Have you ever caught the scent of roses carried by a light breeze on a warm summer’s day? Or maybe come downstairs to the evocative smell of bacon frying in the pan?
Have you ever tingled at the first few bars of your favourite piece of music – whether classical, rock or simply Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’?
Have you had your breath taken away by a stunning painting or a sunrise on a clear cold morning? Maybe the touch of pure silk or the taste of an exotic food quickens your pulse and pleasures your senses.
We can be grateful to God for the enjoyment of these experiences that bring pleasure to our minds and bodies. He has given them to us to enjoy as part of our humanity, and they are enjoyed by Christians and unbelievers alike. Though created directly by God, or else indirectly through the gifts that God has given us, they are not actually God Himself, nor are they spiritual. They are not designed to stimulate us spiritually, but to relate primarily to the physical and soulish aspects of our being. When appreciated and enjoyed correctly, they are positive, and enhance our lives as created beings on God’s earth.
All of these things come from the outside, impressing themselves upon us. They may stimulate our mind, especially our memories, and they may give cause for thanksgiving, which we then mediate back to God through our whole beings, body soul and spirit. But the things themselves never become spiritual. Things are not spiritual but material. It is living beings who are spiritual.
The ongoing temptation for the Israelites, was to copy the nations around them and attribute divinity, God’s spirituality, to things made of wood, gold, silver and precious stones. Many of these things would have been quite beautiful, however it was not their beauty that was the problem, but the fact that they were given a spiritual value when they were merely the product of human hands.
The temptation to idolatry, which faced the Israelites may have changed its form a little, but it has not gone away. Any time that we attribute spirituality to something that is merely material or soulish, we take the first step towards idolatry.
God is Spirit and He is looking for people who will worship Him in Spirit and truth. (The Greek word for truth can equally well be translated as ‘reality’.) Jesus made it quite clear that when we drink from Him, the Spirit will flow out from us. True worship of the Father, real worship of the Father, always originates in the hearts of those who have been drinking from Jesus. It flows forth from within, unaided by any stimulus from without. When we rely on a ‘thing’ to enable us to worship, whether that thing be a candle, incense, great architecture or the latest Bethel or Hillsong music, we may find ourselves indulging in idolatry.
Does this mean that candles, incense, architecture and music are wrong? Not at all. Very few things are wrong in themselves. A knife can be used by a surgeon to heal or by a murderer to kill, and it is the motive and action of the person using it that makes it good or bad.
Rightly used, candles, incense, architecture and music can be a great blessing – but they can also be idols. The test as to which of the two they are, is very simple. Can we worship in Spirit and reality without them? If we are denied any external aids, are we still able to express worship to our Father from the resources within us? If we are able to worship God without anyone setting ‘the atmosphere’ then we can be pretty sure that we are not toying with idolatry. However, if we need something to create a mood, rather than merely appreciating such a thing when it happens to occur, then we should to be careful we do not shift our reliance from God alone to a religious substitute.
If we are worshipping from the life within, then it may well be that we choose to express that worship through something, and that something may include music, candles, dance, flags, incense or many other things. As we have said, these things are not wrong in themselves. The crucial issue is: are we using them to try and create worship – that is something from the outside stimulating us – or are we using them to express worship – that is as a vehicle for what is coming unaided from within us?
God created us to express His life, which is Spirit, through our spirits, souls and bodies. He wants us to be whole people, offering our whole lives to Him. But the right order is always spirit, soul, body. When something originates in our soul life or our physical life and we try and approach God on that basis, we are likely to try and use soulish or physical means to do it and that will almost inevitably take us into idolatry.
Many charismatics in the ‘contemporary’ churches have looked disparagingly upon the ‘smells and bells’ of the high churches. What they often do not realise is that the use of music to create a mood for worship is essentially the same as the use of candles, incense and bells to do the same. They both try and create something spiritual from something soulish and physical, and it simply cannot be done.
What happens may well be enjoyable. It may well create an experience. It may involve sensations and be interwoven with a deep desire for God, but it rarely goes beyond that to become part of the ongoing fibre of our lives. It is on the same level as the smell of a rose or frying bacon, pleasurable, but purely temporal. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have been in meetings where the music has been amazing, people have had physical manifestations of all sorts of things and some have even seen gold dust in the air, but the next day, the next week, the next year, virtually everyone’s lives at work, home or school are the same as they were beforehand.
Because real worship is rooted in sacrifice, it will involve real cost and never be trite or frivolous. The fruit of it will last and become foundational in us, so that there will be effective change in our lives. The change may perhaps be slow and gradual, but it will be real and ongoing.