Ellen spends hours scanning through the images that populate her online Pinterest account. In this virtual world, Ellen shares her favorite things with others and gathers new ideas for future projects, fashion tips—all the necessary ingredients for the “good life.” Meanwhile her husband Rick is lost on his smart phone—scanning through his various apps to find the latest scores and stats of his favorite team. In the background, Ellen can even hear him periodically break the silence to yell at the TV—though never really winning his argument with the umpire.
What’s happening here? It’s simple, really. It’s worship. It may not look like a typical church service, but Ellen and Rick are entranced in desire—whether it be for the various images offered on Pinterest, or desire for vicarious greatness achieved by living for your favorite sports team.
The Germans have a word it, actually. They call it sehnsucht, what we might call a “desire for desire itself,” a sense of longing that goes deeper than eye can see and imagination can fathom. It’s addictive, because it’s hard-wired into each of our souls. In an article for New York Times Magazine, Corina Chocano observed the way that technology offers a natural outlet for such longings:
…your average Pinterest board or inspiration Tumblr basically functions as a longing machine… Someone on Pinterest once posted a slide that read: “Pinterest: Where women go to plan imaginary weddings, dress children that don’t exist and decorate homes we can’t afford.” But to focus on the “aspirational” aspect is to miss the point. People don’t post stuff because they wish they owned it, but because they think they are it, and they long to be understood, which is different.
I love her phrase: “longing machine.” But in truth, each of our hearts serves as a “longing machine,” or perhaps a “longing factory,” built to turn the things we love into a source of significance. In short: we’re made to worship.
WHAT IS WORSHIP?
Throughout our series we’re relying on a simple yet specific definition of worship. Worship is the means by which we express and form our love. So yes, this could easily happen through Pinterest boards or in front of our TV sets, cultivating a sense of excitement and failure over the big game or the latest political event.
This means that even if you think you’ve no real “use” for “religion,” you can’t get away from the nature of worship. Everybody worships something—this was the message of David Foster Wallace in his graduation speech to Kenyon College some years ago. Though not remotely a “spiritual” person, Wallace argued that worship is a fundamental part of human reality:
“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. …Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
How do we know what we worship? It’s easier than we may think. Paul Tillich—a writer and philosopher—once define “religion” as a society’s “ultimate concern.” What sorts of things “concern” you? You could look at this question in a number of ways:
- Where do I spend my money?
- Where do I spend most of my time?
- What do I get deeply passionate about? What makes me angry? What do I fear losing?
- What do I daydream about? What do I consistently find myself thinking about—a new job promotion? A relationship? Sex? These desires reflect the object of our worship.
THE RIDER AND THE ELEPHANT
For literally centuries, philosophers have struggled to understand the relationship between reason and desire. I believe it was Plato who first used the analogy of the rider and the elephant. The elephant represents desire. The rider represents reason. The reason so much of our lives is out of control is simple: I can’t use my brain alone to control the raging elephant of my desire. I can’t “think” my way out of every temptation. Not to be too pointed, but this is why sexual sin has such a high number of repeat offenders. Biologically, we are hard wired for sexual desire. It seems nearly impossible to “control” these natural impulses, and to most non-Christians, the suggestion that we try to do so is regressive, repressive, unhealthy.
Many religions teach the avoidance or repression of desire. Buddhism, for example, argues that existence is suffering brought on by selfish desires. The path to salvation is the elimination of desire. Christianity says that’s preposterous. God intends that humans experience God’s perfect design as pure joy. Christianity says that our desires, our longings—that sehnsucht we spoke of above—reveals a deeper longing for something beyond ourselves. It’s why C.S. Lewis so famously argued that hunger would seem preposterous if food were not real. Romantic love would be an abnormality if not for the existence of the opposite sex. So, he concludes, “if I find in myself nothing else on earth can satisfy, it must be that I was made for another world.”
Christian worship, then, is the means by which we express and form our love for God and His kingdom. It’s not about trying to suppress desire. Those who do usually fail—repeatedly. The rider of my intellect cannot possibly control the elephant of my desires. But Christianity isn’t about trying to “manage” our sins. On the contrary; Christianity is about replacing my unhealthy desires with a desire for God and God alone.
This is why the Psalms are so beneficial, because they orient me towards God’s kingdom, and give me a bigger picture of God than I’d ever dare dream. It’s no wonder, then, that the Psalms have been a vital part of Christian worship for centuries.
CALL TO WORSHIP
We can turn our attention to Psalm 95—one in a series of praise Psalms designed to orient Israel’s hearts toward God.
Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 3 For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. (Psalm 95:1-3)
Other gods? By that David—the writer of this Psalm—meant the other things Israel looked toward for comfort, security and protection. But God is superior to all of these lesser substitutes:
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. 6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” 11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.” (Psalm 95:1-11)
Meribah and Massah represent the time when Israel demanded water from God (Exodus 17)—in other words, wanting a relationship with God on their own terms. God provided water, having Moses strike the rock with his staff, and water sprang forth (Exodus 17:6).
God’s answer to our desires is to give us more of Himself. Roughly 1500 years later, God’s Son would be struck by another staff—a soldier’s spear—and blood and water sprang forth. The gospel promises us the forgiveness of sins and new life in His name. Though we are creatures of a thousand lesser loves and desires, God provides a way for us, through Jesus—the true and better rock of Moses—so that we might enter into God’s rest.