Many people do not worship the living God. They worship their worship.
The great secret (and great difficulty) of true worship is that when we worship truly, our focus is to be exclusively on the object of our worship: God. If our eye is on how our worship is being perceived by others, it falls under the condemnation of the Sermon on the Mount, for we are then performing our worship to be seen by men and lauded by them.
More subtle, and less visible to us, is if our eye is on our own worship experience.
Many people judge whether worship is occurring by whether they are sensing or feeling certain emotions. In other words, they are actually watching themselves. God receives a glance or two, but then the focus returns to self. Am I feeling anything? Do I feel joy? Do I feel intense intimacy? Do I feel ecstasy? Here, our focus is not on the worth and qualities of God, but on the quality of our own worship experiences.
You are supposed to enjoy God in worship. You are not supposed to try to enjoy your joy. You are supposed to wonder at God in worship. You are not supposed to wonder at your wonder. You are supposed to love God in worship. You aren’t supposed to love your love.
Loving your love, enjoying your joy, or being in awe at your awe is a subtle idolatry. It turns the gaze from God to self, and feels satisfaction in yourself for being such an intense worshipper. We begin to watch ourselves worship, and admire ourselves for being so full of admiration; we adore our adoration; we weep over our own intensity. But this is pseudo-worship.
God is the object of worship. He is not supposed to be the means by which we achieve joy, or ecstasy or religious happiness. If God, or biblical truths, or anything in a worship service is simply means to achieving a religious emotion, then the religious emotion is the true object of our affections.
There is a name for this: sentimentalism, or emotionalism. Emotions sought for their own sake is a treasuring of experience, with the source of the experience only a secondary concern.
This is not a new phenomenon. Jonathan Edwards described precisely the same phenomenon in his work, Religious Affections, written in 1746, describing how hypocrites worship.
What they are principally taken and elevated with, is not the glory of God, or beauty of Christ, but the beauty of their experiences. They keep thinking with themselves, What a good experience is this! What a great discovery is this! What wonderful things have I met with! And so they put their experiences in the place of Christ, and his beauty and fullness; and instead of rejoicing in Christ Jesus, they rejoice in their admirable experiences; instead of feeding and fasting their souls in the view of what is without them, viz., the innate, sweet refreshing amiableness of the things exhibited in the gospel, their eyes are off from these things, or at least they view them only as it were sideways; but the object that fixes their contemplation, is their experience; and they are feeding their souls, and feasting a selfish principle, with a view of their discoveries: they take more comfort in their discoveries than in Christ discovered.
I fear many people today are caught in the childish rut of worshiping their emotions. For this reason, they dislike the sober worship of conservative churches, because such worship seldom inflames the emotions to the intensity desired. Why? Plato told us: “Beautiful things are hard.” God is beautiful, and a singular focus on His beauty is demanding. If you want to feel your feelings, you don’t want subtlety of musical and poetic metaphor, persuasive appeals, and demanding art. You want the taste-burst of the loud, the moody, the maudlin, the mushy, the gushy, the romantic, the sexy, the intense. These quickly stir, amplify and broadcast sensory experiences to us. We feel our feelings.
Sadly, such a pursuit robs oneself. You cannot worship your worship and still be worshipping God. C. S. Lewis tells us why:
It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. . . . But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself. . . . The surest way of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction.
The great irony is you cannot have fulness of joy in God if you take your eyes off God and simply try to enjoy your joy. Yes, fulness of joy in God can be yours, but not fulness of joy in your fulness of joy. You can have happiness in God, but not happiness in your happiness. One is the worship of God; the other is the worship of worship.