The staff person on stage finishes the announcements while you make haste to finish shaking hands with the older gentleman in the row behind you. You remember shaking his hand last week; he had that firm, strong two-pump Baby-Boomer handshake, whereas your hand was a limp lump of awkwardness barely making it halfway into the glove of his palm. Good job. You give a quick shiver in an attempt to physically shed the cringiness of the memory from your mind. To top it off, your mind decides to bring up the several stressful events from this past week, all of which remain unresolved. As you give an exasperated exhale, the lights in the sanctuary begin to dim as Ben, the worship leader, begins to strum the opening chord to that worship song you really like. “Finally,” you think to yourself “a song I can really worship to.” The ensuing four minutes are an experience of emotional catharsis as you belt out the lyrics of the song without a trace or memory of the stress that plagued your mind moments before.
Is there a problem with this scene? If so, what?
Worshiping God often incorporates and employs the emotions of those worshiping him. It could be posed that it is a scary thought to worship God in a manner that is absent of emotion altogether. Worshiping God naturally tugs upon our God-given emotions, this often calling forth those emotions of joy, confidence, peace, and hope, while, at other times worshiping God may invoke emotions of sadness, conviction, longing, or remorse.
Emotions are a part of worship; nevertheless, we must remember that emotions have a specific role in worship. Stained-glass windows are beautiful aspects of church architecture, yet one would never lay stained-glass windows as the foundation of the church building itself. The same goes for our emotions in worship. Like stained-glass windows, our emotions are beautiful responses to God in light of his nature which we often perceive as beauty, faithfulness, love, righteousness, grace, and power. Emotions are a natural overflow of worshiping a holy God who has given us his Spirit and has cleansed us from every stain of sin by the work of his Son.
However, I’m afraid that many of those in the church, myself included, have been prone to making emotions the foundation of our worship. That is, that we substituted God as the “end” of our worship and replaced him with our desire for an experiential and emotional high. We have reduced worship down to an experiential event, thus making ourselves and our experience of emotion the focus rather than God.
Let me be clear that I don’t necessarily believe we have willfully done this with fists raised high per se, but rather that we have unconsciously been taken by this snare. I would imagine that I’d be hard pressed to find any one of us walking into church and leaning over to the individual sitting next to us to say “I’ll tell you what sister, I cannot wait to worship my emotions and personal preferences today!” Quite the contrary. For this snare is hidden; our sinful nature is strategic. Our sin will mask and hide its traps like a skilled hunter camouflages himself from his game.
I can remember several occasions in college when I fell into this snare. For instance, there was a weekly gathering called “The Well” at the college I attended in Indiana. If one were to wander upstairs in our college’s auditorium on a Monday night, you would find a dimly lit hallway filled with sixty to a hundred college students, hands raised, worshiping God in song. It was an incredible atmosphere; testimonies were shared, students were prayed for, and God was worshiped. Yet, I can confess that there were several nights when I escaped my prison cell of dusty commentaries in the library to make the trek to The Well, only to leave two songs into the night because the setlist wasn’t my preferred flavor. My reasons varied: I didn’t know the words of the songs they were singing, the songs were older than I preferred, perhaps it was testimony night and I wanted to belt out some songs, not sit around spectating others – the reasons go on. However, most commonly I left because the setlist didn’t include “my kind of songs.”
Thus, I do not pretend to be above this nor claim to be perfect since having identified this snare. I know myself. I know that the desires of my flesh long to take worship and make it about myself. That, specifically, my flesh seeks to take that which is good – like my emotions – and smelt this gift of emotions into an idol. But if our participation in worship is conditioned by external forces or desires rather than the substance of the gospel itself, it may be that we are in fact worshiping in idolatry rather than in spirit and in truth. For if the zeal of the worshiper is dependent upon the setlist of songs rather than the Person the songs are addressed unto, it may be that the ‘worshiper’ has begun to worship self rather than God.
Let’s take a mental break and imagine a scenario together.
Picture your wedding day, that day every Christian college student envisions several times a week. You are midway through your vows and in a matter of mere moments you will kiss your spouse and formally be announced as husband and wife. You can physically feel your heart pounding in your chest and your eyes are locked with your loved one. As you begin to say “I do” your step-cousin Eli from Nebraska suddenly stands up and says before everyone: “Cousin, I’m super excited for you and all but I gotta tell ya, this ain’t really my scene, and I’m really not diggin’ the pastor’s trousers. I mean seriously? Corduroy!? I gotta bounce, this just ain’t it.” He then proceeds to shimmy through his row, over your spouse’s relatives, and out of the venue to the astonishment of all.
It’s easy for us to scoff at such a scenario. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? What schmuck attends a wedding for someone else and then makes the event about himself and his preferences? For crying out loud, the occasion isn’t about him, it’s about those getting married!
Yet, might it be true that we fall prone to the same error as the wedding troll? Do we, at times, make worship about our preferences? Do we, at times, make worship more about us than God?
It would make sense for the cousin from Nebraska to make a ruckus if it was in fact his wedding, but it isn’t. And it may be reasonable for us to be picky and preferential about the songs we sing if we were the one’s being worshiped, but we’re not. God is the one being worshiped.
This is not to say we should throw preferences out the door entirely, but rather that our preferences should be guided by how God desires to be worshiped, and not how I personally desire to worship him in my own way. For instance, Christ tells the woman at the well in John 4 that God is looking for worshipers who worship in spirit and in truth. Thus, in light of worshiping in truth, the songs we sing to God should communicate truth; deep and rich truth about who he is and how he is faithful. Perhaps we should ditch those songs which are so vague in truth that a Muslim could sing them with a clear conscience . Perhaps this may be why we sing so many songs today that use the terms “I” and “me” instead of terms pointed towards God. Could it be true that the lyrics of some of our new songs today, more or less, are beginning to match our misguided focus upon ourselves?
How the Gospel Frees Us
If we see this habit in ourselves – this warping of worship into that which focuses on our emotions and our preferences, and ultimately ourselves – then we should be grieved. This is not a small matter but that which has parallels to idolatry, so be grieved with a godly sorrow which leads to repentance, not with a worldly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10).
However, we should be quick to turn this sorrow into joy, for we have a great gospel to lay hold of! Let us repent of contorting worship into a means for our personal desires and affirm God’s promise that he cleanses us from all sin when we confess to him (1 John 1:9). Knowing we are cleansed not because of our own devices, but because of Christ’s finished and completed work on the cross (1 John 2:1, 2) which is more than powerful to cleanse us of sin, even that which flirts with idolatry such as this.
Let us then repent so that we may taste and see that there is greater joy in worshiping God for his sake and glory than any pseudo-joy that can be found in using God and worship as a means to reach some emotional crescendo. God is not a stepping-stool for you to reach some emotional high, he is the eternal, overflowing fountain of true joy that we drink deeply from when we worship him rightly.