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A Theology of Worship
'Singing' a New Song to the LORD


Verse 2      Composing a New Sanctuary



The Necessity of Relational Clarity and Relational Significance

Learning from the Old Testament

The Worshipers God Seeks


In Whose Key? Perceptual-Interpretive

Framework and Lens

Seeing Outer In: quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework

Grace: transforming perceptual-interpretive framework

Seeing Inner Out: qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework


The Person We Present

Functional Implications


printable pdf of entire study


Verse 1


Verse 3

Verse 4

Verse 5


Table of Contents


Scripture Index



Pay attention to what/how you hear; the measure you give

will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.

                                                                                                                        Mark 4:24



            With these relational words, Jesus addresses the quality and depth of our involvement with him, and what the relational outcome for us will be, which have vital implications for corporate worship. Through this Verse we discuss some difficult areas that will confront most of us, and certainly challenge many of our assumptions about how we see things and our acceptance of the way things are. I pray the Spirit will stir up the ‘eternity substance’ of God that he has planted in our hearts to want more than human limits allow (Eccl 3:11). In our church life and practice, and even more so in the Christian academy, it is not part of our culture, mindset and worldview to think relationally, even when we consider relationship to be a priority. This lack attests to the genius and success of Satan, who promotes reductionism and its counter-relational work in our midst. More immediate for our accountability, this involves our framework and lens, which Jesus clearly identified as “the measure you [use and thus] give,” and then made inescapably definitive about that measure determining “the [results] you get”—measured by either the quantitative or the qualitative, the secondary or the primary, the referential or the relational, outer in or inner out.

            The purpose of this study is to make clear what the issues are, and how they specifically relate to corporate worship. We are at a place in church history in great need not so much for another Reformation but even more deeply of a transformation. Complete transformation (from inner out, metamorphoō, 2 Cor 3:16-18) requires dying to the old so that the new can emerge—that is, redemptive change. It is our ‘person’ who needs to change first from inner out, not changing what we do or have from outer in (metaschematizō, 2 Cor 11:13-15). Jesus, in his relational words communicated openly to the Samaritan woman, clearly addresses who, what, and how we are as worshipers only from inner out. This is the significance that he spoke of, not of the “worship” the Father seeks, but the “worshipers” (Jn 4:23-24).



The Necessity of Relational Clarity and Relational Significance


            Corporate worship planning pursues the concern that worship be pleasing to God and meaningful to and transforming for worshipers. We want to get it right, and often proceed with one of two subtle assumptions. First, we assume that our worship, individual or corporate, has significance to God. Second, if we do not assume the first, then we assume that we are unlikely to know what specifically pleases God, so we do the best we can and ask before and during corporate worship that whatever it is we do would be pleasing to him. In a sense we are guessing, and we look for feedback from the congregation. We may be assuming correctly, or we may not. At the very least, we know from God’s words that where our heart is, is key to worship (individual and corporate) that has significance to God, and is also the key to experiencing God in worship.

            We must not assume where are our heart is and need to pay attention to its vital signs. Our heart is either focused on and engaged in what is primary to God, that is, relationship together, or is distant, as when we give primacy to secondary matters of what we do/have, and treating worship as performance, situation or event. As I have been learning and experiencing, my heart either responds to God with relational clarity and relational significance, or is constrained by secondary, indirect involvement that creates and maintains relational barriers even without awareness of doing so. God knows this; he is the searcher and knower of hearts (Acts 1:24, 15:8; Rom 8:27), and pursues our hearts (to heal, cleanse, free and make whole) for intimate relationship with God. What is meant by relational clarity and relational significance?

            Relational clarity in worship is our direct person-to-person intentional focus on God. This is not something we create, for example, by words referencing God, but is a relational response we enact directly to who, what, and how God is. The whole of who, what, and how God is establishes the clarity necessary for the relational response of worship in the new sanctuary. Relational clarity is diminished by relational ambiguity; relational ambiguity is what takes place when our primary focus is on others (e.g. musicians performing, preachers preaching) or what we ourselves are doing (performing, preaching), even as mediating acts for worship. Ironically, it happens frequently that even something as significant as Communion is led with relational ambiguity and is thus reduced from its deep meaning to becoming a routine activity. It may seem absurd to note this, but think about it functionally. Analogously, haven’t you attended a birthday party or other celebration given in honor of someone—perhaps you were the honoree—and after a brief time of recognition and attention, the person being honored is hardly spoken to? In corporate worship, if most of the songs we sing are about God, and not directly sung to him (including in the third person), the result is relational ambiguity. If most of the music is sung by others, like the choir or worship band, and the congregation watches and listens, relational ambiguity dominates, even with words referencing God. This includes prayers directed to God in flowing referential language informative about God but lacking the whole of who, what, and how God is in relational terms.

            For our worship to have relational clarity, we must minimize the relationally-ambiguous involvement of “ourselves about ourselves”[1] in worship, be it in prayer, in the Word, in song, or any other means and media of communication and engagement. When our songs say more about ourselves, refer to him in the third person, or when our attention is more on the outer-in musical acts by singers, and instrumentalists, relational focus is ambiguous. Worship leader and songwriter Matt Redman makes this point in his confessional song:


I’m coming back to the heart of worship,

When it’s all about You, all about You, Jesus.

I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I made it,

When it’s all about You, All about You, Jesus.[2]

            When we corporately come together intentionally into the relational context of the whole of God (not fragments about God) whom we are worshiping, there is relational clarity. God's relational context is his vulnerable presence, “the Most Holy Place” intimately Face to face with him behind the curtain, which we enter only on his relational terms, involving his relational response of grace. Worship planners and pastoral staffs are responsible to see that the church’s worship service has relational clarity in God’s relational context. Relational clarity alone, however, is not sufficient to enter into God’s presence face to Face. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to the trough, but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, you can point worshipers to God, but you cannot make persons worship as the Father seeks; nor does mere association with a worship gathering constitute worship for those persons. This critically distinguishes mere participation in a corporate process or event from direct relational involvement with God and his family in relationship together. The only worshipers the Father seeks are those whose involvement with him has relational significance.

            We are God’s family together, and being family together means that in corporate worship we are relationally involved from inner out with each other, which converges most notably in Communion as the integral table fellowship of God’s family. Further understanding about how involvement together unfolds is addressed later. The issue for relational clarity is to distinguish between what is primary to God, what is only secondary to him, and to examine our own priorities. As this study continues, the incompatibility between God’s whole terms and our reduced terms becomes much clearer.


 “[T]he true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24).


            Relational significance to God is the inner-out involvement of our whole person—nothing less and no substitutes—with him in the intimate relational process that Jesus embodies for us in the incarnation. During Jesus’ life on earth, the incarnation between the manger and the cross, Jesus made known through his relationship with the Father, the Spirit, and interactions with human persons that the innermost of God’s being is signified by heart, and that God’s nature is intimately relational, which integrally constitute God’s presence as vulnerably involved only for relationship. Intimacy is defined as hearts open, vulnerable and coming together. Indeed, at the Transfiguration, the Father told the disciples, “listen to [my] Son,” so that they could not only perceive God whom Jesus vulnerably embodied, but also to experience the purpose for this embodiment, intimate relationship together, to be relationally connected in likeness of the Father and Son’s relationship together. Involvement in this distinguished relational process engages relational significance—not only in this intimate relationship with him, but with each other also, to be “one [in intimate relational connection] as we are one” (Jn 17:20-22).

            John’s Gospel ‘sings’ in God’s relational language. In Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, Jesus disclosed to her who “the true worshipers” are, only persons who “will worship the Father in spirit [rendered in function as inner person, heart] and truth [rendered in function as the person in congruence both inner and out, honesty of heart]” (Jn 4:23-24). The Father seeks such persons. Zeteō (“seek, seek out”) further denotes “to try to obtain, to desire to possess,” in strong relational language that should not be confused with how we do relationships. What is Jesus revealing for relationship?

