by Kevin Hester
A Biblical and Theological Approach to Emotions in Worship
In the first post of this discussion we learned that God created us with emotions and that these emotions are one of the ways that we image God in the world. God communicates something of His nature to us in every aspect of our being. Thus, emotions are good. However, our emotions, like all other part of our being have been corrupted by the Fall. Because of this, Christians wrestle with emotions and must constantly weigh how, and in what way, they are conveyed. Nowhere is this more evident than in worship.
Emotional Beings in Worship
a. Created to worship. Not only were we created as emotional beings, but we were created for worship. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question “What is the chief end of man?” with the dictum “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But in order for us to understand how to best employ our emotions in worship we must first understand worship.
b. The meaning of worship. There are two biblical words translated as “worship” in most of our English translations. The first of these carries the idea of bowing before God and indicates our recognition of his glory and authority. This tells us that worship is about God and what I bring to him. Our worship must be God-centered. Worship is never about me. Worship is not about how I feel or what I get out of the service, but how I honor God in the service.
The second term is used to indicate the service and ministry that we offer to God. This reminds us that our worship must be active. There are no spectators in worship. Worship is not entertainment, but a spiritual exercise before God.
c. The context of worship. The worship of the covenantal community is commanded by God and is vital for the spiritual health of believers. Hebrews 10: 24-25 is instructive, “and let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
d. The purpose of worship. The primary purpose of worship is to glorify God and to express our love and thanksgiving for his redemption. But this love is also to be extended horizontally as well as vertically. Our corporate worship services allow us to show love to one another and edify and encourage one another in the Christian life. Worship is to honor God, but also to encourage and edify fellow believers. Paul reminds us that when this is done correctly, in the right attitude unbelievers will recognize God in the midst of his people, humble themselves before him, and join us in worship (I Corinthians 14: 24-25).
e. The principle of worship. If the primary purpose of worship is to glorify God, it follows that we glorify him best when we worship him in the way that he has commanded. God is not always pleased with our worship. We read that Cain’s offering was not acceptable to God. Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire for offering worship to the Lord that he had not commanded. Ananias and Saphira were struck dead because they lied about their offering to the early Church. Paul tells the Corinthians that God was judging their inappropriate celebration of the Lord’s Supper through weakness, sickness, and even death (1 Corinthians 11: 29-30).
God is pleased with our worship when we worship according to His commands. As the Scottish reformer John Knox said, “All worshipping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry.” The Reformed tradition refers to this truth as the regulative principle. Only those things commanded by God in Scripture are appropriate in worship. Our task is to ask the Scriptures what God wants us to do in worship. At the same time Christians must remember that there is room for human thought in determining what pleasing worship is, just so long as that thought is in accordance with God’s Word.
Biblical Principles Concerning Emotions in Worship.
- We are called to worship God with all our heart, mind, and soul. The first and most basic principle of worship is that we should do it, and we should engage in worship with all that we are and all that we have. At least four times in scripture we are reminded that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind, and our soul and in each place the directive occurs within the context of worship. We are not simply allowed to engage our emotions in worship we are commanded to do so. Each constituent aspect of our being was designed for and is properly used in the worship of God. To worship God with our mind alone, our emotions alone, or our bodies alone is an abortive act that dishonors the one who so fearfully and wonderfully made us.
- All things must be done decently and in order. At the same time, we are not allowed to give our emotions free reign. Paul speaks to a similar situation in 1 Corinthians 14. He reminds us that God is a God of peace and order and our worship services should reflect this. He reminds us that it is only as we worship through our spirits and our minds that we honor God. As we pray, as we sing, as we proclaim God’s Word both our emotions and our minds are to be fully engaged. It is only in this way that the unbeliever will recognize God’s presence and be called to believe and worship with us. To do otherwise is to edify only ourselves which is at worst idolatry and at best a forfeiture of one of the basic principles of corporate worship. In so doing we may endanger not only our spiritual health but our own lives as well (See 1 Corinthians 11:30).
- Christian liberty in worship. Another reason we are not allowed unrestricted emotional release is the principle of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is less about what I get to do and more about what I could do but choose not to do because of my love and concern for my brothers and sisters in Christ. To insist upon certain forms of emotional expression in a way that binds the consciences of other believers is to disobey and disregard God’s word. In the Gospel age, God alone has the authority to bind our lives and our worship. This is what is meant by the regulative principle. This and the fact that the purpose of our worship is to honor God and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ is why we should hear the words of the apostle: “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 6:12).
- The intentional manipulation of emotion in worship does damage to the Gospel. True worship is authentic worship. Any attempt at manipulation is contrary to Scripture and demeans the Gospel. Paul makes this point in 1 Thessalonians 2 where he reminds the church at Thessalonica that when he presented the Gospel to them he did not make use of deception, flattery, or pretense but out of love he spoke to please God and not man. Whether singing the same lines over and over or building terror in your hearers during the invitation, the artificial manipulation of an individual’s emotions can not be reconciled with Paul’s image of a mother tenderly caring for her child. Such a mother would rather be accused of emotional abuse.
Part III of “Emotions in Worship” will post tomorrow.