Throughout the prophetic books in the Old Testament, we see a pattern in which Israel continuously disobeys the commands God has given to them, is threatened with divine judgment, then repents and cycles into the same pattern again and again. God then uses His prophets to warn His people, and makes promises of future restoration despite their obstinate ways.
One particularly dangerous pattern that Israel falls into is allowing their religious worship practices that were meant to deepen their relationship with God to become shallow routines. While sacrifices, fasting, and following the Law were all good things that contributed to their thriving in relationship with God and pleasing Him, these things also worked against them. How so? When the heart behind their actions grew cold. They were an idolatrous people yet they fasted and made sacrifices. Despite their external efforts, God saw the internal motives. In Micah 6:7-8, the prophet declared the word of the Lord for Israel to love their God, and love others. God had become unimpressed with their religious routines because He saw through to their hearts:
Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
As those now living in the Church Age, we have New Testament prescriptions for worship that can contribute to our joy in relationship with God. The overflow of our devotion to God certainly leads to at least several worship practices that can be especially helpful for our spiritual growth and vitality. That is, when our motives center around devotion to God. As J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays remind us in their book, Grasping God’s Word, “God desires relationship over ritual. Rituals have validity only in that they assist in developing the relationship.”
We are not under the Old Covenant, and I don’t believe we are the nation of Israel, but are there certain things in the New Testament church that we do as a routine or ritual to nurture our relationship with God that if not motivated by love for God can mislead us into false spirituality?
It’s early in 2019, and you’ve likely hit the ground running with resolutions for a better year! Spiritual disciplines often make everybody’s list and that’s a good thing. Still, take some time and review these six worship practices and ask yourself, Am I motivated by a deeper relationship with Christ or something else?
Church Attendance: Going to gather with other believers can be one of the best ways to grow. It’s certainly where sound doctrine is proclaimed, sheep are drawn to Christ, saints are edified, corporate worship explodes, spiritual gifts used, missional efforts funded and mobilized, and more. But church attendance, while a commendable goal, can quickly become an idol erected that symbolized our salvation. In other words, we begin to think we’re saved because we go to church. Or, that going to church in 2019 is going to make us a Christian. If church attendance is not motivated by a deep desire to grow closer to Christ and His people through worship and the word, you may be wading in a shallow pool of ritualism.
Daily Bible Reading: Reading plans and daily quiet times in the word can be a tremendous blessing to our relationship with Christ. But they can quickly become checklists that we “X” off so we can get to the real agenda like email, social media, texting, and the morning rush. Unless we check our hearts and renew our motives with new morning mercies, daily Bible reading can become a little golden calf that gives us false assurance.
Serving or Volunteerism: As backwards as it may seem, serving and volunteerism can go from being a healthy habit of Christian love, to an idolatrous act meant to fill us with religious pride. God doesn’t want our hands in service without our hearts of surrender. Many times we lose the motive of why we serve and it becomes a badge of honor we wear to show others, “Look! I am spiritual.” The problem is, God is not impressed, even if others are.
Giving: Another practice that rides on the coattails of serving is giving. This can be a wonderful way to express gratitude to God. It can also be a means by which people “tip” God to satisfy Him; assuming they’re in His good graces because they paid for it. Giving, as a habit of Christian generosity is a beautiful way to participate in Christ’s work. The Macedonian churches (like Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea) embodied the kind of eagerness to meet needs that we should all have (2 Corinthians 8:1). So when does giving go from pleasing God to problematic? When we begin to lose sight of “why” we give. We don’t give money to cross it off our checklist, get a tax write-off, or get our name on a plaque. We give out of a joyful and generous heart because we’re overflowing with love for God.
The Lord’s Table (Communion): There is a wide range of methodologies within the church when it comes to communion. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but others may not agree with our church’s either. One thing is certain, a flippant run through communion without genuine reflection on the blood of Christ and the sacrifice He made on our behalf is the quintessential mark of shallow ritualism at the Lord’s Table. Along with flippancy, one can engage in the deepest of liturgies and remain in a nothing but a shallow pool of ritualism. Robes can be worn, special songs sung, and the finest tableware shimmering on the altar. Without hearts burning with somber affection for the One who shed His blood on Calvary, we’re merely snacking on crackers and drinking Welch’s.
Fasting: Quite a few options are made available to the Christian who wants to fast programmatically these days. You can do an Esther fast, a Daniel fast, a Small Group fast, a Church-wide fast, a Women’s fast and many other types. Are these wrong? Sinful? No. But doing them for the wrong reasons could be. Fasting out of peer-pressure, pride, or because you want to lose weight are all tell-tale signs that true devotion to God through fasting is being replaced by superficial idolatry. Check your motives, keep it a secret, and seek the Lord the way the Bible instructs.
So there you have it! Enjoy resolutions, build in routines, see worshipful practices as a prescribed order for your own spiritual growth. But never forget, these are not the end. They are merely means to The End – that is, Christ.