            “God is spirit” denotes God’s innermost being as heart (v.24).[3] It is the heart of God embodied in the Son who came to be present and involved with us, nothing less than and no substitutes for the whole of God, his open and vulnerable heart extended to us directly in the person of Jesus. Relational significance, then, means that we respond back to God just as he is involved with us in the intimate relational process—with nothing less than who and what we honestly are (sinful, forgiven, loved, and restored to his image) and no substitutes (of what we do or have) for our whole person signified by our hearts. This is Jesus’ meaning of worshipers who “must worship in spirit and truth.” The Greek for “must” is dei, which denotes an imperative by the nature of the thing, in contrast to opheilo, which denotes being bound by obligation or duty. By the nature of God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement, there is no compatible connection with God without this depth of response and still have relational significance to God. Relational significance, then, is a nonnegotiable matter. When our hearts are open and vulnerable in response back to God, the blessed relational outcome is intimacy (heart-to-heart connection); this is the only involvement that has relational significance to the heart of God.

            Therefore, worship with lips but not heart is outer in, not inner out, and therefore not relational. Such worship is incompatible to have significance to God because it emerges from persons fragmented or reduced in their function with something less than their open and honest hearts, and with some substitutes in the form of what one does (e.g. perform, even sacrifice) or has (e.g. a title, resources). The Father seeks only the deeper quality of intimate relational involvement with him; this is what he desires and expects of us, for which we are accountable, nonnegotiably.

            Relational clarity is a necessary condition for relational significance in worship, but relational clarity by itself is never a sufficient condition to ensure relational significance. Whole worshipers worship in God’s relational context in which relationship is primary and in the relational process of nothing less and no substitutes, as embodied and made definitive by Jesus. This is worship on God’s whole terms and is the quality of relational involvement that is specific to God—specific not just to parts of God but to only the whole of God. Worship that is person specific (relationally specific) to the whole of God is worship constituted by the necessary relational dynamic having both relational clarity and relational significance.


Learning from the Old Testament


            The inner-out response of the hearts of his people in trust and obedience to his person pleases God. When God commanded the Israelites not to have any other gods before him, that he is a jealous God, and also that he abundantly blesses those who love him and keep his commands (his relational desires), he summarized in relational language how he wanted them to respond to him. These prescriptions were the relational terms that God set for the covenant, which the people were to submit to and obey as their relational responses from inner out, not obligations from outer in. For God, the relational response of the peoples’ whole person from inner out was always primary. Within this relational context and process of the covenant, God clearly laid out covenant terms (torah) and instructions for the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Jerusalem temple, temple worship (see Lev and Num), as well as the sacrifices. These were God’s relational terms to be received as the Israelites’ relational responsibility in that reciprocal covenant relationship. The terms of the covenant relationship between God and Israel were nonnegotiable, and keeping the terms with their whole person was the relational response of obedience that had relational clarity and relational significance to him. These were relationally specific to Yahweh. By the terms of the covenant relational responsibilities, God also bound himself to the covenant terms (Ex 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Num 14:18; Dt 5:9-10; 7:9-10). “I will place my dwelling in your midst...I will walk among you,” (Lev 26:12). God’s covenant terms were provided for the Israelites to be able to encounter God’s presence and to experience his care and abundant blessing, wholeness and well-being—the meaning of biblical peace (šalôm).

            Biblical peace as wholeness (šalôm) stands in contrast to the reduced (outer in) Greek understanding of peace as merely harmony and the absence of conflict, the latter of which persists as our common view of peace, even in Christian contexts. Jesus makes this distinction definitive: “my peace [wholeness] I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (Jn 14:27, emphasis added).

            The Face of God’s presence and involvement with the Israelites composes in relational language the Lord’s definitive blessing for wholeness:


The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;

The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace   (Num 6:24-26 NIV).


            Hundreds of years later, during the time of Solomon, the temple in Jerusalem became the central location of meeting with God. As Solomon dedicated the temple to the God, God made this promise: “I have consecrated this temple...by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there” (1 Kgs 9:3, NIV). God vulnerably spoke to Israel in relational messages. He was present and involved among them, in the primacy of relationship together.

            The OT prophets narrate how this beautiful covenant relationship became a cacophony of out-of-tune sounds as the Israelites attempted to change the covenant’s relational terms to their own reduced terms. The absence of relational significance of their whole persons was indicated by how they functioned not only in relationship with him, but with others, since the depth of consistency in all relationships is the function of the whole person from inner out. In the relational terms of the covenant, God had commanded Israel to live in the primacy of reciprocal relational responsibility, first with God and also among themselves (e.g. Lev 19), and specifically to extend his impartiality and compassion by not abusing the socially and economically vulnerable persons—the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows, and foreigners in their midst (Ex 22:21-27; Dt 10:17-19; 24:17-22). Yet, as a whole, the Israelites failed to make God’s relational terms primary in their lives (Amos 3:1; 5:10-12; Isa 1:1-4), thus evoking God’s rejection of their “worship,” which lacked inner-out integrity of who and what they presented of themselves to him:


I do not delight in [your sacrifices].... When you come to [see my Face], who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.... I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul [nep] hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you offer many prayers, I will not listen (Isa 1:11-15).


I hate, I despise your festivals; I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me [offerings] I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being [fellowship offerings, NIV]...I will not look upon them. Take away the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps (Amos 5:21-23).


            Our focus on these passages needs to be not on historical information, but on the relational dynamics involved. The Israelites may have continued to give relational clarity to God by engaging in sacrifices, prayer, and musical “worship,” yet God clearly rejected their liturgical activities because they lacked the relational significance of their whole person in response to the heart of God.


The Worshipers God Seeks


            When Jesus challenged some Pharisees with the words quoted at the beginning of this study, he rebuked their practices of piety (in effect, worship as lifestyle) by restating the ancient reprimand to the Israelites (Isa 29:13). Whether the Israelites in the OT or the Pharisees in the NT, their worship was “in vain,” lacking in relational significance to God because they engaged in some substitute from their own construction (“rules taught by men”). In Scripture God challenges his peoples’ worship with his relational language; these are not merely ancient texts bound to the past by chronological time (chronos). He therefore continues to speak just as directly and vulnerably to us today (in God’s time of kairos) in these verses and through the whole of Scripture. Beyond a mere text filled with referential information about God, Scripture is God’s relational language that only relationally communicates the full self-disclosure of God in ongoing relationship with us.[4] We too are thus confronted about who and what we present to God in worship.

            Jesus challenges our assumptions, as with the Pharisees, about the quality of our relational involvement with him in worship. Our worship might be “in vain,” as Jesus told the Pharisees, and the Israelites hundreds of years earlier. We may believe that the worship we give God is sincere and faithful to him; yet, it is very possible that our worship is out of tune, or merely lip service, just hot air emitting from our mouths, as far as God is concerned. Such a critique may seem nasty or harsh, but the issue that Jesus raises goes deeper than current worship debates; what Jesus addresses gets to the heart of human ontology and function (theological anthropology), and ultimately what the gospel is all about. He is being relationally involved with us deeply, personally, and beyond what most of us seem to want.

            It is said that in corporate worship everything says something theologically.[5] The use of music, prayers, sermon, the positions of the worship leaders, musicians, the placement of the Communion table and other furniture, the projection screen, visuals—all express how God is seen and related to in a particular place of worship. These elements either reveal God in further and deeper ways, or obscure him. I find it to be more helpful to rephrase that observation with “everything in worship says something relationally” (which, in a relational theology, goes deeper than a referential theology). As God revealed himself in the incarnation of Jesus openly and vulnerably heart to heart with us, heart to heart is how our response must be in order to be compatible with how he is with us. He is present and involved—nothing less and no substitutes—and this is the involvement of our whole person he expects back.

            In general, we often strain in corporate worship to hear God communicate his heart to us, and we are also constrained from communicating our hearts to him. These constraints can come from either the way the worship time is designed and led, or from ourselves, or both. Whichever the cause, worship of God that lacks relational clarity and relational significance to him in function takes place ‘in front of the curtain,’ that is, distant or apart from God’s relational context and process—as it was before the Temple was reconstituted and as still found in Secondary Sanctuary. I can think of nothing more paradoxical, more antithetical to the good news of the whole gospel than corporate worship that creates and/or maintains barriers to intimacy with God and each other. But that is the functional reality when we reduce worship’s relational purpose to the secondary involvement focused essentially more on “ourselves about ourselves.” Even with good intentions, such secondary involvement reflects that we, like the Israelites and Pharisees who were rebuked by God (Isa 29:13 and Mt 15:8-9), worship God on our own reduced terms.

