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Emotions in Religion: What Standard Should Guide Us?


How important are emotions in religion? Should we follow our hearts as a guide in worship and serving God?How much should we emphasize feelings in religion? Are emotions good or bad? Can we trust our feelings to tell us right from wrong or do we need a better standard in religion? Should our worship seek primarily to honor and praise God or to produce feelings that satisfy the people?

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Introduction:

Human emotions play important roles in our lives. This is natural. But emotions can be confusing and uncertain, and sometimes they lead people to do things they should not.

The purpose of this study is to consider the role of emotions in religion.

By “emotions” we mean inner feelings, sensations, moods, and thrills, such as anger, fear, and sorrow. (Note that many concepts that people consider to be emotions are, in the Bible, not essentially emotions but acts of the will or choice: love, peace, etc.)

Consider the influence of emotions in some areas of religion:

Emotions Are Natural (Not Inherently Good or Bad)

Emotions were created by God as a part of man’s nature. Like other parts of our nature, they serve a good purpose. They are fundamentally physical reactions caused by hormones. We often cannot control when they come or go, but we can control how we act as a result.

Sorrow Is Often Appropriate.

Ecclesiastes 3:4 – There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh.

Romans 12:15 – Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

Isaiah 53:3 – Jesus was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

People grieved at the death of loved ones: John 11:35 – Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus.

People sorrowed for their own sins and those of others: Luke 19:41 – Jesus wept over the sins of Jerusalem.

Many other examples confirm that grief or sorrow is natural and often quite appropriate.

(Genesis 23:2; 37:35; 50:10; Deuteronomy 34:8; 1 Timothy 6:10; Psalm 23:29; 32:10; 22:8; 38:6; 95:10; James 4:9; 2 Corinthians 7:9-11; Lamentations 1:12; Romans 9:2; 1 Samuel 15:11; Matthew 26:37; Acts 20:38; Esther 4:3; Matthew 5:4; Jeremiah 9:1; 2 Kings 22:19; 8:12; Daniel 7:15; Ecclesiastes 7:3; Nehemiah 1:4; Ruth 1:9)

Fear Is Often Appropriate.

Philippians 2:12 – Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

1 Corinthians 2:3 – I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.

Proverbs 14:16 – A wise man fears and departs from evil.

Hebrews 10:30,31 – It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

(1 Timothy 5:20; 2 Corinthians 7:5; Deuteronomy 13:10,11; 17:13; 19:20; 21:21; Acts 5:5,11; Matthew 2:22; Ephesians 6:5; 2 Corinthians 5:11; Psalms 76:7-9; 119:119,120; 90:11; Ezra 9:4-6; 10:3; Psalms 2:11,12; Isaiah 66:2,5; Acts 7:32; 9:6; Revelation 14:7; Hebrews 12:21; Isaiah 66:2,5; Jeremiah 2:19; 3:8; 5:22,24; 44:10; 10:10; Ezekiel 7:27; 32:32; Micah 7:17; Haggai 1:12; Exodus 20:18,20; Deuteronomy 9:9; 2 Chronicles 20:29; Psalms 14:5; 114:7; Isaiah 64:2; Hosea 11:9-11; Joel 2:1; Jonah 1:16; Malachi 1:14; Acts 2:43; Luke 18:2; Acts 16:29; 19:17)

Anger Can Have a Proper Purpose.

Ephesians 4:26 – Be angry, and do not sin.

Psalm 7:11 – Because He is a just God, God is angry with sinners every day.

Mark 3:5 – When Jews condemned Jesus for healing on the sabbath, He looked on them in anger, being grieved at their hardness of heart.

We do not intend to say that all emotions are inherently wrong, nor are they inherently right. Some people are more emotional than others. Which is better? Neither! The important thing is…

(Exodus 11:4-8; 32:19-24; 2 Cor. 7:11; Romans 1:18; 2:5-9; 5:6-11; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; John 3:36; Numbers 16:15)

Emotions Must Be Controlled to Do Right

God warns us to control ourselves so our feelings do not lead us into error.

