Emotions in Worship: Part 1

by Kevin Hester

A Biblical Perspective on Emotions

Spike Jonez’ film adaptation of Maurice Sandek’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, is a coming-of-age tale about the power of human emotion and the necessity of these emotions being governed by our intellect, especially in the context of human relationships. Emotions are part of who and what we are. They assist us as we interact with our environment. They help us to analyze situations and to communicate with others. Nevertheless, when our emotions run unchecked they can confuse reality and destroy effective interaction with others.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Christian worship. Christians have long been divided over emotional expression in the worship of God. From the traditionalists to the mystics, from the old lights to the new lights, different Christian cultures have grappled with the emotional nature of humanity. Emotions are powerful things that can drive action and in the end impact our theology. This is why I have chosen to explore this topic for the Commission for Theological Integrity. Over the next few days we will examine it according to Scripture and the Christian tradition. In part one we will look at what the Bible has to say about emotions. In subsequent posts we will study what it means for emotional beings to engage in worship and investigate some common misconceptions about emotional displays in corporate worship.

I admit that I have some trepidation in approaching this topic. I worry that some of you will think I am advocating something I am not or maligning certain “styles” of worship. At the same time I am passionate about applying what Scripture says to all aspects of our human experience, especially our worship. The emotional pull I feel, this conflict of emotions, is part of what it means to be human. Philosophers have known this for a long time.

Plato argued that the immaterial part of the human person can be likened to a chariot pulled by two horses. One horse represents our passions and the other our spirit – both of which speak to various aspects of our emotions. Plato argues that this chariot must be rightly governed by the intellect in order to produce true happiness. To extend his metaphor, our emotions must be tightly controlled but without them we will not get anywhere. Our emotions drive us and encourage us to do what reason says we must do. But philosophy is not the only place that speaks of our emotions. Scripture speaks to them as well

Biblical Principles on Emotions.

We were created as emotional beings. One of the things we learn is that we were created as emotional beings. I hesitate to point this out. It would seem a truism to say that all humans have emotions and that this emotional life is one of God’s creations. However, the stoicism of some would seem to indicate that emotions have more to do with the fall than creation. Nevertheless, we can see even in the beginning of Genesis that emotions were part of God’s creation. Adam’s disappointment with not finding a helpmate among the creatures is almost palpable and we sense his overriding joy when he awakes from his sleep and exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” It is for this reason that man was to “hold fast” to his wife.

  1. Emotions are good. Human emotions are an aspect of God’s creation. As such, they are good. In fact it was only after the creation of humanity that God looked at all He had made and pronounced it very good. However, even good things can provide an avenue for sin when they run unchecked. The Fall clearly impacts our control and interaction with our emotions for in chapter 4 we read of Cain’s anger at his brother. This is the beginning of Scripture’s discussion of the human need to sort our emotions. Our emotions can be inappropriate as in the case of Cain’s anger but they can also be appropriate as is his sorrow and fear in the face of his judgment. Our task is to reason between the two.
  2. Emotions are revelatory aspects of God and his nature. There has been a great deal of theological discussion whether or not God feels emotively. Early theologians said no arguing that for God to experience emotion would necessarily imply change. For the same reason, they argued that whatever constitutes the image of God in the human person it certainly does not include emotion. But if we stop there we miss something very important. Whether God experiences emotion or not, the Scriptures often choose emotional terminology to reveal aspects of God’s character to us. For example we read in Genesis 6:16 that “the Lord grieved in his heart that he had made man”. In Psalm 2 and Psalm 37 God laughs at the wicked. In Numbers, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah the Lord’s anger burns against his people. The fact that Scripture uses such images to convey truth means that our emotions are an avenue to understanding aspects of God’s character.
  3. Emotions must be controlled. No matter what we say about our emotions it is clear that they must be controlled. Though humans are emotional creatures they are not simply emotional; we also have will, and intellect. All of these aspects must work together appropriately if we are to honor God. The mind, will, and emotions are interdependent on one another. The emotions provide the mind with data for analysis and judgment; the intellect provides the emotions with direction and perspective. Ephesians 4:26 commands us to be angry but cautions us in our anger to avoid sin. The coupling of these two imperatives demonstrates the judgment that our mind and will must continually make in wrestling with our emotions.

(This series of articles has been adapted from a previously published piece in ONE Magazine)

 Part II of “Emotions in Worship” will post tomorrow.

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