Much of how we worship is drawn directly from biblical roots, building upon the patterns of ancient Israel in the Old Testament and the first Christians in the New Testament. Though we learn many of these patterns directly from these texts, our current practices have also been drawn heavily from Christian tradition. Indeed, since worship goes back to Adam and Eve, we know that it is the result of the natural yearning of children to seek a Parent who loves, cares, and provides for them.
The ways we show our reverence as we worship differ depending upon the situation or how we are worshipping. Prayer is often accompanied by physical signs of deference such as bowing our heads and kneeling, yet singing may manifest itself in joy, even exuberance. We may show reverence for a holy place through silence, whispered voices, and gentle actions, yet scripture study and discussion may vary from quiet contemplation to eager discovery. Ordinances are characterized by exactness and respect, and while both ritual and sacred experiences deserve careful observance and care, they should also bring joy. Worship is about reverence; it should never be about anxiety or fear in its negative sense. What makes biblical expression “the fear of the Lord” about awe and wonder is love. We do not just worship God because he is great—we are drawn to him because he loves us, and we love Him.
Doing Better What We Already Do Well
As Latter-day Saints, we have already been taught and trained how to worship. We pray and participate in ordinances. We try to show reverence for holy places, keep the Sabbath, and celebrate other sacred times. We study the scriptures and love sacred music. In most cases, improving and deepening our worship is more about doing better what we already do well. We may simply need to be more deliberate about how we worship, trying harder to keep God as its focus. Effective worship requires preparation, which includes taking the time to recall God’s power and love while being humble and repentant as we approach him. In these ways we create mental and spiritual space for worship, putting Him first and preparing ourselves to be changed by Him. True worship requires intentionality, not only worshipping with purpose and intent but also cultivating the ability to feel that we are actually in His presence.
Transformative worship requires mindfulness, which means being aware of how the Spirit is trying to change us. However, we should always remember Jesus’s counsel to Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: o is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Because the Greek word for wind (pneuma) also means “spirit,” we must remember that we cannot force the Spirit, predetermining when and how we will feel it. Sometimes mindfulness means waiting upon the Lord, taking the time to listen to how He is trying to speak to us and accepting His direction even when it is not what we expect or want.
Worship is, in the end, a personal matter. While some of our most fulfilling worship occurs in our families or in communities of faith, even in these settings the responsibility lies with us to make the experience true worship. Whether alone or with others, we must make sure we are worshipping with both our hearts and our minds and not just going through the motions. To deepen our devotion further, we must resolve to make the words we speak, the actions we perform, the places and times we honor, the texts we study, and the songs we sing have meaning. As we do that, we can experience God’s Spirit in greater measure, strengthening and enabling us to serve Him with all our strength.
Loving God by Serving Others
Worshipping God with our strength presupposes action. It is not enough to simply worship individually and then passively enjoy the spirit that follows. Nor is it enough to see the fruit of worship in increased individual obedience or improved personal conduct. While we have not considered every possible way that we worship the Lord, one culminating way of worshipping God that deserves mention is loving service of others. As King Benjamin taught, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). God has always taught his people to care for each other, especially for those of us who are poor, disadvantaged, or struggling. Accordingly, the law of Moses protected the widow, orphan, and stranger, and both Hebrew and Nephite prophets called upon believers to help the poor and eschew pride, greed, and violence. But above all, the example of Jesus and His teachings calls upon us to love and care for each other. While loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength is the first commandment, the second, that we should love our neighbor, is like unto it (Mark 12:30–31; parallels Matthew 22:37–39; Luke 10:27). Indeed, we often keep the first commandment by keeping the second.
Our word charity, of course, is not limited to helping others with our means. We should never “suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to [us] in vain” (Mosiah 4:16), but while we should always give the needy something, depending on our capacity, the situation, and inspiration, our giving may range from a meal to a handout of money, a smile, or a silent prayer. Above all, someone in need of help, small or great, ought to be treated lovingly as a human being. Ultimately, no matter how we give, our giving changes us, which is the objective of worship. As “the pure love of Christ,” charity includes loving Christ purely, having the kind of love that He has, and loving those whom He loves (Moroni 7:47). But charity is also a gift of the Spirit. Mormon wrote, “Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48). Worshipping, especially worshipping by serving others, purifies us and promises us a greater, more wonderful transformation.
Changed from Glory to Glory
Each act of worship has the potential to soften, comfort, and change our hearts and then empower us to do something here and now. These changes are some of the practical, immediate effects of real worship. Inasmuch as our goal is a daily life of worship, these changes should continue throughout our lives. Nevertheless, the ultimate purpose of worship is to receive eternal life and share it forever with God, Christ, and those whom we love.
One of my favorite traditional hymns is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley. The moving lyrics of this hymn speak of Jesus’s visiting us with salvation, taking away our desire for sinning, and giving us His life, all of which lead us to an eternal life of prayer and praise:
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All they faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty, to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
This hymn has been beautifully arranged by Mack Wilberg, and I have had the privilege of singing it many times with the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square (watch video above). Without fail it is a moving, worshipful experience. It captures for me so much of what worship is about, portraying it as our loving response to Jesus’s faithful mercy and unbounded love. It illustrates the effects of the Spirit that accompanies worship and how it comforts and sanctifies us. With an allusion to Jesus coming to his temples—both physical temples and each of us as part of the body of Christ—it reminds me of the ordinances that bring eternal life. It points my mind forward to the ultimate objective of worship, which is to bring us pure and spotless into His presence. There, changed from glory into glory, we will experience eternal joy in worship that will never end.
When you think of the word worship, do you think of such devotional acts as praying or partaking of the sacrament or performing temple rites or even just enjoying the beauty of God's creation?
Do you remember times when those moments felt flat, devoid of the influence of the divine?
Do you also remember moments when the very air seemed charged with divinity, with connection between you and God?
What, then, makes the difference? Why do we sometimes struggle to connect with God through our worship? How do we connect—and how can we more consistently reach that level of connection?
In this engaging and thoughtful book interlaced with poignant personal experiences, Latter-day Saint author Eric D. Huntsman explores how worship works—what it is about our acts of devotion that can connect us to the divine and the eternal.
Brother Huntsman writes: "We assume that we are worshipping when we pray, go to church, take the sacrament, serve in the temple, sing hymns of praise, or care for others as Jesus would. But what makes a prayer different from simply reciting a list of things we need or items for which we are grateful? How is participating in an ordinance different from simply going through the motions of a traditional ritual? What makes feasting upon the word of the Lord different from simply reading the scriptures? And what makes singing or playing beautiful music an act of praise? Because our words and actions are all that appear above the surface, how can we add true depth to our devotion?"