Vol II No. 5
All Saints

Why Worship?

by The Editors

The Rev. Gavin G. Dunbar

The following piece is taken from the Lenten Parish Papers of St. John’s Church, Savannah, GA.

After the healing of ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) from the disease that made them outcasts  to Israel, one of them came back to Jesus, “and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks”. He is a Samaritan – not only an outsider but also a heretic. Jesus responds with a question: “Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this  stranger” – to whom alone he says, “thy faith hath made thee whole” (or”hath saved thee”).

Jesus’ point is this: in refusing to render glory and thanks to God and to his Christ, the Israelites are behaving like heretics, whereas the Samaritan heretic  is acting like a  true Israelite. The first response to God’s greatness is according to the flesh, man’s fallen nature, the second moved by the Spirit. The first uses all things, even God himself, for self-gratification. The second uses all things, even itself, in gratitude to God. One seeks to glorify self to the point of contempt for God. The other is moved to glorify God to the point of contempt for self. Since the “default setting” of human nature is the former, the Christian religion must continually instruct and train the faithful in the latter. That is why the lesser doxology runs through Morning and Evening Prayer like a refrain: “Glory be to the Father….”.That is why the Lord’s Supper culminates in the greater doxology, “Glory be to God on high”. In worship we learn to look beyond ourselves,and to give glory to the triune God. It is in giving glory to God, and thanks to Christ, that man is made whole, and apart from this worship man is less  than  fully  human.

Man is made for worship, and the refusal to give glory to God diminishes us. The question arises, what is the use of worship?  To answer, one must distinguish between use and enjoyment, things used as means to another end, and things which are ends in themselves. Some play golf for love of the game (enjoyment), others for the sake of company,or exercise (use). Likewise, the worship of God may be something we use or something we enjoy. Much worldly religion indeed approaches God precisely as a means to an  end – like the nine lepers, we may engage in  prayer for the sake of purely  temporal benefits.Yet even when we do so, the exercise has a way of bringing us as it did the Samaritan to the point of approaching God in worship as an end in himself. It is Bernard  of  Clairvaux,  the 11th century Cistercian abbot, preacher and mystical theologian, who shows how this transition takes place.  In  De  diligendo  deo  (“on loving God”), he says that man starts with  love  of  himself  for his own sake. This is our natural fallen state. But then we  perceive that for the sake of ourselves we must love God also, for God gives great benefits to those who love him. Third, we come to love God for his own sake, and this is charity. Finally, in the resurrection, we shall love even ourselves, even our own bodies, for the sake of God – a complete reversal of natural perspective. When the sun rises we blow the candle; the lesser good is taken up in the greater.

Properly speaking, the worship of God is an end in itself, for God is supremely to be enjoyed, he is the highest and final end of all our striving. It is in glorifying and enjoying God that man finds true happiness as man:”man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”(Westminster Catechism). We worship  God  indeed  for  his  own sake, and not merely as a means to another greater good- but in worshipping God for his own  sake we attain our highest and true good. The test of true worship, therefore, is what happens when we lose all the gifts we  have  received  from  God. The psalmist testifies:”My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Theresa of Avila put it this way:”Let nothing disturb thee/ Nothing affright thee/All things are passing /God never changeth/Patient endurance/Attaineth to all things/ Who God possesseth/In nothing is wanting /Alone God sufficeth.”  God alone is enough: God who is infinite in  power,  wisdom,  and  goodness, God  alone quite apart from all  his gifts is worthy to be praised. “We give thanks to thee for thy great glory”- not for what he gives us, but  what  he  is.  That  is  why  the purest  act  of  worship  is  offered upon the cross, in the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God,why hast  thou  forsaken  me?” Condemned, forsaken, deprived of all good, afflicted with all evil he maybe – but God is still his God. “Though he slay me, yet will I put my trust in him”.


It is evident that man was made to worship  God, and that in worshipping him we become fully human.  But is this worship individual or corporate, inward or outward? In the Christian religion it must be both, for when Jesus was asked which was the great commandment of the Law, he answered with two commandments: the first and great commandment, to”love the Lord thy God with all thy heart”; and the second, like unto it, to”love thy neighbour as thyself”. In other words, you can’t love God with all your heart unless you love your neighbour  as yourself  – nor can  you rightly love your neighbour unless you love God with all your heart. The Christian religion has a double axis – vertical to God, horizontal to man – and these two axes come together in  the crucified Christ and his cruciform Church. Both axes, the vertical and horizontal, and their intersection in  the cross, shape the worship of God also.