            A clear distinction must be made here between intimate relational connection and an emotional or sensory experience. Intimacy, defined as hearts open and vulnerable and coming together in relational connection, is what distinguishes heart-to-heart relational connection. Both parties know the connection is made. When we try to create emotional or sensory experiences, these are outer-in efforts that get confused and substituted for real intimacy. Such experiences are ontological simulation without deeper relational connection; this experience has no relational significance for (or clarity of) God. In the absence of this distinction, I suggest that driving at least some of the contemporary efforts to recover ancient liturgical practices (e.g. from third century ecclesial documents like the Apostolic Tradition, Canons of Hippolytus, the Apostolic Constitutions, etc.) is a confusion of emotional/sensory experience with intimate relationship with God. Likewise, persons who turn to high liturgy are often tired of shallowness in worship, and seek deeper significance through long-lived sacramental traditions. There is a real and deep need for the qualitative in our corporate worship that persons understandably seek. Nonetheless, no matter how sincere and desirous we are for a qualitatively deep experience, God seeks worshipers who come to him on his relational terms. We cannot influence God to connect with us on our terms from outer in despite the sacred and liturgical shape of our efforts. When we try, what we get are, again, ontological simulations from our epistemological illusions.

            Our reduced terms from either not listening to Jesus, not submitting to his whole terms, or both, are also expressed in the following ways—even unknowingly and with our sincere intentions to worship God rightly: worship that is overly christocentric and that tends to jump from the manger to the cross; worship that rehashes the cross’ necessity over and over (Heb 6:1-2), thus which ignores the main half of the gospel involving the relationships we are saved to (Col 3:12-17); and worship that is characterized by indirectness (Jn 4:21). Further in this study, indirectness is more fully discussed.

            The following words from Matt Redman’s song are about having started to listen to the Son, by turning from substitutes and relational distance to relational clarity and relational significance:


I’ll bring you more than a song,

For a song in itself

Is not what You have required.

You search much deeper within

Through the way things appear;

You’re looking into my heart.[6]


            Relational significance (and implied relational clarity) is the integrating theme in this theology of worship, and the rest of this study expands on it. Indeed, relational significance addresses and challenges many contemporary theological issues facing the church today, particularly in the West. But in order for us to further understand relational significance as God’s priority for relationship, which thus must become our priority, this necessitates deep, basic change on our part, beginning with our perceptual-interpretive framework (from worldview to mindset). We need to address our perceptual-interpretive framework before we ourselves can become those who worship in spirit and truth, that is, beyond having static doctrinal truths in referential terms which do not translate into experiential reality in relational terms.



In Whose Key? Perceptual-interpretive Framework and Lens


            Think for a moment about what you notice and pay attention to when you are in a worship gathering. Likewise, reflect a bit on what you usually ignore.[7] Your response will depend on two interacting factors: (1) your perceptual-interpretive framework, and (2) what is going on. I discuss the latter in the second half of this study. In this section, focus is given to the former, because the nature of our perceptual-interpretive framework either prevents or leads to growth in relationship with God. Understanding this issue is essential to more deeply understanding why the human heart is so important to God, and why making intimate relational connection with God often eludes us in worship, both individually and corporately, and in our lives in general.

            The sociocultural and family contexts in which we grow up form our perceptual-interpretive framework. Perception and interpretation function together, forming the lens through which we receive input, and which determines what we pay attention to and what we ignore—much like the lenses of eyeglasses—in the progressive process of forming biases, mindsets and worldviews. The dynamic of perception as seeing and hearing are frequently addressed in the Old and New Testaments, yet the imperative voice of the words from Jesus (Mk 4:24 at the beginning of this Verse) apparently escapes our attention.[8] Let’s pay attention to Jesus’ imperative now.


Seeing Outer In: quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework[9]


             The common perceptual-interpretive framework from our sociocultural context focuses on and defines the human person by “outer,” or quantitative aspects of what persons have or do. With such a focus I come to define my person by ‘what I do’, which includes my job, education, or achievements. Conjointly, I come to define my person also by ‘what I have’, which entails my possessions, social status, and personal attributes and resources such as gender, race, and appearance, intelligence, and abilities, even spiritual gifts. The Greek word bios refers to these quantitative aspects of life which we document in bios and display in résumés. These criteria define my person from the outer in. In defining myself from outer in, that which gets ignored or hidden is my heart, which signifies my whole person from inner out. The biblical view of the heart (Heb. leb) defines it as the inner person, the qualitative dimension that is the seat of human emotion, desire and will.

            As mentioned in the Verse 1, the process of defining oneself from the outer in is reductionism. Reductionism is the process of fragmenting a whole into one or some parts, say a person, and defining the whole by its part(s). This process diminishes the integrity of the whole, and is always less than the whole. Reductionism determines how we function by giving primacy to those outer aspects of our person by which we come to define ourselves. Using this quantitative interpretive lens, we also view and define others likewise, from outer in, and engage in relationships accordingly, including with God.


From childhood on, I spent a lot of time drawing and playing the piano, and so in my family I was identified favorably as the one who did those things. Negatively, I was the timid one scared to take risks (e.g. jump off the diving board), and so I was also defined by what I did not do. We four children each had such labels, reflecting that in our family we all related to each other through what we did or attributes we had, but we rarely perceived ourselves and each other from the inner out, and therefore rarely—if ever—made deeper relational connection.[10]


            It is axiomatic that defining one’s self from the outer in engages us in the comparative process of outer criteria, because we are always evaluating our worth in comparison with someone else: how well I measure up, or not. It is a tenacious spirit that we all know, comparing ourselves to siblings, schoolmates, and even media personalities, not to mention Christian role models (cf. the disciples, Lk 22:24). The outer-in focus drives the comparative process even in worship: Does someone play the guitar better than I do? Do I have a better preaching gift? Did we have a more creative worship, a more Spirit-filled worship than another church? Did I look better, or less cool, than so-and-so? Does our church have more worship attendees than the church down the street? The comparative process creates distance in relationships by horizontal partitions and vertical stratification, fragments persons by reducing them (as well as ourselves), and has no place among those in God’s family. In this better-less dynamic, relationships also become vertical, that is, hierarchical, however subtly or benignly that hierarchy may be imposed and presented—as noted about the disciples, which Jesus put into deeper relational perspective (Lk 22:24-27). This is hurtful to all relationships—from the personal to the systemic—and is especially egregious among Christians.[11]

            Christians correctly identify idols in this process (e.g. the idols of success, of numbers), but addressing idols usually does not get to the root cause. I have always found my idols impossible to get rid of, notwithstanding the numerous times I laid “my crowns” at the foot of the cross in repentance. This action, which quite commonly is integrated into worship services, has not brought about inner-out change because it is change attempted from outer in, changing the outward form denoted by metaschematizō.[12] The dynamic of having idols must be addressed as the problem of reductionism, defining oneself by outer-in criteria of what one does and has. Whatever form they take, idols provide persons with criteria by which to “better” define their person, if not to justify oneself.[13] Reductionism profoundly diminishes human ontology and function, and constitutes the sin of counter-relational work from Satan’s influence. Reductionism—the redefinition of person (divine and human)—needs to be addressed from the inner out by the redemptive change (metamorphoō) beginning with the transformation (i.e. redemptive change) of our perceptual-interpretive framework and lens (Rom 8:5-6, 12:2) as Paul clarifies for the church.

            Christians are not unaware of the dynamics of comparison and competition, yet we do not think through their deeper relational implications vis-à-vis God’s grace, and creating distance within the church family. Many individuals feel distressed about their own problem of comparison and competition, but most attempts to change do not stick because attempts are made only from outer in, not recognizing the basic issue of how one defines their person, and the ongoing choice to turn around from the old.

