From now until the release of my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us, I’m going to write twelve blog posts covering the themes of my twelve book chapters. My first chapter “Worship Not Performance” talks about the way that Jesus saves us from the loneliness of living behind a mask and constantly performing for others by providing a way for us to experience the authentic delight that is true worship.
I’ve only been to one Chris Tomlin concert. If you don’t know him, he’s the most popular evangelical Christian praise musician in the country. I went with some of the youth from my church. Some of them were really into it, so I tried my best to be. But one thing I wasn’t able to do because it didn’t feel right was to put my hands in the air. At one point during his concert, Tomlin took a moment to call out the scowling guys in the back with their arms folded. He invited us to let go and feel the Spirit (by lifting our hands in the air). I can’t remember exactly what he said and I’m sure he meant it in a lighthearted way. But I definitely wasn’t putting my hands up after that.
I’ve never felt comfortable putting my hands up in the air in church. I grew up moderate Southern Baptist. We were always very suspicious of Pentecostals and fundamentalists, the two types of Christians who put their hands up in the air when they sing. To me, the raised hands were a clear demarcation of identity. It meant you weren’t just saved; you were oversaved. I would watch their faces when they were singing, the way they squeezed their eyes shut and said things like “Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus!” in between songs. Whatever it was that they were feeling, I couldn’t feel it, and it made me feel tremendously guilty, jealous, and suspicious of them.
As I grew older, I got to know some people who put their hands up in the air during worship and were also kind, genuine, humble people. And I started to realize that there were probably lots of other kind, genuine, humble people who liked to put their hands up in the air while they sang to Jesus. But I still don’t feel comfortable doing it myself and I probably never will. And that’s where the oversaved Christian in my head says, “There’s your problem. Worship is about God, not about your comfort.”
Jon Acuff coined the phrase “Jesus juke” to describe when Christians say pious things to one-up each other religiously. It often seems that the more our worship is “all about Jesus,” the more that it’s one giant Jesus juke. Jesus juke worship is all about me saying that it’s all about Jesus. Authentic worship is actually about us, but in a very specific way. Authentic worship is about delighting in God un-self-consciously; it happens when we lose ourselves in God’s joy. We cannot worship authentically on our own as an act of personal willpower; we can only put ourselves in a position to receive the spirit of worship. This can happen to people who are holding their hands up the air when they sing. It can also happen to people who kneel quietly in a room of candles and incense (my preference).
Authentic worship cannot happen when we’re worshiping our own performance of worship, when we delight in how perfectly we have talked about God’s glory, how earnestly we have demonstrated our humble gratitude, etc. I cannot worship God as long as I am obsessed with myself even if I have a perfectly pious presentation of my self-obsession. The only way to worship God is to accept God’s unconditional grace for me so that I can stop trying to prove myself to God and other people. As long as my identity is built around proving myself, I will remain a self-alienated performer in God’s presence. The self-alienation of performing instead of worshiping is the hell that Jesus needs to save me from.
The way that Christians talk about “getting saved” is often deeply problematic. Based on the Bible’s teaching, we talk about two aspects of salvation: justification (accepting God’s grace) and sanctification (letting God make us holy). Too often, we talk as though accepting God’s grace is something that happens instantaneously in the form of a one-time decision. Many Christians think you’re not really a Christian unless you can tell other people the date and time that you “got saved.” If it helps you to have a “got saved” date, that’s great, but I don’t think that’s how it usually happens.
My experience has been that accepting God’s grace is every bit as much a lifelong process as letting God make me holy. The two are cyclical. As I stop performing and lose my defensiveness, I gain the vulnerability necessary for God to reshape my character. Some Christians claim to be fully sanctified, but I’m not yet fully justified. Not even close. I am constantly performing for other people and defining myself by how they respond to me instead of remembering how loved I am by God. It’s very difficult not to be that way as a blogger trying to build a platform in an impossibly fickle social media environment and a campus minister trying to build a ministry at a very anti-religious school.
Authentic worship happens rarely for me, but when it does, it’s so incredibly sweet. Jesus tells a parable about a man who finds a pearl of great price and sells everything else to have it. That’s exactly what those moments of true worship are like for me. When I actually gain spiritual communion with God, nothing else matters. I’ve had some amazing encounters with God, but most of my life I live as an anxious, terrified agnostic. Most of the time I’m performing for the merciless inner critic that I’ve come to identify as the voice of Satan. It’s the moments of tasting God’s joy that give me hope of one day being liberated from the internal house of mirrors that is my hell.
When I am finally liberated from my hell of performance, I don’t know what I’ll do at Chris Tomlin concerts. I might put my hands up in the air and jump around like a six year old. I might not. But I won’t feel judged by people who do and I won’t think cynical thoughts about why they’re doing it. Heaven is when you really can dance like nobody else is watching simply because the joy compels it. I’m not there right now, but I know God isn’t done with me yet.