taking the words of Jesus seriously

This seems like an easy question to answer. Of course. We should always be praising God. And we would have plenty of Bible verses to support our gut instinct:

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.—Psalm 34:1

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.—Psalm 104:33

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.—Philippians 4:4

Yet worship and praise are only meaningful if they are holistic: we are called to align our words, actions, thoughts, and communities to the will and way of the God who loves us and who died for us. There are few things that enrage God more in the pages of Scripture than when God’s people only perform worship—in temple ritual, prayer, or song—but do not live in worship. 

This principle is on glaring display in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah railed against Israel and Judah because their wealthiest leaders had joined house to house and added field to field, so that there was no land left for the poor (5:7-8). These “blessed” landowners no doubt worshiped God in gratitude, but this wasn’t the type of praise God desired: the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice (5:16).

The prophet Amos, serving during the peak of Israel’s prosperity, used even stronger language to denounce the nation’s inequality and hypocrisy. Because the people had discarded any sense of justice toward the poor and oppressed, God had discarded any interest in their acts of worship! “I despise your festivals… Take away from me the noise of your songs” (5:21, 23). It seems so unlike God to reject sincere acts of worship. But the worship was only in music and word, and perhaps thought—not in the concrete economic, social, and policy decisions of those in power.

God was waiting for real worship, for justice to roll down like waters.

READ: Let Lament Lead to These 12 Actions

It is no surprise that Jesus—the very image of the invisible God—carried on this passion for just living. We forget this sometimes when we remember his rebukes of the Pharisees as attacks on only their pride or self-righteousness. But Jesus often exposed the corrupt religious systems they exploited to accumulate wealth and power: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

This raises an all-too-pressing question for us today, particularly for those of us who identify as white evangelicals. As we continue to hold worship services over social media or video chat, or begin to regather in person as church communities, is God interested in the noise of our songs? 

Many churches across the nation and world are trying their best to engage issues of race, perhaps for the first time. Some are praying for unity and healing. Some are hosting black guest speakers. But, sadly, many are quickly returning to business as usual. It must be time for the next sermon series on anxiety, or leadership, or spiritual gifts. The band is back together for more electric guitar riffs and soaring choruses about God’s goodness and the need to surrender.

It just might not mean anything while the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others wait for justice. While Black Americans, Christian and non-Christian alike, cannot escape centuries-old systems designed to maintain white supremacy. 

It might be time for an extended season of lament. Perhaps our worship services should focus on psalms of complaint and prayers of repentance. Maybe our Sunday school classes and small groups should study the history of American racial injustice—including in our church traditions. It might be time for our financial resources to be funneled to causes that raise up the oppressed.

Because our songs of praise might not mean anything until we choose to exalt God with concrete acts of justice.

About The Author


Jon Mathieu (MDiv, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Harbor Online Community, an inclusive online church. He is also the community engagement editor for the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine. He lives in Chicago, IL.

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