There are many warnings and admonitions against emotionalism in worship today. Much is said against people thinking they must experience some emotion during worship to truly have a worship experience. And there is truth in this.
But the opposite extreme are the people who think no emotion should be shown during worship times. Any emotion shown is viewed as fake, or simply an attempt to draw attention to oneself.
I have been part of Anabaptist churches all my life. I have seen Amish, Beachy, Eastern Mennonite, and Conservative Mennonite church services, and the one thing that always stayed consistent was sitting still and somber during church services. I don’t recall ever feeling emotional during our “worship songs”. I don’t remember seeing others in the congregation showing much emotion during worship, neither do I recall any longings on my part to show any. The few times that certain people raised a hand in worship, it drew the attention of everyone around them. I remember thinking I wouldn’t never do that because I wouldn’t want everyone staring at me.
I learned immense amounts of biblical knowledge and applications during church, and I don’t regret any of that. Quiet, non-emotional churches often seem to excel in this area. However, now that I’m older, I have wished that I would have learned that feeling and showing emotion is okay during worship as well.
Is it possible to learn both?
Feeling Emotions—good or bad?
Is it wrong to want an emotional experience during worship? Is it wrong to feel overcome by emotions during worship and to show it? Does God care about what our emotional state is when we worship Him? Would He rather that we would not act emotional?
These are all questions that I have been working through in the past few years.
In Ephesians 5, the relationship between husbands and wives is compared to Christ and His church. That made my mind go to marital emotions. When we are first married and in the honeymoon stage, emotions are crazily wild and passionate. There is no attempt to suppress how we feel for each other, and we both feel and show strong emotions with abandon.
Through the years, those emotions level out a bit and we tend to be less emotional but love more deeply. But still, deep within, there is often a longing to feel those wildly crazy, passionate emotions and get lost with each other. Is it wrong to desire or pursue that?
That desire can lead to pursuing a deeper intimacy with each other, or it can lead to wanting just the experience itself so much that it leads us into temptation and sin. In other words, the desire itself is not wrong, but what you do with that desire can be. If we allow that desire to become an obsession and an idol, it can lead to false intimacy, such as pornography or affairs.
Pursuing that desire in a legitimate way would mean you pursue the person, not the experience. That might be candlelight dinners, soft music, slow dancing, reminiscing together, or whatever is a special time for each couple. Rarely would someone try to claim that enjoying an emotional intimacy together as a couple is wrong.
Does it always happen the way we think it should? Does it always look the same?
Sometimes we go through the motions and feel nothing. Does that mean we give up on the relationship or the pursuit of that emotional connection with each other? It shouldn’t!
Could we not also apply some of these same principles to our relationship with God? Have you ever been overcome with emotions during worship, whether at home or in public? Is it wrong to want to feel emotions in worship?
Maybe the same rule could apply…If the desire causes us to pursue a deeper intimacy with God, rather than just pursuing the emotional experience, it can be a good thing. If we allow the desire to become an obsession for just an experience we want to have again, rather than pursuing the One we wish to experience it with, it could lead to sin.
Does that mean we will always experience deep emotions during worship?
No, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong to desire it. When I don’t feel emotions during worship, does that mean I’m doing something wrong or that I should just not bother worshipping? Just as there are times in marriage when you just don’t feel the strong emotions, it doesn’t mean you aren’t “in love” or that you should stop showing love.
If desiring and experiencing deep emotions during a worship time with God is not wrong, what about showing emotions? There are those within my Anabaptist heritage that would say it is wrong because all emotions should be kept in check and under control.
Again, my mind goes to the marital relationship. If a spouse never lets emotions show and very woodenly keeps herself/himself in check while methodically going through the motions of showing love, it steals the joy right out of the moment.
There is something about knowing that the one you love is crazy about you and loses all inhibitions when you are together. Proverbs 5:18-19 speaks of men “rejoicing with the wife of your youth” and it goes on to say he should be “ravished” or “intoxicated” in her love.
Wild, intense emotions of joy and pleasure are not wrong when they are within God-given relationships. They are a beautiful gift from God.
Does God expect or want us to quench emotions we may feel when we are in His Presence? The psalmist speaks of there being “fullness of joy” in His Presence and “pleasures forevermore” at His right hand. (Ps.16:11)
1 Thess. 2:19 says, “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?”
1Peter 1:8, “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
If what we feel while in His Presence is Him evoking in us fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore, why should we quench those feelings or refuse to show them? Aren’t we warned in 1Thess. 5:19 that we should not “quench the Spirit”?
