David Foster Wallace, Augustine, and Jesus on Misguided Worship

Novelist David Foster Wallace gives insight into the nature of worship:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”-Kenyon College commencement speech, 2005

Wallace never professed to follow Christ or adhere to any particular religion. But he gives insight into the nature of worship most theologians and scholars often miss. 

The world is not divided into people who worship and those who don’t. Religious and non-religious. People don’t have to be told to worship because it’s the default mode of the human heart. Our seeking for transcendence is a search for God. The longing for identity, hope, meaning, purpose, and happiness is a search for the Living God. 

Our problems with worship (as identified by Wallace), are the things we perceive to satisfy what the heart ultimately needs, become traps and snares and pathways never leading to freedom. As the saying goes, “You become what you worship.” This is where misguided worships leads to destruction.  

Wallace discovered after the success of his books fame wouldn’t satisfy. When he finally got the notoriety and the thing he believed would give him happiness it was empty, shallow, and dark (See this film and get a picture of his angst). 

Theologian, writer, and philosopher Augustine of Hippo was another example of misguided worship leading to unhappiness. Augustine spent much of his younger adult years pursuing sexual promiscuity with woman, intellectual pursuits, and living for whatever he deemed pleasurable. No amount of sex, woman, intellectual accolades, and pleasure seeking lead to happiness. Augustine is famous for saying in his personal book Confessions, the result of his searching for happiness could only be met in God:

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” 

Wallace and Augustine knew worship was a human thing and an allusive thing. As did Jesus.  

Jesus’ diagnoses on the heart is enlightening. The heart/soul is full of contradiction, selfishness, and sin. Jesus said from the heart is where our primary dysfunction lies. Our misguided worship is not “somewhere out there” or rooted in circumstance. It starts within. 

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” -Matthew 15:17-19

We look in all the wrong places for love and identity and joy in things that are temporal. Like Wallace said… worship, money, intellect, and beauty, will enslave you, not free you.

Jesus wants to deal with our hearts. Not external and circumstances of life. He knows we are worshippers. We are great at it. And he knows the genesis of our misguided worship. It begins in the heart and flows out to the creation.

Instead of worshiping the Creator we worship the creation (see Romans 1). Instead of attaching our hearts to lasting happiness, joy, and something eternal… we attach them to the temporal, seen, and going away. 

When Jesus redirects our hearts and worship to Himself something amazing happens. We finally can enjoy God and the gifts he gives like food, sex, music, people, art, work, money, marriage, and children. When our worship is aimed at the creation, we betray the Creator, and the creation, and can’t enjoy either. We use the creation to be what God is supposed to be for us.

Happiness, joy, and satisfaction never can be found in something that is going away.