God doesn't have regard for our exterior, no matter how impressive that may be. He looks at the heart - as Samuel found out when he went to Jesse's family in Bethlehem to find and anoint the new king (1 Sam. 16.7). David, who became that new king, wrote in one of his Psalms, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139.23-24). Of course, God already knows my heart. What I need to do is that conscious opening of my heart, that acknowledgment of what God already knows about me, the desire that what God knows about me be changed into what God intends me to be.
I was brought up in a Christian family. Not only did I attend church and Sunday School regularly, but faith in God was part of family life. The Bible was read and prayers were offered as an act of family worship together. I was taught and encouraged to read the Bible and pray to God myself - and I did - every day! Faith in God meant a great deal to me, and I recall having concern at age eight that for so many people their faith was so superficial. Childish insight or arrogance!
However, over time, my good devotional habits and worship became form for me also, with not so much going on below the surface. At a Communion Service when I was sixteen, I was overwhelmed with an awareness of God's love for me - yes, even for me! I wrote down at the time how I had realised what Christ had done for me, and how little I had ever done for him. Almost a year after that I had an unforgettable experience of God's presence and gave myself to him who had given himself for me.
That was an important turning point. No longer could I simply honour God with my lips with a heart far from him.
But we can never leave it just there! God looks at our heart, not just to see whether we have come to faith, but to see whether we continue in faith. David's prayer needs to be ours continually as we co-operate with God the Holy Spirit in translating the completed redemptive work of God the Son into the transformed lives that God the Father always intended for us.
Quite often we read of Jesus criticising the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. (The Greek word, by the way, originally referred to play-actors). As a nation they had started off as sincere worshippers of the living God. Long before the time of Jesus, much of their worship had degenerated into a formalism which was a mockery to God. Isaiah, for example, writing some 800 years before Christ, lists the good and proper elements of their worship - but God has had "more than enough" of them, has no pleasure in them, finds them detestable, can't bear them, is weary of bearing them (Is. 1.11ff). All depth had gone out of their observances, and there was left only a complicated system of rituals and forms.
How is it with us? Search us, O God. Try us. Know us. Lead us. Habits and words and actions aren't wrong in themselves - after all, hasn't God commanded them? But do they flow from the heart? God looks at the heart!
Do you prefer hymns or choruses? The question isn't nearly as significant as we have made it in the modern church! But - are they just songs, or do they express our innermost thoughts? Do we mean what we are singing? Our world has many other songs which are musically beautiful and moving, which can be performed and enjoyed without any deep personal significance being attached to them. But our singing in worship is to be different. We are to sing from our hearts. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, "God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth" (Jn 4.24).
And when the preacher calls us, "Let us pray", do we all pray? Or do we leave that part to him/her, contenting ourselves with listening? Prayer is a mighty force, and we magnify its effect when we agree together in prayer.
And when the Lord's Prayer is prayed, do we just hurry through it, wanting to get on with what's next? We can say this prayer in a way that makes it difficult to mean its words. Perhaps we are too familiar with the words and not enough with its meaning.
For instance, we pray, "Your Kingdom come," yet do we do much ourselves towards the extension of God's Kingdom? Or, when we pray it, do we think mainly of the responsibilities of ministers and missionaries and not of ourselves? Or don't we think at all?
And when we pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven", are we sure that we want God's will done in our own lives? What if his will conflicts with ours? Do we seek his will for our lives? Or don't we think he is concerned in our every-day life?
When we pray, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us," do we grasp the strong words of Jesus that if we don't forgive others their sins, our Father won't forgive our sins either (Mt. 6.15)?
Is the Lord's Prayer just a nice way of concluding a time of prayer - a vain repetition? Or does it mean something much deeper to us? Do we pray from the heart?
Then, when we have the reading from the Bible, do we listen as intently as we would to God's Word? Do we try to understand what the reading is getting at? Or are our minds on other things? Do we notice when the reading is long? Or are we so absorbed in its meaning for us that we don't notice?
And when the sermon starts, do we look at our watches and hope the preacher isn't too long? Or are we so absorbed in the message as to become quite oblivious to the time? Which matters more to us, our physical or our spiritual food? Are we so eager to get home for lunch that, Sunday by Sunday, we miss most of the message?
When Sunday is over, have we benefited at all? Do we step out into the week with God? Or do we leave him back in the Church?
And what about "the week" - our life "out there"? If we have been honouring God "from the heart", it will be demonstrated by the kinds of lives and attitudes we have "out there".
Is our home the kind of place where we could welcome Jesus if he came by for a visit? Do people feel welcome and loved here? Can the presence of God be felt by all who come to the door, even if they do not know him?
Is our job or business just a means of supporting ourselves? Or are people drawn closer to God through it? Does the fact that we call ourselves Christians really make any difference - to how we do our work, and to how we relate to others? Are we ashamed of the Gospel of Christ?
Does Christ mean anything to us apart from church and perhaps home? Can we testify in experience that he is "with us always"? And, if so, do others see this testimony as real or artificial? Paul says in Col. 3.17, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him". Do we match up to that standard? Or are there things in our lives that we wouldn't dare to "in the name of the Lord Jesus"?
And, at home and in private, do we love to read the Bible? Or is it just a Sunday habit with us? Are our prayers just a form? Or do we have fellowship with God through them? Is our attitude, "Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking"? or "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening"? Do we remember the others for whom we should pray? Or are our prayers self-centred? Do we want our prayers answered in our way, or according to God's plan and wisdom?
Yes, what does Christ mean to us? Do we honour him with our lips, while our heart is far from him? Or is our heart bound to him with a genuine love that binds us to others too?
This has been something of a spiritual check-up - for me as well as for you! Keep close to him, and let both our worship and our service flow "from the heart"!
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