Last time, I asked the question, What makes worship beautiful in God’s sight?
For starters, we should point out that God does not find worship offered to false gods beautiful. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Some idol worship may be aesthetically pleasing to you or me, but it is always detestable to God. A statue of Mary may be very beautiful, but as soon as it becomes an object of worship, it becomes an abomination.
But we must press beyond this basic reality, because Scripture teaches that some worship is hated by God, even when it is offered to Him!
If we want to understand what God-pleasing worship looks like, the book of Revelation is a good place to start. In it the Holy Spirit graciously records for all of mankind an incomparable glimpse into heaven. We get to gaze upon the worship of the throne room of God.
Here’s one small but instructive part of the Apostle John’s vision:
When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The point here is not that golden bowls of incense are essential to true worship. The point is that the prayers of God’s chosen people are what is precious in His sight. This is why the church’s worship ought to be saturated with prayer. At our own church,
- we pray for God’s presence when we begin our service;
- we pray by confessing our sins, both corporately and privately;
- we pray for many everyday needs in our pastoral prayer;
- we pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit as we hear the Word preached;
- we pray for God’s work in our lives as a result of the sermon we just heard;
- we pray God’s promise of blessing on His people as we close the service and return to our daily lives.
Frequent and fervent prayer makes the church’s worship beautiful.
Not All Prayers
But we should understand that not all prayers—even those offered to the one true God—are pleasing to Him. And it’s not the aesthetic beauty of our prayers that God is chiefly concerned with. Jesus taught us that those who worship the Father “must worship Him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). That applies to prayer: those who pray to God must pray sincerely, for God is not pleased by our prayers when our hearts are not in them.
This people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.1
How do we evaluate the sincerity of our prayers? Is sincerity just a feeling we have while we pray? And does God simply assess that feeling by gazing into our hearts and judging our prayers accordingly? What criteria does He use for gauging whether or not our hearts are in our prayers?
Scripture has a prominent answer to this question, and it’s not just that God looks into our hearts and knows what’s there. One of the most consistent ways the Lord judges the sincerity of our prayers is by seeing whether or not we obey His commandments.
Listen to Proverbs 28:9—
He who turns away his ear from listening to the law,
Even his prayer is an abomination.
We may speak the right words—even gorgeously poetic words—with our lips, but if we are unconcerned with turning away from our sin and obeying God’s commandments, our prayers are abominable to God. He hates them.
Few things are more displeasing to God than great displays of worship that are unaccompanied by obedience. Here’s what the prophet Samuel said to King Saul when he worshiped God with great sacrifice instead of simple obedience:
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV)
The prophet Isaiah dealt with similar problems among God’s people. Through him the Lord said,
Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,2
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.
So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
What’s going on here? Why would God say that He “hates” His people’s worship and “will not listen” to their prayers? Isaiah’s next line gives the answer:
Your hands are covered with blood.
The people made an impressive show of their love for God, yet they continued in sin. In this case, the very hands the people lifted to God in prayer were tainted with the blood of their oppressed neighbors. They turned away their ear from listening to the law, and their prayers were an abomination. The Lord refuses to listen to prayers that are unaccompanied by obedience, because obedience is one of the surest signs of our sincerity.
And yet we know God is gracious to sinners, and so we ask: How does God listen to the prayers of those who have not obeyed His law?
The answer is that the Lord graciously opens His ears to those whose prayers are accompanied by repentance. (This is because repentance is the surest sign of sincere faith in Jesus Christ, which is what God cares about most.)
In the very next verses of Isaiah 1, the prophet gives instructions for the kind of repentance that necessarily accompanies the sincere, God-pleasing prayers of those who have not obeyed the voice of the Lord:
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.
Interestingly, that call to repentance is the immediate context of this familiar promise:
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.”
It is important to understand that the setting of this sweet promise from God is repentance from our sins. Listen to what follows on its heels (and ask yourself how often you hear the above promise attended by this warning):
“If you consent and obey,
You will eat the best of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
You will be devoured by the sword.”
Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
One of the ways the church demonstrates her sincerity and repentance is by never failing to proclaim two realities: God’s unfathomable mercy in washing even the bloodiest stains from our hands, and the certainty and dreadfulness of His coming judgment. Listen how closely these truths are tied together in the same chapter of Isaiah:
Zion will be redeemed with justice
And her repentant ones with righteousness.
Transgressors and sinners will be crushed together,
And those who forsake the Lord will come to an end.