            As I grew up defined from outer in, I simultaneously learned to push down my heart, becoming more and more closed, refusing to be open and vulnerable and take risks. This variable process is how we become distant and detached from our hearts.[14] Scripture refers very often to hearts hardening, becoming cold, or hearts of stone. The Greek word for “hardening” is porosis, denoting becoming callous or insensitive to the touch (Eph 4:18, cf. Mk 3:5). Outwardly I appeared like a nice friendly person, yet I was detached from my heart; inwardly, I was really lonely and numb. In college I decided to “follow” Jesus, but it took me decades before I could say our relationship progressed beyond situation-based good feelings to become a significant experiential reality for me, since my heart needed a lot of redeeming, freeing and healing from being reduced. I suggest that this helps us understand notable servants of God like Lewis Smedes (a former Fuller Seminary professor), who never felt up to his death that God was his friend[15]; or why Mother Theresa felt God had abandoned her the last fifty years of her life, and felt despair beneath her smiling face, which she called “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.”[16] From God’s side, as Jesus made definitive, “the measure we use to define our person and give to determine our involvement will be the limits of measure we receive in our hearts and experience in our relationships.

            The primary consequence of distant hearts and the comparative process is the effect on our personal relationships, most notably with God. Not surprisingly, distant hearts are unavailable for deeper connection with others because intimate relational connection can only take place when hearts are open and vulnerable to each other and come together. This relational gap exists even in the longest and most committed relationships (with God, marriage and family). The comparative process either limits or disallows our heart to be vulnerable to others because of the need to be better than others, not less, to get the upper hand over others rather than be subordinate. Our self-worth (indeed our life) is on the line. These are relational barriers we erect and furiously maintain, even below a calm, even irenic demeanor. In church, we never address this process adequately for what it is, a problem of our theological anthropology.

            Because we do not live in a social vacuum, and, more important, in isolation from the whole of God, it is crucial to recognize that as persons created in the relational likeness of the Trinity, we ongoingly do something else in place of intimate relational connection: we make substitutes with things of secondary importance, making them primary. With friends and family, we give each other things (including emails and text messages), spend time doing activities, take lots of photographs. In worship, substitutes can take forms that appear truly meaningful, such as liturgical formats trying to physically create an ambiance of sacredness in the worship area, or being innovative for the worship time. I dare to suggest that much of our Christmas tradition in church and the transition to Easter are largely about substitutes of secondary matter that have created their own sense and feeling. This was amplified for me when a pastor quoted his wife as saying that it wasn’t until she started wrapping presents “that it finally started to feel like Christmas.” The quest for a sensory experience is common in both contemporary worship services and in high liturgical churches. At issue for either of these kinds of churches, and for others also, is our focus on the outer in, secondary aspects of ourselves, God, and others—all with intentions to go deeper, which invariably are not fulfilled.

            Intimate relational connection is uncomfortable for people (I know!), and we often actually prefer substitutes. For example, regarding worship services, we derive meaning from numbers of people in attendance, even contrary to our distaste for the idea of looking to numbers. Our relational involvement with others becomes measured, polite, but distant, though we do things together or for each other. We measure (rationalize) how well our relationships are going by quantitative criteria—by how much time we spend together in ministry and Bible studies, or how much we serve, and even sacrifice for others. With the measure we give and use, it is inevitable that as we gear our efforts to what we can do in service and ministry for God, even at some sacrifice to do so, and with the sincerest intentions, our heart remains distant, and the experience of the results wanting. Sadly, we are reinforced in, and reinforce in each other, this process of reductionism in church, however inadvertently and unknowingly we do so. This is how reductionism directly counters deeper relationship in so much of our church gatherings. Despite our good intentions and in spite of any “successful” results, we still must recognize and take responsibility for the fact that such worship does not have any relational significance to God. “They worship me in vain,” he says unequivocally. God, apparently, holds us accountable for his self-disclosures. Hmmm, “the measure we....”

            Both the OT and NT identify “hearts far from me” as well as the substitutes his people make—rules taught by men” and “tradition of the elders”—as problematic vis-à-vis God. In principle, if not specific actions, we commonly do the same—we try to do relationship with God on our reduced terms, which are always the outer-in terms of what we do and have. In theological anthropology, reduced terms are the only terms available in the human condition, which we cannot claim to be saved from without the redemptive change of experiencing the primacy of what Jesus saves us to. Insofar as this is true in our churches, Satan has triumphed, since the primary engagement Satan has with Christians is to interfere in the intimacy of relationships between God and us, and among us. Indeed, Satan’s counter-relational work is ongoingly in churches, as Paul exposed: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14-15 NIV).[17] The result is that church mirrors various social institutions or becomes much like a friendly volunteer organization, and less like persons relationally bonded together sharing family love as Jesus loved his disciples—the family whom Jesus prayed for (Jn 17:21-26) and Paul echoed (Eph 3:16-19).

            To summarize the influences of our unredeemed perceptual-interpretive framework of reductionism: (1) regarding our ontology: we define our person from the quantitative outer in criteria of we do or have, which fragments and reduces the whole person, making secondary or ignoring the heart’s function for the primacy of relationship; (2) regarding our function: based on this outer-in definition of our person, we engage in relationship with God and others with what we do or have, thus embedding us in the comparative process with a secondary focus on both persons and relationships apart from their wholeness; (3) implications for church: we carry this way of doing relationships to our church life and practice, resulting in relational distance and barriers. The consequences of reductionism of our person ripple throughout everything we do—including how we relate to God in our worship practices. Since reductionism always works against wholeness, God ongoingly rebuked reductionist ontology and function of his people in OT times, further addressed it in Jesus’ incarnation, and continues to do so in our time today by the Spirit.


Grace: transforming perceptual-interpretive framework


            There is only one alternative to reductionism: the whole of God’s relational response of grace. We Christians speak inadequately of grace. Grace is one of those basic Christian words about which we assume we know the significance. We pray for the gift of grace and to possess grace, for example, to not explode at someone. We ascribe grace to a good grade in seminary, or other desirable outcomes in our life situations. Theologically we know that only by grace can we be in relationship with God. Yet, the relational significance of grace is missing in ongoing experience (function) in our relationships.

            With the influence of the Reformation, grace is usually theologically associated only with the fact of Jesus’ dying for our sins so that we can have eternal life. The cross becomes a once and for all event, “a God thing;” grace is also the mysterious prevenient force that makes our hearts ready. The cross is easily perceived as mere referential event which reflects a reductionist interpretive lens that concentrates on “what Jesus did” and does not listen to his whole person extended to persons for relationship together in God’s relational response of grace even before the cross and after the manger.

            The deeper implications of relational grace for our transformation are these: Grace makes possible the intimate relational connection with Christ who in relationship together embodies grace by this integral relational process: (1) forgiving me, notably of the sin of reductionism (cf. Lk 7:36-50), (2) redefining me from the inner out, (3) transforming me from reductionism (cf. Gal 1:3-4), and (4) reconciling me in relationship together to be whole (cf. Rom 5:1-17). How we have put limits on grace’s function is again a matter of perceptual-interpretive framework, including our interpretive lenses from Christian contexts shaped by the Reformation and variations since. Grace functions as the only basis for relationship with God because without God having initiated his relational response of grace there is no possibility of relationship with him (Gal 1:3; Eph 2:1-5)—both for initial connection and in ongoing involvement. This is clearly an unequal relationship, yet not a unilateral one because God desires us only for reciprocal relationship together (Gal 2:21). Grace signifies God’s sufficient terms for reciprocal relationship with him (2 Cor 12:9); therefore, grace demands our whole person.[18]

            Reciprocal relationship together signifies the imperative relational nature (dei) necessitating “in spirit and truth” for our worship to be of relational significance to God. For our part in receiving and living by grace in relationship with God, it is nonnegotiable by the nature of grace, that we be honest, open and vulnerable with who and what we really are, including as sinners, as inadequate before God, and even as those struggling with disengaging from outer-in ontology. Not only is grace this functional basis for relationship with God, it is also the ongoing base for our reciprocal relationship with God. The function of relational grace is the primary nonnegotiable for our reciprocal response of worship.

            Beyond grace’s function to account for our sinfulness vis-à-vis the transcendent and holy God, grace functions in God’s self-disclosure in Jesus as he openly and vulnerably presented himself to us for relational connection (Jn 1:14). He risked (and continues to risk) being affected by our sin, by relational distance, disbelief and rejection, as persons were/are both attracted to and repelled by him (Jn 1:10-11). Jesus’ involvement with persons shows us the significance of love (agapē), not about what to do (even sacrifice), but about being deeply involved relationally with the other person for that other person’s sake. Children in God’s family experience this relational response of grace distinguished in the involvement of love, God’s family love that makes us whole and is the ongoing base to live whole. These are ways that Jesus revealed the Father’s heart (Jn 1:18), and to those “who received him [lambano, to embrace and follow a teacher’s instruction] and believed in his name (i.e. responded in trust, pisteuō), he gave the right to become [the family] of God” (Jn 1:12)—the relational outcome of grace.