Anger

Ephesians 4:26 – Be angry and sin not. Anger becomes sinful when we fail to control it.

James 1:19,20 – Be slow to wrath, because the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. The problem with anger is what it “produces” or leads to.

Proverbs 16:32; 25:28 – He who is slow to anger and rules his spirit is better than one who captures a city. God requires us to learn to rule or restrain our anger. (Proverbs 14:17; 29:22)

Proverbs 29:11,20 – A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back. Some psychologists encourage people to “vent” their anger because it “gets it out of the system.” But the Bible says to control our emotions, because sinful thoughts lead to sinful conduct.

(Genesis 4:4-8; Proverbs 19:11; Romans 12:17-21; Acts 7:54-60; 19:28; James 3:9-12; 1 Peter 3:9; Matthew 7:12; 5:22)

Fear

We must not allow fear of people to lead us to disobey God.

Luke 12:4,5 – Don’t fear people who can kill the body; rather fear the One who can kill both body and soul in hell.

Revelation 2:10 – Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Galatians 2:12 – Peter separated from Gentiles, fearing those who were of the circumcision.

(1 Samuel 15:24; 1 Peter 3:14; Matthew 10:28; Acts 18:9; Hebrews 11:23; Numbers 14:9; Deuteronomy 20:3; 31:8; Nehemiah 6:9; Revelation 21:8; Philippians 1:28; Isaiah 51:12; Ezekiel 2:6; 3:9)

Trusting God can give us strength to overcome fear.

Hebrews 13:6 – The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?

Proverbs 29:25 – Fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe.

Like anger, fear is not necessarily sinful. We must control it so we do not disobey God.

(2 Timothy 1:7; Joshua 1:9; 2 Kings 6:16; Psalms 27:1; Psalms 56:3,4; 56:11; Isaiah 41:10; Isaiah 41:13,14)

Sorrow

Job 1,2 – Satan said Job would turn against God if he suffered enough. He caused terrible heartbreak and suffering for Job.

Job 2:9 – In her grief, Job’s wife told him to curse God and die.

Job 42:3,6 – Even Job said things for which he needed to repent.

Emotions are not inherently sinful, but they can lead to sin unless we control how they influence us. Consider some areas where emotions often cause problems in service to God.

(1 Samuel 30:6; Galatians 5:24; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:5)

We Need a Better Standard of Right and Wrong than Emotions.

We are responsible to know right from wrong and control ourselves to do right in spite of our emotions. It follows that emotions are not intended to tell us what we should or should not do.

People Often Decide Religious Beliefs or Practices Based on Feelings.

They may accept a church or doctrine because they “feel good” about it, regardless of whether or not they have convincing evidence that it is true. Some dislike doctrinal preaching and even rebel against the need for evidence in religion. Consider some specific examples.

“Better-felt-than-told” religious experiences

Some people are convinced they became saved at a “revival” with exciting music, hypnotic preaching, clapping, and people claiming to “feel the Spirit moving.” Emotional appeals may bring them to the “mourner’s bench” where they try to “pray through.”

Some feel a sense of assurance about their faith, so they just “feel sure” they are saved. They say, “It’s better felt than told, but if you ever feel it, you’ll know it.” Others have said, “I wouldn’t trade this feeling for a stack of Bibles.”

Others in a moment of excitement are convinced they “spoke in tongues” or received a miracle. So they are sure they have been “led by the Spirit” or are right with God.

Certain practices are defended by strong emotional appeals.

Some say, “My dear mother (or other loved one) believed this, and she was such a good woman I know she is saved.” Some organizations make emotional appeals for money to help needy people or to save lost souls despite the fact the organization itself may be unscriptural.

Are Feelings a Reliable Guide in Religion?

Can we be sure we are right just because we feel right or we had an emotional experience?

Many errors occur in life because people mistakenly follow feelings.

Movies, books, and songs urge people to “follow your heart.” Star Wars characters often said, “Reach out with your feelings,” and “What do your feelings tell you?” It makes good entertainment, but we all know cases where feelings have led to serious mistakes.

