Ways Culture Distorts Our Minds (Part III)

Worship and Emotions

Every second of our life, our thoughts, feelings, motives, and habits are governed by assumptions about the world. In past articles concerning the ways our culture lies to us, I have addressed a few of the false assumptions we pick up from the people around us. In this article I want to briefly address the false assumption that Biblical worship is something that is primarily emotional.

If you’ve participated in an Evangelical culture, you have periodically noticed in others and even yourself the conception that the worship of God is something that is primarily emotional. In worship services, we get excited and “worshipful” during the choruses of songs which excite our emotions; our song selections on our Ipods often involve songs which contain highly emotional music to stimulate our feelings, and when we don’t “feel” God any more, our motivation to follow him often dramatically decreases.

First of all, it’s important to ask if there is anything wrong with emotions. We’re supposed to get excited about God, aren’t we? The Psalms are filled with very emotional verses extolling God’s greatness, so it would seem to be the case.  However, it seems clear that when the main substance of our faith is emotion, we are missing something. Why is this?

In the Bible and everyday life it is revealed that there is no correlation between the existence of “worship” and true worship. Emotions may run high; worship music may be top-notch, and all the right things may be performed, but according to the Bible’s analysis, none of this is an indicator of faithfulness. In Amos 5, God is portrayed reprimanding Israel for her unfaithfulness. He acknowledges the fact that they “worship” him, but claims that there is still something wanting: “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

In this passage, it becomes clear that “worshiping” or, paying God homage by recognizing him through song or ceremony is not sufficient to constitute faithfulness to him. In Western culture we have taken this idea, however, and stretched it to imply that the feeling lacking in the Israelites is what was missing in their relationship with God. We now emphasize strong emotional experiences as constitutive of a relationship with God, since the Israelites were constantly rebuked for not living their religion on a heart level. But again, this is not the answer.  Every day life teaches us that it is absolutely possible to be emotionally overwhelmed or stimulated by a movie or poem without life-change. In the same way, our emotions have become means by which we may “hack” a relationship with God in order to experience the pleasurable high of aesthetic experiences, yet without the most basic component of true worship.

So, what is the most fundamental attribute of faithfulness to God, from which emotions may flow, but which does not necessarily imply emotions? God in the book of Amos is clear: Justice and Righteousness. Without these components, it is clear that God does not consider our “worship” worth much at all.

How do we respond to this? A reasonable response would probably consist of a period of self-examination. Do you place too much emphasis on emotions in your relationship with God, and minor on obedience? If so, take time to worship God in spirit and truth, embracing righteousness and justice as a mindset.