by Kevin Hester
How Then Should We Emote?
In part one of this discussion we learned that emotions are part of God’s creative purposes in human nature. If God created emotions they must be good. There is no room for an absolute stoicism – in life, or in worship. But the Fall has corrupted our emotions just as it has corrupted our minds. Controlling our emotions is not about suppressing them. Instead it involves a conscious weighing of why and how we are feeling what it is that we are feeling.
In part two we looked at what it means to consciously weigh and express our emotions in corporate worship. We noted that our worship was commanded by God and that we should actively engage worship with all our being. Our worship glorifies God, but it also encourages and edifies believers and convicts the unrepentant of sin. However, true worship is the worship that God has commanded conducted in a way that is pleasing to God.
With this in mind we pointed out four Biblical principles concerning emotion in worship. These principles were: 1) we are called to worship God with all our heart, mind, and soul; 2) all things must be done decently and in order; 3) Christian liberty is active in worship; and, 4) the intentional manipulation of emotion in worship does damage to the Gospel.
Today, I would like to reflect further on these principles and the way that they can or should be applied in corporate worship. The most effective way to do this is by examining several common misconceptions about emotions in worship. My prayer through this discussion is that we can find balance in our emotions and balance in our worship.
Common Misconceptions on Emotions in Worship.
- If you feel anything in worship it is fleshly and of the devil. If you feel something in worship it is indeed fleshly but as we have pointed out we are called to use all aspects of our nature in the worship of God. Emotions are not of the devil. God made them. That is not to say that they can not be used inappropriately. We have seen that they can. Yet, inasmuch as our emotions are authentic, directed toward God, and manifested in congruence with the regulative principle God is honored by them.
- If I don’t walk away from worship feeling good I haven’t worshiped. This concept is wrong on two counts. First, it demonstrates a level of individualism that is inconsistent with corporate worship. Worship is our service to God, not his service to us. Any benefit we receive from worship is a by-product and not the end goal. Second, whether I walk away from worship feeling good misses the point. Authentic, active, emotional worship only means that I will leave a worship service feeling. There are many appropriate emotions for worship. Joy is certainly one, but there are many others: reverence in the presence of our Creator and Redeemer; sorrow for our sin and fear of our Judge; love, for God and for one another; peace in our reconciliation and the anticipation of God’s promises fulfilled. I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Engaging our emotions in worship means feeling, not necessarily feeling good.
- The display of emotion in worship is most appropriate while singing. There is something about music that speaks to us on a visceral level and has the capacity for drawing forth a deep emotional response. Our emotions, together with our mind and our wills ought to be engaged in our singing but it sometimes seems as if there is a switch that many people turn off as the pastor stands to preach, as people pray, and as the offering plate is passed. We are called to fully engage all aspects of our being in all parts of the divinely-instituted worship service. Emotions are not just appropriate in singing. After all, Scripture speaks of “cheerful giving,” of crying out with our emotions in prayer, and directs us with thanksgiving to make our requests before God. The Bible is also replete with emotional responses to hearing the Word of God including: fear, joy, and thanksgiving.
- Emotions are just about feelings I get and not what I do. Emotions are expressions of our heart but mere emotion without will and action is simply tinkling brass or a clanging gong. Notice James’ instruction on worship at the close of his book. He asks, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone among you cheerful? Let him sing praise” (5:13). Notice that James equates feeling with doing. Both he and Paul point out that our emotions should motivate us to action in worshiping and praising God. I would also draw your attention to the fact that the actions being discussed here are, as all legitimate worship, directed toward God. These acts of emotional worship are not for the self but for God and in their viewing for the edification of all the believers. There is no room for individualism in corporate worship.
- All emotional expression of worship across the world will be homogenous. Emotions are similarly felt by all people but emotional expression is often culturally driven. While the regulative principle outlines the content and context of our worship with norms that are universal we must realize that the application of these principles may sometimes have a different tone or feel. All Christian worship services should have the same elements but the expression of these elements may differ. The principle that is binding here as it relates to emotional expression is that all cultures must honor God in a way that is decent, orderly, and peaceful. If an unbeliever from that culture were to happen upon the service, he or she should find nothing there that would seem out of place or irreverent. No emotional expression that draws the focus of our worship away from God or his message of redemption is ever appropriate.
- If that person were really worshiping he would be crying, shouting, smiling, raising his hands just like me. Although all persons have the same emotions not all people experience and display emotions in the same way. Some of this is associated with our culture and some with our upbringing. Some emotions are difficult to detect. Our role in worship is to actively engage and not to judge others for appearances that may or may not be indicative of his or her heart. Again, we must not bind the consciences of others by our own perceptions and experiences. In many ways this is the other side of the coin to the first misconception we looked at. Both reveal a judgmental character that defines spirituality externally; by what is, or is not done. Both are condemned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the principle of Christian liberty demands us to extend grace and acceptance to all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the midst of worship debates that more often resemble a royal rumpus than a theological discussion, I ask that you consider a few clear points. God created us, even our emotions and God created us with no greater purpose than to worship Him. Let us love him and serve him with all our hearts, all our minds, all our souls, all our strength. Stop looking around in worship and start looking to God. It is not about us. It is about Him.
“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5: 17-21)