Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with salvation.
There are certain debts that are never be paid back, that we never fully make good on.*
If a woman saves my child’s life, there is no sufficient currency by which the account will be settled. Perhaps, I come closest in gratitude to fulfilling the obligation. But were I to save one of her children in return, it would be rather odd if I felt that had brought the account and thus gratitude to a close.
That such terminology as ‘debt’ or ‘obligation’ may seem objectionable shows that we are approaching the limits of speech. We are speaking of goods which exceed our powers of reckoning.
On the other hand, if someone builds me a house (and I am sufficiently wealthy), I can pay for that home. The debt is thus made good on. I may or may not remain grateful, but I can render what is due to the builder as a house builder.
Again, I cannot pay back my parents for all they have done, and it would be rather strange if I tried to do so in some economic exchange.
What becomes clear is that the attempt to erase certain debts, to make good on them or get even, is actually a mark of ingratitude or shame.* This is precisely what Josef Pieper notes, citing Thomas Aquinas, in The Four Cardinal Virtues (p.111).*
Rather, we show our gratitude when we allow certain debts to remain outstanding, when we allow the gift of love be a gift. This does not mean we do not try to make some return, but that we are not seeking thereby to erase the very nature of the gift. Nor need disparity in such cases, the impossibility of discovering a proper rate of exchange, be a source of anxiety. For in love, the giver is pleased to bestow what cannot be paid back.
Religion & Worship as Obligation?
This is perhaps uniquely manifest in the fulfillment of religious obligation.* Part of our failure to recognize this may, as mentioned above, be the vulnerable which such an experience of being loved exposes us to. But perhaps it is also because we recoil from thinking of religion and worship as ‘obligation.’
After all, are we not free? Do we not do what we do out of love? Shouldn’t we? The irony of this last question is intended.
The Bible does not attempt to purify itself of the language of service, debt, obligation, or, dare I say, work. Though certainly, it seeks to purify our understanding of these things. For instance, Romans 13:8 even describes love as a form of debt. What we render to God in worship is due to him. It is the fitting service or work of his people.
Obligation does not conflict with the fact that our works are ultimately pleasing to God only through gratitude, through faith, hope, and love. But we can clarify how faith and hope in particular play a role in worship, and how by allowing room for them, we leave room for love.
What God Reckons unto Man
To pray, to sing in joy, to offer to God only what God has first given us is never more than what a child does in making a return to a parent. Rather, it is infinitely less.
But what if that which we offer God in worship is Jesus Christ himself? Does this change things? Would we not then be offering a full and fitting sacrifice?
We can and must affirm the sufficiency of such a gift. It is truly an acceptable and glorious offering. But that this offering is all that we offer in worship should be questioned in certain respects.
It is presumptuous, but also anti-anthropological to assume that our offering to God is wholly and unequivocally synonymous with Jesus Christ himself. This holds true even when we consider the actuating power of the indwelling Spirit, and how Christ’s work has made us pleasing to God. Another way to put this is that we are examining in what way he has made us pleasing to God.
For we are now considering worship from the standpoint of mechanics and the subject (the person) involved in worship. If we loose sight of these things (what we concretely do and how we concretely are) because we wish to honor the work of Christ, we may actually loose sight of the meaning of his work.
Is Christ truly my offering? Do I offer him alone? Or do we, must we not simultaneously assume that God is pleased in his Son, but also pleased in us, in our worship? If God is not pleased in our worship, perhaps we have no business worshiping! The work of God’s people involves real people doing real things.
The act of worship is most properly carried out when it recognizes an incommensur-ability, an infinite distance between what one is doing and its meaning. Further, it is most complete when one recognizes the incommensurability between what one does and God’s pleasure in that act.
If we move too quickly to say that Christ makes what I do pleasing, we pull a veil over what is going on. We either end up thinking we achieve through ecstasy or unity with Jesus a full repayment to God, or that God has no true pleasure in our worship–that he ignores it. Perhaps a middle position might suggest worship is simply for us and not for God. In doing so, the vertical direction of worship is lost.
To see what is going on, we must remember two elements. First, the structures of worship have themselves been gifted to us. Liturgy is itself a gift, insofar as God has ordained certain modes of worship (prayer, confession, song, reading, communion, etc.). When a parent asks a child to bake a meal, to sing to him, or to make a drawing, that parent has ordained a pattern of giving. Such gifts never arises to payment in full, but they are, by that parents reckoning, wholly pleasing.
In worship we bend our knees; we raise our voices; we attempt to listen with attention; we take communion. In none of these acts do we offer an infinite and perfect God an infinitely good and perfect gift.
Liturgy, by restraining but also directing man in ordained worship, simultaneously puts a brake on the hubris of attempting to pay back what should not and cannot be paid, while at the same time, it provides a means by which we may experience the Father’s good pleasure. It gives us concrete acts by which we might live out our thanksgiving, even while discovering that such thanksgiving is itself a gift.
Faith and Hope unto Love
The indwelling presence of God in a believer does not annihilate the distance between the individual and God. Nor does the atonement turn everything a believer does into payment in full. Even more, it does not, in an act of cruelty, eliminate our calling to render unto God all that we have and all that we are. Rather, it is by the indwelling of God that we become acutely aware of His love, of our infinite inability to make a recompense, of a depth of spiritual need, and finally (and delightfully), of our Father’s good pleasure in what do offer unto him by faith.
Therefore, liturgical worship protects the way in which faith and hope actuate our existence. Liturgy curbs our desire to jump into equality or debt repayment. It directs us to the practices of faith. For instance, we must have faith that he truly has established ways for us to approach, honor, thank, and glorify him, and faith that he finds such worship pleasing.
In this context, we learn to live in hope, awaiting a day when we shall hear him call us good and worthy servants. Such hope, informed by faith, is from God alone, for in that hope, we believe he will truly mean what he says, even while we know he can say this only because such has been reckoned unto us through Christ alone.
In this spirit, we leave worship with a sense of lasting well being, not because we have a spiritual ‘high’ or a sense of a job well done, but rather because we have enacted the realities of faith, the substance of things hoped for. In this way, the worship of the Church calls upon us to practice the theological virtues.
Worship calls us not to erase the gap between God and man, but to gaze across it, perhaps to stand in it. We can only do so, because God, when he took on flesh, did so, reconciling the world to himself. And thus deep calls out unto deep.
We offer fitting worship in the form of a mystery. Man is raised to a new and inconceivable height only when he remembers his limits. (Luke 18:9-14). In the discovery of how truly reckoned all things are unto us, we discover God’s love. This is important because we are taught that we love, only because he first loved us.
*For the concept of justice, debt and religion which inspired this post, see Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, Ch.7, The Limits of Justice.