Worship, Reverence, and “Jesus Is My … “

Can you finish the sentence?

For at least some readers, the word homeboy readily comes to mind.

Now, I realize that for someone to call Jesus his or her homeboy is probably not meant to be quite as shallow and irreverent as it comes across to my ears. For example, urbandictionary.com (I have fixed spelling and grammatical errors) defines homeboy as “closest friend,” “the epitome of a friend,” “a close friend,” “a person who always has your back,” and “long-time friend”; none of these are particularly troublesome for me. After all, Jesus did say to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). It is good and right that disciples of Jesus Christ would consider him their friend, and if that were all that homeboy meant, I would take little issue with it.

However, look at these other things that urbandictionary.com has to say about homeboy:

  • “Guy to chill with.”
  • “It is more commonly used now as a term to mean a friend from the neighborhood or a gang member.”
  • “One of your peeps — a good friend. Derived from the Spanish hombre
  • “Used to establish a mutual relationship between the individual using the term, the person described by it, and a third person.”

Now things are a little more problematic. I think that last definition hits the problem most squarely: “a mutual relationship.” Do we have a mutual relationship with Jesus? Mutual means that the relation is is reciprocal; it means that both people are on equal footing. Is this where we have arrived in twenty-first century, western evangelicalism? Look at the verse right before the one I quoted earlier:

You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).

Does that sound mutual? Are we on equal footing with Jesus? Perhaps surprisingly, the late Tupac Shakur seems to come the closest to orthodoxy when he says, “You ain’t nothing without your homeboy” (if the urbandictionary quotation can be trusted). That’s a definition of homeboy that I could use with Jesus: I am nothing without him. As a good friend of mine likes to say, I am totally “up a tree without a paddle” apart from Jesus Christ. I don’t recommend the 2006 movie School for Scoundrels at all — but there is one line from the trailer that rings true: “You can’t help yourself because your self sucks.” Of course, instead of Billy Bob Thorton, it is Jesus we need to help us, as he makes clear earlier in the same chapter we’ve been looking at: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Of Course We Must Avoid Empty Religiosity

I am not saying that everyone who says “Jesus is my homeboy” is consciously saying that his or her relationship with Jesus is mutual. Surely most would say something like, “No, of course I’m not saying that I’m equal with Jesus or anything; I’m just emphasizing the closeness of our relationship. Jesus is someone I can kick it with, you know? I’m trying to get away from that stuffy, religious approach that makes God far away and inaccessible. After all, the Bible does say that we come to God saying ‘Abba! Father!,’ which was a familiar term of endearment in biblical times.

It is certainly true that Abba is a familiar term of endearment, and that we must avoid the imbalanced approach to God that only emphasizes his distance from us and stifles all sense of fellowship with God through his Holy Spirit. Of course we must resist that imbalance. But Christian living is not like physics: the answer to one imbalance is not the opposite imbalance. The answer to sexual promiscuity is not forced celibacy for life; the answer to drunkenness is not a legalism that demonizes any Christian who drinks; the answer to legalism is not a cheap-grace, anything-goes, lawlessness. No, the answer is always to be more like Jesus instead. If we only run from a specific problem, we might end up going anywhere! But if we run to Jesus, we can leave a problem behind without creating another.

If we don't run to Jesus, we might end up anywhere: in some cult, in a worse form of sin and imbalance, etc.

If we don’t run to Jesus, we might end up anywhere: in some cult, in a worse form of sin and imbalance, etc.


The Emotions Need to Be Discipled, too.

Now, what is really good about the “homeboy” approach, is that it holds our affection and closeness with Jesus in high regard. However, even our affections — our emotions — need to be discipled; not just disciplined — but discipled.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chap. 1).

Until I read the above C. S. Lewis quote, I had never really thought about my emotions as something to be trained. I had always thought of them as something to be ignored, controlled, subdued — but trained? It makes sense, now that I think about it. We are called to be like Jesus, not like Spock: the emotions — just like the intellect, the will, the body — are also meant to be discipled.

This means that when my feelings are not in accord with what is right — when they delight in evil (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-7) — I am supposed to submit them to Christ and grow in that area. Although we all differ in our personalities, the goal should be that we take every feeling captive and make it obedient to Christ (not just every thought)!

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a public space (not a library), trying to study. Soon, a girl showed up with a guitar and started softly playing and singing a worship song — Can you believe it? The nerve! I was trying to read! How dare she!!?? — and I glared at the back of her head. This, I think, is an example of a feeling that needs to be denied and re-trained. Instead, I should be happy that someone is worshipping God; I must train  my emotions to be happy that someone is worshipping God. That is entirely new to me. In the past, it was “Just ignore that feeling”; now, it is “Take that feeling captive and train it — make it obedient to Christ.” It used to be “Just ignore that inclination to lust”; now it is “Stop it. See that woman as a creation of God, and pray for her. Now.” It used to be “Just be patient and stifle your anger at that jerk who just cut you off”; now it is “Pray for him. Pray that God blesses him and draws him to Jesus Christ.” Do you see the difference? Do you see the potential for spiritual growth? I must train my emotions to delight in what the Lord delights (see Eph 5:10).

