Something that has long bothered me (my older brothers have voiced the same concern) is the tendency of people within churches (or at least within churches of the charismatic/Pentecostal tradition) to equate charged emotions during worship with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Having never particularly liked the music or worship style to begin with, it has always been news to me when others claim that “the Spirit was moving is service this morning.” (Lately, I’ve found that such worship can even make church a burden to be endured rather than a place of rest.) Am I the problem? Is it more likely that people are hyping the service up using spiritual language, or simply assuming that everyone is having an experience similar to their own? More importantly, how do we distinguish between the Spirit’s presence and mere emotion?
I am not sure it is an either or. I find that the presence of GOD is all around me. The conversation is never ending and as natural as breathing. But often my humanity interferes by deciding what it should sound like, feel like, look like, where, or who it should be delivered by.
For me the reason why the emotion or the quiet of GOD’s presence can be legitimate, is because the manner is often dictated by personal preferences.
I feel that keenly when it comes to things that discomfort me. I am learning to seek the presence of GOD in the pain as well as the joy. But I am a big baby sometimes, I like what I like.
It is my experience that the SPIRIT of GOD is versatile, and pliable to my need. Sometimes emotional, sometimes not. Sometimes breaking against my resistance and other times flowering open and overwhelming in its quiet beauty.
In corporate worship I try to follow peace with all. Whenever I can, I do. But I get it! Sometimes it is uncomfortable comprehending with the Saints. Still, I remain committed to having a ear that can hear, every time and in every way GOD speaks.
@MicahB I have struggled long and hard with this question because it is so important to our lives as believers. I think the best answer is that we should not try to figure out what the Spirit of God feels like… Our feelings and emotions can be a result of the Spirit’s work in our hearts, but the absence of them does not indicate the absence of God’s Spirit. In John Jesus makes it clear that the way the Spirit works is mysterious.
John 3:8 - The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
But if we look at Scripture, the fruit produced by walking in the Spirit is very clear - righteousness, peace and joy. Is the Spirit of God in our lives or communities? The best way to tell is not to gauge our emotions, but to look for the fruit of the Spirit.
Romans 14:17 - For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit
Galatians 5:22-23 - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.
Ephesians 5:18-20 - Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Connecting with God Emotionally
I think we each have to learn to connect with God in different ways. Some of us are artists, some nature lovers, some musicians and others book worms. Not everyone is the same and so I think not everyone necessarily connects emotionally with God in the same way. We have different life experiences.
For example, I am deeply moved when I read ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ - to the point that it leads me to worship. Other people are not even affected by books or don’t like fantasy. I think the same can be true for songs - sometimes we just never learned to engage our hearts with a certain style of worship or with song. So I think the first step is to identify how we engage with God emotionally best - writing letters to God, drawing, walks through nature…
That said, I think we should push ourselves out of our comfort zones here as well. We can probably learn to worship through song even if it does not come naturally - at least some - if we are willing to engage. And even if we do not like reading, we can learn to meditate on and study Scripture. So I think there is a certain element of discipline involved.
But there may always be that one activity that really draws us to God - reading intellectual works like ‘Mere Christianity’ or singing ‘Be Thou My Vision’ or whatever it may be…
If we find something is not touching our hearts, I think it is a good idea to ask God in prayer to give us an openness to that language and help us connect with Him. Then, to worship Him through our prayers as we sing in Church or read that book or walk through the woods - invite Christ into the experience.
Emotions Are Within the Individual
Proverbs seems to indicate some common wisdom - our emotions belong to each of us. We cannot force someone else to share our joy or our sorrow. It all depends on a myriad of factors within our own hearts. Those emotions are within us - we cannot expect everyone in a room to experience something in the same way that we do or that we should experience it the same way that they do.
Proverbs 14:10 - Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.
Emotional Impressions Can Be Wrong
Even very renowned teachers of the faith recognized that impressions we have - emotions connected with thoughts - no matter how strong the emotion - can be wrong.
I . . . know by experience that impressions being made with great power, and upon the minds of true saints, yea, eminent saints; and presently after, yea, in the midst of, extraordinary exercises of grace and sweet communion with God, and attended with texts of Scripture strongly impressed on the mind, are no sure signs of their being revelations from heaven: for I have known such impressions [to] fail, and prove vain. Jonathan Edwards
Hi Micah and welcome to Connect!
I especially appreciate your question because it gets at something that is such an integral part of the Christian life - affections. But, as you asked, how are we to know whether our affections are of the Spirit or not?
