When the weather is nice, when the sky is so blue that even a color-blind guy like me can see how beautiful it is, I like to go walking on the campus at Southwestern Seminary. During today’s walk, for whatever reason, I was pondering my personal philosophy of worship, the answer I might give to a church when they ask what I believe about it. In the process of that meditation, I realized that even though they’re frequently used to mean the same thing, praise and worship are actually two very different ideas. The most basic difference is that worship is based in who God is, while praise is based in what he does.
Worship, if I had to come up with a basic definition, is properly acknowledging who God is. For starters, I just want to focus on his holiness. God’s holiness is the one thing that separates us from him. God is loving, but even a lost person can be a little bit loving sometimes. God is merciful, but even a lost person can sometimes be merciful. However, God is also holy, and nobody in the world can ever claim to be even a little bit holy. God is, by his very nature, something that we could never be no matter how hard we tried; that’s how much more impressive than us he is, and that’s why he deserves our worship.
The really great thing about God, and the thing that makes him deserve worship even more, is that he doesn’t just sit up on his holy stool and let that be the end of it. There’s a theological conundrum called “immanence and transcendence.” What it means is that God is very near to us, all around us in fact, and we can easily call on him just by saying his name. That’s called immanence. However, he’s also very far from us, because we can’t touch him, and short of salvation through Christ, there’s no way we can even have a relationship with him. That’s called transcendence. God’s holiness is the chief force behind his transcendence; our sin is what separates us from a high and holy God. However, his love and mercy are the driving forces behind his immanence. He came down to us, took the form of a lowly human, who got tired and hungry and frustrated, and then allowed himself to be put to an unjust death simply to allow us a way of entering a relationship with him - that’s how incomparably huge his love and mercy are. This is all in addition to the worship he deserves because of his holiness!
Isaiah 57 contains one of my very favorite phrases for God: “The high and exalted one.” God is the king of the entire universe. He is the only holy one, the only one who is perfect in love. In fact, he’s even worthy of worship because of his position as king. We believe that people who are in high earthly positions deserve our respect. There’s not much, in all honesty, that separates you or me from any given president of the United States. Yet if we were to meet the president, we would be expected to treat him honorably and with respect, simply because he is in a high position. How much more honor and respect belong to the God of the universe, the king of everything that exists? Beyond his holiness, beyond his love and mercy, he deserves worship because he is high and exalted.
Praise, on the other hand, is based in how God’s attributes (”who God is”) impact me in my life. For example, I worship God because he is loving. I praise him because that love has manifested itself in the form of salvation and in constant companionship and encouragement no matter how badly I mess up. I worship God because he is holy; I praise him because he has reconciled me to himself through the death of his sinless Son. I worship him because of his mercy; I praise him because his mercy shows itself in the form of forgiveness of all my sins, past, present, and future. See how the two are related, but slightly different? Sometimes they’re not even distinguishable from each other. You’ll notice that in my description of God’s love, I had to rely on his actions in order to demonstrate my point. Paul says the same thing in Romans 5:8: “God showed his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Worship and praise often go hand in hand, but they’re not quite exactly the same, and you’ll see momentarily why that’s important.
Here’s Biblical proof for what I’m talking about. Psalm 29:2 says, “Ascribe the Lord the glory that is due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” Note the two key themes. David talks about “the glory that is due his name,” the idea that God deserves worship simply because of who he is. And what is it about God that deserves the worship? “The splendor of his holiness.” Psalm 99:5 puts it even more simply: “Exalt the Lord and worship at his footstool; he is holy.” Worship is grounded in who God is.
Praise is also addressed in many of the Psalms. Take 139:14, which says, “I praise you, oh God, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Note that: I praise you “because.” Praise is grounded in what God does. Psalm 9:11 elaborates: “Sing praises to the Lord, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done.” Again, the theme of praise is directly connected to “what he has done.”
I write this not because I enjoy making mountains out of molehills, but because I think it really is a crucial distinction. There may be times in each of our lives when there doesn’t seem to be a lot to praise God for. You know the temptation in those times: to get bitter and angry at God, to start complaining, to ask him where he is and what he’s doing. However, even in those times, when it seems you don’t have much to praise God for, you still have plenty of reason to worship him. He is still completely holy and completely loving, regardless of your present life circumstances. He is still the high and exalted one, the king over all the universe, and the only reason that you presently exist. Further, you know that you will have reason to praise him in the future, because he is faithful; he has never abandoned you before and this is not about to be the first time. No matter what the temporary circumstances might be, God is still worthy of honor and respect and worship. That’s why it’s so important to understand praise and worship as two separate concepts.
Let me illustrate this idea with - you guessed it - another psalm. In Psalm 11, David gripes, “Look, the wicked bend their bows; they set arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at those who are upright in heart.” He’s bitter over injustice; there doesn’t seem to be much to praise God for under those circumstances. Yet, almost as soon as he’s done voicing his complaint, his thoughts turn to worship. “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne.” He is still holy; he is still the high and exalted one, the king over all creation. “For the Lord is righteous; he loves justice, and upright men will see his face.” David is meditating on God’s holiness, his righteousness, his justice. Those are the eternal, unchanging attributes of God that are always worthy of respect no matter what.
Also, if you read other psalms, you will find that David has a very long memory. A lot of his psalms deal with times when he is being oppressed or persecuted, but almost always he ends by praising God for things that God has done in the past. Even when present circumstances are downright foul, David is careful to bring to mind things that God has previously done. This keeps his faith from being a roller coaster, going up or down depending whether things are going well at the moment or not. If God really is loving, and he really is faithful, then there’s no reason to despair too much over any present circumstances. That’s how an attitude of worship toward God can impact you on a daily basis. Meditating on the eternal, unchanging attributes of God can keep you solid when the rest of life is lurching around.
The temptation for a person to link his faith to what’s presently happening in his life is understandable, but misguided. It basically amounts to selfishness, asking God, “What have you done for me lately?” Worship is the best way to take the focus off of me and place it onto God, where it belongs. It keeps my eye on my goal, becoming more like Christ, and keeps my eye off of all the temporary present distractions. That’s why worship is absolutely central to any believer. That’s why it’s not just something you do on Sunday mornings when the music is playing.
I would urge you to meditate on the things about God that are worthy of worship all the time, and to begin worshiping those things more frequently. Ponder on his great holiness and how it’s even possible for a great, eternal, uncreated being to exist without a shred of impurity in him. Ponder on his eternal, unfailing love toward everyone, no matter what mistakes they’ve made or how vigorously they’ve turned their backs on him. Ponder his mercy, freely available to anyone who repents and asks for it. Ponder the incredible miracle of salvation, where God removes all the guilt from your sin from you and makes you holy. There’s an awful lot about God that’s worthy of worship. He is, after all, the high and exalted one. In the light of that, worship is all I can do.
Jim Barringer is a 28-year-old writer, musician, and teacher serving at The Church of Life (.com) in Orlando, FL. More of his work can be found at facebook.com/jmbarringer and ExtantMagazine.com. This work may be reprinted for any purpose so long as this bio and statement of copyright is included.
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