The Role of Emotions in Worship
by Kevin Hester
Emotions are part of who and what we are. They provide assistance as we interact with our environment. They help us analyze situations and communicate with others. But unchecked emotions can confuse reality and destroy effective interaction with others. While our emotions must be tightly controlled, without them we will not get anywhere. Emotions drive us and encourage us to do what reason says we must do. You might be surprised to learn the Bible speaks frequently about our emotions.
Biblical Principles on Emotions
We were created as emotional beings, which means that emotional life is one of God’s creations. In Genesis 2, Adam’s disappointment with not finding a helpmate is almost palpable, and we get a sense of overwhelming joy when he wakes from 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.
Emotions Are Good. Since human emotions are an aspect of God’s creation, they are good. Only after creating humanity did God look at all He had made and pronounce it very good. However, even good things can provide an avenue for sin when unchecked. The fall clearly impacted our interaction with our emotions, for in Genesis 4 we read the account of Cain’s anger at his brother. This marks Scripture’s beginning discussion of the human struggle with emotions. Sometimes they are inappropriate, as in the case of Cain’s anger, but other times they are appropriate, as demonstrated by Cain’s sorrow and fear in the face of judgment. Our task is to reason between the two.
Emotions Reveal Aspects of God and His Nature. There has been a great deal of theological discussion whether God feels emotively. Early theologians said no, arguing that for God to experience emotion would imply change. They argued that whatever constitutes the image of God in the human person certainly does not include emotion.
But if we stop there, we miss something important. Whether God experiences emotion or not, Scripture often chooses emotional terminology to reveal some aspect of God’s character. For example, in Genesis 6:16 “the Lord grieved in his heart that he had made man.” In Psalm 2 and Psalm 37, God laughs at the wicked; and in Numbers, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah we read of the Lord’s anger burning against His people. The fact that Scripture uses such images to convey truth means our emotions are an avenue to understand aspects of God’s character.
Emotions Must Be Controlled. No matter what we say about our emotions, it is clear they must be controlled. Though emotional creatures, we are not simply emotional; we also have will and intellect. These aspects must work together appropriately if we are to honor God. Mind, will, and emotions are interdependent. Emotions provide the mind with data for analysis and judgment; intellect provides emotions with direction and perspective. Ephesians 4:26 commands Christians to be angry but cautions us to avoid sin in our anger. The two imperatives demonstrate the constant mental wrestling with emotions.
Emotional Beings in Worship
Created to Worship. We were not only created emotional beings, we were also 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.” In order for us to understand how best to make use of our emotions in worship, we must first understand worship.
Meaning of Worship. Two biblical words are translated worship in most English translations. The first refers to bowing before God and indicates recognition of His glory and authority. This tells us worship is about God and what I bring to Him. 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 indicates the service and ministry we offer to Him, and reminds us that worship must be active. There are no spectators in worship. Worship is not entertainment but a spiritual exercise before God.
Context of Worship. God commands the Church to worship, and worship is vital for the spiritual health of believers. Consider Hebrews 10: 24-25 in this regard. “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.”
Purpose of Worship. The primary purpose of worship is to glorify God and express our love and thanksgiving for His redemption. This love should be extended horizontally as well as vertically. Corporate worship allows us to demonstrate love to one another, edify, and encourage one another in the Christian life. Worship both honors God and encourages and edifies 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.
Principle of Worship. If the primary purpose of worship is to glorify God, it follows that we glorify Him best when we worship Him the way He has commanded. God is not always pleased with our worship. Remember Cain’s offering that was unacceptable to God? Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire for offering worship that God had not commanded. Ananias and Saphira were struck dead because they lied about their offering to the early Church. When writing to the Corinthians regarding their celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Paul pointed out that many of them were weak and sick and some had died because they had acted inappropriately.
In contrast, God is pleased when we worship according to His commands. As 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 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, 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 Relating to Emotion in Worship.
Called to Worship God with 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 we are and all we have. At least four times in Scripture, we are reminded to love God with all our hearts, our minds, and our souls. In each place, the directive occurs within context of worship. We are not simply allowed to engage our emotions in worship, we are called to do it. 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 Done Decently and in Order. At the same time, we are not allowed to give emotions free reign. Paul addressed a similar situation in 1 Corinthians 14, reminding us that God is a God of peace and order, and our worship services should reflect this. He reminds us it is only as we worship through our spirits and minds that we honor God. As we pray, sing, and proclaim God’s Word, our emotions and 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. By doing so, we may endanger not only our spiritual health but our lives as well (See I 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 others. To insist upon certain forms of emotional expression in a way that binds the consciences of other believers disobeys and disregards God’s Word. In the gospel age, God alone has authority to bind our lives and worship.
This is what is meant by the regulative principle. This (and the fact that the purpose of worship is to honor God and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ) is why we should heed the advice 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.
Intentional Manipulation of Emotion in Worship Damages the Gospel. True worship is authentic worship, and any attempt at manipulation is not only contrary to Scripture but demeans the gospel. Paul made this point in 1 Thessalonians 2, when he reminded the church at Thessalonica that he presented the gospel to them without 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 hearers during the invitation, artificial manipulation of emotions cannot be reconciled with Paul’s image of a mother tenderly caring for her child.
Six Misconceptions Regarding Emotion in Worship
1. If You “Feel” Anything in Worship, It Is Fleshly and of the Devil. If you feel something in worship, it may be ‘fleshly’, but we are called to use all aspects of our nature to worship God. Emotions are not of the devil. God made them. That is not to say they cannot be used inappropriately. We have seen that they can, but when emotions are authentic, directed toward God, and manifest themselves in congruence with the regulative principle, God is honored by them.
2. 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 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 or not I walk away from worship feeling good misses the point. Authentic, active, emotional worship only means that I will leave a worship service feeling.