You Cannot Worship without Reverence

What the “homeboy” approach totally forgets, I would argue, is reverence for God as God. (Even if we don’t call Jesus our homeboy, it might still be the case that we don’t revere him properly.)

The idea for this blog entry came to me as I was listening to a message by Ravi Zacharias called “The Foundation of Contemporary Discipleship“:

In Greek (the language of the New Testament), there are a few words for worship:

  • Proskuneo, which means to kneel down or prostrate yourself in paying homage to someone.
  • Latreuo, which means to serve or to give religious homage as a servant.
  • Threskeia, which basically just means worship, but also has ceremonial and discipline connotations.
  • Sebomai, which also means to revere.
  • Eusebeo, which means to dutifully give someone his due reverence or regard.

None of these words suggest that you can worship God without revering him: Ravi argues that “you cannot worship [God] without reverence. We have lost this aspect in our time.”

Consider Malachi 1:6: “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’”

There is no reason to think that in New Testament times we are any less bound to give God his honour and respect as Father and Master. Jesus is not just your homeboy — he is Master, Lord, Saviour, Redeemer, Creator, Almighty God, the King of Kings!

You might have the chance to be on familiar terms with some powerful world leader some day, but will you get chummy with him or her? Will you disregard his laws, violate her etiquette, or give him a half-baked gift? Will you fall asleep while he speaks? Ignore her letters? Will you disobey direct orders?

At the Same Time, You Cannot Worship without Emotion

Not emotionalism but emotions.

I find evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928 – 2010) to be very helpful on this matter:

“I fully concur with … [a] critique of contemporary music that makes the praise of God serve the satisfaction of the human heart, thereby transforming worship into therapy. But we must not be too hasty in [removing] from our hymnals gospel songs and chorales that celebrate Christ in us, for we are then emptying the faith of its mystical content, and a faith without a small dose of mysticism can only grow cold and formalistic. It is surely not our goal to become God’s frozen chosen” (The Holy Spirit, 339).

Frozen chosen!

If we are to love God with all that we are, that must include the emotions. We must not idolize them and make them the centre, but neither can we ignore them. Just as I want the churchgoer to disciple his or her mind, using it for God’s glory, so too must the logical, Spock-like believer like me learn to allow his or her emotions to not only be killed but resurrected to the glory of Jesus Christ.

I have to admit, I didn’t know what “sacrilege” meant until now — not really. Ravi quotes G. Campbell Morgan’s book on Malachi: “Sacrilege is defined as taking something that belongs to God and using it profanely. …the worst kind of sacrilege is taking something and giving it to God when it means absolutely nothing to you.” So if we are just singing along (or just serving along, or whatever it is), for show, that is actually worse than having no reverence. He continues quoting Campbell: “You will never be able to worship him without giving him your best; the best of your time, the best of your intellect, the best of your substance, the best of your gifts.” “You cannot worship God without emotion; you cannot worship God without reverence; you cannot worship God without sacrifice … you cannot worship God without the purity of heart.”

There are two errors to avoid here: having no reverence, and only appearing to have reverence — without any personal commitment / cost. The first falls into emotionalism; the second jettisons the emotions altogether.

“When you don’t have that love,” Ravi goes on, “when you don’t have that reverence/obedience, when you don’t have that sacrifice … you have also sniffed at it and what a weariness it is: worship became a boring exercise for them — ‘what a weariness it is’ (Malachi 1:13). Can you imagine when the purpose for which you are created becomes a boring exercise for you? You know what it’d be like? It would be like embracing the wife you were wedded to in the love your youth, and finding no enchantment, no comfort, no thrill in it.”

Putting out a Fire with a Flood?

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis suggests that it is the business of the Devil to have Christians “running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under” (Letter no. 25); that is, to have those in the church forever making themselves busy in the wrong direction — emphasizing seemingly good things in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In his seventeeth-century classic The Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691) makes a related point when he laments an “an epidemical malady”  — what he calls the “temporizing of ministers” (chap. 3, sec. 1, 3, (1)); this is the natural tendency of those in church leadership to align their message and approach with the ethos of their surrounding culture. In doing so, they are appealing to that which is politically, socially and, indeed, economically expedient, at the expense of being truly faithful to their calling to preach the word of God.

These two points — one from Lewis, one from Baxter — together illustrate the necessity of taking heed of those outside of our own socio-historical context (that is, we should humbly read sources from outside of our own time and place). Care must be taken to assess whether we find ourselves in a time of “fire” or “flood” — to borrow from Lewis’s analogy.

One flood of our time, I think, is irreverence: we’re so focussed on putting out the fire of stuffy, detached legalism, that we are now drowning in irreverent emotionalism. Reading older works can help to give us balance.

At times, Baxter’s writing might sound unduly harsh and puzzling:

“Of all preaching in the world, (that speaks not stark lies) I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity, and affect them as stage-plays used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God” (ch. 2, sec. 2, 11.).

