What is Worship?

As a child, I believed the term “worship” was synonymous with “prayer.” When people worshipped false idols, it meant they prayed to them. I saw myself as worshipping God, because it was to Him that I offered my prayers. Worship was just a fancier term for prayer.

Now that I’m older, I realize there is a difference. But what is it? As one of its definitions, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language equates worship with “the reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.” As a verb, worship is “the ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.”

If we accept this definition, we admit that something other than God—the true God—can be worshipped. This makes sense, of course. If we claimed that only deity can be worshipped, Jews and Christians would be forced to dismiss any Biblical accounts of worshipping false gods (either that or seriously reinterpret them), while the atheist would have to suppose that nobody in history has actually worshipped. “Worship,” for the atheist, would become a void term.

But if we allow things other than God to be worshipped, will this affect our concept of worship? If a man possesses a “reverent love and devotion” for his wife, and if he views marriage as a sacred institution, does he worship his wife? This seems to fit the definition given above (unless we get picky and say that a wife is not a “sacred object,” in which case we can just as easily accuse the man of worshipping the institution of marriage itself). It seems our definition needs some tweaking.

By inserting a subjective requirement into the definition, we may find our solution. Perhaps worship is “the reverent love and devotion accorded to someone (or something) that is considered deity.” This definition makes no claims about whether or not a worshipped being actually exists. One isn’t forced to believe in the gods of Greek mythology to believe that people did in fact worship Zeus. Thus, our definition allows both religious and non-religious persons to recognize the existence of worship, even when such worship is seen as being “false” in some way or another. At the same time, our happily married man cannot be accused of worshipping his wife, because he does not consider her to be deity.

The problem is, something still seems to be lacking. Is it accurate to say that the pious Muslim, who feels “reverent love and devotion” to Allah, is constantly in the state of worship? Or is he only worshipping Allah when he is consciously aware of this love and devotion? Perhaps it isn’t a problem. Perhaps we are comfortable saying the religious devotee is always in the state of worshipping his/her god, just as we are comfortable saying the devoted husband always “loves” his wife, even when he isn’t reflecting on it. But there seem to be theological consequences in taking such a stand. When a religious devotee engages in something he/she views as sin, is this person still engaged in worship? It seems counterintuitive to suggest that he/she is. For even if a “reverent love and devotion” for God exists within that person, the fact that it remains so hidden suggests that worship cannot be taking place. Certainly devotion cannot be consciously recognized while sinning occurs, even if in some twisted way love can.

This means that worship, at the very least, must be “the conscious recognition of reverent love and devotion accorded to someone (or something) that is considered deity.” So is this our definition? When a Christian claims to worship God through song, is this merely because the song brings them to an awareness of God-focused love? Does the woman who, while taking her morning jog, recalls her love for Jesus thereby automatically engage in worship? Is one able to worship without seeking a spiritual communion with deity? Without praying or otherwise “speaking” to God? Our current definition does not imply a reaching out to God, but merely a recognition of our attitude towards Him. It is not even a recognition of God directly, but a recognition of how we feel about God. Are we content with such a definition?

I have not tried to provide a final answer. I do not feel I have one. In my own experience, I feel that worship does require a spiritual communion of sorts. Perhaps our definition is not that far off. Perhaps the final adjustment I would make is to require that the love and devotion felt is being expressed and not just recognized. Hence, an elaborate definition may be: “the conscious attempt to express and/or communicate a reverent love and devotion, accorded to someone (or something) that is considered deity, to that someone (or something).” This makes worship a rather personal affair that can take on many forms. This appeals to me, as I believe musicians, poets, seamstresses, and anyone else can worship God by offering their talents. On the other hand, an instance of someone merely remembering that he/she loves God does not constitute worship. I feel good about this definition, but it’s always open for revisal. So let the comments begin.


The Damsel said...

I once was told sin in any form is apostacy. I somewhat agree with that-even if you love God while you sin, you are not worshipping him. Even if you still love your s/o, you are not actively "marrying" them-renewing that love-if you are cheating.

mama bear said...

I think I actually have always seperated the two...worship vs. sin or actions. Worship is an adoration, a recognition of God or Christ and their awesomeness. It involves praising, singing, and contemplation of them. Therefore I worship at church or temple where there is a peaceful atmosphere for doing so. I believe it also is a communion within your heart, where you express your thankfulnes as well as your hopes and try to hear or feel a response. It's a lot like going to visit and having a very nice, intimate conversation.

The other part of living one's religion is just that...living it. This is where we strive to do good and improve each day. This is acitivity. We try to behave ourselves in much the same way we would if, when we were younger, we went to school or otherwise and wanted to be good, as our earthly parents would expect of us. Certainly we wouldn't want to displease them either. We respond in the same fashion to God. We are trying to do all the right things while we are away from Him. I don't see this as worshipping, in the classic sense. This is activity. Worship is quiet contemplation

JoAnna said...

I wrote a good post the other day but the dumb work computers lost it! I'll try to redo it because my insight I'm sure is so valuable!

I agree with Mama Bear and Benny that worship is more of an act and way of being. Singing the song and feeling uplifted or even spiritual doesn't necessarily count as worship. Worship should be more of a recognition of God and a communion with him. I do think there is something to be said about recognizing him in daily existence though as a sort of worship... perhaps reverence is a better word. When I acknowledge the sunset or cool air or the smell of flowers, I like to think that I'm remembering God and in that way giving him my devotion and worship.

I also wanted to comment on Katherina's post. While I agree that in the moment of sin we are not thinking of God, perhaps it is too harsh a judgement to call it apostasy. I think that maybe the kind of sin we all commit is more akin to transgression. We all have weaknesses and while we can always do better, maybe we should acknowledge that sometimes our best just isn't THE best. I think sin is more like the people who blatantly ignore God and don't want to recognize or acknowledge him in life. People who would rather not be bothered or choose to live a particular way with no desire to even know what God wants.