Worship Should Not Be Easy. And Worship Should Not Be an Act of the Imagination.

A number of years ago, as I was doing some teaching on the Ten Commandments, I came across this insightful and very striking statement by John Durham in his Exodus volume in the Word Biblical Commentary series. It comes in his treatment of the second commandment in Exodus 20:4 about not making images of God.  Durham says,

The worshiper who has made a commitment to worship only Yahweh must not compromise that worship by making it easy, that is, by adopting for his own use shaped images to provide a concrete center for worship, a practice common to all of Israel’s neighbors.

Worship of the God who has revealed himself in Scripture must conform to the content and shape of that revelation. It must not go beyond it.  This was the exact problem the Israelites had in Exodus 32, as related in the narrative of the making of the golden calf.  They wanted a god they could see, one that was the product of their imagination, and in the process, a god they could control.  They wanted their worship to be easy, by worshiping a god they could imagine, rather than by worshiping the God who is, who though he revealed himself, hid himself at the same time.

A little bit later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses explains why the use of images in worshiping Yahweh is out of bounds for the Israelites.

12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the Lord directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.

15 You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.  (Deut 4:12-18)

We are not to use images in our worship of God, precisely because he did not use images to reveal himself. The person who would worship God, as Durham says, must not compromise that worship by making it easy.  It is just too easy to conjure up, in our own imaginations, a picture of what God must look like, a picture that, by the way, bears a striking resemblance to what we ourselves look like, and then to worship that image, to worship the god we want God to be, rather than the God who is.

I was prompted to make this blog post today when I read a comment by someone who was defending a fairly heretical teacher of recent years. This person wrote that the writings of this heretical teacher had become for him “an invitation to imagine God in new ways.”  That is precisely the reason why this heretical teacher should not be followed.  The invitation to imagine God in new ways is an invitation to destruction.

To imagine God in new ways. That is the Old Testament job description for false prophets and crafters of golden calves.  I encourage you not to apply for the position.

Jerry Shepherd
December 2, 2016

10 thoughts on “Worship Should Not Be Easy. And Worship Should Not Be an Act of the Imagination.

  1. As I ponder this, I can readily see the danger. Our imagination is influenced by our experiences and shaped by our desires.
    However, our knowledge, including our ability to understand, is also limited (and influenced.) So my question is, “Can the Holy Spirit guide us in the use of our imagination to understand God more deeply, and thus worship Him more in Spirit and in truth?” And if this is so, what safeguards do we employ to protect us from the danger you mention?

    • Hi Leo. Great question. Here is my answer, and I would be interested in yours. Yes, the Holy Spirit can guide us to understand God more deeply and thus worship Him in more in Spirit and truth? But I’m not sure the imagination plays a part in that. By “imagination” I am referring to the attempt to envision new ways in which to understand God, which are not solely reliant on the revelation he as already given us. So, the revelation God has already given us, in Scripture, provides the safeguards you refer to. Now, if the use of the imagination is limited to finding new ways to express the truth of concepts we already know to be true, then I am certainly okay with that. What do you think?

  2. I’ll be interested to see Leo’s response to the above.
    Meanwhile, I am wondering how iconography fits into all of this; and the attempt, in general, of churches through history trying to help their people to – let us say – understand God through the use of visual helps.

    • Jeff, the iconography discussion is a complicated one. I certainly appreciate our brothers and sisters in the various Orthodox and Catholic churches, and I take at face value their defense that icons are not the same as idols. But I still think it is extremely problematic to try to visualize the members of the Godhead. And when it comes to the human person of Jesus, there are problems there as well. I’ll say more about that in my reply to Bill Hillock’s last response.

    • Thank you for defining “imagination” as you are using the term. I agree. To go outside of the revelation God has already given us is dangerous. When we take into account the soil from which our imagination grows (our experiences) and factor in the fuel that drives it (our desires) and the winds that influence it (our culture), we can easily end up crafting our own god – which is a mockery of our Creator!
      But at the same time, it is difficult to stifle our imagination in our worship. I am defining worship not solely as singing or praying, or reading Scripture; for me worship includes how I do my work, how I relate to friends and family and acquaintances. I desire everything I say and do to be an act of worship to my Creator. And in that my imagination is active.
      But perhaps I have gone beyond your initial parameters in my musings!

      • Hi Leo. Thanks for this. In the way you’ve explained the use of imagination in worship, in terms of responding to God’s revelation of himself, I think you are exactly right. We do need to use our imaginations in how we reflect God’s glory to others in every area of our lives. I completely agree. My only concern in the article was with an imagination that ends up distorting what God actually looks like and ends up denying the revelation of himself as contained in Scripture.

        By he way, very close to what you have described, Kevin Vanhoozer, theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has described the Christian life as dramatic theologizing. Scripture provides the basic “script” for the play in which we are acting; but good actors, can, in the spirit of the play, also do some sanctified improvising, which could certainly be understood as the use of the imagination.

  3. Interesting subject. I went to Google and entered Jesus’ phrase,”if you’ve seen me, you have seen the Father”, and found a wealth of material on the subject.
    This speaks to your thought on image or imagine in Worship. Could area for discussion.

    • Hi Bill. I would argue that God has actually given us two authorized images of himself. First, there is humanity in general (Gen 1:26-27); humanity has the responsibility of reflecting the image of God. Looking at humans should, theoretically, give us an image of who God is and what he is like. The problem with this, however, is that this image has been marred by the fall.

      The second image God has given us is his own Son, especially as he was sent to recover the image of God in man, and he, in his life, demonstrates what humans are supposed to be. The problem, however, is when this comes to Christ’s physical body. It is fairly safe to say that, other than the fact Jesus was a man, we have absolutely no idea what Jesus look like as a human being. Hair color, height, weight, etc. — we have no idea. And this is where the problems come with depictions of Jesus as a human–we have nothing to go on. So, while I am not necessarily against paintings, comic books, movies, etc., for the purpose of telling the story of the Gospels, there is a danger of taking how Jesus is represented in those various media as being anything like what we actually know. There is also the temptation, for the artist, to portray Jesus in the most glorious forms possible. So Jesus comes off looking like Fabio, or some super-handsome figure, and that representation can lead the viewer to a very distorted understanding of who Jesus is. For example, there is a story told of a woman in Africa who, upon seeing the Jesus Film, saying that “As soon as I saw Jesus in this movie, I knew that I loved him.” It seems that her love for Jesus was tied to what the actor in the film she saw looked like. So I think we are on far safer ground to understand that what Jesus meant when he said, “if you’ve seen me, you have seen the Father,” is that this is referring to his conduct and to his speech. And, if this is the case, then no imagination is necessary; the Gospels have told us all there is to know.

      So, Bill, Jeff, Leo, what do you think?

  4. Dear Dr. Shepherd,
    Thank you so much for your teaching! It’s so easy for us to idolize God during our worship without even realizing it!

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