Topsy-Turvy Ideas of Prayer and Worship

by Philip Sheppard, M.D.

Nowhere does man exhibit his folly more than when he prays, for unless he prays according to the Scriptures of the revealed mind of God, he soon discloses the “topsy-turvy” state of his mind. The popular idea of prayer is that we are, by our earnest pleading, to induce God to alter His purpose. Whereas with God—the God of the Bible—there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17).

The truth is that in connection with prayer, as in everything else, man needs instructing. If the disciples needed to say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1), most certainly all of us need to. When we are thus taught, and learn to pray in the spirit, the effect is that we are changed—changed from arrogance to humility; from dictators to supplicants; changed so that with shamefacedness, we abandon our wicked presumption of attempting to regulate the Almighty.

God says, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). The chief design of prayer is to bring us to our knees as supplicants before God. But man, with his usual perversity, turns things upside down. Instead of regarding prayer as a footstool, he turns it into a throne; instead of asking from God, he presumes to dictate to God; instead of owning God as a Sovereign Supreme, he deigns to look upon God as a Servant—his Servant to be ordered about at his pleasure.

The Design of Prayer

Prayer was designed of God to humble man into the dust to ask for those things which are according to His will (1 Jn. 5:14). But in his pride, man (who is incompetent to regulate his own ways) undertakes to prescribe the ways of the Almighty. Even believers are infected with this evil spirit, as is clearly witnessed to by their talking about “claiming” from God instead of humbly pleading His promises.

Again, the pride of the flesh is exhibited by many praying souls insisting that God should answer their prayers in their way, as though creatures of time knew better than Him who inhabiteth eternity what was best for them! That God reserves to Himself the right to answer even the prayers of faith in His own time and way is clearly seen from the manner in which He responded to the petitions of the apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12, we hear that after a thorn in the flesh had been given to him (“given,” not sent) that the apostle “besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart” from him (v. 8). God did respond to the cry of His servant, but His response did not take the form which Paul had desired. Instead of removing the “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord gave the apostle grace to endure it.

The great Exemplar of the prayer-life, as of everything else that is good, is the perfect Man, the God-Man, the Lord Jesus. Behold Him amid the awful agonies of Gethsemane! See Him on His face before God! Hear Him as He cries, “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” But that was not all that He said. Weigh carefully His concluding words: “Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). Here is the only becoming attitude for us to take in the presence of the Most High—our every petition must be placed in subserviency to that of the Almighty.

To sum up: The present trend of much so-called prayer today is: “Not Thy will, but mine be done.” The proper attitude, as exemplified by the incarnate Son of God, was, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Wrong Ideas of Worship

If it be true that men get things topsy-turvy in connection with prayer, we should also expect to find them doing the same in regard to divine worship. Such is indeed the case, and it is to an extent that few are aware. Were the apostle Paul on earth today, we are satisfied that if he entered many churches in Christendom and beheld what was there going on, he would say, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you” (Acts 17:23).

First, there is an amazing ignorance as to the act of worship itself. Worship is a personal thing and cannot be rendered by proxy. Yet how many there are who pay the priest or the preacher to pray for them, who contribute to the maintenance of a professional choir, and then suppose that their presence at church as mere listeners constitutes them worshippers. What a delusion!

Again, there is a deplorable ignorance displayed in the place which is given to worship. Man puts service first and worship last. The popular slogan in many of the so-called evangelical churches is that we are “saved to serve.” What an index to the low state of spirituality which almost everywhere prevails! God puts worship before service! Mark the order in Christ’s crushing rebuke to the tempter: “Thou shalt (1) worship the Lord thy God, and (2) Him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10)!

God Seeks Worshippers

We are saved to worship. What the Father desires is the adoration of our hearts before the works of our hands. What is Christian service worth if it does not come from an overflow of a heart that praises God? It is greatly to be feared that much of that which passes today for “service” will prove to be but “wood, hay, stubble” in the day of testing. This same order of worship before service is to be observed in the demands which Jehovah set before Pharaoh. The first time Moses and Aaron appeared before Egypt’s king they said, “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness” (Ex. 5:1); that is, that they may worship Me. But subsequently we are told that Moses was instructed to say to Pharaoh, “The Lord God of the Hebrews hath sent me unto thee, saying, Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (Ex. 7:16).

The general ignorance which prevails is also to be seen in the popular and erroneous idea of the nature of worship. The great majority imagine that “worship” is going to church in order to receive a blessing. They go to hear a sermon that their souls may be fed or to sing that their hearts may be warmed or to pray that their petitions may be offered. But real worship consists of giving, not getting. Worship is what I render unto God, not what I receive from Him.

The first mention of “worship” in the Bible indicates the significance of the term. “Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship” (Gen. 22:5). Abraham was about to offer his well-beloved son upon the altar of God. “Worship,” then, is presenting something to God; it is offering to Him our best. The second mention of “worship” is equally instructive. In Genesis 24:26 and 48, we find the servant of Abraham bowing in worship before the Lord for having prospered him in his errand. Worship is the adoration of a heart that is filled with praise and thanksgiving. So of the first mention of “worship” in the New Testament, we read that the wise men from the East worshipped the Christ-child, “and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts” (Matt. 2:11).

True Unity in Worship

Again, man’s ideas are all upside down in connection with the subject of worship. The popular conception is that sinners and saints may unite together in worship. Comparatively few see anything incongruous in terming the singing and praying of believers and unbelievers “the public worship of God.” But the testimony of Scripture is clear as daylight: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:8). Christ said to the Scribes and Pharisees, “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth … but their heart is far from Me. But in vain they do worship Me” (Matt. 15:7-9). Unless worship proceeds from a renewed heart, it is utterly “vain,” yea, “an abomination” in the sight of the Thrice Holy One!

Finally, many are astray in regard to the requirement of worship. “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24). Here is the divine rubric on worship. How positive it is: Only spiritual worship is acceptable to Him who is Spirit. We cannot worship with our eyes, by looking on at an imposing ritual; we cannot worship with our noses, by smelling incense, however sweet; we cannot worship with our ears, by listening to music, however beautifully “rendered”; for these are all flesh, and God is Spirit. Worship must proceed from the new nature; “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. There is no other alternative. God cannot be worshipped by the bodily senses. May the Lord draw out the heart of every Christian reader unto Himself, that we may worship Him “in the beauty of holiness.”

—Written by Philip Sheppard, M.D., in January 1927.