"It is time now to prepare myself to worship God."
You may be alarmed that I am casting blame on what appears an admirable, even holy, prayer. Allow me to explain. This thought, so commonly preceding praise and worship in church, has become as familiar to me as the sacrament of communion. It is habitual. In fact it is no longer a conscious thought so much as an entire attitude. I enter the holy sanctuary, distancing myself from the clamor of the outside world, and seek to quiet my heart. I may have a thousand other concerns banging around inside my head, but now, now it is time to sing praises to God.
If the worship service is a good one, it will draw me in through contemplative prayers, scriptural meditations, solemn songs. If I am not so lucky, the worship leader may encourage an immediately energetic response. This has occasionally annoyed me, for it prevents me from getting myself into the proper mood. Regardless, it seems to me that there is something amiss with both of these scenarios.
The problem, which you may have guessed, is the idea that I have to somehow prepare myself, at the outset, to worship God. I long to enter his presence, yet I know I am not ready. So I stifle the things which distract me, forcing my attention on Yahweh. As far as it goes, this attempt is largely successful. I have learned to adapt in order to worship with a sincere heart. Yet it is partially my success at this sort of thing which has prevented me from worshiping the Lamb as I ought.
Interestingly enough, I first became aware of this attitude by its absence. This past week I attended a worship service after spending the morning in prayer. I had plenty of things on my mind, but rather than wrestle with them alone, I spoke of them to the Father. I mediated on his goodness. I dwelt on his love. And then, as I entered his presence in song, I worshiped him as I never had before. When the service was ended, I realized what had been missing. Never had I felt the need to "prepare myself to worship God." Rather, opening my voice to sing his praise had been a natural outflow of my prior communion with him. My mind spun. What if, I wondered, it were possible to worship God like this every day? What if this habit were to replace the old one? Could it be that I had been misguided all these years?
You see, I am realizing that worship of God through song should not have to require a "getting ready" of the sort I have described. The very idea betrays the soul's condition. It is only the absence of God's immediate presence that causes the need to prepare to enter it. A man gets dressed for a job interview because he knows he cannot arrive in his pajamas. A woman gets ready to give a speech by practicing beforehand. A bride spends all morning preparing for her wedding. Yet in each case the preparation is contingent on the absence of the interested party. It would do no good to get dressed if the boss were in one's bedroom, or to practice a speech in front of the target audience, or to put on one's wedding dress in the presence of the groom. In this way we come to church with the goal of getting in the mood to worship God, yet this can only result from having ignored him the entire day!
I said earlier that this attitude is more than simply an honest mistake, that it is in reality evidence of a much deeper problem. I do not intend to exaggerate. The idea that we can begin to prepare for worship only just prior to doing so reveals a whole host of other evils. As I stated already, it involves neglecting God's presence elsewhere. A second result is it gives a Christian the idea that he is free to live as sinfully as he pleases the rest of the week. If he were ready and worshiping at all times, it would hardly be possible for him to senselessly indulge in every passion and desire that came along. Put another way, a man who lives a life of habitual sin and confession cannot be spending much time in the company of God. We cannot sup with angels and devils both. Either one or the other must go. God forbid I would ever banish him! Yet this is precisely what I have done each moment I sin. I reveal as much when I arrive to sing praise to God and am unprepared. The third evil then is that if we are not ready to enter God's presence, we are ultimately unready for him to enter ours! I speak of Christ's second coming, which he says will be without any warning (Matthew 24:44). It will be a great shame to any Christian who, upon the Lord's return, is surprised to find himself thrust into the Holy One's presence when he had been happily ignoring it. Why is it not an equal shame to arrive at worship unprepared?
In contrast, the sort of life I have been encouraging has endless potential to benefit believers. A man who spends his days in intimate connection with Yahweh will find himself daily becoming a better person. His thoughts will be sanctified. He will dwell on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely. He will not think of himself as better than anyone else but will value others more. Sin will have less and less a hold on him. He will not be conformed to this world, but will be transformed by the renewing of his mind. Consider that. To be made new again, restored to original perfection, this is what he stands to gain. In turn, as his thoughts change, so too will his emotions. He will no longer be subject to his fleshly desires, living instead in the Spirit. He will produce a character marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. The passions of God's heart will become his own. He will adopt the compassion of Jesus. As his emotions are sanctified, his actions will follow. He will radiate grace to all who interact with him. The needs of those around will be of greater concern than his own, spurring him to righteous acts. And then, on that glorious day when the Savior greets him face to face, he will be ready. He will humbly bend his knee, to hear the blessed words, "Rise, my good and faithful servant. Well done." And in that moment it will not feel as if he were meeting the Lord for the first time at all. It will feel like a reunion.
This is precisely what the apostle Paul was talking about when he exhorts us to "Pray without ceasing." We are to live in such a way that we are continually in the presence of God. I do not believe, as some have thought, that Paul is asking us to constantly be praying with conscious effort. As David G. Benner writes in
It's true prayer is not the same thing as worship, especially in the musical sense, though the two are intrinsically intertwined. For when we live a life of attending to the presence of God, it becomes impossible to "need to get ready" for worship. This is not, however, because we have been getting ready the whole time and so are properly prepared for service. It is because we have been worshiping God all along. Can you imagine what it would be like to live so that you are able to worship through song at any moment? You will find that worship requires no effort since it is merely vocalizing what you have been singing in your heart.
This is the sort of relationship Emmanuel desires each of us to have with him. Let us dwell in his presence continually. Let us open our lives to him, so that worship is a part of who we are. So that it becomes as normal as stretching in the sunlight of a new day.
As easy as falling asleep with your head on the pillow.
As comfortable as slipping into a warm bath.
As natural as breathing.