is all about God appears to mean God is the primary recipient of the action in worship.
Victoria Olsteen seems to understand her critics this way. In response to charges of idolatry, she said on Blaze.com: “Every Lakewood member knows what I was talking about because they have experienced first hand the joy and victory of a Lakewood Church worship service, and the honor, reverence and gratitude we show God.”
In other words, her comments shouldn’t be taken as idolatry because, after all, worship at her church does what true worship is supposed to do: give honor, reverence, and gratitude to the primary recipient in worship, God.
Most Christians in America would agree to that concept without so much as a second thought. I think our English word “worship” is partially to blame.
You see, “worship” is all about ascribing worth; telling God how good and wonderful and merciful He is.
And, hey–ascribing worth to God is a good thing! All creation joins in worth-ship, giving God glory. And we are invited, admonished, even commanded to give God honor, glory, and praise.
But that’s not the most important part of Christian worship.
Here’s how I can tell. God does indeed take pleasure in receiving praise from His creatures. But He doesn’t need it. He loves you, so He’s willing to receive even your imperfect worship, but it’s nothing He couldn’t get from, say, the angels, the stars, the wild animals, or, in a pinch, even the rocks.
One of my favorite psalms puts our sacrifice of praise back into healthy perspective: “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills are mine (declares the LORD) … if I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine and all that is in it!” (Psalm 50) In other words, the honor, reverence, and gratitude God receives from us in worship he could get just as easily somewhere else.
In fact, you could say, it’s a gift from God that He even bothers to lovingly receive our praise. And now we are getting closer to what true worship is all about. God doesn’t need our worship; we, on the other hand, desperately need what God comes in worship to give.
God doesn’t need our worship; we, on the other hand, desperately need what God comes in worship to give.
To say worship is all about God is correct, IF by that you mean, God is the primary actor in worship. Worship is all about what God does.
That’s why the Old School name for worship is the Divine Service; it’s a direct translation of the German Gottesdienst, the service of God to His people.
What’s most important about worship is not what we come to do for God; it’s what God Himself comes to do for us. God isn’t the primary recipient of the action in worship; God is the primary actor. And our response of praise is completely dependent on that primary action of God.
God isn’t the primary recipient of the action in worship; God is the primary actor.
Just as the Glory of the Presence of Yahweh promised to meet His Old Testament people at the Tabernacle, so Jesus Himself promises to show up when two or three are gathered in His Name. Jesus promises to be present in His Word. Jesus promises to be present in His meal. Jesus promises to show up and forgive sins and strengthen faith and yes, even receive the prayers and praises His loved ones offer in response.
As much as I love the image of David the King, half naked, humbling himself as he dances before the Ark of the Covenant, it’s the image of the Son of David that gives us an even deeper insight into what worship is all about: Jesus the King, half naked, with a towel around His waist, humbling Himself as He washes His disciples feet.
THAT’S what worship is all about: Jesus making Himself accessible; serving you, the one He loves; willing to touch your life, and share your burden, and wash your dirty feet.
So worship IS all about God: God the actor, God the doer, God the blesser, giver, feeder, strengthener, encourager, forgiver. Only in a very derivative sense is God a receiver in the Divine Service, and even that reception of our imperfect praise is an act of grace.
So worship IS all about God: God the actor, God the doer, God the blesser, giver, feeder, strengthener, encourager, forgiver.
Worship is not primarily about our ascribing worth to God; worship is primarily about God giving His people the gifts they need to face one more mile on the journey of faith.
Should you come to worship in order to give God praise? Absolutely! But even more, come expecting to receive what God wants to give you in His Word this week.
True worship is focused on the actions of God for His people. Making our own human action toward God the most important thing in worship? Well, that’s just plain … idolatry.