Regarding the presence of the Holy Spirit, I find that I need to remind myself quite often of the almost unbelievable truth that the Holy Spirit is always present in me and in all believers.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8:9)
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)
Even so, what is the relationship between our Christian lives (which necessarily involve the ever-presence of the Holy Spirit) and our emotions?
Sean made a great point that our emotions can be faulty. And so can our minds. The entirety of creation - including our heads and our hearts - have been corrupted by sin, and so neither are flawless. We can have wrong emotions just as we can have wrong thoughts and actions.
This is part of the task Jonathan Edwards took up in his book, Religious Affections, where he responds to the question you’re asking. In what I think is a brilliant treatment on this subject, he seeks to make the case that much of the Christian life is made up of the affections, but that not all affections are of the Spirit. As such, he also seeks help his readers distinguish between affections that are Spirit-wrought and should be approved, and those that aren’t.
One of the reasons Edwards wrote this book was because, back in 1746, he wrestled with the same issue you’re asking today. As one of the fathers of the First Great Awakening, he helped kindle and then witnessed America experience a great revival and, as a result, a great influx of Spirit-wrought affection. However, this gave way to some embracing and proclaiming any and all affection in their lives as evidence of the Spirit of God. A few years later, this then led to the pendulum swinging to the other erroneous side where some rejected all affections, denouncing their importance in the Christian life.
I love the Jonathan Edwards quotation Sean shared because it is Edwards’ response to these two errors. He’s saying that just because someone is emotional doesn’t mean it’s from the Spirit. But, if we have truly seen the truth and beauty of God and the gospel, we should, indeed we must, have Spirit-wrought emotion.
(To help with understanding Edwards’ terms: By religious affections, Edwards means Christian affections. By affections, he’s referring to something more than emotions, but not less. And by religion, he means Christianity.)
…how great their error is who are for discarding all religious affections, as having nothing solid or substantial in them. … For although to true religion there must indeed be something else besides affection, yet true religion consists so much in the affections that there can be no true religion without them. He who has no religious affection is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart. As there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection. As, on the one hand, there must be light in the understanding as well as an affected fervent heart; where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in that heart; so, on the other hand, where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations, with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light; that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things. If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart. The reason why men are not affected by such infinitely great, important, glorious, and wonderful things, as they often hear and read of in the Word of God, is undoubtedly because they are blind; if they were not so, it would be impossible, and utterly inconsistent with human nature, that their hearts should be otherwise than strongly impressed, and greatly moved by such things.
In the remainder of his book, Edwards discusses how we can discern between Spirit-wrought emotions and those that aren’t from the Spirit. And as Sean said, not everyone’s emotions are stirred by the same things. However, what should stir all Christians’ emotions is God. Edwards writes,
(Sorry for the long quotation. This is so convicting for me, yet I find it so captivating.)
If true religion lies much in the affections, hence we may learn what great cause we have to be ashamed and confounded before God, that we are no more affected with the great things of religion. It appears from what has been said that this arises from our having so little true religion.
God has given to mankind affections, for the same purpose which he has given all the faculties and principles of the human soul for, viz, that they might be subservient to man’s chief end [that is, to glorify God and enjoy him forever], and the great business for which God has created him, that is, the business of religion. And yet how common is it among mankind, that their affections are much more exercised and engaged in other matters than in religion! In things which concern men’s worldly interest, their outward delights, their honour and reputation, and their natural relations, they have their desires eager, their appetites vehement, their love warm and affectionate, their zeal ardent; in these things their hearts are tender and sensible, easily moved, deeply impressed, much concerned, very sensibly affected, and greatly engaged; much depressed with grief at losses, and highly raised with joy at worldly successes and prosperity. But how insensible and unmoved are most men about the great things of another world! How dull are their affections! How heavy and hard their hearts in these matters! Here their love is cold, their desires languid, their zeal low, and their gratitude small. How they can sit and hear of the infinite height, and depth, and length, and breadth of the love of God in Christ Jesus, of His giving His infinitely dear Son, to be offered up a sacrifice for the sins of men, and of the unparalleled love of the innocent, and holy, and tender Lamb of God, manifested in His dying agonies, His bloody sweat, His loud and bitter cries, and bleeding heart, and all this for enemies, to redeem them from deserved, eternal burnings, and to bring to unspeakable and everlasting joy and glory - and yet be cold and heavy, insensible and regardless! Where are the exercises of our affections proper, if not here? What is it that does more require them? And what can be a fit occasion of their lively and vigorous exercise, if not such a one as this? Can anything be set in our view greater and more important? Anything more wonderful and surprising? Or more nearly concerning our interest? Can we suppose the wise Creator implanted such principles in the human nature as the affections, to be of use to us, and to be exercised on certain proper occasions, but to lie still on such an occasion as this? Can any Christian who believes the truth of these things entertain such thoughts?
