Instructional Worship: Our Response to God as Parent
Children, when they’re born, naturally love their parents and look to them for provision, but that gets challenged. As children grow, they begin to test their independence, and they also begin to respond to their parents’ personalities, learning some ways and responding negatively to others. Life also creates opportunities along the way for children to distrust or disrespect their parents. A child falls into a swimming pool and nearly drowns, and then wonders “Why wasn’t Mommy there to stop me?” The other children treat them cruelly, and the parents don’t notice to protect them. And so forth.
Parents who take seriously the responsibility to train their children have to manage their children’s responses to these, so they can continue to learn from their parents well into adulthood. A child who hates or disrespects his parents cannot be taught. Parenting is the art of gradually releasing responsibility, but only when the child can handle the next level of responsibility, and if the child comes to disrespect the parent at any point along the journey, he grabs too much responsibility too soon, and can hurt himself badly. Thus, wise parents work to protect their children’s attitudes toward them, both by acting in a sensible manner before them at all times, and by stamping out the slightest disrespect as soon as it appears.
Some modern parents have completely lost this understanding, choosing instead to treat their children as equals over whom they have no authority, only the power to persuade. This is polite insanity. While granting that sort of latitude in some things is wise, one does not have the luxury of time to explain to a four-year-old why they should restrain their impulse to visit the bunny on the other side of the busy street; if the child hasn’t learned to respond to your voice by that time, you’re likely to lose the child. I recall watching a documentary in which the narrator recounted the experience of having his six-year-old struck by a car when he pulled free from his hand and ran out into the street. The fellow recalled how brave his son was during recovery, but I couldn’t help thinking that the man had probably failed to train his son properly, and that his failure had cost the child a great deal of pain.
Plus, it’s not good for the child to think they have some inherent right to buck their parents; such a child never learns humility, which is a necessary virtue, nor does he learn appropriate respect for law. Good parenting grants as much respect to the child as possible, but without relinquishing the right to command, which is a natural and necessary right.
The Ten Commandments, at the beginning of the Law of Moses, articulate the most basic rules for civilization, and their order is not accidental. Before the basic behavioral rules — don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t covet, don’t violate marriages or lie about your neighbor — come several relational rules that secure the citizen’s respect toward God. These first few rules establish the basis for the others; without these in place, the other commands simply would not be obeyed. Critics ignorant of the Old Testament suggest that these were created by priests to retain control for themselves, but that’s just a mindless prejudice; the commands don’t even mention the priesthood. They mention God Himself: worship God and no other entity, don’t make statues and call them “god,” don’t claim God’s authority where He has not given it, surrender your time to His control. And they mention parents: honor them.
The connection between honoring God and honoring parents is organic. The purpose of life is growth, with God as parent. Some amount of awe for God comes naturally, having been designed into ourselves and into creation, just as love and trust for the parent are designed into the parent-child relationship. However, ordinary life and growth present opportunities to learn to distrust God, just as with parents; life is difficult, and often hurts. If at any point in the process we lose respect, trust, appropriate fear, or love for God, we lose the ability to learn and grow as we ought, and then, like unruly children, we can do ourselves great damage. And these affect each other; if a person rebels against God, they tend to rebel against their parents as well, and vice versa.
For this reason, it’s necessary to command people to worship God, just as it’s necessary for a parent at times to command their children to show respect. Parents — good ones, at any rate — never insist on respect for the purpose of pleasing their egos, although it’s easy for the child who lacks perspective to think so; it’s always for the purpose of maintaining the ability to train the child. Likewise, God insists on worship, because He has to protect our ability to learn from Him.
This often becomes difficult at times of crisis. When a man has lost his wife to illness, for example, the deep grief naturally includes the question, where was God? Facing this sort of crisis requires a titanic struggle, and while God is always present through the crisis, He’s often silent, allowing people to work through their grief and come to a new understanding. This is a dangerous time in which faith can be lost; and it might be lost, if there was not a standing command to honor God, and an already-existing relationship. The conflict between grief and love for God produces tension; the tension eventually produces new growth, trust with a more mature understanding. The obligation to worship is the lynch-pin that keeps the believer tethered to his salvation when life makes little sense.
Thus worship must be commanded, in order for the believer to continue to learn from God in a difficult world. I call this “instructional worship,” and it’s the reason why worshiping God is most important specifically when we don’t feel like it. It’s not that God needs to have His ego stoked — not even good humans fall into that pit — but rather that the tension between hard life and worshiping God produces maturity.
Next: battle worship, our response to God as liberator in a world under siege.
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