Throughout the history of the church, theologians have held that the goal of the Christian life is the vision of God. Seeing God is our highest end, and it is precisely in seeing God that we become truly happy. Although this goal will not be attained fully until the life to come, it can be attained to some degree in this life. We can see God spiritually, here and now, through the eyes of faith.
When John Wesley spoke of the vision of God, he often stressed the possibility of seeing God here and now. For Wesley, worship is one of the main places for the vision of God in this life. In his sermon on Matthew 5:8 (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”), Wesley states that those who have experienced the sanctifying grace of God can see God in his means of grace. Wesley mentions in particular the practices of prayer, searching the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper. For Wesley, these practices are occasions for seeing God. They not only train us for the vision of God in the life to come, but they also give us a real anticipation of that vision here and now. Wesley’s regard for corporate worship could not be higher: it is nothing less than a sacred opportunity to see God.
Our own experiences in worship affirm this. We can identify occasions when we “saw” God in worship: A line from a creed illuminated one of God’s attributes. The beauty of a song pointed to God’s splendor. A phrase from a psalm spoke to God’s character. A sermon enabled a contemplation of God’s being. The bread and cup of Communion clarified God’s mercy. These occasions in which we see God in worship are not merely about learning more about God; they are about enjoying union with God. The language of “seeing” God is ultimately a metaphor for union with God.
As I think about the possibility of seeing God in worship, however, I must admit a growing concern. I am becoming increasingly skeptical about our ability to see God in worship because of the presence of our devices. Can we really see God in the practices of worship if our screens are within reach? There is an older English word for seeing that has fallen out of use. It’s the word “behold.” The King James Version used “behold” to translate many passages that refer to seeing God, most famously, John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory . . .”
To behold God in worship is to give God our undivided attention.
As Marva Dawn has noted, when you behold something, you do more than look at it; you give it your undivided attention. To behold God in worship is to give God our undivided attention. Our devices, however, seriously detract from our ability to do this. As Sherry Turkle argued in her book Reclaiming Conversation, “the mere presence of a phone signals that your attention is divided.” How much more can a phone divide our attention when we glance at it during a Scripture reading or a prayer before Communion, or turn to it during a sermon?
There is an argument that the church should accommodate to the reality of ever-present devices and find creative ways to incorporate them into worship for the sake of relevance (think of Bible apps, sermon-related live tweets, or instant electronic giving). These efforts are well-intended, and I myself have employed them in my context.
Yet, according to Turkle, educators are coming to the difficult realization that students with devices in the classroom will inevitably multitask. Not only that, but their devices will also attract the attention of those sitting near them. The same is true for worshipers. Although one might use the Bible app to look up the sermon text, Instagram and ESPN are just a touch away once the phone is in hand. The desire to accommodate is understandable, but perhaps we have underestimated the power our devices have. In short, they make it difficult for us to behold God.
Many families adopt a no-devices policy at the dinner table, recognizing the sway devices have over our attention. This act of renunciation—difficult for children and adults!—allows families to embrace something truly good: focused conversation and genuine engagement with each other. Could it be that in order to embrace something supremely good in worship—the vision of God—we must make a similar act of renunciation?
In order to behold God, we have to refrain from beholding something else—including our devices.
To behold God is our ultimate end. Every week, for one hour or so, we have the opportunity to anticipate this end when we gather together to look upon God spiritually in the practice of worship. Yet we can only behold one thing. In order to behold God, we have to refrain from beholding something else—including our devices. If we can make the small sacrifice of leaving them behind, then perhaps each week when we leave worship we will be closer to saying what John said after seeing the incarnate Lord: “we beheld his glory.”