My mother was the organist and choir director at our church, so I grew up somewhere near the third pew. During worship, my eyes followed my father’s finger through the hymnal. We sang: Crown Him with many crowns the Lamb upon the throne and Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. I sat squirming through longwinded pastoral prayers. I stood for gospel readings, I endured the public shame of children’s sermons in the chancel. When the children were dismissed from the worship service, I went to children’s church where I sang songs, made crafts and listened to Bible stories. We learned about God, faith and prayer.
At some point I was taught to pray using the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. It was my formula for faithful discourse, and a way for checking off all the boxes so that I knew I was praying well. Adoration meant praising God for who God is. When I felt I had sufficiently declared to God His own innate wonderfulness, then I could move onto the next item on the list. Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving were all prerequisites to Supplication—when I finally got to bring my needs and the needs of others to God.
My childhood church taught that I ought to give glory to God and schooled me in the grammar of prayer. I doubt seriously that I was ever taught to go through the letters of ACTS, checking them off as boxes. But the order was held Sacred: Adoration was endued with significance, placed first, in emphasize that our adoration of God precedes all else in prayer.
Later, I discovered my prayers flowed in reverse. I knelt needy and thankful. I confessed. And then on some days, as I bowed my head in prayer, I caught a glimpse of God’s glory. Praise would pour out of me. Adoration for God was no longer something I conjured up to make sure I was performing rightly my religious duty. It was wonder—awe at God’s presence–calling my heart to worship. My own existential need would bring me to prayer, when I pressed upstream, Adoration is where my prayers led.
Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God records a similar movement in the Christian life. He identifies four degrees to our love for God: loving God selfishly; loving God mindful and thankful of His care for us, loving God for his own sake, and finally loving ourselves solely in God alone (chapters VIII through X, XV). Human love begins naturally self-referential and self-centered. We love the benefits the Other brings to us. Like babies crying for mother’s milk, we love others because they do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We approach God the same way, loving what we can get from God.
Then our heart enlarges. First we see our own persistent indebtedness, we love and trust God as our light and salvation (Ps. 27:1), and we are filled with joy because “the Lord has done great things for us” (Ps. 126:3) Then we start love God, not for his benefits but simply for who God is in Himself. I think it is significant that Bernard treats the second and third degrees of love together. The line between thankfulness and pure adoration is permeable. In our final phase, our love of self is transformed: we care for ourselves solely in God. Bernard notes our journey from needy supplicant, confessing and thankful to one adoring. Adoration may precede all true prayer, but this is not where we begin. In God, it is where we end.
I was twenty-three when I visited the People’s Republic of China. It was my first trip out of North America. With typical nationalistic and ethnocentric blinders on, I regarded my hosts with suspicion, especially in the realm of spirituality. The official religion of the PRC is atheism. Temples and shrines still bear the scars of the Cultural revolution: broken statues, battered structures and bullet holes in the sculpted reliefs. I have heard of a growing and vibrant Christian presence in China, but at least on the face of things, the culture appeared thoroughly secular.
This bothered me. Never before had I been jealous for the worship of God, but at every museum and historic site I was told the tale of the human triumph of Communism against the shallow religiosity of tradition. Of course there was plenty in my own culture that mitigated against the true worship of God, but I needed an outsider perspective to begin to see it.
I was musing on this while riding a bus through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia when I heard the bleat of sheep in the distance. The words of Jesus play in my mind, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). I lifted my eyes to take in the great expanse of the rolling hills. I was given a beatific vision of our Creator. In a moment when all I could see was a culture trying to move past its gods, I was arrested by creation’s song of praise to its Creator. I was overcome, adoring, I worshipped.
Adoration is our appropriate response from us when we see God for who God is. Prayer is where we meet God and our adoration bears witness to this encounter. One who prays but doesn’t praise has yet to meet God. The worshipper enters the heart of true prayer. My childhood lessons and my adult prayers are both right: Adoration precedes everything else; adoration is the culmination of our time in prayer. Prayer was not a stream flowing one way or the other but meeting with God in a whirlwind where everything always circled back to praise.
I first learned to adore God somewhere near the third pew of my childhood church. I have grown since then and understand more what adoration means. I’ve been instructed by Scripture and the Christian tradition. I’ve met God in prayer and my heart has been drawn into praise. However, I have yet to mention my most important teachers: my children.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). He praises a child for his humility and commends us to learn from children. In the Psalm 131 we are given a picture of what adoration looks like—a weaned child content to sit with her mother.
I am not a mother myself but I remember gathering each of my children as babies to comfort them from crying, only to be met with a look of disdain. I was the wrong one. I had no milk to offer. I could change diapers, distract them with play and give them comfort, but I could not feed them. There were moments when that was all that mattered.
But when my children were weaned and something different played in their eyes. They no longer craved only mother’s milk. My daughters would look at me adoringly, smiles in their eyes. They would come close and sit with me, just to enjoy being with me. My four-year-old son would interrupt stories, activities, and even stern lectures just to say, “Dad. I really love you.” As I look in their eyes, enjoy their presence, and hear their wonderment in their voice., I understand more what adoration is, and what our adoration of God should look like.
Of course this stage doesn’t last. My kids will soon see my faults and no longer be overawed by me. My eight-year-old daughter has now entered the stage where I begin to embarrass her in public (usually on purpose). I am a poor substitute for God. As they grow to adulthood, their wonder and sense of awe for me diminishes. Appropriately so. But I hope they grow as I am growing too, who sees God through the eyes of a child—in humility and wonder, in awe, adoring.
*painting above by Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Trinity (or Landauer Altar), 1511.