“I see three stages of movement toward the ideal experience of worship. We may experience all three in one hour, and God is pleased with all three — if indeed they are stages on the way to full joy in him. I will mention them in reverse order.
1. There is the final stage in which we feel an unencumbered joy in the manifold perfections of God — the joy of gratitude, wonder, hope, admiration. “My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:5). In this stage we are satisfied with the excellency of God, and we overflow with the joy of his fellowship. This is the feast of Christian Hedonism.
2. In a prior stage that we often taste, we do not feel fulness, but rather longing and desire. Having tasted the feast before, we recall the goodness of the Lord — but it seems far off. We preach to our souls not to be downcast, because we are sure we shall again praise the Lord (Psalm 42:5). Yet for now our hearts are not very fervent.
Even though this falls far short of the ideal of vigorous, heartfelt adoration and hope, yet it is a great honor to God. We honor the water from a mountain spring not only by the satisfied “ahhh” after drinking our fill, but also by the unquenched longing to be satisfied while still climbing to it.
In fact, these two stages are not really separable in the true saint, because all satisfaction in this life is still shot through with longing and all genuine longing has tasted the satisfying water of life. David Brainerd expressed the paradox:
“Of late, God has been pleased to keep my soul hungry almost continually, so that I have been filled with a kind of pleasing pain. When I really enjoy God, I feel my desire of Him the more insatiable and my thirsting after holiness more unquenchable.”
3. The lowest stage of worship — where all genuine worship starts, and where it often returns for a dark season — is the barrenness of soul that scarcely feels any longing, and yet is still granted the grace of repentant sorrow for having so little love. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant, I was like a beast toward thee” (Psalm 73:22).
E. J. Carnell points toward these same stages when he says,
“Rectitude, we know, is met in one of two ways: either by a spontaneous expression of the good or by spontaneous sorrow for having failed. The one is direct fulfillment; the other indirect fulfillment.”
Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of his worth. This is the ideal. For God surely is more glorified when we delight in his magnificence than when we are so unmoved by it we scarcely feel anything, and only wish we could. Yet he is also glorified by the spark of anticipated gladness that gives rise to the sorrow we feel when our hearts are lukewarm. Even in the miserable guilt we feel over our beast-like insensitivity, the glory of God shines. If God were not gloriously desirable, why would we feel sorrowful for not feasting fully on his beauty?
Yet even this sorrow, to honor God, must in one sense be an end in itself — not that it shouldn’t lead on to something better, but that it must be real and spontaneous. The glory from which we fall short cannot be reflected in a calculated sorrow…
Neither God nor my wife is honored when we celebrate the high days of our relationship out of a sense of duty. They are honored when I delight in them! Therefore to honor God in worship we must not seek him disinterestedly, for fear of gaining some joy in worship and so ruining the moral value of the act. But instead we must seek him hedonistically, the way a thirsty deer seeks the stream, precisely for the joy of seeing and knowing him! Worship is nothing less than obedience to the command of God, “Delight yourself in the Lord!””
-John Piper, Desiring God (p. 85-86, 87)