Emotion in Religion

David Ray

Emotion and religion seem to go hand in hand. But there can be disagreements, even amongst faithful Christians, as to the proper place of emotion in worship and in the life of the Christian. Is emotion wrong? If so, should the alternative be cold, meaningless stoicism? There are extremes to which one can go in either direction, but what is right in God’s sight?

Emotion God Forbids

Emotion that results in disorder (i.e., in worship). God equips us for every good work through the Word. This obviously includes worship. Everything God wants the church to do in worship will be found in the New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3; John 4:24 with John 17:17).

But emotionalism has resulted in many things that are not found in Scripture: instrumental music, rolling in the aisles, clapping, lifting hands, dancing, jumping, swaying, etc. These are things that please men, but not God; nowhere has God indicated that He wants His church to engage in these actions in worship. They are results of emotion. They may also be the results of zeal and sincerity (we don’t doubt the sincerity of these folks). But zeal without knowledge is not good (Rom. 10:2); neither does sincerity necessarily mean one is right with God. And none of these actions referenced above is ever commanded by God.

Lifting hands” is commanded in 1 Tim. 2:8 (“I will that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting”). But notice first that this is to be done by men only (in the Greek, “men” is the masculine gender, not “mankind”). Second, this is not about literally lifting up your hands. It’s about an appropriate offering to God in prayer. The figurative hands to be lifted up are to be “holy” (pure, undefiled by sin). Emotionalism tends to ignore this requirement.

Let all things be done decently (properly) and in order (arrangement, succession)(1 Cor. 14:40). Worship must be according to spirit and truth (John 4:24). This is foundational for true worship, but emotionalism replaces this foundation with feelings and entertainment!

Emotion that results in false doctrine (e.g., in the plan of salvation). So many have been taught to simply say a prayer to be saved. So they do this, feel emotional about it, then stop there. When taught the truth, they say, “I know I’m saved because I feel saved” (i.e., “I feel saved, therefore I am saved”)!

Salvation, the forgiveness of sins, indeed does elicit emotion! Certainly, we should experience the emotion of happiness when our sins are forgiven. But salvation is not the only source of this emotion. If we simply believe we’re saved, even when we’re not, then the emotion will be no different. In other words, emotion is a result of salvation, but it is not the evidence of it.

It can be difficult to teach people this, because it requires logic and reasoning, things they abandoned for their feelings! They never had facts (biblical) to support their feelings of being saved, so why hear them now? Emotion is all this person has because he doesn’t have scripture to show he’s saved. So, he relies on this emotion, and it results in continued disobedience to God’s simple plan of salvation.

Emotion that results in willful ignorance. Too often in religion, emotion trumps facts and logic. Even if the emotion isn’t sinful, these feelings can become a person’s source of authority. When we try to present the Scripture on any particular point with which the person disagrees, we find out that he doesn’t respect the authority of Scripture at all, particularly if it contradicts his preconceived beliefs. He demonstrates that his authority in religion is his own feelings, which naturally results in his further willful ignorance of the all-authoritative Word of God.

Emotion that results in nothing at all. Young men and women “fall in love at first sight” based on looks alone, then shortly thereafter realize there’s no real substance there! It’s the same in religion. Folks allow a smooth-talking speaker to get them emotionally fired up in order to accept Jesus as their Savior, while never really providing them with anything biblically substantial. They’ll claim to have great love and emotion for Jesus, but there’s no evidence of this in their lives: no Bible knowledge, no pursuit of righteousness, no sorrow for sin, no removal of sin from their lives, no focusing on others (cf. the seed sown on the stones, Matt. 13:20-21). These are all consequences of emotionalism in religion.

Emotion God Expects.

Emotion is a natural result of knowing that someone has done something good for you, particularly if someone gave His own life for you. But this is different than the emotionalism we’ve been discussing. Emotion doesn’t have to be expressed in these ways. What are some biblical expressions?

Love. 1 Peter 1:22 says to “love one another with a pure heart fervently.” This is agape love and is an action that seeks the best interest of another. These actions don’t require an emotion (certainly not an emotional display). However, in this verse we also see that our obeying of the truth is “unto unfeigned love of the brethren.” This love is from the Greek word philadelphia and is defined by Strong’s Greek Dictionary as “fraternal affection.” The first part, phileo, means “to have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling…”). This is a feeling/emotion we should have, but must be manifested only in ways God has authorized.

Joy. Joy is “cheerfulness…calm delight, gladness” and is commanded as part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The verb form is “rejoice” (Phil. 4:4–“Rejoice in the Lord always); also 2 Cor. 7:4: I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation.” This emotion is much greater than mere momentary happiness that comes and goes. It’s based on the forgiveness of sins we have and the home in Heaven that awaits us. Like love, it is to be displayed only how God has instructed.

Hate. Proverbs 8:13 says the fear of the Lord is to hate evil.We hate sin, and this emotion causes us to stop sinning.

Sorrow. Biblical sorrow is sadness, grief, and heaviness, and is a highly appropriate emotion when it comes to sin. 2 Corinthians 7:10 teaches that godly sorrow is a required emotion that will result in proper repentance.

Fear. Matthew 10:28 says to “Fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Also, Hebrews 4:1 teaches us to “fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. The fear of God will result in appropriate actions (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1).

Hope. Romans 12:2 commands “rejoicing in hope” and Hebrews 3:6 calls us to “hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end.”

With all of these emotions, we notice that having or feeling the emotion is not the same thing as displaying it. This is the real issue with emotionalism, which tends to display emotions in unauthorized ways. The emotions God expects will produce the proper (biblical) results. Phileo love (fondness, affection) results in action, doing for others. Joy results in giving of yourself (2 Cor. 8:2, “the abundance of their joy…abounded unto the riches of their liberality”). Hatred for sin results in ceasing it in your own life and disapproval of it in the lives of others (Rev. 2:6, to the church in Ephesus, “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate”). Sorrow for sin results in repentance (i.e., changing one’s mind about sin) as well as the desire to help correct it in others (Gal. 6:1; Eph. 5:11). Fear results in obedience (2 Cor. 5:11) and hope results in patience (Rom. 8:24-25).

Notice that the result we don’t see is emotionalism—a public display of emotions (usually in worship) that are not decent and orderly (actions God has not authorized). We need to understand that emotion can be felt without being displayed outwardly.

2 Corinthians 13:5 says to “examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” not “just go by your feelings.” 1 John 5:13 says “these things have I written…that ye may know you have eternal life”—not “you’ll know by how you feel in your heart!” But this doesn’t mean emotions are inappropriate. Having our sins forgiven ought to elicit emotion! When we recognize how much we’ve been forgiven, we are extremely thankful and we love more. This is appropriate manifestation of emotion—that which results in proper, biblical actions.

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Author: Editor

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