            Just as Jesus came openly and vulnerably, the only compatible relational response I can make is with my own openness and vulnerability, the honesty of heart about who and what I truly am. Again, this is the meaning of the worshiper who worships “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24). I cannot present anything less than or any substitutes for my whole self with what I do or have from outer in and expect to be compatible. Grace requires the irreducible relational dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes in reciprocal relationship with God. As I receive God in his relational response of grace and forgiveness extended to me, with my heart open and vulnerable making reciprocal relational connection with his own heart, this is the process of intimate relationship in likeness of the Trinity; and, as a relational outcome, I am made whole from the inner out in this relationship together. The Spirit is key for us to function in reciprocal relational process: “And by the Spirit we cry ‘Abba,’ Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom 8:15-16). Worship is this dynamic reciprocal relational process in the relational context of God’s family integrally constituted in the Trinity. Moreover, this relational outcome is the experience of šalôm, or the Hebrew word for peace meaning wholeness and well-being with God and each other—the relational condition signified in the relational involvement of “in spirit and truth,” or of nothing less and no substitutes. This experience is the relational reality ‘already’ of what we are saved to, to constitute whole soteriology.[19]

            The relational experience of God’s grace distinguished in his involvement of love is to experience transformation from inner out (metamorphoō, 2 Cor 3:18), that is, the redemptive change necessary to become God’s daughters and sons only on God’s terms. Jesus’ involvement with persons in the NT changed them from the inside out by grace, by freeing their hearts from enslavement in being defined from outer in from reductionism, redefining their person from inner out in their relationship with him. Luke’s Gospel features such a transformation of two unlikely role-models for us: the ex-prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured her perfume on them (see Lk 7:36-50), and Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and also wiped his feet with her hair (Jn 12:1-8; cf. Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9). Both of these women risked derision, but stepped out to connect with Jesus and vulnerably responded to him with their whole persons. They did not let the social constraints and opinions of others stop them from freely giving of themselves to Jesus from the inner out.[20] These women demonstrate clearly for us worshipers who worship in spirit and truth; theirs is worship that has relational significance to God. (We examine these two women more deeply in Verse 3).

            Some worship thinkers or preachers focus on the extravagance of the ex-prostitute’s actions, and urge us to worship extravagantly following her example.[21] The focus on extravagance is similar to others’ focus on “excellence,” both of which tend to stir up our susceptibility to emphasize the outer aspects of our communication (form, style), and worship God with relational substitutes of what we do (make music skillfully) or have (talents). The deeper significance of the ex-prostitute lies in her person: the whole person she presented to Jesus, the qualitative significance of her communication, and the depth of relational involvement she engaged together with him. She experienced God’s forgiveness and grace, and simply loved back with the depth of her person in reciprocal relational response compatible with Jesus’ relational response. She was transformed from inner out.

            Relationships based ongoingly in grace, functioning from inner out with hearts open and vulnerable in relationship are by their nature both intimate and equalized. As noted earlier, intimacy is defined as hearts open and making deep connection together. It is vital to also understand that because God does not define human persons by human-shaped outer in criteria and categories, God’s relational response of grace deconstructs both these human distinctions and their resulting stratifications and hierarchies in relationships which constitute relational barriers. God hates our human constructions because they reduce persons and create and maintain distant and even broken relationships—all antithetical to his created order and in conflict with human ontology and function created in the whole of God’s qualitative image and relational likeness. Intimate and equalized relationships are the only relationships that have significance to God. These are relational outcomes of grace that the church has yet to take to heart, which is evidenced by the failure of prevailing Christian life and practice to highlight Mary’s vulnerable relational involvement and intimate response “in remembrance of her” wherever the gospel is claimed and proclaimed, just as Jesus definitively declared (Mt 26:13; Mk 14:9). This is a serious critique against much church leadership and the Christian academy, who are accountable to God for how we receive and respond to his relational response of grace distinguished in his involvement of love. Relational compatibility is neither optional nor replaceable by the secondary.

            The Gospels recount how Jesus’ main twelve disciples had difficulty in their relationship with Jesus because of their perceptual-interpretive framework and how they defined their person. Peter in particular exemplifies their difficulties. More on Peter is discussed in the next Verse. From human terms, the ex-prostitute and Mary are unlikely role models, yet they embodied a qualitative difference from a more likely role model, Peter.[22]


Only by grace can we enter, only by grace can we stand.

Not by our human endeavor, but by the blood of the Lamb.

Into your presence you call us, you call us to come.

Into your presence you draw us, and now by your grace we come, now by your grace we come.[23]


We need to have whole understanding of the relational significance of grace and our necessary (dei, by its nature) reciprocal response to give full meaning to the above contemporary song, as wells as to traditional hymns like “Just as I Am, Without One Plea;” otherwise our singing will be out of tune.


Seeing Inner Out: qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework


            As noted earlier, throughout the OT and NT, God communicates his priority for human hearts to be involved with him. The primacy of heart for relationship constitutes the qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework from God’s own self-disclosures. The Hebrew word for “heart” is leb and means the seat of the will and emotions, the inner person.[24] God seeks our heart made in his image because it is only at the depth of the heart that we are available from inner out to God for relationship, whole relationship together in his likeness. Only with our open and vulnerable heart can we present our person in compatible response to the heart of God extended to us. The involvement of the heart constitutes whole human ontology and whole function of human persons, and this is why God examines and searches hearts (“heart-knower,” kardiognōstēs, Acts 1:24, 15:8), as well as minds (“I am he who searches hearts and minds, Rev 2:23), that is, the whole person from inner out, not fragmented, for example, into dualism.[25] When God sent the prophet Samuel to find and anoint the one to succeed Saul as king, Samuel focused on the secondary and was influenced by the appearance of one of David’s brothers, prompting God’s response to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance...for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7; cf. 2 Cor 5:12). Samuel’s outer-in lens was from the quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework that we have just discussed.

            To summarize, the heart is the qualitative integration of the whole person made in the likeness of the whole of God and, when transformed, is the functional basis for experiencing intimate relationship with the whole of God (the Trinity)—which is why it is so important and why God wants and pursues our heart.

            With this qualitative interpretive lens, God’s priority for relationship together comes into view clearly. For example, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says of his disciples in his paradigm for those who desire to serve him: “Whoever serves me must follow me” (Jn 12:26). We tend to first focus on the word “serves,” and seek what it is we should do in service to him, due to the shaping influence of our old lens of defining ourselves by what we do or have (e.g. trained for, experienced in, have a gift or passion for). However, in this statement Jesus expresses the primacy of relationship in the words “must follow me.” “Must” (Gk. dei, here denoting necessary by the nature of being Jesus’ disciple) is the imperative, giving “follow me” primacy as the relationship together that constitutes discipleship. Contrary to our common notions about discipleship, for Jesus discipleship was first and foremost relationship together, of intimate involvement in this primacy with him—not engaged in the secondary for him—so that his disciples would experience the depth of his person (cf. Jesus’ prayer for all his followers, Jn 17:23-26).[26] That is, his whole person sought, and still seeks, persons for intimate relational involvement, nothing less and no substitutes—over anything we do for him, or have that we give him. In relational words, his relational message of how he sees us is that he does not define our person by what we do and have. In compatible terms, we might need to paraphrase Jesus’ relational words for worship thus: “Whoever serves me in worship must, by the nature of being whole worshipers, first and ongoingly be relationally involved with me.” One can easily see that discipleship and worship are inseparable when our relationship with him is primary, and when we live whole. Furthermore, worship constituted by our ontology and function “in spirit and truth” is by necessity the ontology and function that establishes discipleship in its primacy with Jesus.

            The whole person is integrally the who and the what God can count on in relationship to be honest, open and vulnerable from the inner out. This is not about dualism which fragments the person into body and soul, nor even about the better-sounding yet inadequate ‘doing vs. being’. Following Jesus can take place only on his whole terms, for the relational progression from disciple to friend to the family of God—what we are saved to ‘already’ in this lifetime, expressed in Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:20-26).[27] On these distinguished relational terms we journey with him in his relational context which is constituted by the Father, Son and Spirit involved together in the intimate relational process (God’s process of family love), by which we experience the deep reality of being his daughters and sons as full members of his family, the church. If our corporate worship does not “build up” this family relationship (God’s desire and purpose; Eph 2:21; 4:11-16), then for whose purpose do we gather at church?

