It really doesn’t take much.


It might happen when you hear your parents’ favorite Christmas carol. Immediately the song transports you out of your sterile workday back to your childhood, to a living room bursting with tinsel, gifts, and anticipation.


Or maybe it happens when you smell the spices of cider moving through your house this Christmas and you half-expect the memory of your grandfather to be standing in your kitchen, bragging about his perfect recipe, through his playful grin.


Worship with All Five Senses


Of course, the memories aren’t always that idyllic. For some, they’re unwelcome intrusions into a life under construction. Good or bad, sweet or bitter, the memories still come each Christmas. Just one small trigger, and everything we’ve loved, lost, and treasured seems to swell up in our hearts.


Nostalgia arrives through our senses. What we hear, see, taste, touch, and smell is the ink we use to write our mental autobiographies. We cannot escape our memories, because we cannot escape our senses, just like we cannot escape ourselves.


This is beautiful because we were created this way for a purpose. God gives us five senses to help us worship him: the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes testify to the diversity of God’s gifts and to the depth of worship God deserves.


But in our pursuit to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, we often forget the physical elements in worship. When we lose this dimension, we often lose what it means to be altogether human, and ironically we lose a principal way God means to transform our hearts and minds. Our Lord consistently builds worship around our senses.


Remember the Passover


Standing on the precipice of Israel’s chaotic redemption, God commands his people to sit down for a meal — a directive that may seem slightly out of place and misguided. But when we see this scene in light of the whole drama, God’s instructions are perfect. The exodus is not just about God leading Israel out of Egypt; it is about God leading Israel into lifelong worship.


Passover is theological nostalgia. It defines the redemptive experience of a whole generation, so much so that God commanded an encore performance every year (Exodus 12:14). With every lamb, they smelled redemption. When they tasted bitter herbs, they tasted God’s goodness. When they fastened their sandals, every step reminded them of his grace. Every time they dipped hyssop into blood, they painted their theology.


Remember the Temple


The temple is the instrument God uses to overwhelm his people from the outside in. Its worship patterns shock each of the physical senses to press his purposes into his people. God tuned Israel and her priests to his presence and praise through the taste of showbread, the heat of the burnt offerings, the scent of cedar and incense, the gloss of gold, and the echoes of prayers. The temple’s multi-sensory experience brought the whole person before the presence and glory of God (2 Chronicles 7:1–2).


Like the Passover, every visit to the temple etched smells, touches, tastes, sounds, and sights into the worshiper’s consciousness. After leaving the temple, when a familiar scent or sound broke their routine, they were pulled back in memory to the place where God was present, where their sins went to die, and where God’s promises were on full display.


Remember the Incarnation


In Christ, God took on flesh and tabernacled in the midst of his people (John 1:14). In Christ, we see God and, simultaneously, what it means to be truly human.


This is why Jesus’s ministry invades every part of us, including our senses. Through mud-caked eyes, the blind can see. Through a touch of his garment, he heals the broken. Through voicing a simple prayer, the multitudes taste bread and fish without end.


In Jesus, the one who created our senses entered his world to redeem them. He comes to touch, smell, hear, see, and taste death for his people so that you and I may do what we were made to do: worship him with every part of our being (Romans 12:1).


We were made for this. God calls us to taste this Bread of Life, to drink this life-giving water, to see this light of the world, to smell the sheep on our Good Shepherd, to hear his question, “Who do you say that I am?” We were made to touch his nail-scarred hands and see him standing outside the empty tomb (John 20:27).


Remember the Good News


We need to hear and experience the gospel over and over again. God has made a way for this. Jesus gives us new-covenant nostalgia in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. And through the waters of baptism, we see, taste, hear, smell, and feel what it means to move from death to life.


God saves all of us — redeeming and reinterpreting our senses, too — so that we can worship him more fully. So, taste and see — and touch, hear, and smell — that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). You were made for this — every part of you.

Editor's note: This was originally posted on Desiring God's website here.



Ryan Lister is a husband, father, blogger, author, and professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. He is also the Director of Doctrine and Discipleship for Humble Beast and co-creator of The Canvas Conference. Follow him on Twitter!


10 Things You Should Know About the Presence of God

10 Things You Should Know About the Presence of God

1. God is immanent because he is transcendent.

The Lord is “God in the heavens above [transcendent] and on the earth beneath [immanent]” (Josh 2:11). But to understand God in full we must recognize that his drawing near to creation stems from his being distinct from creation. In other words, there is no deficiency in God that creation satisfies. The Lord doesn’t relate to this world because he lacks something within himself. No, God draws near out of the abundance of who he is.

