Worship with Emotion

by Mark Klages , Christian Examiner Contributor |

(Photo: Matt Botsford/Unsplash)

Emotions are funny things. I remember a young me wondering why so many "old people" cried so easily, especially at graduations or church services. I don't actually remember thinking anything specific at the time, just that the idea was foreign to me. After all, I was an active duty, enlisted Marine. Getting emotional was reserved for dates with my wife and days with my kids.

Now that I'm one of those "old people" my viewpoint has shifted. Admittedly, and in all likelihood, I have fewer days in front of me than I have behind me, but that isn't what drives emotional release, in my humble opinion. Rather, it is experiences and memories, triumphs and disappointments. It's empathy.

I also remember the day I sat in church and understood the impact of emotional worship versus spiritual worship. And I have to admit, that realization has caused problems for me over the years. Why? Because humans are emotional animals and removing all emotion from worship is tantamount to removing all carbs from a diet. We may find ourselves in a better place in the short run, but eventually cravings win the day.

A little background. I harken back to a mid-week revival service at what I now term as a "fledgling mega church" in central Ohio. For the record, there is nothing inherently wrong with mega churches – Jesus led a "megachurch" on the shores of Galilee. But I digress. I was an adult, albeit still rather young in life even though walking with Christ for decades. (Sometimes walking beside, sometimes walking behind, all too often walking ahead.) At the service, the lead pastor gave a "class" on using Spiritual Gifts – one gift in particular. His premise said once the Spirit had given a gift, we as Christians in tune with God then had the power and authority to use that gift, essentially turn it on or off, at our choosing. Looking around I saw just about everyone in the massive auditorium "practicing" their gift. If I'm in the extreme minority, I must be wrong, right? So, I joined in. And afterwards, when I felt so guilty, like I had prostituted the Spirit on the altar of emotional worship, I realized that although worshiping with emotion is not always wrong, there are times when emotional worship is always wrong.

But what is the difference? I am eternally grateful for God's saving grace. The mere thought of Him dying on the cross for me causes an emotional reaction. How is that wrong?

It's not, always. But if all you have is your emotional reaction, then you have proven my point. As emotional beings, we should welcome emotions into our worship. But as sinners saved by grace, we should not allow emotions to lead our worship. When our emotions replace God in the spotlight, we have crossed into wrong worship. Stated differently, worshiping with emotion is fine, but worshiping because of emotions is a slippery slope. It is slippery because if we learn to rely solely on our emotion for worship, then how will we worship when we don't "feel" it? The Apostles reminded us that worship must occur regardless of circumstances.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance." (James 1:2-3, NIV)

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials." (1 Peter 1:3-6, NIV)

You see, Christian, while worship can be laced with emotion, it shouldn't be driven solely by emotion. But how do we tell the difference? I admitted earlier in this blog that the distinction between the two has, at times, become a problem for me. I see others worshiping emotionally and that causes me to be introspective of my worship at the time. "Am I worshiping because I empathize with them? Am I worshiping because it 'feels' right? Or am I worshiping because God deserves my worship?"

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
"The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?" says the Lord.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. (Isa 1:10-13, NIV)

I wish I could tell you it is always simple, that you can ask a simple question and get the right answer, but it isn't. Our worship is as complex as our relationship with Christ. We worship because He is worthy. We also worship because we feel gratitude, relief, joy, happiness, and sorrow. We shouldn't worship for the benefit of those around us – or because of them. And we shouldn't curtail our own worship because we worry we're slipping down the slope of emotional worship. Just remember to keep God in the spotlight and let His Holy Spirit do the rest. If that makes you cry, then so be it.

–Mark Klages is an influential contributor, a former US Marine and a lifelong teacher who focuses on applying a Christian worldview to everyday events. Mark blogs at https://maklagesl3.wixsite.com/website under the title "God Provides where Hate Divides," with a heart to heal social, political, relational, and intellectual wounds through God's divine love and grace. Mark can also be found on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-klages-04b42511/.