            The qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework helps us become aware of relational dynamics, and to grow in sensitivity to qualitative communication (not information) from God. These are vital for us to keep what is primary to God primary, and the secondary, secondary. Corporate worship times together need to help worshipers listen to God’s self-disclosures which are only relational communications—not for information about God, but only to build up our relationships with him and each other as his family. This should make us rethink the purpose of sermons and other teaching in church life, including theological education in seminaries, and put all aspects of serving God into proper perspective.

            According to God’s qualitative being, relational nature, and vulnerable presence, relationship with God is never unilateral; it is a reciprocal relationship, which then requires us also to grow in primary relational awareness from our half of the relationship, to grow in the quality and content of our communication back to God, and to grow in the depth of our involvement with him. All communication that takes place in a relational context—that is, between persons—has a relational component, whether we are conscious of it or not, that qualifies the content of communication for deeper understanding. This means that all of our communication explicitly or implicitly also conveys one or more of the following relational messages to the person being spoken to:


1. How the speaker feels about the other person

2. How the speaker feels about the relationship

3. What the speaker is saying about his/herself in the relationship.


            These relational messages sing out clearly at Jesus’ baptism, when the Father said to Jesus “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11; Mt 3:17; Lk 3:22). How the Father feels about his Son is unmistakable and deeply moving (message 1), revealing his heart in the innermost (message 3), and being vulnerably involved directly with the Son (message 2). Later, at Jesus’ transfiguration, the Father addressed the disciples: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (Mk 9:7; Mt 17:5). In contrast to referential words, here the Father involves himself directly with the disciples by relational language, communicating to them that they are important to him (message 1) as he shares his love for his Son with them, implying the second and third relational messages.

            The Father also communicates the relational imperative that the disciples “listen” to Jesus. Jesus later challenges how we listen, telling his disciples to “pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8:18). To listen only to the words that Jesus speaks as referential words disembodies the relational words from his person. Such listening fragments Jesus into parts (teachings and examples), and is outer-in listening; it is listening for referential information (knowledge) that serves to define and determine me, and shifts us from the primacy of God’s relational context and process (cf. Paul’s statement, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” 1 Cor 8:1). If, however, we listen to the whole person of Jesus with our person open and vulnerable, we can perceive Jesus relationally disclosing “nothing less and no substitutes” of the whole of God (the Trinity), with the qualitative function of God’s heart, God’s desires, and thus can have whole understanding of what is primary and that only which has relational significance to God.

            Listening first to Jesus with our whole person from inner out gives primacy to the relationship together in the discipleship relationship on Jesus’ terms. Those persons deeply involved in spiritual disciplines express this very matter—that the key for spiritual growth is “Listen.”[28] Otherwise we are always susceptible to make the relationship the way we want it, which invariably renegotiates the terms down to the secondary. Transformation as Jesus’ disciples makes the shift from the primary focus always circling back to me to awareness of the qualitative in life from the inner out, and relational sensitivity beyond me. Listening to Jesus is central to this shift. Yet, listening in itself is insufficient and necessarily involves being a function of relationship. Otherwise listening becomes another method (albeit a spiritual methodology) of what to do. Knowing our tendencies, Jesus qualified this relational imperative not only with what we listen to but also with how we listen because “the measure” (limit, metron) we give in our involvement will determine the extent of what we receive, understand and experience in relation to God (Mk 4:24).

            By listening in relational terms to Jesus’ whole person, we will grow together in the relational progression that leads to wholeness (peace) in the gospel of peace (Eph 6:15). Wholeness is not an end in itself, a condition for the individual to feel better, though the individual does feel better. Wholeness is only the well-being experienced from inner out in relational reality of being together with our Father, as daughters and sons, in relational likeness of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (Rom 8:29). Wholeness is the relational outcome of being loved (agapē) by God. Agapē is not primarily about what to do (and what God does) but is primarily the depth of God’s involvement with us in the primacy of relationship, individually and corporately. Agapē is God’s family love that frees us from the fear (of rejection), fear which leads us to hiding our whole selves, self-preservation, comparing ourselves with others, and other causes of relational distance; in wholeness we are freer to reciprocate relationally with God in love and each other in intimate relationship, and experience wholeness (peace) in relationship together as the outcome of the gospel of peace. Thus, we deepen our understanding of biblical wholeness thus:


Wholeness is the conjoint function of the whole person involved in relationships together necessary to be whole—transformed relationships both equalized and intimate. The whole person is defined from the inner out signified by the importance of the heart in its qualitative function, who then joins together in relationship with both God and others with the involvement “in spirit and truth.”


            These relational dynamics constitute what is primary to God. Consider then how we make worship music styles primary, or the numbers of attendees in church primary—at the expense of deeper relational involvement with God and each other, involvement that may even reduce the numbers present and limit the music. Consider also that we essentially make relationships secondary, in spite of churches’ statements, creeds, and activities that talk of relationships, even as a priority. We indeed need to pay attention and listen carefully to where and how we are out of tune.



The Person We Present



Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

     be acceptable to you,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Ps 19:14).


            These familiar words the ancient poet communicated in qualitative relational language should not be reduced to referential language that only transmits information. The person we present to God is inseparable from our communication to him, relational messages included, both in our relationship with him daily and in corporate worship. The Bible frequently addresses persons’ communication—verbal and non-verbal, heard, seen and implied—because we ongoingly convey something relationally. Our communication either causes relational distance or functions for connection; often the intent is connection but the process promotes distance, resulting in ontological simulations.

            Several basic principles from communication theory are helpful for us. First, in any interactional situation, a person cannot not behave; and if all behavior in an interactional situation has message value—that is, communicates something—then “one cannot not communicate.” It follows also that “Nobody does not worship,” because worship is always a relational communication.[29] Second, in this context, activity and inactivity, words and silence all communicate something, having message value. These forms of message-sending include the absence of talking and not noticing the other person—nonverbal communication still conveys something. “Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former.”[30] To review, relational messages convey:


(1)     What one is communicating about you, how one sees and feels about you

(2)     What one is saying about your relationship together, how that person sees and feels about the relationship

(3)    What one is saying about one’s own person[31]


            Worship is the particular such context we are focused on, that is, God’s relational context distinguished by its relational process that involves nothing less and no substitutes for the whole person(s). We have seen that in the person of Jesus, God’s communicative acts are self-disclosures, not for the purpose of giving us information about God, as if God were an object for study (as most biblical and theological studies tend to make him) but as Subject. As Subject, all his self-disclosures in Scripture are for one purpose only—primacy of relationship without resorting to any subjectivism. God’s communicative acts include the three vital relational messages to human persons: he shares that (1) we are important to him and he wants our whole person signified by the heart, not what we have or do; (2) our relationship is primary, and anything we do (for him) or have (to give him) from outer in is only secondary without significance to him; and (3) he can be counted on to be all who, what, and how he says he is. This last message is in essence the significance of righteousness, the righteous God.

            The language we use in relation to God is utterly important because it reflects our underlying theological anthropology—our ontology and function—either in the image of God, or of our self-determination. In most worship gatherings, Bible studies, and seminary classes, we primarily speak about God in the third person, if we talk about God at all. This kind of speech is what philosopher and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, who synthesizes neuroscience and social sciences, calls “referential language”—language used to transmit information about something in narrowed-down terms, likely to explain something with more certainty.[32] In contrast, God speaks only in “relational language,” which we could very well also call “whole language” of the whole of God. God’s relational language whole-ly communicates the person(s) of God, nothing less and no substitutes, in his relational context and process, not mere information about God in a reduced context and process of human shaping.

            The distinction between referential language and relational language is pointed to by theologian Helmut Thielicke. A few years ago I was surprised to come across his words in a little book that was written as guidance for young divinity students. In it he warns:


“The man who studies theology... might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I no longer can read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors.”[33]


“Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, ‘Did God really say?’ (cf. Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think.”[34]


In his own way, Thielicke has distinguished between referential language in thinking and speaking about God, from thinking and reading Scripture as relational language in direct interaction with God as one engages in theology. He warns against the reduction of Scripture as God’s communication to merely an object of study. I am curious as to why his important admonition is neither regularly repeated nor urgently followed; this ought, indeed, to make us think about on whose terms we engage in and with God’s Word in the academy, where referential language is the lingua franca.

