On Friday night I watched a fascinating National Geographic documentary on North Korea. Lisa Ling travels there with a camera crew accompanying a Nepalese eye surgeon. He’s allowed in on a humanitarian mission to perform 1,000 cataract surgeries in 10 days.
You might have seen the clips on the news from when Kim Jong Il died this past December. The mass display of mourning and weeping was, literally, unbelievable. This is an entire nation driven by indoctrinated fear to worship its “dear leader” or “great leader” or “supreme leader” or “eternal president”, whomever that may be. This documentary shows this worship up-close, even in the living room of a blind North Korean woman, who dreams of having her blinding cataract removed so she can gaze upon a portrait of the dear leader himself.
The final scenes are breathtaking. Filmed one day after the surgeries, when their eyes have had time to heal, and their eye patches are removed, one-by-one, the North Koreans approach the giant portraits of their dear leader and “eternal president” to, literally, praise him, thank him for healing their eyes, and promise to serve him even better.
I still can’t get past what one woman said. Immediately after having her eye patches removed and realizing she could see again she declared: “Great General, I will work harder at the salt mines to get more salt to bring you more happiness”.
I realized I was watching a worship service. It was unlike the services you or I are a part of every Sunday, but it was unmistakably a worship service. Kim Jong Il was God, the people in the room were his servants, they were there to praise him for what he had done for them, and the goal of it all was to make their dear leader happy. It was dutiful. You could tell they were afraid of him. It felt forced. But it’s what they have to do if they don’t want to get sent to a death camp.
It reminded me of John Piper’s letter to the atheist Michael Prowse who had written in a newspaper article of the absurdity (to him) of Christian worship. Prowse’s main objection was that if a morally perfect God did exist, then he surely wouldn’t demand praise. Isn’t it evil to demand praise?
Yes, if your name is Kim Jong Il. No if your name is God.
“…God’s demand for supreme praise is his demand for our supreme happiness. Deep in our hearts we know that we are not made to be made much of. We are made to make much of something great. The best joys are when we forget ourselves, enthralled with greatness. The greatest greatness is God’s. Every good that ever thrilled the heart of man is amplified ten thousand times in God. God is in a class by himself. He is the only being for whom self-exaltation is essential to love. If he ‘humbly’ sent us away from his beauty, suggesting we find our joy in another, we would be ruined.”
“…the reason God seeks our praise is not because he won’t be complete until he gets it. He is seeking our praise because we won’t be happy until we give it. This is not arrogance. It is love.”
Our churches are full of people who, whether they realize it or not, think that God needs their worship. And this is why our churches are full of people who don’t enjoy it. Why should they? If it’s all for God and not for them, then why in the world are we singing for 25 minutes? Isn’t one song enough for God? Why should I clap or lift my hands to try to impress God? Why didn’t I just sleep in and run some errands or work on my lawn?
God is not like Kim Jung Il. Or any other “human tyrant puffed up with pride”. We don’t approach God to tell him how much harder we’ll work at the salt mines to bring him more happiness.
We approach God like a deer coming to a stream of water (Psalm 42:1) to drink. We approach God’s throne of grace with confidence because of his son (Hebrews 4:16) to receive mercy and grace to help in time of need. We come to God as his children to the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:5-6).
As I watched these oppressed, malnourished, terrorized North Koreans approach their wicked dear leader’s portrait to offer him praise and dedication to make him more happy, my heart broke for them. If only they could see, and freely worship, a kind and merciful Redeemer who will save them, love them, and satisfy them.
If only more of our churches could see him too. We may not live in North Korea but we can often be just prone to dutiful, joyless worship as those people in the documentary.
God is not like Kim Jong Il. His demand for our supreme praise is not for his happiness, but for ours. May we pursue joy in God and lead people in that pursuit as well as we can.