Have you ever sat in a somber assembly and sang “It is joy unspeakable and full of glory, full of glory, full of glory…” wondering all the while why everyone is so expressionless and subdued? I have. And I’ve wondered what God’s response is?
Should an emotional response be reserved for only times of private worship?
Some people have never felt an emotional response during church or in their personal quiet time. If your quiet time consists of praying only for needs and wants, and you don’t enter His Presence or understand what “being in the Presence of God” is, you won’t feel “fullness of joy” or understand what it really means.
And if you don’t experience it in your quiet time with God, I doubt you are truly experiencing it while in the assembly of believers either.
If you often are overcome by emotions during your quiet time because you feel the touch of God upon you, it’s no surprise that you feel those same emotions while worshipping with other believers and God’s Presence is strongly felt. Why would you quench those feelings or try to hold back? We were made to worship Him in solitary worship, but also in solidarity with fellow believers while we worship in an assembly. We are one body, why can we not show an emotional response together to our bridegroom?
Psalms 111:1-2 says, “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, an in the congregation. The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” (emphasis mine)
In Luke 19:37 it says “…the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen.”
If you keep reading, you find the Pharisees asking Jesus to rebuke His disciples and He says, “If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”
There are times God expects rejoicing and praising in a loud voice–with your whole heart!
Does God have or show emotions?
We are made to be image bearers of God. Sin has tainted the reflection that we give, but Jesus tells us in Matt. 18:3 that we need to convert and become “as little children” and says “of such is the kingdom of God” in Matt. 19:14. Have you ever noticed that children do not hold back their emotions? They don’t hide what they are feeling.
Could it be that they are more of a true image bearer in this area than we are as adults?
In the Old Testament, God shows emotions to His people. He shows when He is jealous, when He rejoices over His people, when He is overcome by love, etc., through the words He sends by His prophets.
In Zephaniah 3:17, it says, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love; He will exalt over you with loud singing.”
That doesn’t sound somber or like a non-emotional relationship to me.
Jesus said that if we see Him, we see the Father. Did Jesus show emotions? I’m remembering Jesus weeping when Lazarus died, and weeping when He prophesied about the fall of Jerusalem. Over and over we read, “And Jesus, moved with compassion…” followed by a miracle. He showed anger in the temple and spent His last night with His disciples telling them of the joy that would follow the sorrow they would soon be feeling.
God is not against emotion. He feels emotions, shows emotions, and speaks of emotions. Why do we feel that we must quell them?
Judgment of others
I have seen a harsh reaction from those of our Anabaptist heritage towards people who show emotions of any kind during worship. There is scorn and even contempt at times written on faces and they are spoken of in disdainful whispers.
This can put a hesitancy in us to worship freely. Perhaps we have once been one of those scornful people.
David was someone that worshipped freely and joyfully. The Psalms show many of the emotions he felt. In 2 Samuel 6, there is an account of him being so excited about the ark of the covenant (the Presence of God!) being brought into the city of David that he danced before the Lord with all his might. And not only David rejoiced—it also says that “David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.”
And Michal, Saul’s daughter saw him “leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” She spoke scornfully to him when he came home and her consequence for this reviling of his worship was being childless all her life.
God didn’t approve of her scornful judgement.
In Luke 7, there is an account of a woman who weeps as she stands by Jesus, washes His feet with her tears, then wipes them with her hair. She then kisses His feet and anoints them with perfumed oil. Does that sound emotional? There is no doubt what her emotional state is here.
The Pharisee, in whose house they were in, didn’t say what he thought out loud–and yet Jesus answered him in rebuke, defending her actions for all to hear.
Jesus did not approve of even silent scornful judgment.
In Matt. 26 and in Mark 14, there is another account of a woman who poured expensive perfume on His head. When the disciples voiced their disapproval, Jesus rebuked them and said this woman would always be remembered for what she had done.
Scorning the emotionally charged activities of those acting out of love and worship of God garners rebuke from Him. Scorn is never a positive quality in a person—much less when it’s shown to someone who is openly worshipping God in love.
Ask for it
What if you genuinely don’t feel emotional during worship? What do you do if the desire is there for that experience, but you’ve never encountered God in such a way?
Ask Him for it.
James 4:2 says “ye have not, because ye ask not”. If you feel fearful or unsure about it, remember the lesson Jesus taught in Luke 11:13. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (ESV)
When it comes to worship and the deepening the relationship we have with Him, He’s not going to give us an evil gift when we ask for something He already desires in us.
Just ask Him.