The Old Testament contains a great deal of direction on how God wanted to be worshipped. The second command makes it clear that he must be worshipped on his terms, not ours (Exodus 20:4–6). To this end, he gave a great deal of instruction regarding acceptable worship. There were instructions regarding sacrifices, purity, and festivals, among other things.
While there was (obviously) nothing wrong with this list of expectations, or with obedience to these instructions, the old covenant Israelites fell into the trap of thinking that rote obedience pleased God. As long as they sacrificed the right thing in the right place at the right time, God would be pleased with them. Ritual, not relationship, was what mattered to God.
Psalm 40 puts the lie to this misunderstanding. Here, David writes, “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart’” (vv. 6–8). To be sure, God did require “sacrifice and offering” but he did not delight in these things if they were divorced from a heart of devotion.
We often say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. This is true, to some extent, though it is a little more complicated than that. Religion can be defined as “a system of faith or worship,” and Christianity is, to some degree, at least, systematic. In other words, there are certain rituals or activities that God expects of Christians.
For example, God expects those who have confessed faith in Christ to undergo the ritual of baptism (Acts 2:38). He expects Christians to gather corporately for worship (Hebrews 10:24–25) and to participate in the ritual of Communion when they do so (1 Corinthians 11:28). Christians are responsible, before God, to carry out these duties as a part of their devotion to God.
We must remember, however, that God requires more than rote obedience to his commands. We must never divorce devotion from obedience. For example, Paul wrote that “each one must give as he has decided in his heart” but quickly added, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6–9). Giving is an act of obedience, but if we cannot give from a cheerful heart, the act becomes meaningless. Similarly, if we gather with the saints or partake of Communion or submit to baptism as mere ritual—without a devoted heart—our worship does not honour God. If we want to delight the Lord with our worship, we must do so with an attitude that says, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (v. 8).
God is not an impersonal force that we can control with our acts of rote obedience. The mere act of sacrifice does not guarantee forgiveness; the mere act of prayer does not guarantee blessing; and the mere act of religious ritual does not guarantee comfort. God is looking for something far deeper than rote religiosity.
We insult God when we think we can buy his favour with our empty ritual. As Skye Jethani says, “It is about the posture of our heart, not the mechanics of our worship.” Of course, we cannot entirely separate the two. We see in Jesus that a devoted heart results in radical obedience (Hebrews 10:5–7). The devoted heart will manifest in an obedient life but acts of obedience do not always prove a heart of devotion.
Christian—church member—God wants your acts of obedience, but he wants them to flow from a heart of devotion rather than a superstitious belief that you can manipulate him by your rituals. Examine your heart and allow your devotion to manifest itself in obedience in which God can and will truly delight.