If we ought ever to exercise our affections at all, then they ought to be exercised about those objects which are most worthy of them. But is there anything which Christians can find in heaven or earth so worthy to be the objects of their admiration and love, their earnest and longing desires, their hope, and their rejoicing, and their fervent zeal, as those things that are held forth to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Micah, you mentioned that the particular style of worship you have in view here can be a burden. I was wondering, are there any styles of worship you find that help lift your affections toward God? And, from your time in the Scriptures, are there things you’ve found that God says that he wants in our worship?
Again, welcome to Connect, Micah!
Some very thoughtful responses to a great question!
Having attended different churches over the years with very different backgrounds and styles, I’m quite convinced the music style is in many ways irrelevant and within certain boundaries the exuberance vs reverence can span a wide spectrum. It is the attitude of your heart and the ability to connect with others in corporate worship that matter the most.
The Psalms are an awesome place to look for the wide range of heart-felt attitudes and expressions of that. Try Psalm 47 for lots of shouting, clapping and trumpets, or Psalm 131 for quiet reflection for two examples.
We need to be careful in judging different styles. “Overly emotional” tags for more charismatic churches could be countered with “stuffy, cold and dead” for those that are perhaps more traditional in their styles. Neither is helpful. For me the local church thrives when:(1) the primary focus is Jesus; (2) they pray; (3) they love each other; (4) they trust the Bible first. None of these requires a particular style or format and I’ve actually come to appreciate some variety in worship styles and emotional engagements. I loved Ravi’s reflection on the old hymn “Abide with me” in the New Year, and thoroughly enjoyed Handel’s Messiah at the Houston symphony this Christmas. Equally I certainly appreciate the emotional connection from some of the wonderful modern worship songs (e.g. Kari Jobe to name just one!). I confess I like Skillet too and my wife questions how “Christian” some of their tunes are, so maybe I’m on the fringes, but I am a redeemed metalhead!
@Andrew_Shaw Hear! Hear! Very well stated.
Regarding @MicahB’s concern that sometimes people use spiritual language to ‘hype up’ a service, I think that is true. Sometimes people use God language when it is not appropriate. On the other hand, as you noted, the opposite error is to disregard the reality that the Spirit can move in corporate prayer and worship when our hearts are turned upon Christ.
In response to your questions about what I find helpful, I suppose some background information is in order. I was raised in the Assemblies of God, though I attended a college of the Reformed tradition. During my college years, I had the opportunity to attend a number of churches (some for extended periods, others only once) of varying sizes and traditions.
Reflecting on my experiences, the congregations in which I found worship to be most satisfying had three things in common: Solid, substantive teaching that was both biblical and practical, meaningful community (people noticed me and made a point of talking to me), and worship that was theologically sound, connected to the message, and grounded in the real world. The songs themselves might be traditional in style (as in the CRC congregations I attended) or more contemporary (as in a megachurch in Colorado), but that seemed to matter less if the other criteria were met. If the songs consistently displayed vague, low-level, or questionable theology, then they lacked substance; if they lacked any connection to the message being taught (i.e. they were four of the dozen or so songs in that church’s repertoire selected at random), then they seemed irrelevant; and if the songs were all about trying to pump everyone up into an emotional frenzy and failed to acknowledge the sin in our lives and the evil in this world (I often found songs of confession and mourning to be cathartic), then it was impossible to worship with sincerity (especially as someone who struggles with depression).
As for what biblical worship looks like, I daresay it incorporates all of what I’ve described above. It allows for timely communal expression of grief and brings our failings to the One who is able to restore us (Romans 12:15; James 4:9-10). Like the Psalms, such worship is honest about our frustrations, yet seeks to remind us of the One we serve. Like the doxologies of the New Testament, good songs are both beautiful and have theological depth. By contrast, so much of today’s Christian music seems watered-down and aimed at the individual pursuit of the next “spiritual” (i.e. emotional) high.
I used to be a little cynical about repetitious worship songs, then I read Psalm 136… hmmm, maybe repetition is OK.