            Thielecke’s warning applies as well to worship for the same reasons—we need to understand, for example, that God’s Word proclaimed in church is God’s self-disclosures to us for relationship, and our participation in worship is for reciprocal relationship, in response to God’s whole person vulnerably present and relationally involved. All else is secondary, that in relational terms disembodies the vulnerable presence of God and thus removes his relational involvement, rendering him inaccessible for relational connection—which renders us to a relational condition incapable of the primary. By referential efforts and activities, we have foregone the primary to pursue the secondary. In principle, this is George Steiner’s point in “A Secondary City.”

            The focus and pursuit of the secondary in tension with what is more primary also emerges in the human brain, which should challenge Christians even more about the need to restore the qualitative heart and its primacy in relationship. Giving us further understanding of whole or reduced function of our persons, current research in neuroscience is able to link these functions to our brain hemispheres. At one level of perception, the left hemisphere focuses on fragments, referential parts of something, and then makes generalized abstractions from aggregated parts; it also seeks certainty in order to control. This is the process of reductionism of a whole. The left hemisphere is also where our spoken, discursive language, its logic, its grammatical structures and vocabulary are primarily situated.

            The right brain hemisphere, by contrast, perceives or tries to grasp the whole to which the distinctive individual entities belong. It is attuned to relations and relationships among the parts, to nuances in facial expressions and tone of voice. These are the qualitative aspects of life. McGilchrist emphasizes that both hemispheres are engaged in all functions, yet the left hemisphere’s functions have come to compete with, even dominate, the right’s functions.[35] This is seen, for example, when “knowledge of the whole is all too soon followed by knowledge of the parts.”[36] Here is part of McGilchrist’s conclusion:


     I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself.[37]


The left hemisphere is associated with referential language (discursive speech of words, syntax, etc.), less for relational connection to the whole (right hemisphere focus) than as “a means of manipulating the world.” McGilchrist’s message is to show that the right and left brain hemispheres, and relational and referential language respectively, function with competing purposes; the right seeks connection with “other” and the whole, whereas the left seeks to fragment and dominate.[38] These understandings underscore our earlier discussion about the conflict between reductionism and the whole, their perceptual-interpretive frameworks, and human ontology and function. Yet, what we must keep in mind about neuroscience is that its research and conclusions are based on outer in; they only provide a helpful window to the inner out. To go further requires a deeper framework and lens for whole understanding of both the qualitative and the relational.

            This raises the question whether the theological community will make the shift to inner out and meet the challenge for whole understanding.

            More than the Christian academy, however, some segments of the scientific community recognize the deception of a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework and what dominates the modern mind. David Brooks implied as much in his comment that “philosophy and theology are telling us less than they used to.”[39] His recent book on human ontology and function (in novel form) raises deep issues that theology has yet to address.

            All these issues about human ontology and function directly influence how we actually function in worship, both private and corporate. The person we present indicates our perceptual-interpretive framework, our preconceptions, assumptions, and biases. We struggle to speak in relational language to make connection, and are more comfortable with referential language to create or maintain distance with God and each other, whether we do so intentionally or unintentionally. Much of our difficulty is that we do not listen well because of our preconceptions and biases filter what we pay attention to. Married couples often need help in both listening to the other person and articulating what they mean in relational terms; they need help to see what they have paid attention to and have ignored. Parents and children also strain to communicate. We have now circled back to the influence of our perceptual-interpretive framework and the need for its transformation. Jesus’ words need to resound in our ears: “The measure you....”

            Modern technology certainly has impinged on human ontology and function. While modern technology has necessary and positive uses for communication, negatively the use of social media also exacerbates the reduction of the human person and relationships. The person that gets presented on Facebook, for example, must conform to pre-designed categories created by Facebook’s engineers, reducing the person to Facebook’s templates.[40] Also, psychologist and social scientist Sherry Turkle has documented countless instances in which persons acknowledge that the person they present is not who they are; this is either deliberate or by default. In fact, some users even think their online persona is more who they are than in real life.[41]

            Technology may exacerbate our relational connections, but the human condition has always been in engaged in counter-relational work from self-determination (for self-justification) ever since the Fall. Presenting to others anything less and any substitute dis-integrates the person we present, dis-qualifies the content of our communication, and dis-engages any depth of relational involvement—causing relational distance with God and making face-to-Face relational connection inconvenient and uncomfortable. Our dependence on and addiction to technology only embeds us further in the giving of substitutes and making secondary matter primary (e.g. how good you can appear to others, how many “friends” you have), including in relationship with God, privately or in corporate worship, because how we are with each other and how we are with God are inseparable. This is what John means in his first letter where he says that if we do not love each other, we do not love God; he is talking about the depth of our relational involvement with each other (1 Jn 4:7,19-21). The lack of depth and quality of relational connections that are experienced in corporate worship and various church gatherings speak loudly and clearly of the theological anthropology that we live. Jesus states that all such involvement has no relational significance to him (see Mt 7:15-23). “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.21). Persons will come to him on [their] basis of what they did in his name (v.22), yet his response is “I never knew you” (v.23). Only whole persons involved with his whole person from inner out, nothing less and no substitutes (“he who does the will of my Father,” v.21), are the ones he “knows” (1 Cor 8:3; 13:12). The persons whom Jesus “never knew”—and we are often like them—are unable to compose a new sanctuary, unable to ‘sing’ a new song. And any song we compose is off-key, indeed in a different key altogether. Our fragmented and reduced left-brain worship has no relational significance to him.



Functional implications


            To grow as the worshipers the Father seeks, three issues for all life practice will serve as a connecting thread to help make the challenges raised in this study practical and applicable to our person and how we function in relationships. These issues are embodied for us in Jesus’ life and practice, and should ongoingly challenge our own life and practice. They are as follows:


1.     The significance of the person presented

2.     The content and quality of one’s communication

3.     The depth of relational involvement with others[42]


First, God himself came into our human context in the person of the Son in full disclosure, presenting nothing less than and no substitutes for his whole person. Second, Jesus communicates the whole of God (the Trinity) in self-disclosure to us—not merely for information to possess, but his qualitative heart from inner out for intimate relational connection. Third, Jesus was always openly and vulnerably involved with persons for heart-to-heart relational connection in order to make them whole, thus embodying family love (agapē) of the whole of God.

            These three issues for our own practice have clarity in Jesus’ person and are invaluable for our growth, especially as we think of worship. As mentioned in the section on relational significance, everything says something relationally, and these three issues for practice form a relational lens with which to transpose all the dynamics in corporate worship into a key such that our ‘singing’ has relational significance to God (discussed in Verse 5 of the study).

            As we continue in this study, we are increasingly challenged to address our assumptions about theological anthropology, what it means that we are made in God’s image, what the gospel is, and who is in tune with the worshipers the Father seeks. I encourage readers to be openly engaged with the Spirit for his help to “listen to my Son” as the Father tells us, to put the pieces together for whole understanding in our hearts of God and his desires for his children—us!





‘Singing’ a new song to the Lord:    To compose a new sanctuary, we need to challenge our assumptions about the quality and depth of involvement of who and what we present of our persons to God. This critically involves our theological anthropology, which may need to be transposed. If we are to ‘sing’ in a new sanctuary “in spirit and truth,” we will need deep transformation in our innermost (metamorphoō), not merely to change what we do and have (metaschematizō). This transformation is nothing less than the redemptive change that involves dying to living outer in (defining our person by what we do/have), and being made whole from the inner out in intimate relational connection with the heart of God. The depth of this connection can be made only by God’s relational response of grace to us, which is God’s relational terms for reciprocal relationship together with him. By its very nature, the relational function of grace demands the openness and vulnerability of our honest hearts—that is, nothing less and no substitutes for our whole person so that our reciprocal response is compatible with God’s involvement with us. The depth of experience of God’s relational response of grace transforms our perceptual-interpretive framework and lens—how we define our person and thus engage in relationships (with God and others)—transposing our focus from outer in to inner out, and from referential language to relational language, in God’s primacy for relationship. Moreover, the relational outcome of God’s relational response of grace is intimate and equalized relationships among his family because we can no longer define ourselves in the comparative process from reductionism. God’s relational response of grace is integral to “the measure” we give in our involvement with God, and ongoingly necessary for redemptive change from inner out to be the worshipers the Father seeks, to compose the new sanctuary in the primacy of relational terms that has relational clarity and relational significance to God, specific to the heart of the whole of God.


