Should We Embrace Emotion in Worship?

I don’t really remember seeing anyone even raise their hands in worship until middle school. It wasn’t until I graduated out of Vacation Bible School and moved into the teen tent at camp one summer that I finally saw emotion exhibited in the church. As the teen tent began to sing, I was confused to see people raise their hands and belt out notes as loud as they could.

What were they doing? And why were they doing it? I eventually joined with them to find out and was quickly overwhelmed with both emotion and embarrassment. Breaking this emotional wall was so powerful that I then began to engage in all the other things people were doing: raising my hands, closing my eyes, kneeling, clapping along, even getting a little bit of a dance on. That summer became what was probably the first mountaintop experience of my life.

The fire in me grew as new retreats and giant conferences brought about new mountaintop experiences. I wasn’t entirely sure what the Holy Spirit felt like, but it seemed like I was feeling him when I expressed my love for him physically—and I loved it.

But then one day, a pastor questioned a bunch of us about what it was we were really feeling. Was it really God we were coming in contact with or were we just being swept up in emotion? This question, along with some other drama in my life, ruined me for years. As the question sank in I soon found that I couldn’t even raise my hands in worship anymore. I couldn’t focus on God because I was too busy analyzing myself. Am I just just trying to look spiritual to everyone else when I do this? Am I really experiencing God or are these tingles just my body responding to these acts? Is it wrong to have emotion in worship? Is it wrong to react physically like I’ve been doing?

I was ruined. I started overanalyzing every single emotion that came my way in worship. My joy turned into confusion and anxiety.

I was battling the enlightenment period. Everything became intellectual, scientific and rational. My engagement with the Holy Spirit was left to science. Soon I didn’t care if it really had just been my body reacting to physical movement in worship—I wanted my joy back! I wanted to be able to lead others in worship from the stage without wondering if I was authentic or not the whole time.

John Wesley had a similar fight back in his time. As people heard about the odd outdoor services he held and the things that happened in them, they decided to go check it out. They were in for quite a surprise, because these Methodists were being pushed to the ground by God and convulsing around on the floor.

Just as these kinds of acts of the Spirit offend people now, so it did back then. Many outsiders didn’t believe God had anything to do with any of this and that these Methodists were crazy or psychotic. But even some of these outsiders were eventually convinced. Wesley writes in his journal:

We understood that many were offended at the cries of those on whom the power of God came: among whom was a physician, who was much afraid there might be fraud or imposture in the case. Today one whom he had known many years was the first (while I was preaching in Newgate) who broke out into ‘“strong cries and tears.” He could hardly believe his own eyes and ears. He went and stood close to her, and observed every symptom, till great drops of sweat ran down her face, and all her bones shook. He then knew not what to think, being clearly convinced it was not fraud, nor yet any natural disorder. But when both her soul and body were healed in a moment, he acknowledged the finger of God.

A few days later, a Quaker in attendance at one of Wesley’s meetings, was growing angry with the craziness he saw going on around him. Wesley describes him as, “biting his lips and knitting his brows, when he dropped down as thunderstruck.” God personally settled the debate for this Quaker by knocking him down to the ground like he had done to so many others in Wesley’s ministry.

Wesley could have easily been accused of stirring up people’s emotions just as people still accuse the church of doing today. But that wasn’t what was going on. He was bringing people into the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit and letting God do whatever he wanted with them.

At my time of struggling with emotion in worship, I didn’t know any of Wesley’s experiences. I didn’t know the debate between emotion and spirituality had been around for so long. And I also didn’t know what to do.

So eventually, I just turned my brain off. And it worked! Yes, surely there had been times in worship where I was responding to emotion—but surely there had been times where I was also responding to God. I decided that  the ambiguity was okay. Having emotions and being the way God made me was much better than trying to analyze it all and live life as an unemotional Vulcan. It was incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to find joy when I was in a state of constantly questioning my emotions, so I stopped. Finding myself mostly free from this torment, I was able to engage in worship again.

Sometimes I respond to emotion, sometimes I respond to God. Sometimes God will give me emotion to respond to and sometimes I’ll be caught up in the way I was made. And I’m okay with that. I’ve learned to discern these experiences, not by overanalyzing them, but by allowing them to come. Joy and other emotions can hardly be analyzed. They must be felt. For what are emotions if they aren’t felt?

This is an adapted excerpt from my new book, “A Taste of Jesus.” Grab the Kindle version for $10 or a physical copy for $20.

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