“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I think about worship, I tend to think about it purely in religious terms. I go to church to worship on Sundays, Muslims travel to Mecca to worship, the Sabbath is regarded as a day of worship. I’m inclined to think of worship as a voluntary act, something I choose to do, and something I do only at specific times.
This quote defies all of my notions of what worship is, and it’s a bit unnerving. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? As a Christian, I believe we were made to worship. We were created to worship God, the only one deserving of worship. But if we were created to worship, and we aren’t worshiping God, it makes sense that we would need something or someone else to fulfill that innate desire in us.
Christian worldview aside, it’s easy to see what Emerson is saying here, if we just look at the world around us. I would argue that if you know someone well enough, you could guess what it is they worship by looking at their life. And anyone who knows you well enough could probably guess what it is that you worship, too.
What dominates your imagination? What do you think about most of the time? What, if you lost it, would devastate you, ruin your life? What do you plan your time around? What do you spend your money on? What defines you as a person?
It’s frightening to think that we can be worshiping something inadvertently. Worship is a heavy word, and it connotes a sort of ownership. If I worship someone or something, it is a submission on my part, a subjection of myself to that person or object. It’s as if I’m giving over a part of myself to the object of my worship. And what Emerson seems to be saying is that this can happen without our knowledge, without intention, without an express decision on our part. And he warns us to be careful what we worship, because what we worship determines who we are becoming.
So let’s take an obvious one: money. It’s tough because we need money; we have to have money to survive. So yes, we must think about money, we must find a way to make money, we must have dealings with money. But what if money is all I think about? What if all of my decisions are based off of how much money I can make, how much money I will spend, how much closer I can get to my financial goals because of this decision? What if I make sacrifices in my personal life because I feel like I need to make more money? What if all of my anxiety stems from the fear of losing money, or not having enough? When does this cease to become mere thought, and evolve into a sort of worship?
Jesus warns us against laying up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal. It’s good logic, because one day none of it will matter, and we can’t hang on forever to money or anything it can buy. It will leave us one day, one way or another. But he goes on to say something else. He says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
That sounds a lot like worship to me. It’s not just bad to hoard things on earth because they don’t last; it’s dangerous, because wherever our greatest treasure is, our heart will be there too. Whatever we treasure the most, that is what our heart will end up worshiping, whether we like it or not.
So can we choose what or whom we worship? Yes. But it’s not a matter of simply saying “I will worship God” or “I will not worship money (or beauty, or intellect, or popularity, or family).” It’s a matter of being intentional about where our treasure is, and where our heart is.
If I’m not spending time with God, thinking about God, talking to God, treasuring God and His promises, in my daily life, am I really worshiping him when I stand and sing songs in church to Him on Sunday? If I’m not allowing His word to penetrate into my heart and dictate how I live my life, am I truly worshiping Him when I sit down to read the Bible? Am I making decisions based on my relationship with Him, and what He wants for me? Or am I allowing something or someone else in my life to dictate my decision-making?
Worship isn’t just something we do on Sunday. It’s a condition of the heart. And as Emerson reminds us, if we aren’t careful about where our heart is, we may end up worshiping the wrong thing.