Have you ever wondered why God should be so concerned about the way people worship Him? Why does He repeatedly warn about the pitfalls of vain and empty forms of worship throughout the Bible? Were all of these admonitions and warnings given mainly for the benefit of a few superstitious people who lived several millennia ago? Or is it vitally important for us today?
VANITY of vanities, all is vanity." So wrote King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes centuries ago. Perhaps as no other man, Solomon understood the futility, uselessness, and emptiness of so many human endeavors. He realized that one of the greatest of human inclinations was to become intensely involved in activities which over the long run produce no tangible, lasting results. The same dimension of human futility can often exist in religion as well. Without realizing it, a worshipper can sometimes slide into religious habits which are meaningless as far as God is concerned. Mindlessly repeating the same prayers, meditating for hours daily, doing so many laps around the beads — all represent vain and misdirected forms of worship.
But there are other forms of empty religiosity that are much more subtle in nature. For instance, take the matter of prayer. Instead of using it as a tool to help in the accomplishment of God's will or His Work, a Christian can sometimes allow prayer to become an end in itself. He may be worried about whether he has logged a sufficient amount of time on his knees, whether he is praying in the proper position, or carefully gauge how much physical effort he has expended in the process. Rather than boldly coming before his Father's throne, the timorous, ritual-conscious Christian cringes before his Creator like the proverbial unprofitable servant. Under such circumstances prayer can often become a meaningless daily ritual little removed from the "vain re petitions" Christ warned against in Matthew 6:7. Occasionally a Christian can get locked into a "yardstick syndrome." He may become overly concerned about how much, how long, how often, or how many He ends up trying to measure his spirituality based on physical criteria. Quantity becomes more important than quality. A good example of this is the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12 who prayed as follows: "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess." Standing apart from this Pharisee was a publican who got right down to the spiritual "nittygritty" — he simply asked God to be merciful to him as a sinner (verse 13). As far as quantity was concerned, this Pharisee had it all over the poor publican. Yet the publican — not the Pharisee — got results, because the quality was there. His prayer was sincere and from the heart. Unlike the publican, the self-righteous Pharisee hadn't yet learned that God was not at all impressed by his ritualistic tour de force.
Washing Out Spiritual Pots
And then there's the sincere devotee who in order to reinforce his feelings of spiritual worth resorts to a system of man-made rules and regulations. The more difficult they are to keep, the better — because if it isn't difficult, esoteric, or obscure, then any Tom, Dick, or Harry could do the same thing he does. And if there's one thing a religious wheel-spinner can't stand, it's spiritual company. He's a dyed-in-the-wool exclusivist. He doesn't believe the words of Jesus Christ, who in refreshing contrast stated: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest...: For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28, 30). Instead, the self-made spiritual giant erects an obstacle course consisting of many do's and don'ts which he feels will lead a person to eternal life. Inevitably he ends up frustrating the very essence and intent of God's law by his own convoluted commandments. No wonder Jesus Christ strongly rebuked the religious ritualists of His day in Mark 7:7-8: "Howbeit in vain [that is, in futility] do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do." The problem with this type of approach is that the person involved is subjectively relying on his own works to justify himself before God. He has completely overlooked the fact that all the "good" works in the world can never begin to justify even the finest individual. The apostle Paul repeatedly emphasizes this point throughout the New Testament. Notice, for example, Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast." The physical works of the human flesh can justify nothing (Gal. 3:2-3, 11). Only God's gift of His Holy Spirit upon repentance can "make a person right" (Acts 2:38). This is not to say that works are not an important part of a Christian's life. In the same passage in Ephesians that we quoted above, the apostle Paul goes on to say: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). And in his letter to Titus: "This is a faithful saying... that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men" (Titus 3:8). But the good works that a Christian produces are not an end in themselves. They represent the outgoing fruits of God's Spirit that are instrumental in helping others (see Gal. 5:22-23). Good works don't earn a person salvation. But they do determine the type of reward he will receive in God's Kingdom (see Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-30; Rev. 22:12). (For a full explanation of this biblical principle, read our free booklet What Will You Be Doing In The Next Life?)
Real Worship — From the Heart
Even though a Christian outwardly acknowledges such concepts, inwardly he still sometimes struggles with himself, wondering what he can do to please God. Perhaps some of the, best answers to this perennial question are found in the Old Testament, For instance, notice the first chapter of Isaiah: "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.... Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me.... Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (verses 11, 13, 17). Also, in Isaiah 58:4, 6-7, God condemns certain forms of religious "one-upmanship": "Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.... Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?" God wants genuine obedience which comes from the heart — not sacrifice — as He plainly states in Jeremiah 7:22-24. He is primarily concerned with the state of a person's innermost being, rather than mere outward appearance (I Sam. 16:7). Perhaps David — who was a man after God's own heart — best summed up the type of worship God is pleased with in Psalm 51:16, 17: "For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."