In John 4:24, Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” In context, Jesus was not preaching a “sermon” about worship; instead, He was having a personal and intentional conversation with a Samaritan woman about her spiritual condition.
In other words, He wanted to talk about something else.
When the woman realized that the conversation was getting a little TOO personal, she changed the subject – like so many people still do – to “worship.” Jesus wisely answered her questions about worship, instructing her (and us) that our worship is directed towards Almighty God, and that it MUST be done in two very specific ways: “in spirit” and in “truth.”
First of all, I wholeheartedly agree that Jesus’s words here are absolutely binding on anyone who desires to worship God. I do not believe that Jesus – or by extension, God – will accept just “any ol’ worship” that we want to offer. The Scriptures prove this to be the case, time after time (Gen. 4; Lev. 10; Mt. 15:9; etc.).
However, I believe that we are sorely lacking balance in this area of our teaching.
Let me explain.
I have heard countless sermons and read lots of books on the importance of “truth” in worship. I have heard these lessons constantly and consistently for my entire life, and I believe that they are incredibly important. We live in a religious world that has almost completely deemphasized this concept, so we absolutely need to address it.
In contrast, however, to this wealth of information that exists concerning the importance of “true worship,” I have heard very few sermons (and read very few books, if any) on the OTHER part of what Jesus said: worshiping in spirit.
If I understand Jesus correctly, He is concerned not only with the “forms” of worship, but also with the “heart” behind them. In other words, much like the Pharisees, it is possible to honor God “with our lips” and to simultaneously have a heart that is “far from Him” (Mt. 15:8). I have been guilty of this at times; have you? Have you ever sang a song of praise to God with your lips while your mind wandered somewhere…else? Have you ever found yourself reading through a church bulletin (or scrolling through Instagram) during the Lord’s Supper? How often do you think to yourself, “How long is this sermon going to take?” I’ll say two things if you answered “yes” to any of these questions: 1. Welcome to the club, and 2. It’s not a good club to be in.
Our worship to God is not supposed to be a robotic routine, defined only by the “rightness” of the acts themselves; it is supposed to be an engaging, spiritual, heartfelt offering, involving the things that CAN’T be seen as much as it involves the things that CAN be seen.
Although we should not (and indeed, cannot) allow our emotions to dictate the FORMS of our worship, we can (and should) allow them to be a PART of our worship. For example, when we sing, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” why wouldn’t I close my eyes and feel the message of this song in the deepest parts of my heart? When we sing, “Sing and Be Happy,” would it be so wrong if I actually LOOK and FEEL happy? When a powerful prayer is offered on behalf of a grieving member of the body of Christ, is it acceptable if it makes me cry?
If we are not very careful (and I would suggest, MUCH more proactive), we might find that we are raising entire generations of Christians to care very deeply about the “truth” of worship without giving much thought to the “spirit” behind it. Last time I checked, both of these elements are required for acceptable worship, and neither should be considered “weightier” than the other.
God is, by the definition of the term, awesome. If I can worship Him in the “right” way without engaging my heart and mind, I’m still doing it “wrong.” If I can be on my phone during a prayer, or while others are praising Him, I am no more acceptable to Him than the person who has adopted unauthorized forms of worship. If I can be thinking of nothing more than melody, harmony, or how good/bad we “sound” today while I’m supposed to be offering praise to Him, I need to revisit the two-fold command of Jesus in John 4:24.
In the realm of worship, there are lots and lots of “wrong” ways to worship in the “right” way; but there is no way to “right” way to worship God in the “wrong” way.
My challenge to all of us is to renew our love and affection for God, so that our spirit immediately and organically engages in worship, whether we are in an assembly or alone. May we never be guilty of being imbalanced, either in our teaching about worship or – more importantly – in our participation in worship.