The apostle James wrote these hopeful, encouraging words in his epistle: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). That’s a tremendous promise that many believers sadly forfeit, as the distractions of life cloud our focus on the Lord.
Nowhere does that show up more frequently or vividly than in our worship. Our devotion to the Lord is often the first thing to go when life gets busy and difficult—which is tragically ironic, since that’s when our commitment to God and His Word is most helpful.
Instead, we need to fight against those distractions and keep worship as a perpetual priority in our lives. We need to be willing to sacrifice anything that hinders or impedes our praise to God and our devotion to His truth. As we’ve already seen in this series, God is not interested in halfhearted lip service or ignorant emotionalism. He takes our worship seriously, and we ought to as well.
And when the inevitable struggles come—when our focus drifts and our commitment wavers—we need to pause and take stock of our spiritual lives. When you struggle to worship the Lord in spirit and truth, you can likely trace the source of the problem back to one of five principles of biblical worship.
Yield to the Spirit
The first key to biblical worship is obvious, but often overlooked: True worshipers must be saved. That vital component is largely forgotten in churches that emphasize emotional experiences over biblical content. It’s baffling that many of the churches who most effectively cultivate an exciting “worship experience” are also the ones that direct their services to unbelievers.
As we’ve already seen, it’s not enough to “feel close to God”—true worship isn’t grounded in our feelings, but in the truth. And the soul that has not submitted and surrendered to God’s truth cannot possibly worship Him. In 1 Corinthians Paul makes that very point “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Regarding the necessity of a spirit yielded to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in biblical worship, John MacArthur writes,
This confirms once more that the foundation of true worship is salvation. One who is not saved cannot truly worship. And one who is truly saved will be motivated by the indwelling Holy Spirit to worship. It is fair, then, to examine ourselves on the basis of our worship. If you have trouble worshiping, maybe you’re not saved. If you get bored in church, or if you don’t mind missing church altogether, it may be because the Holy Spirit isn’t in you prompting your heart. If He is there, we must yield our will to His power.  John MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 157.
Too many people overlook this vital aspect of biblical worship, assuming that emotional conviction is enough for God. But momentary responses to sensory stimuli cannot substitute for true worship of God from a heart devoted to Him.
Focus Your Thoughts on God
It’s hard to think carefully or deeply about several things at once. You wouldn’t intentionally give your spouse, your kids, or your career only a fraction of your time and attention. But many believers routinely make that very mistake when it comes to worship—we presume He will be satisfied with a sliver of our day and a corner of our mind.
But as John MacArthur explains, the Lord is not interested in the worship of a distracted heart.
Worship is the overflow of a mind renewed by God’s truth. We call the process meditation. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what meditation is. Meditation is just focusing the whole mind on one subject, concentrating reason, imagination, and emotion on one reality.
If you find that hard, you are fairly normal. Because of our exposure to television, radio, the Internet, and other mass media, we have more to think about than any previous civilization. Consequently, our attention span on one theme can be very limited, and we have difficulty focusing long on one subject. Meditation is a discipline we have to train ourselves for.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 157.
In Psalm 19:14, David reminds us that it’s not just what comes out of our mouths that God is interested in; worship begins with a mind devoted to the Lord and His truth. We need to echo his prayerful request, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.”
Cultivate an Undivided Heart
Along those same lines, we must love the Lord with an undivided heart. We can’t faithfully serve Him if our attention and affections are divided. Doing so invites temptations to deviate from our service to God and the work of His kingdom.
Without a united heart, worship is impossible. A person with a divided heart may have good intentions, but he finds that when he sits down to pray and spend time with the Lord, a million other things flood his mind. Most of us know that experience.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 158.
To some degree, this will be a struggle throughout the believer’s life. It’s the discipline of faithfully keeping biblical priorities and avoiding the cares of the world that so frequently invade and compete for our attention. Even David pleaded for God’s help to maintain an undivided heart: “Unite my heart to fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11).
Elsewhere he illustrates for us the great benefit of sole devotion to the Lord: “My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing, I will sing praises, even with my soul” (Psalm 108:1). The same steadfast (that is, undivided and undistracted) heart ought to inform and invigorate our worship as well.
Deal With Your Sin
In Worship: The Ultimate Priority, John MacArthur highlights one vital aspect of worship that goes largely unmentioned in most circles today:
When we talk about worship we must talk about cleansing, purging, purifying, confessing, repenting—because no one can enter into communion with an utterly holy God if that person’s sin is not dealt with. . . . We cannot go rushing into God’s presence in our impurity, thinking that all is well. We, like Isaiah, must confess before God our sin and allow God to touch that living, burning coal to our lips to purge us.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 159.
Scripture is clear that sin will impede our ability to praise and glorify the Lord. Psalm 24:3-4 says, “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” If we’re going to worship God biblically, we must not be living lives in direct defiance of His Word.
This is where it helps to remember that worship is not merely relegated to the few hours we spend in church on Sundays; that we are responsible to praise and glorify the Lord with every aspect of our lives. There are no off days and no breaks—the entirety of our lives must be devoted to the worship of our heavenly Father.
And as such, we need to be diligent in dealing with our own sin—even the sin we might not yet be aware of. We need to echo the words of David, when he cried out, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24). John MacArthur reckons that such undiscovered and unaddressed sins are costly to believers today.
Maybe the reason we have difficulty really abandoning ourselves in worship to God, the reason we do not experience the nearness of God, is that we have areas of our lives that are not pure in the sight of God. We all have blind spots and deficiencies only God knows. We must be open, willing to ask God to turn on the searchlight and expose whatever is in the shadows. We must yield our spirits to the Holy Spirit who fills us with His presence and power. We ask Him to cleanse out every corner of our lives—and then the flow of worship can occur.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 159.
Die to Self
Ultimately, the thing that most frequently impedes our worship is ourselves. We will never give proper attention and praise to the Lord if we can’t get our eyes off of ourselves and our selfish desires. Biblical worship requires us to shed the cares of this world and the innate selfishness we all naturally possess, and surrender our hearts, minds, and affections to the Lord.
As John MacArthur explains, there is no end to the ways our self-interest can steal our focus away from God and inhibit our usefulness in the work of His kingdom.
It can come in all kinds of packages, but the result is the same: when we set ourselves in front of God, we cannot worship Him properly. We can blame it on a lack of time, or too many distractions—but we find the time to do the projects and activities we genuinely want to do. The real problem with the one who uses those excuses is that he is too selfish—too lazy and too self-indulgent—to align his priorities properly.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 159.
In Matthew 16:24, Christ Himself described the cost of following Him: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” We must deny ourselves the self-indulgent pleasures and pastimes of this world if we want to truly, faithfully worship the Lord.
For the sake of our usefulness to His kingdom and the glory of His holy name, may God grant us the steadfast conviction to do just that.
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