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.