* Young people “feel sure” they are in love, marry on impulse, then regret it for a lifetime.

* People “feel sure” they hear a thief in the house, so they shoot and kill a family member.

* Strong feelings often lead to adultery, killing, stealing, and many other evils.

Where does God’s word say our feelings are a reliable guide in religion?

People who follow feelings in religion often contradict one another.

Mormons, Pentecostals, Catholics, Baptists, and Charismatics have told me their emotional experiences. There is not a nickel’s worth of difference in their feelings, yet they thoroughly contradict one another in doctrine and practice. Do their feelings prove all of them are right?

1 Corinthians 1:10-13 – God rebukes religious division and contradictions. Yet such division is inevitable if we follow our feelings, because feelings vary so much from person to person.

(1 Corinthians 14:33; John 17:20,21; Ephesians 4:3-6; Galatians 5:19-21)

How do you know which feelings come from God and which come from Satan?

2 Corinthians 11:13-15 – Satan is a deceiver, liar, and counterfeiter. We know feelings can lead to sin, so why should we doubt that Satan would use feelings to lead us to accept error?

How can you be sure your feeling is really from God and not from the devil?

 (2 Corinthians 11:3; Matthew 24:24)

The Bible Specifically Warns that Feelings May Lead Us into Error.

Proverbs 28:26 – He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.

Proverbs 14:12 – There is a way that seems right to man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

Jeremiah 17:9 – The heart is deceitful above all things and is exceedingly corrupt. Who can know it? (Matthew 15:18-20; Proverbs 4:23)

Jeremiah 10:23 – It is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Proper guidance about right and wrong is not found inside man. It comes from outside man.

Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, but attempting to determine right from wrong by praying for a feeling or by following our emotions is to pervert the purpose of feelings and to expose ourselves to all sorts of false practices. Emotions are followers, not leaders.

(Matthew 25:25; 7:21-23; 2 Corinthians 10:18; Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; Deuteronomy 4:19; Acts 26:9)

What Guide Can Tell Us What Is True in Religion?

It was exactly to meet this need that God gave us the Bible, the Scriptures.

Romans 10:17 – Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of God.

Psalms 119:105 – God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

Acts 17:2,3 – How did the apostles convince people what is right or wrong? Did they arrange strong emotional appeals with instrumental music, clapping, and prayers at the mourners’ bench? No. They reasoned with people from the Scriptures! (Acts 28:23; 18:28; 17:17; 18:4,19; 19:8,9; 24:25.)

Acts 17:11 – We know whether or not a teaching is true by searching the Scriptures daily.

2 Timothy 3:13-17 – The Scriptures are inspired by God to provide us with true doctrine, instruction in righteousness, and every good work. (Compare 4:1-4.)

1 John 2:3-6How can we know if we know God? By whether or not we keep His commands which are recorded in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 14:37). (1 John 3:7-10)

Following emotions often leads to error because emotions are fallible and changing. But the Scriptures are infallible and can never be wrong (John 17:17; Psalm 119:128; 33:4; 19:8; Romans 3:4). This is why the Bible so frequently tells us to diligently study and teach God’s word (2 Timothy 2:15; Joshua 1:7,8; John 8:31,32; Psalm 1:1,2; 119:11,42-48,97-99).

(1 Peter 3:15; Psalm 19:7-11; John 20:29-31; Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1,6; 2 John 9-11; Matthew 22:29; Romans 10:1-3; Hosea 4:6)

Proper Worship Emphasizes Higher Goals than Emotions.

Instead of designing worship to drum up emotions and excitement, we should worship according to God’s word. Good emotions will follow, but emotions are not the goal.

Many False Religious Practices Are Popular Because They Stimulate Emotions.

Some churches deliberately arrange activities that stimulate excitement and emotions, so people claim they “feel close to God” or “feel the Spirit moving.” They mistake emotions for spiritual-mindedness.

Consider modern examples:

Thrilling music with instruments and special singing groups, hypnotic rhythms that arouse, excite, entertain, and “move the audience.”