The church’s prayers are truly beautiful and acceptable to God when they come from a repentant people who live in light of His coming judgment. The church’s worship as a whole is beautiful when it is filled with these kinds of prayers.
It doesn’t do much good to proclaim the need for repentance without being specific. Isaiah wasn’t being theoretical when he told God’s people to “reprove the ruthless” and “defend the orphan.” There were real orphans in need of protection from real ruthless men who were oppressing them.
What about in our day?
Every month, our family receives The Voice of the Martyrs magazine. We are sobered as we read its accounts of our persecuted brothers and sisters whose innocent blood is shed around the world. We pray for them often, and their stories remind me what a blessing it is to live in a land that has been so peaceful and accommodating to Christian faith.
But then I must consciously remind myself that we too live in a land of violence and bloodshed. Our pleasant way of life continues apace at great cost. That cost is not (yet) the blood of Christians proclaiming the Gospel. Rather, it is the blood of millions of innocent unborn children.
In California, Michigan, and Vermont, the right of citizens to kill their own children has now been enshrined in their states’ constitutions. Many in Ohio are feverishly working to follow the same dark path. If legal changes like these proceed, the personal cost of speaking out for the oppressed will increase in our land; the more we righteously stand up for those who are being put to death, the more likely it will be that we share in their plight.
Are we willing to put our own reputations and lives on the line for the sake of the orphan among us? Are we willing to repent of our participation in the shedding of innocent blood?
The sincerity of our prayers depends on it.
Why We Don’t Speak Out
Regrettably, as in Isaiah’s time, the people of God have been complicit in our nation’s oppression of the weak. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has exposed among many Christians an obstinate unwillingness to stand against our nation’s holocaust. Many of us have turned a blind eye to the slaughter of the unborn,3 but the church’s guilt goes far beyond that. We have participated in and actively promoted the killing of our little ones.
Take, for instance, the fact that our preferred methods of birth control—IUDs and hormonal methods like the Pill—are so effective because when they fail to prevent fertilization, they also operate by preventing the implantation of a conceived child in his mother’s womb.4
How do we respond when told this is plainly the case? Do we tremble to think that we may have blood on our hands that we didn’t even know about? Or do we assure ourselves that since we didn’t know, and since the chances of such deaths are very low, the “stewardship” that results from using these methods of birth control is worth the risk? (By which we mean the risk of causing the death of some of our children—a risk that feels tolerable considering we won’t even know about it when we do.)
It is a well established legal principle that “ignorance of the law excuses no one.” King Josiah understood this when he tore his clothes in response to the reading of the law of Moses, which had at that time been forgotten in a dusty corner of the Temple (2 Kings 22). That law told him sacrifice was required even for sins committed unintentionally (Lev. 4:13–14). He didn’t make excuses; he repented.
Proverbs 24:11–12 dismantles our pleas for ignorance, especially when it comes to God’s requirement to defend the weak:
Deliver those who are being taken away to death,
And those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh hold them back.
If you say, “See, we did not know this,”
Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts?
And does He not know it who keeps your soul?
And will He not render to man according to his work?
It may be that we truly haven’t seen how much blood is on our hands. The question is, how will we respond when we are told? Will our response be self-justification—“See, we did not know this”—or repentance, like Josiah?
I write these things to remind myself and you of the bloodguilt of our nation and people. Our day is very much like the prophet Isaiah’s. We’ve just managed to devise our own unique ways of shedding blood and keeping it hidden.
We ought to tremble to hear these things, knowing that nothing taints our prayers like a refusal to repent of blood on our hands.
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
Let us come into God’s presence humbly. It is good to be made aware of our guilt, to admit it, and to turn away from the sin that incurs it. It is repentant hearts that make our prayers—and all of our worship—beautiful in God’s sight.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Your praise.
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
|↑1||This is not a compliment of the people’s prayers. For a present-day example of “tradition learned by rote,” look for a bumper sticker Dani and I saw recently, which reads, “HELP AMERICA. PRAY THE ROSARY.”|
|↑2||Jon Foreman has a compelling prophetic song based on this passage (as well as a similar passage in Amos) called “Instead of a Show,” from Summer (Lowercase People Records, 2008), track 4.|
|↑3||The Michigan law mentioned above passed in large part due to the silence of pastors and churches.|
|↑4||For more on this topic, read “The Truth about Hormonal Birth Control” in Evangel Presbytery’s Abortion and the Church (Warhorn Media, 2022), available for free online here.|