So worship means the inward offering of the heart to God:”my duty towards God is To believe in him, to fear him, and to love him with all my heart, and with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength”.   Such inward and spiritual worship  could  be  considered  as something that exists purely in the individual, in his privacy, and among moderns it is often taken for granted that religion is what a man does with his solitude.  This is, however, not a Biblical view; faith without works is dead. It cannot remain purely inward and spiritual;  it  must become outward and visible, a shared act. The first work of faith is to confess Jesus as Lord and to call upon him in prayer – thus making audible to our neighbour what moves in our hearts. But faith does not stop there;  the greatest confession of faith in the love of God we have received is to show the same to our neighbour. It is in the love we offer our neighbour that our love for God finds its expression – and what is the highest act of love? It is to bring the neighbour to the knowledge and love of God also.

So along with the”vertical”axis of an individual’s faith, hope, and love of God, there is the “horizontal” axis, which is the believing community’s shared, corporate worship of God.  If the inward faith and love of the individual is the “soul”of worship, without which the outer forms are dead formalism, so the outward corporate forms are the “body”of worship, without which the soul is incomplete. As the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, it is impossible to approach the Father of Jesus Christ alone; whether you mean to or not, you always approach him in the company of  all other  disciples,  all other believers, all the faithful in Christ. He is our Father, and we pray him to give us, and forgive us, and lead us, and deliver us. Our access to the Father is as very members incorporate of Christ.

There is a strong sense of this already in the Old Testament’s teaching of the covenant people of God. The individual Israelite has his access and communion with God not as an isolated  individual but only in and through his participation in God’s covenant with Israel, with all its obligations to his neighbour; and so worship is properly transacted by the assembly of Israel in the Temple.  This idea is only deepened in the New Testament. It is as a member of Christ and of his body the Church that an individual has access to God. Our very individuality is not in isolation, but as members of the body.

In a variant of this image, St.Peter says,”as lively stones”, Christians”are built up a spiritual  house, an  holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ…Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.  There is no true worship that does not seek outward and visible, shared and corporate expression.  That is why the Eucharist – the Sacrament of the Body of Christ – is the central act of Christian worship. By receiving Christ in his body sacrificed for us we become his body and  learn  to offer ourselves in sacrifice through him. But it is not just the Eucharist: the same corporate sense is present in all the common  prayers  of  the church,  as when  the  ancient doxology Te Deum brings to our consciousness the company  of church  and  saints  and  angels  with whom  we  worship – and  brings them to our consciousness precisely so that we can see our destiny lies not in isolated selfish individualism but  precisely  in  and  through  the body of Christ.


There is  a  famous story  about  the conversion   of the  Russians to Orthodox  Christianity.  In  the  year 987, Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, sent envoys to study the religions of the neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, the envoys reported, there is no joy among them; only sorrow and a great stench. In the gloomy churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the enormous church built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century,where they witnessed the rich ceremonial of the Eastern Orthodox imperial liturgy, they found what they had been looking for:”We no longer knew whether we were in heaven  or  on  earth,”  they  reported, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.”

In a secular age, the word “heavenly” can be used to describe the experience of eating chocolate or lying in a warm bath;  but in its primary sense it is constantly used by the Christian tradition (east and west, catholic and protestant) to describe the Church’s public  worship. In  public worship the Church makes faintly (very faintly) visible and audible here on earth the liturgy of heaven; and at times, as witnessed by the envoys of Vladimir, there is a real sense of transport: “a door was opened in heaven”(Rev.4:1). But even in its most ordinary and routine forms worship anticipates, and participates in, the heavenly liturgy – the unceasing glorification of God and the enjoyment of his inexhaustible goodness by the angelic hierarchies. It is a point the Prayer Book takes care to emphasize in  the  doxologies  Te  Deum Laudamus  and  Gloria  in  excelsis, and in the eucharistic Preface (which in this sense does not mean “prologue”but”praise”): “therefore, with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, we laud and praise thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord most high”. In the image of Austin Farrer, we are like spelunkers making our way through caverns under the earth, until we come to a place where some fugitive gleams of light penetrate the darkness  through  a  crack in the cavern roof, and we are recalled from the embrace of the darkness and our own feeble lights to the splendour of the sun shining in his strength so far above; and we realize that though we may  travel  now  through  dark caverns,  our  true  home  is  in  the realms of supernal light. Even for the angels,those supremely intellectual creatures, God’s greatness exceeds their comprehension; they are filled indeed with that holy fear which is awe: the overwhelming sense of God’s greatness.

So why do we sometimes find worship  boring? Sometimes, of course, it is the quality of what is being offered – and I will pass over the numberless ways in which our witness  to  God’s  greatness  can  be trivialized,  paltry, or dull.  At a deeper level, however, the problem is we ourselves: the reason for our boredom lies not in God but in us, and in the dullness of our minds, the coldness of our hearts and our diminished capacity to perceive and enjoy what is supremely enjoyable. As worship is the activity of heaven, in  which man  finds  his  true happiness, the Church’s public worship on earth is a preparation of the soul in the life of heaven. As I think C.S. Lewis says somewhere, heaven is an acquired taste:and worship of  heaven  will only be heaven to those who here have acquired a taste for it here on earth.