The title is a line from the song “The Heart of Worship” by Matt Redman. In the song, the singer re-commits himself to seeking the Heart of worship — “It’s all about You, it’s about You, Jesus.” This song came to mind when I ran across a blog post of Msgr. Charles Pope titled “The Perils of the Pious: How the Devil Can Hijack Holy Practices.” The post is too good for extended comment and I encourage you to read it as it is well-written and insightful (although I have a slightly different take on some things).
Msgr. Pope lists three ways in which we turn worship away from God. They are:
- Ritualistic Reductionism
- Crass Comparison
- Checking Off the God-Box
In the first, we replace God with ritual. Although the ritual pleases God as does our obedient participation in it, it drives us away from God when we give it a life of its own. For example, the liturgy will soon change — a little bit for us, a lot for the priests. Are we going to grouse about the weird, unfamiliar things we’re saying or are we going to say, “Jesus, this is quite weird to say — and just after I got the other one down! — but You, not the words, are the heart of worship. If you’re pleased, I’m OK as disorienting and strange this change is.”
In the second, we give into pride. Msgr. Pope beautifully expresses what I think is part of the idea:
The fact is, being better than a prostitute or a corrupt city official is not the standard that’s going to get us heaven. The standard that we must meet is Jesus Christ. Now if we really grasp this and understand how far we are from meeting that standard, then we will humbly cry for mercy. But the peril of the pious is to compare ourselves to others, not to Jesus. Too easily we can become smug and superior, arrogant. We can become unaware that we too need boatloads of grace and mercy to even stand a chance of getting to heaven.
A secular source (the name of which I no longer remember) observed a sort of grade inflation when it came to going to Heaven. Nowadays, we say “So and So” was jolly good fellow so “of course” he went to Heaven. Perhaps, it wasn’t so easy in the dark, tough past of the early 20th century. I think the speaker and Msgr. Pope are saying the same thing.
But I think Msgr. Pope only said half of it (he follows up the quotation with an explanation so he may have said it . . .). The worst kind of sin is the sin that you think is virtue. Take a good dose of pride and add legalism and what do you get? As you are doing something you think is good, you are really digging your grave. C.S. Lewis said it best in Mere Christianity:
The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity—it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison— you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.
That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men.
I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.
The deadly fault is that we come to judge the quality of our actions by the wrong standard — anything other than God, because only God is good. Luke 18:18-22; Mark 10:17-19. Crass Comparison is one way Satan turns worship away from God.
The last fault Msgr. Pope notes describes, in a wonderful turn-of-phrase, as “checking the God-Box.” I wonder, though, whether this is a separate fault or just a combination of the first two. Let’s consider the Rich Young Man of Luke 18:18-22. The episode is well-known:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’[a]”
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
It seems like he could have been a God-box checker. He asks Jesus what boxes he should check. Importantly, Jesus doesn’t say don’t check boxes, He tells the young man the first box to check. The young man must have been elated — I am already doing that, he may have thought. Then Christ asks for a radical transformation of the young man’s life. This was a box the young man did not want to check, at least at that point in his life. The problem with God-box checking is that it judges using the wrong standard. Yet, if the box checking is merely immaturity or a tool through which God is helping someone grow, then I see no problem with it.
All errors in worship and all distortions of pious practices arise from substituting something else for God. By never losing sight of Christ, one never would need to “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it.”