Sunday, July 16, 2017

Emotion, emotionalism, and glorifying God

Hand raised in worship

A few years back, I read a book trying to share a vision of a God-focused, “vertically-oriented” church. Its author described this sort of church as one “where people line up at the doors long before the service starts and rush to the front to get the best seats for passionate, expressive worship where the voices are loud, hands are raised, tears are flowing, minds are expanded, and hearts are moved as Christ is adored by every one in every corner of the room, from the very first note.”1

One of the things that I appreciated about this was a desire to see churches appropriately embrace emotion, which has often been held in a weird tension. As though somehow emotional expression is the first step down the road to apostasy. But this tension is, generally, a fear of something else: emotionalism.

So, what’s the difference between the two? Martyn Lloyd-Jones offered a helpful definition:

Emotionalism is a state and a condition in which the emotions have run riot. The emotions are in control. They are in a kind of ecstasy. And if emotionalism is bad, how much worse is a deliberate attempt to produce it. So any effort which deliberately tries to work up the emotions, whether by singing, or incantation, or anything else, or, as you get it in primitive people, in various dances and things like that, all this, of course, is just condemned by the New Testament. The mere playing on the emotions is never right. It is something which is condemned right through the Bible. The emotions are to be approached through the understanding, through the mind, by truth. And any direct assault upon the emotions is, of necessity, false and is inevitably bound to produce trouble. So emotionalism, and especially any artificially produced emotionalism, is undoubtedly a great hindrance to revival, because it brings it all into disrepute. (Revival, 75)

If there’s something to be feared about emotion in our worship, it’s the deliberate attempt to produce an emotional response, which is often just emotional manipulation. A song might elicit tears, but the heart may still be far off from the Lord, after all. But we shouldn’t let this cause fear in us, either. Our emotions are a good gift from God, and through them we have an opportunity to give him glory.

  1. James MacDonald in Vertical Church.

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