I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and is not to be thrust into any corner. – Robert Murray M’Cheyne
The discipline of private worship is distinguished from the other two kinds for its solitariness and its direction. Whereas public worship is worship among God’s people, private worship is the worship of the individual Christian alone with God, seeking the face of God directly. While a Christian might be alone during perpetual worship, the direction is different. Perpetual worship is knowing God through creation as we go about our workaday lives, focusing not squarely on God, but on what he has made, or on the task at hand, to be done for God’s glory. Private worship communes directly with God, confessing to him, consecrating our lives and conforming to his desires. Private worship is adoring, admiring, and supplicating God in response to his Word. It may include prayer for others, and meditate on relationships, but this is an individual’s encounter with God. Solitude and seeking God’s face directly constitute private worship.
Private worship seeks communion with God over the Word of God and prayer. We seek to commune with God through the disciplines of meditation and prayer, to see God’s beauties. Prayer and the Word will mingle, as we seek the glory of God in the face of Jesus by the grace of the Spirit. During this time, the process of conviction, confession, consecration, cleansing, conformity, and communication will take place, resulting in the communion of deeper need-love, and gift-love in the beauties of the Triune God.
Allured into the desert,
With God alone, apart,
There spirit meeteth spirit,
There speaketh heart to heart.
Far, far on that untrodden shore,
God’s secret place I find;
Alone I pass the golden door,
The dearest left behind.
There God and I — none other;
Oh far from men to be!
Nay, midst the crowd and tumult,
Still, Lord, alone with Thee.
Still folded close upon Thy breast,
In field, and mart, and street,
Untroubled in that perfect rest,
That isolation sweet.
– Gerhardt Tersteegen
Prayer lists and Bible-reading programs can indeed be helpful to provide the structure that our communion with God needs. We must beware, though, that the structure does not substitute for the communion. We must watch that our private worship does not become as the worship of the bronze snake. The bronze snake was originally a means for faith in Yahweh. Israel turned it into a god, and Hezekiah had to destroy it (2 Kings 18:4). Too many confuse the means and structure of communion for communion itself. Yes, whatever desire we have for morning prayer and meditation needs to be fanned into flame, and protected from the winds of our fickleness with some disciplined structures, such as prayer-lists, alarm-clocks, Bible-reading programs and journals. When these structures becomes so imposing that private worship is a bitter experience, the means have obscured our view of the end, and then we must overcome even more mountainous opposition next time we attempt it. Self-denial for the sake of obedience is one thing; putting a hedge of thorns in your own way is another. We must realise that a taste for prayer and meditation must be nursed, not force-fed. Deny the flesh mercilessly, yes; but give your heart time to grow. Desire and duty, obligation and anticipation must be held in each hand for Spirit-enabled temperance to make a holy habit of daily private worship.
The practice of private worship is becoming rarer among modern Christians. The reasons are probably many: a culture which discourages meditation, churches which paint the Christian life as a treadmill of ministry activity, churches which paint the Christian life as a lecture classroom, declining attention spans, over-busy lives, perpetual noise and discomfort with silence, voracious appetites for entertainment and meagre appetites for contemplation, and a host of other modern maladies. With all that said, our biggest problems are still inside us, not around us. Reluctance to worship God in solitude can be traced to a failure to understand the position of the Christian life, and a failure to adopt the postures of death and resurrection during the process of communing with God in secret.
Our first obstacle is always the reluctance to approach. For some reason, we find our zeal for God needing renewal every morning. Spiritual entropy seems to be continually setting in, and perhaps for this reason we are told God’s mercies are new every morning. We need to come each day, and re-light the fire on the altar.
The battle begins early, with vague or overt feelings of unworthiness tempting us to procrastinate, sleep longer, or fritter time away with other duties. As we yield to our pride, and avoid a convicting encounter with God, the guilt and conviction increases. If we do not arrest this negative cycle, before we know it, we will be “surprised” to find that the time we needed to worship God alone has slipped by, and we are needed at work, at school, by family, or elsewhere. For many, this cycle is repeated days without number.
Faith is the victory. Our faith must lay hold on our grace-given position. However spiritually cold or sluggish we feel, our faith must embrace the truths of our new nature. The Father has loved us in eternity past and secured us. We are made pleasing in Christ. We are completed in Christ. He has brought us into his presence, and sent his Spirit to indwell us. The Spirit is eager to impart to us the mind of Christ, using the Word he inspired, and the prayers he will enable. He desires to make known to us the familial love of God, so that we would return the love of dependence and delight. We must come as we are, staking all our claim to come boldly on the merits of Christ, and the promises of the gospel.
“As soon as ever thou awakest in the morning, keep the door of thy heart fast shut, that no earthly thought may enter, before that God come in first; and let him, before all others, have the first place there.”1
Alongside this, we remember the Gospel-like posture of the Christian life. The posture of humility adopts the just posture of worship before the Worthy One. We must reckon to be dead the cries of the flesh for self-worship, or to hide and cover our sins. Our faith must abandon whatever bodily or emotional states tempt us to avoid worship, and yield to the Spirit’s prompting. We shun moth-Christianity by remembering our nature and posture. Once we have been poor in spirit, we must arise and hunger and thirst after righteousness. Incorruptible, resurrectionlike zeal will spring up, seeking God and submitting ourselves to him.
O Lord, who seest that all hearts are empty except Thou fill them,
and all desires balked except they crave after Thee;
give us light and grace to seek and find Thee,
that we may be Thine and Thou mayest be ours forever, Amen
– Christina Rossetti
In contrast to its treatment of public worship, Scripture is not as explicitly prescriptive regarding the forms of private worship. Into this relative silence have poured books on private devotion, suggesting (or commanding) certain times, habits, methods and practices. It seems wisest to take those practices from corporate worship which God’s people have always been able to perform on their own. To that end, the consensus of the ages is that God’s people commune with him as individuals in prayer, sometimes aided by fasting, and song, enriched by meditations on Scripture, whether those Scriptures were physically present before the Christian or not (they often were not, before the age of printed books). Most agree that mornings, as we’ve already suggested, are the best time to find the solitude and silence needed for private worship, and many see some concluding devotion in the evening to be fitting. Regardless of the exact forms, the point of private worship is clear: direct communion with God.
- Lewis Bayly, The Practice of Piety (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2003), 74. [↩]