I don’t know about you, but that sounds kind of crazy to me! — and perhaps with good reason; hermeneutics today suggests that Christ himself used humor to illustrate important truths (see Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ). Yet before we rush to the other side of Lewis’s “boat” — saying that Baxter is just wrong and we are right — I think that Baxter says something important here. (It might surprise some that this same author also instructs us to avoid all “harsh, discouraging language” (ch. 3, sec. 2. part 3, art. 2, 11, (7)), or that he advocates personal, relational evangelism over and against the “austerities of monks and hermits” (ch. 3, part 1, art. 1, 13.) — all of the sudden he sounds like us!)

Baxter’s real concern, I think, is that people will not be misled by the humor employed by those in leadership, and he is actually advocating a proper balance between mildness and severity, appropriate to each situation: “If there be no severity [that is, seriousness], our reproofs [rebukes] will be despised. If all severity, we shall be taken as usurpers of dominion, rather than persuaders of the minds of men to the truth” (ch. 2, sec. 2, 7.). This is actually pretty balanced — more balanced than we often are. Even if Baxter and his generation misplaced their sense of humour, we have certainly lost our sense of reverence. For example, when I was a volunteer youth leader, I recall when one of the teens jovially began throwing around the word “Yahweh” as a nickname for a physical object as it was tossed around. Why aren’t we teaching reverence?

Going even father back in Church History, Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule (c. AD 591) also makes some comments very different from anything you’d hear today: he teachers pastors to encourage grief over sin, godly sorrow, (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10-11) and even fear (cf. Luke 12:5) in churchgoers! Whereas some modern preaching resembles self-help books on how to feel good about life, Gregory warns the rich to fear being in high spirits (III.2); the joyful are to think about “sad things that follow upon punishment,” and are to be harshly warned “what to be afraid of” (III.2); “levity of mind” (silly, non-seriousness) must be “guarded against,” because it leads to “inconstancy of the thoughts” (III.18); we ought to bewail our sins—even those that we have ceased to do (III.30).

Again, it is worth pausing to apply some balance to Gregory’s own words here, since Jesus Himself made use of humour: we need to avoid a “misguided piety” that makes “us fear that acceptance of [Jesus’] obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious,” because “Christ laughed, and…He expected others to laugh” (Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 15). At the same time, Gregory might have an important point that “levity of the mind” can carry us away. The Bible tells us to “become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Cor. 15:34) and to be “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The point is that we should remember to disciple our emotions — neither abolishing them nor letting them carry us away!

The Holy Spirit was still active in the church of the sixth century; they were still Christians. Even if Gregory errs on the side of being too serious, he still provides a corrective for our own lack of reverence, and our tendency to focus on meeting felt-needs of seekers instead of actual needs of disciples.  Gregory repeatedly calls a pastor a “physician of the heart.” It seems to me that a physician “of the heart” cannot simply focus on what feels good (or joyful) any more than a medical doctor can. Oftentimes, we see Jesus as more of a “homeboy” than a holy God, and sin is certainly not bewailed. Gregory rightly emphasizes the reverence that we lack.

A Solution?

Not to be one to just complain and leave, I suggest two ways in which we might recover a healthy sense of reverence for the things of God. First, we need to be educated about the importance of reverence for God. Since many of our popular analogies for understanding our relationship with God make use of a tender father-child relationship, I suggest that we begin here; central to such a discussion will be the exposition of verses like Romans 8:15 (“…by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’) versus those akin to Luke 12:5 (“…Yes, I tell you, fear him [God].”).

Although the whole “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship” stance is flawed, belittling the great Christian Tradition overseen by the Holy Spirit (although never over and against Scripture), we would do well to take a page out of Gregory’s book and address the more grievous vice first (III.39), and start by educating Christians on the concept of reverence in relationship. In another blog entry, I argued that one of the reasons you can’t go to heaven by just being a good person is that you are not being a good creature if you do not relate properly to your Creator. But the same goes for Christians: sure, we have a relationship with God, but we must relate properly to God.

Second, we must address our use of humor, which is one of the primary ways we are letting emotions lead us. Clearly Christ’s use of humour should prevents us from disposing with it completely; however, I believe that we would do well to strictly dispatch with both “filthy joking” (Eph. 5:4) and with making callous jokes about Hell and other spiritual things (2 Pet. 2:10) (and flippancy in general, but I think I will write another blog entry about that). Regrettably, these things are common among evangelicals — especially youth and young adults (they were particularly present in myself until about 2008) — these things sometimes even manifest among those in leadership positions. Whenever such things are confronted, the response is usually along the lines of “don’t be so legalistic.” Since so many are sensitive to legalism as the antithesis of grace and relationship, I suggest that we begin by explaining how such forms of humour do not befit our relationship with God. We need reverence in relationship. A woman will not suffer her husband to make a joke about cheating on her, for example—it is to disrespect both her and their relationship. And our God? He will not be mocked.