God’s transcendence distinguishes him from the created order and puts things in their right perspective. God does not come to us needy and wanting, but rather he comes to “revive the spirit of the lowly and the heart of the contrite” (Isa 57:15). It is the holy and righteous One above who restores the broken and needy below.

Lest We Forget.

Lest We Forget.

In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:41-43, NIV)

Looming large over these words is a question. This question hovers over every section of Scripture, hangs over our heads every day, and especially on Good Friday.  

What does Babel have to do with Portland?

What does Babel have to do with Portland?

Innovation is at the heart of creativity.

Paint-by-number kits and cover bands typically don’t change the world.  Rather, these exist because we replicate what we love, because we can’t get enough of the original.

And we love the original because they are . . . well, original.  

This is why artists are in constant pursuit of the unique, the distinct, and the novel.  They seek to alter culture through brushstroke, pen, and arpeggios.  Creatives, by definition, set out to create, and, more often than not, set out to create one specific thing: a name for themselves...  

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (After)

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (After)

Suffering makes us covet. We are tired of the tears.  We long for a better world inoculated from the pain.  And God has made this possible through the suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son.  

This place we call home, then, is not our final home.  We are sojourners and exiles awaiting a better, heavenly city (1 Pet 2:11; Heb 11:13-16).  The world as we know it is not the way it was supposed to be and, in God’s unfathomable grace, this world will not be like this forever.  This place of suffering, shame, and shortcomings is but a dash on the timeline of eternity.

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (Through)

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (Through)

Suffering, for the Christian, takes on a new identity.  For one who has been delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13), suffering often becomes a teacher, an instrument by which God prepares us for the world to come.  This is why the gospel puts every aspect of our lives under the discipleship of Christ.  We are to become like Christ in all things: in his resurrected life and also as we walk with him on his march to Golgotha (1 Pet 4:12; cf. 1 Pet 2:21).  Sharing in Christ’s sufferings is a very real part of the Christian life (Phil 3:10; Matt 16:24; cf. 10:38), no matter what the preacher with the glistening white smile and toll-free number tells you.  

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (In the Midst of)

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (In the Midst of)

Undergirding our trust is the fact that God is no stranger to suffering. Rather, God the Son knows suffering and the powers of evil and temptation far better than we do. Christ faced all of these but never capitulated to them. Where we give in, Christ held out. He overcame evil, sin, and temptation by fighting them for the duration of his life and winning through his suffering, death, and resurrection. 

Christ’s acquaintance with grief is at the very heart of the gospel. God the Son enters the world in all of its turmoil and catastrophe. He feels heat, cold, thirst, and hunger. He walks into the wilderness to come face to face with evil itself.  He teaches, heals, and ministers to an arrogant people marked by fists clutching stones rather than open palms reaching out for their Messiah. And all along, the Gospels wind slow and steady up the hill of despair where the divine Son will hang from a tree, covered in his own blood, suffering for the sins of sinners.  

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (Before & Over)

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (Before & Over)

We do not find pain and suffering in the first two chapters of our Bibles. All we have is God and the good world he speaks into existence. This tells us that there is but one God; he alone rules. God does not have to wrestle his authority from another. There is no deity or power equal in control and influence with whom he must square off in a cosmic battle for the ages.  Scripture makes clear that Yahweh is the one, true God who creates and rules with an authority that is his alone.  

Pain and suffering make their debut in the third chapter of our Bibles. They are introduced as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s divine usurpation experiment.  They tasted the fruit and found it laced with guilt, shame, and death.  Our post-Eden world makes this clear day in and day out: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is still producing a lethal harvest for all the sons and daughters of Adam, you and me included...

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (Introduction)

God & Suffering: A Prepositional Study (Introduction)

Suffering makes our true theology known. When the whirlwind comes, nothing is sacred.  It exposes our real doctrine, the one that often lies beneath the bleached-whited veneer of our biblical jargon and Christian platitudes. Suffering demands our theology get real; it bullies us into reevaluating our assumptions about God and ourselves. 

No one knew this inner dissonance better than C.S. Lewis.  In his lofty academic treatise, The Problem of Pain, Lewis penned these well-worn words about suffering: