Q. Why do those who believe in God have to worship Him? Can’t they simply acknowledge that He exists and controls everything and dispense with the worship and rituals?
— Via email from M, Lancaster, N.Y.
A. God does not need us to worship God — we need to worship God, and we need it for the same reason we need to say thank you for a gift.
It is not just bad manners but bad morals to simply acknowledge that a gift exists. We must find some way to express thanks for the gift and the giver. And we are gifted by God with life, and we are gifted by God with a world that sustains life, and we are gifted by God to be born into families and communities that love us and allow us to love them. We are gifted by God with moral conscience and moral codes that allow us to know and act upon the difference between good and evil. We are gifted by God with immortal souls so that we can trust that death is not the end of us, and we are gifted by God with the promise of a life after death in heaven/the world to come where we will commune with God and where we will no longer be separated from those we love who have passed on before us.
All these gifts and more — many more — were not given to us because we deserved them or earned them. They were given to us as an act of divine love and grace. Worship is the way we express our understanding that everything is a gift from God. Worship is a necessary act of spiritual thankfulness. Its opposite is spiritual selfishness. Worship helps us to discharge our debt for the blessings that have been showered upon us.
The idea that worship is thanksgiving to God was one of the great biblical ideas. Before the Bible, rituals like burnt animal sacrifices were a way of feeding the gods with the smoke. In the Bible, we were taught that God does not eat smoke and does not need sacrifices. As we read in Isaiah 1:11, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of . . . goats.”
Worship also creates religious communities. By coming together to worship we create a third place for our lives — not our homes and not our work, but some other place where we come together to dig into our place and our life with others who are less than family and friends but far more than strangers. Every healthy culture and every healthy person needs a third place, and worship creates third places for our deepened and expanded lives.
Worship also helps us sacralize the seasons. Harvest times are accompanied by harvest festivals. The New Year is accompanied by New Year festivals. The earliest form of thanks was thanks for the bounty of the land and worship gives thankful voice to the gift of the seasons.
Worship is not just about giving thanks. Worship also provides us with a spiritual framework to help us remember and re-enact our sacred stories. The Passover seder meal helps Jews re-enact the exodus from Egypt. The Eucharist helps Christians not merely re-enact but recreate the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. The Haj is a spiritual re-enactment of Mohammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. Worship helps us remember and tell our spiritual stories.
Rituals do not have to be religious. A birthday cake is a secular ritual. A greeting card is a secular ritual. Eating turkey on Thanksgiving is a secular ritual. July Fourth fireworks are secular rituals. They are all scripted acts that interrupt ordinary time with special and memorable moments that must not be forgotten. Without rituals we could still live but without rituals we would soon die inside. Worship and rituals are the way we humans distinguish ourselves from all other animals on planet earth. Worship and rituals along with moral consciousness may be the most distinctive of all human traits.
Most of all, worship helps us to reframe our self-understanding of our journey through life. Instead of viewing ourselves as humans going through a temporary spiritual experience, through worship and rituals we come to understand ourselves as primarily spiritual beings going through a temporary human experience.