[1] Source of this phrase is unknown.

[2] Matt Redman, “The Heart of Worship” (UK: Kingsway’s Thankyou Music, n.d.), in The Unquenchable Worshiper: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001), 104.

[3] For a fuller discussion of God’s being as heart, his nature as relational, and his presence as vulnerable, please see T. Dave Matsuo, Sanctified Christology: A Theological and Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus (Christology Study, 2008), online: http:www.4X12.org, ch.1, section “The Person in Practice.”

[4] Relational language is person-to-person communication that gives primacy to the relationship, which carries deeper significance than transmission of information. Relational language is qualitative in function, whereas referential language is quantitative in its focus on words apart from their relational context and significance. For a fuller understanding about relational language versus referential language, see T. Dave Matsuo, Jesus into Paul: Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel (Integration Study, 2012). See also Iain McGilchrist for an integrated discussion from neuroscience, psychiatry, and philosophy on referential language and its association with left brain hemisphere functions in contrast to qualitative functions of the right hemisphere. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

[5] From Ron Rienstra, in the Fuller Seminary course “Contemporary Theological Issues in Worship and the Arts,” Spring 2005.

[6] Matt Redman, ibid.

[7] It would be illuminating to reflect further on what you pay attention to and ignore in your family, at work, at school, or any other social context.

[8] Cf. Jesus’ parallel words about perception and interpretation in Matthew 13:11-16, linking back to the OT: “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand” (cf. Dt 29:4; Jer 5:21; Eze 12:2), and Matthew’s version of the prophecy from Isaiah 6:9-10: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.”

[9] Human perceptual-interpretive framework is addressed and challenged throughout Scripture, especially by the prophets, by Jesus (e.g. in his interactions with his disciples and his challengers such as synagogue leaders, Pharisees), and Paul. See Jesus’ critiques in Sanctified Christology, Introduction: Approaching the Whole of the Word by T. Dave Matsuo. For further related study about Paul and the perceptual-interpretive framework and lens (phronema and phroneo, respectively, Rom 8:5-6), see Matsuo’s Paul Study, The Whole of Paul and the Whole in Paul: Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process (Paul Study, 2010). Online at http://www.4X12.org., ch 4 “Paul’s Journey Matures.”

[10] Additionally, in my family and out in the broader sociocultural context in which I grew up (the US), I was defined negatively by my gender and race/ethnicity. I note my experience simply to show how reductionism works; it affects all human persons in all human contexts in some form or other. For your own experience, substitute your own specific criteria of what you do or have by which you have defined your person—and have been defined by others.

[11] The comparative process sees others as competition to best, and is the foundation of hierarchical relations. As this dynamic becomes solidified, relationships stratify into hierarchical structures and become reinforced (e.g. through the exercise of power relations), they become institutionalized and systemic. The process of defining the human person from the outer in is basic to all human stratification—sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and the like.

[12] Outer-in change was exposed and denounced by Jesus in his dealings with the Pharisees (Mk 7:14-23) as hypocrisy (Lk 12:1), by Paul as masquerade (2 Cor 11:13-15), and by Paul as Peter’s hypocrisy (Gal 2:11-14).

[13] Reductionism so understood is evident in the ongoing struggle in the OT times between God and Israel.

[14] It is difficult to determine what dynamic led to what outcome, because there is a chicken-egg sense in these developments. I think they happen roughly simultaneously—and inevitably—as we grow up.

[15] Lewis B. Smedes, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003, 160-61.

[16] Associated Press. “New Book Reveals Mother Theresa’s Struggle with Faith,” Beliefnet.com/ story/223/story  22353.ghtml. Accessed 8/27/2007. The Beliefnet article came out on the occasion of the release of the book in 2006, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta’ (Doubleday).

[17] In his two letters to the Corinthians, Paul was exposing and rebuking reductionism in the church that was the source of fragmented and distant relationships. We can learn much from Paul’s conjoint fight for the gospel of wholeness (peace) and against reductionism. For a full discussion, see The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology by T. Dave Matsuo. Online: http://www.4X12.org.

[18] In order for grace to be functional for our transformation to be whole and live whole in relationship, one must be “poor in spirit” in relation to God (the first Beatitude, Mt 5:3). Poor in spirit means that we must come openly and vulnerably before God with our genuine selves, having sin, failures, and inadequacy to establish relationship with God by anything about us. For further discussions of the relational demands of grace, please see Following Jesus, Knowing Christ: Engaging the Intimate Relational Process (Spirituality Study, 2004). Online: http://4X12.org, ch.2, section “The Demand of Grace;” and also Sanctified Christology, ch.2, section “The Demands of Grace.”

[19] Whole soteriology accounts for not only that we are saved from our sin, but also that we are saved to the experiential reality of being God’s daughters and sons in his family, constituted in the Trinity.

[20] These two women are discussed more fully elsewhere on this website. See “Relational Clarity and Relational Significance in Worship” (in Worship Perspectives section), and Following Jesus, Knowing Christ, ch. 5 “Developing this intimate relationship.”

[21] For example, Darlene Zschech writes of the ex-prostitute’s response to Jesus as “excessive, abundant, expensive, superfluous, lavish, costly, precious, rich, priceless, valuable”; though Zchech also refers to the woman’s tearful and heartfelt gratitude, there is an ambiguity in what is given primacy. Extravagant Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002), 23-24.

[22] Peter’s struggle with his reductionism and the effect it had on his relationship with Jesus are discussed in depth in T. Dave Matsuo, Sanctified Christology, ch.2, section “The Demands of Grace,” and ch.8, section “The Rigorous and Vulnerable Process of Reconciliation.”

[23] “Only by Grace,” by Gerrit Gustafson © 1990 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music.

[24] Other words convey this sense of the inner person, e.g. nep (soul) and the words for kidneys and bones.

[25] See also 1 Kgs 8:39; Pss 139:1,2,23; Prov 21:2; Jer 17:10; Lk 16:15; Rom 8:27; 1 Thess 2:4.

[26] There is much more to understand about this relationship with Jesus than can be shared in this study. Discipleship is the process to grow deeply with God, essentially synonymous with spirituality.

[27] For the full discussion of this relational progression from disciple to friend to family, see The Relational Progression: A Relational Theology of Discipleship (Discipleship Study) by T. Dave Matsuo, online at http://www.4X12.org.

[28] Enzo Bianchi, Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina. Trans. James W. Zona (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998, 45, 80-81. Cf. Joan D. Chittester, OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990), 14-26.

[29] This is a chapter title in Harold M. Best’s book Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Art (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 17.

[30] Paul Watzlawick, Janet Helmick Beavin, and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics Of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1967), 48-53.

[31] This rendering of relational messages drawn from Watzlawick et al is by T. Dave Matsuo. For an expanded discussion of relational messages, see his Sanctified Christology, Introduction, section “The Basis of This Study.”

[32] Iain McGilchrist, 79-83.

[33] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1962), 33 (my italics).

[34] Helmut Thielicke, 34.

[35] Iain McGilchrist, 93,

[36] Iain McGilchrist, 97.

[37] Iain McGilchrist, 93.

[38] Iain McGilchrist, 104, 113.

[39] David Brooks, quoted in interview by James Atlas, Newsweek, Mar.7, 2011, 47 regarding Brooks’ book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011).

[40] Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 3-44.

[41] See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Ourselves (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Turkle and others have also concluded that many persons prefer text-messaging to phone conversations and face-to-face interaction. AARP Magazine reports that among older adults age 55 and over, 25 percent prefer chatting via social media over face-to-face interaction (Mar/Apr 2011).

[42] Jesus’ embodiment of the three major issues for all practice is developed fully in T. Dave Matsuo, Sanctified Christology, ch.1 “The Person Presented.”



©2011 Kary A. Kambara                     top of page     home