On the Physical Nature of Spirtual Worship

Spiritual worship is a physical act. Standing, sitting, bowing and kneeling. Orienting your body toward the cross as it processes, the gospel as it is being read or the table where Christ offers himself to us. Walking forward to confess your faith, ask for prayer or take communion. Raising your voice in word and song. Using your hands to offer the peace to your brothers and sisters or to receive the bread of life from the celebrant. Using your mouth to eat and drink the meal Jesus gave us. Using your ears to listen to the word being read. Using your eyes to contemplate the visual arts that adorn the sanctuary and to take notice of the people around you. Even inhaling the smell of fresh-baked bread, burning incense or just the distinctive odor that characterizes your particular place of worship (smell, I understand, is one of the most powerful senses). All of these are ways God’s ushers us into his presence. They are all means of approaching his throne of grace with prayer and praise and thanksgiving. For me, making the sign of the cross is no less an act worship than singing a hymn of praise or meditating on a passage of scripture.

Christian worship takes place in and through the human body, and it occurs in the world of time, space and matter. True, worship is more than the sum of its physical components. I believe, for example, that when the church offers its prayer and praise at the Lord’s Table we are joining with the saints and angels of Revelation 5 in worship at the heavenly throne. The act of worship, however, is a bodily act, and that’s true whether you are swinging a thurible full of incense, raising your hands in charismatic praise or sitting in a chair for quiet contemplation.

The Bible is filled with descriptions of physical acts when it speaks about worship, even apart from the texts that focus on the temple cult. The verb normally translated “to worship” means “to prostrate oneself” in other contexts. God’s people bow before him.  The kneel. They lift their hands in prayer. They sound the trumpet and the lyre. They sing. They shout. They dance. They fast. They cover their faces. They beat their breast. They prophesy and read out loud so others can hear. Even when the Bible speaks metaphorically, it uses the language of physical worship. Prayers are like incense and self-offering like a sacrifice.

The distinction that some make between “physical” and “spiritual” has more in common with ancient Gnosticism or Greek philosophy than it does with the faith of the Bible. Biblically, “spirit” is “breath”. With regard to humans, the Bible’s authors used the word to connote more than mere physical respiration. “Breath” often serves a bodily metaphor for the divine or intangible aspects of life that transcend bare animal existence. God breathed into Adam – humankind – the breath of life. And “soul” is “living being”, a word that can apply to both humans and animals. To save one’s soul is to save one’s life.

Our Jewish forebears generally thought about human beings holistically, unlike their Greek-speaking neighbors who tended to draw a rather sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual worlds. The Hellenistic world conceived of body, soul and spirit as separate realities that could exist apart from each other. Hebrew thought did not tend to see human life this way. Jews, for example, came to hope for a resurrection of the dead, the restoration of human life and the fulfillment of God’s work in creation. More typical of Greek thought was a hope for the soul’s release from the bodily prison of life this physical world.

From a Christian perspective, then, to speak of “spiritual worship” is not to distinguish it from physical worship. At a minimum, spiritual worship is what our Jewish brethren might call “kavanat ha lev” or devotion from the heart. True worship is not mindless repetition of words or actions. And for Christians, spiritual worship is worship “in the Spirit,” or worship empowered by the Holy Spirit poured out on those who put their trust in Jesus the Messiah. “Spiritual”, in this sense, is not necessarily an ecstatic or mystical experience, but an unseen divine reality. Those who confess the name of Jesus worship in the Spirit by faith in God’s word that it is so.

The difference between Old Testament worship and New Testament worship is not that the former is physical and the while the latter is spiritual. True, we no longer attend worship in a temple in Jerusalem conducted by a hereditary priesthood by means of animal sacrifices. Worship in the early church however, was no less physical than worship in under the covenant of Moses.

Until the destruction of the temple, Christians still worshiped there. In the rest of the world, they worshiped in homes at first. Instead of animal sacrifice, they offered prayers and remembered Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist. In place of the ritual of circumcision, they immersed new believers in water to unite them spiritually to Christ. The priesthood of all believers sang psalms and hymns. Members of the body of Christ contributed to their common worship as they were led by the Spirit. The assembly listened to readings from sacred scriptures and the apostles’ teachings, and the presiding official encouraged the people to “imitate these good things” in their lives. As brothers and sisters in Christ, they offered each other the kiss of peace and collected offerings for the relief of the poor in their midst.

Spiritual worship may be more than a bare physical act, but it is never less. In this age, at least, human do not exist apart from their bodies. All of our conscious thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations take place in the brain. It is a bio-chemical-electrical marvel that controls all of our conscious and unconscious bodily functions. Everything that we would call “heart”, “soul”, “spirit” or “self” come into being by way of a three-pound mass of neurons and glial cells.

A number of influences determine how our brains function and change over time, affecting how we think, feel and act. Among these are genetic factors, environmental factors, personal experiences, and the social realities that surround us. Our chosen actions also shape how our brains work. We train our brains through the experiences we choose and the actions we repeat. Most of these changes take place at an unconscious level. Do you see the reciprocal influence? Our brains direct our behaviors and our behaviors and our behaviors change our brains.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith showed us how every ritual helps form our affections and desires. When the church assembles, its worship reorients the hearts of worshipers toward God. The same occurs in private devotion. The physical and spiritual act of worship is one means by which fulfill Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:2:

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God — what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

This transformation takes place when we follow Paul’s direction in Romans 12:1:

Present your bodies as a sacrifice — alive, holy, and pleasing to God — which is your appropriate kind of worship (λογικην λατρείαν).

The sacrifice may be metaphorical, but the bodily worship is real. To dismiss the physical aspects of public or private worship ignores the corporeal nature of human existence. A purely inward form of worship is neither possible nor desirable. God created us as human beings, with physical bodies that act, think, feel, and embrace. It is as humans that we worship, and that is as it should be.