And then there’s Psalm 150. I’m guessing Hebrew worship was pretty expressive…
Praise the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
Micah, I’m sorry to hear about your depression. Someone very close to me has suffered various degrees of depression, from mild to severe, constantly for the past 14 years. I love being around her because she has more affection for God than I do, and her total reliance on him is both encouraging and convicting to me. So, I guess you could also say, it’s good for me to be around her.
I particularly resonate with your thoughts on the importance of worship songs being theologically sound. In my experience, both traditional hymns and contemporary songs can be filled with magnificently true, Christ-exalting, God-glorifying lyrics; and they can both also contain things that aren’t biblical. Like you, I too find it “easier,” if you will, to worship God when the lyrics express truth.
You mentioned the expression of grief during worship. With respect to your original question regarding the presence of the Holy Spirit versus “mere emotion”, does your use of the word emotion refer to all emotions, including grief, or only certain emotions? If you attend a church now, what are your thoughts on the way they worship through song?
I find it very interesting that God commands us to worship him through singing and with music rather than by prose. This is something Edwards points out in his book that I had never thought of before I read it. I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the power music and singing has to express and inspire emotion. Would you happen to have any thoughts here?
I’m not sure if what I’m about to say will add to the discussion, but I’ve been to several churches with different styles of worship and which ‘relate’ to the Holy Spirit in different ways. In one church where worship is done without musical instruments and no preparation is allowed - worship and prayer are to flow as the Spirit leads - and only men are allowed to speak (they are the only ones the Holy Spirit would lead??), there is a sense of deep reverence and serious order of discipline. I’m not sure if everyone could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit but He is talked about a lot and spontaneous prophecies and words are given. On the other hand, there were churches where everything is planned to the finest detail and everyone knew what was going to happen next. There is no spontaneity and we knew exactly what time we would be leaving the building and who will be standing outside to bless us and bid us farewell. That tends to leave no room for the Holy Spirit to move spontaneously.
I’ve often wondered as we waited for the Spirit “to move” as to whether we were doing the right thing, and then inevitably and miraculously, someone would have a ‘word’ or ‘prayer’ and then we would move on. I don’t mean to be critical but in a large congregation, people do get fidgety and restless, and that takes away the reverence and honor of the moment as we wait on the Holy Spirit. I’m sure that there are better experiences than this among us, but in my own experiences, I’ve found that that tends to take place in a smaller group setting where people are perhaps more united in purpose and attitude.
I would say that emotion is a large part of the process, particularly at the beginning and as the congregation grows in maturity, the Holy Spirit is given honor and room to do as He wills, we will see more of His move among the congregation. As with everything else, trust comes with maturity and as we surrender to Him, He will manifest to us in a greater measure. Sometimes I feel that we tend to “over-think” and then we shut Him off. Personally, the best posture in His presence is one of surrender and to let Him take over, without artificially creating ‘drama’ and ‘activity’. It is often in deep respectful silence and inactivity that I’ve found His presence the closest. I don’t say this to make it a formula as He sees our hearts and responds in a manner that will touch us and change us profoundly. I don’t think we can paint Him into a corner but we should flow with Him and let Him take the lead to do what He wants to do.
I think too that God has made us different and we do respond to different styles of worship music. Depending on the age group and our exposure growing up, we may relate to certain styles of music and should not be criticized for it. I love the old hymns as well as modern worship songs. They draw something out of me - a deep sense of reverence and awe of the God who rules over all and yet cares deeply about each one of us in a manner which we really cannot comprehend. What I tend to do is ‘go with the flow’ of the worship leader and focus on the words being sung. I have to acknowledge that this takes discipline as my mind tends to wander a lot and I forget that I’m worshiping the Most High God. I need to yield my heart to Him and let Him lead me and do a cleansing work in me.
Regarding my original question: When I referred to “mere emotion,” I was referring primarily to the “positive” emotions (especially ecstasy). It often seems as though some churches strive to make themselves sadness-free zones, forgetting that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18) and that we also are called to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). I suppose it would be faulty to suggest that the Spirit works independent of our emotions, but it is equally faulty to act as though He can only meet us during times of joy. My present search for a new home church has been prompted (at least in part) by such neglect.
Concerning the command to worship through music: John Piper made an interesting observation in Desiring God that is worth our consideration. Praise, unless willfully repressed, is the natural end result of perceiving beauty. When we turn that praise toward the Creator of beauty, the result is worship. We should not be surprised, therefore, that beautiful music is a powerful means of directing our attentions toward God in worship. The flip-side, of course, is that if we don’t find the music beautiful, then praise (and thus worship) is unlikely to occur.
