But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.
— Habakkuk 2:20
Do you know the Greek myth of Echo the Oread? She was a nymph who loved hearing her own voice. And, as the mythology goes, she fell into a romance with Narcissus.
I think a lot of the rejections in evangelicalism today of God’s sovereignty and biblical infallibility are not unrelated to the more recent conversations about the need to attend regular local church services. They are all simply manifestations of a rejection of authority, and while of course those who make these rejections will not say they are rejecting God — but rather the artificial or modernist fabrications of those who claim to speak for God — the treasured principle nevertheless does not seem to be what God has actually said but what one feels in the heart (or some similar thing). I think it’s because we don’t want anyone being the boss of us, and because doctrines like biblical infallibility (and biblical perspicuity) and experiences like church services are too restrictive, too conforming, too narrow a space for “me to be me.”
I know a lot of very well-known teachers and preachers . . . What’s interesting is that many of them don’t belong to any church. None at all. And neither do their families. Nor are they part of any ministry team wherein there is close-knit fellowship and mutual submission.
There’s probably lots of reasons for this, but some of them are teased out in Donald Miller’s recent post where he triple-downs on his admission of not attending church services. It has something to do with embracing the “agency” taught in Hebrews apparently, and embodying the “organized chaos” of Acts. You know, the Hebrews where we’re told not to forsake the regular worship assembly and the Acts where we’re told the church gathered regularly in devotion to the apostles’ teaching and to hear a guy preach.
And so I think we ought to see the talk about agency and enjoying the church outside formality and institutions and the traditions of singing songs and listening to monologue teaching for what it really is: self-worship. A self-indulgent love of our own voices and preferring of them above all others. In church, after all, no one can hear you tweet.
Certainly one can be self-centered inside a church gathering, but the church gathering is nevertheless where all the sinners ought to be at the appointed time, smack-dab in the middle of a congregational experience specifically organized against the idolatry of personal preference. Not just because God says to do it — although that’s reason enough — but because it is good for us to have our singular voice lost in the sea of corporate praise and it is good for us to shut our social-media-motor-mouths for a bit and hear “Thus saith the Lord.” We should go to church — not mainly, but nevertheless — because it confronts and stunts our spiritual autonomy and individualism. We should go lest we become Cainites, saying “I’m not my brother’s keeper.” Or reverse Cainites, “My brothers aren’t my keepers.”
Of course most of us prefer to worship at the First Church of Hanging Out With My Friends at The Coffee Shop. Of course the more elite of us prefer to worship at My Own Speaking Engagements Community Church. Because, we believe, we “learn better” when we’re the ones doing the talking.
But something happens when you stop submitting to the communal listening of congregational worship and start filling the air with your own free range spiritual rhetoric. Your talk of God starts to sound less like God. He starts sounding like an idea, a theory, a concept. He stops sounding like the God of the Bible, the God who commands and demands, the God who is love but also holy, gracious but also just, et cetera. He begins to sound less like the God “who is who he is” and more like the God who is as you like him.
In his sermon on Genesis 3, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones details the origin of sin in human history, the deceit resulting from the question, “Did God actually say…?”, he talks about the fellow who talks about God with his hands in his pockets and a cigarette in his mouth. I don’t think he means at all to say one could not speak rightly about God in casual clothes or even in a casual position, but he means to say that the fellow could easily be speaking about the weather or politics or the local sports team. There is no evident reverence. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth blog about how cool he is with, you know, whatever your deal is, man.”
Awe and reverence. Authority and submission. Proclamation and supplication. Command and obedience. We fear these dynamics because we fear losing our selves, but we know what Jesus said to do to find yourself. If what Jesus says is true, maybe saving reverence for God is lost in the refusal to put one’s self in positions of difficulty, vulnerability, self-denial. Maybe seeking to find our own true path away from the “stifling confines” of the “traditional church” has actually taken us out of the garden of worship and into the wilderness, right into the rubble of Babel in fact.
What you talk about when you talk about God outside the self-denial and obedience God calls us to doesn’t sound like God. It sounds like your god is you.
In Nehemiah 8, “all the people gathered as one man,” it says (v.1), to hear Ezra preach. One guy doing the talking. And he essentially just read them the Law. While they stood there in the morning sun. For about a four-hour sermon reading. So if you think your church service is long and stifling, keep Nehemiah 8 in mind.
Nehemiah 8:3 says that “the ears of all the people were attentive.” I suppose this would include those whose spiritual learning styles were more wired for dialogue or, I guess, whitewater rafting or whatever. But they were a people who valued “Thus saith the Lord,” who thought “Thus saith the Lord” might be vital for them to hear and that being quiet could help them hear it. And the response to the sermon is telling. Verse 9 tells us they wept when they heard the Law. They didn’t object; they didn’t scoff; they didn’t cry out, “Yahweh’s not the boss of me!” (Or “You either, Ezra, acting so high and mighty up in that pulpit!”) No, they wept out of conviction, out of despair of themselves, out of reverence for “Thus saith the Lord.” When they talked about God, they did it through sobs.
But Ezra tells them to stop crying, to go home and feast (v.9). He tells them to eat fatty foods and drink wine and to share those things with others. See, God is not withholding such joys from us. He doesn’t want us out of the coffee shops or the pubs or wherever else it is we suppose we’d rather be than hearing “thus saith the Lord” from some religious spokesperson. He simply wants us there through the cross.
The truth is we need “thus saith the Lord.” We need to talk like God owns us when we talk about God. Even like he owes us wrath. Otherwise all of our talk of grace and mercy and freedom and finding ourselves and whatever else will keep ringing more and more hollow. The people listening to Ezra needed the terror from the declaration of the holy righteousness of God which is damning to get to the boundless joys of the proclamation of the holy righteousness of Christ which is saving. And when you think about what Christ willingly went through to deliver us, losing our autonomy and personal platform in the mess and discomfort of the parts of life in his Body we most want to avoid doesn’t seem like such a huge price to pay.
If your local church is doing things right, it will be seeking to provide a spiritual environment for your growth predicated on God’s terms — which is to say, not yours. Let’s not neglect to approach that holy ground, and take our shoes off in reverence when we get there, even if it means shoving one of them in our mouths.