Beautiful cathedrals with fancy artwork and statues to create a “mood” that people enjoy.

External rituals such as lighting candles and dimming lights to create a mood.

“Tongue-speaking” and “healing testimonials” that excite people emotionally.

Clapping, shouting, and continual outbursts from the audience.

People think such activities are “spiritual,” but they are just natural emotions, that appeal to man’s carnal desires for excitement. People enjoy the mood, but excitement is not spirituality.

Bible examples

1 Kings 18:25-40 – False prophets in idolatry were extremely emotional, but Elijah calmly gave the people evidence. Emotions may result but the goal of the teaching was conviction (faith) based on proof (truth). ( Ezekiel 8:14)

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – Our weapons are not fleshly. Worship involves spiritual methods.

What causes feelings? Are emotions spiritual or physical? Your body secretes hormones that cause fear, anger, excitement. The same hormones that excite people at ball games and movies can be drummed up to excite people at church. So how can they be fundamentally spiritual?

Do not mistake emotions for spirituality. Emotions are basically physical. They are not wrong, but they are physical, not spiritual, so should not be the focus of spiritual worship.

(Matthew 6:16; Zechariah 7:3)

What Is the Purpose of Worship?

The primary purpose of worship is to honor and praise God.

Hebrews 13:15 – We “offer the sacrifice of praise to God…, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name.”

Revelation 4:9-11 – We worship to give God honor, glory, and thanks.

Sometimes people say, “I don’t get much out of worship,” meaning that it does not move their emotions like they want. Worship is not about pleasing us; worship is about pleasing God. We should participate, not for the feeling we “get,” but for the honor we can give to God.

Isaiah 55:8,9; Luke 16:15 – What pleases us and what pleases God are often entirely different. We must determine what we do in worship according to what God wants regardless of whether or not it excites us or gives us enjoyment.

(1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Nehemiah 9:5,6; Psalm 148).

Worship should also teach people God’s will and encourage them to obey.

Colossians 3:16 – We sing to “teach and admonish one another” and to praise God.

Hebrews 10:24,25 – We assemble to “provoke one another to love and good works” and to “exhort one another.”

Ephesians 4:14-16 – Everyone should work to edify the body. How is this done? By speaking the truth in love. People who seek to edify and be edified must emphasize teaching God’s word.

(2 Timothy 4:2-4; 2 Corinthians 7:8-10; Acts 20:7; 11:26; 1 Corinthians 14:19-26; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).

To please God our worship must practice only what God authorizes.

Matthew 15:9 – Worship based on human invention is vain.

Colossians 3:17 – Everything we do must be in Jesus’ name (by His authority).

2 John 9; Galatians 1:8,9 – We are separated from God if we participate in practices that cannot be found in God’s word.

What we practice should be wholly determined by God’s word, not by how it makes us feel.

When Christians worship properly, they will often experience emotions. This is wholesome, but it is not the standard by which we decide what to do in worship.

Emotions are cyclical. People have highs and lows. Everyone has times when we are emotionally up and times we are down or “blue.” What makes you high at a particular time may have little effect on others. If the purpose of worship is to achieve emotions, there would be no standard at all because people’s emotions vary so much.

Instead of making feelings our goal, worship should seek to honor God by obeying His word. As we do, we will at times experience feelings based on our conviction that we have pleased and honored God. But the emphasis of true spirituality is to serve according to God’s word.

(Philippians 4:4; Psalm 122:1; 1 Chronicles 16:29-31.)

Conclusion

So, are emotions inherently bad? NO!

Is it wrong to be emotional about religion? NO! People of deep conviction will often be emotional about their faith.

Is it wrong to be emotional in worship? NO! People who seek to truly worship God will often be emotional in worship.

The lesson is: We should control our emotions so they do not determine what we believe or teach or how we worship. Our beliefs, practices, and our worship must be determined by God’s word to please Him and urge others to obey Him regardless of feelings.

What is the basis for your beliefs and your practices in worship?


(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2021; www.gospelway.com

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