Perhaps a synthesis of these two ideas allows us to better understand the problem of centering all music around the emotion of happiness: When music resonates with our emotions, we see its beauty and are drawn into worship. When the music conflicts with our deepest feelings, then it is only noise. Since we bring grief and contrition with us into church, these feelings need to be expressed in worship, or else our worship will be devoid of any real meaning.
I was a member of Assembly of God church many years ago with my family, and had close friends that chose to stay in that mode spiritual walk. My personal experience was that while the spiritual high had a feeling of “ecstasy” about it, it was not sustainable or very real, sometimes downright unhealthy.
As I matured, trying to maintain that impractical feeling became less and less relevant in a relationship with God. I also thought it odd that no relationship that we would consider healthy looked like this. Biblically speaking, I could not support a God of my emotions and needed a spiritual walk that was applicable everyday of the week, at work, in the grocery store, etc. I was looking for a spiritual walk that reflects the last part of this verse (emphasis mine):
2 Timothy 1:7 NASB
 For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.
(Some translations replace discipline with sound mind.)
In the Old Testament, I find this passage fascinating that while God could have presented Himself with a large expression, it was the gentle wind that caused Elijah to quake:
1 Kings 19:11-13 NASB
 So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I feel like sometimes we may try too hard to “facilitate” the Spirit, when we may actually be creating a mood on our own terms. It’s hard to describe, but I look for a worship experience that is passionate but practical, grounded in good theology, and a people who live the word in a church that serves locally and globally. That usually proves a good foundation for starters in my search for a good church where the Spirit is free to move as He pleases. It seems to me each time I’m a part of some attempt to put an extra emphasis on something we can try to grasp on human terms, it tends to corrupt before me.
Dear Micah, Thank you for sharing that, I’ve had the same problem for years. Last night I saw an old film called Leap of Faith starring Steve Martin as a charlatan faith healer. Although I’ve never witnessed the blatantly obvious fraud the film depicted, I’m often uncomfortable during emotionally charged services in which members fall down, call out spontaneously “the Holy Spirit is moving here today” because I never read about that kind of corporate ecstasy in the Bible. Didn’t Paul exhort that everything should be done “decently and in order”? Jesus promised “the Comfortor”, everyone in Scripture received the Holy Spirit within and was given boldness to complete God’s mission, but I’ve never understood that to mean ecstatic praise. I may be wrong and if I am, I ask for guidance. I so enjoy the RZIM speaking team because they embody Isaiah’s “come, let us reason together”. But this is great topic, looking forward to more input.
Have a blessed day, Carmen
Micah, I really appreciate the thought from Piper. I agree. We can’t help but talk or sing about that which we love. I think you’re right that our songs shouldn’t just be about happiness, but also the expression of our worry, peace, fear, love, pain, grief. After all, the Psalms are full of every human emotion imaginable. Some churches (most typically Reformed) sing only psalms and I think there’s some wisdom in that. It’s a guaranteed way of never singing anything unbiblical.
If we examine the psalms, so many of them begin in worry, disappointment, fear, or grief, but after the psalmist considers the better and abiding possession he has in God, his psalm ends in joy in God. And I’m grateful for this because I need this. I need worship songs that bring me from where I am to joy in God.
Carmen, something I’ve found interesting in my own consideration of the spiritual gifts is to consider the structure of Paul’s discourse in I Corinthians 12-14. I’ve heard at least a few sermons on the topic over the years, but it was only a few months ago, while studying on my own, that it occurred to me that Paul’s insertion of a lengthy discussion on love in the middle is not an incidental detail; he places it in the middle to make the point that self-sacrificial, others-focused love must be the center of our expression of the spiritual gifts, or else we have missed the mark entirely. Even Paul, who spoke in tongues more often than those to whom he wrote, stated that he would rather speak five intelligible words to edify others than ten thousand words in a tongue that nobody (including himself) could understand.
Unfortunately, I rarely see this others-focused attitude in Charismatic circles. More often, tongues becomes the main focus and is pursued as a means of personal encouragement or “proof” of the Spirit’s presence (a poor proof, I daresay, since it is easy to counterfeit and claim that you were speaking a heavenly tongue); I’ve even known a preacher who would quote Paul’s matter-of-fact statement in I Corinthians 14:18 boastfully. Then too, I can’t recall ever hearing a sermon on the spiritual gifts that didn’t simply skip over I Corinthians 13. While I am not a cessationist by any means, I have to wonder whether much of the current practice of spiritual gifts doesn’t more closely resemble the behavior that Paul was trying to correct than that which he sought to encourage.