Summary: God renews our hearts so we feel what is true.
If you hang around churches for awhile, you will likely find that our emotions do not always match our profession. Creeds containing truths which thrilled a previous generation are mumbled like a 9-year old boy explaining why he was playing baseball inside the house. Songs promising eternal happiness are mouthed by faces which appear to be sucking a lemon drop. Songs describing everlasting joy overwhelming all sorrow are carried by tunes appropriate for a funeral. We seem to fear emotions, especially happiness.
The Bible suggests a different way of worship, one in which emotions form a central aspect. For example, the word “glad” appears 43 times in the Psalms, the songbook of Old Testament Israel. Additionally, “joy” is used 50 times, and “delight” another 35. And Acts 2 describes the New Testament church as having glad hearts as they praised God.
When Jesus was here, he warned us about speaking truth which does not inflame the heart. Since the early church, full of the Holy Spirit, was both fervent and joyful in worship, I thought we should consider Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7 for this series on the Dynamic Church. [Read Mark 7.1-8. Pray.]
The preface to this radically contemporary version of the Bible included this plea from the translators for patience and acceptance: a new translation, “deserveth much respect and esteem, but yet findeth cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love…. For, was there ever any-projected, that savoured any way of newness or renewing, but the same endured many a storm of gainsaying, or opposition?” (Those words are from the “Preface to the Reader” of the 1611 King James Bible.)
One example of opposition was the distinguished scholar and Puritan, Dr. Hugh Broughton. He said (about the King James Bible): “[It] bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe, it is so ill done. Tell His Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches…. The new edition crosseth me, I require it to be burnt” (Quoted in F. F. Bruce, History of the English Bible, 2002 reprint, 107). Broughton’s censure was surely affected by his disappointment in not being invited to join the translation committee, but he does remind us that church traditions die hard.
The same is true of music as translations. Listen to these complaints about a new musical form:
1) It is an unknown tongue.
2) It is not as melodious as the usual way.
3) There are so many tunes that we shall never learn them.
4) The practice creates disturbances and causes people to behave indecently and disorderly.
5) The names given the notes are bawdy, blasphemous.
6) It is needless since our fathers got to heaven without it.
7) It is a contrivance to get money.
8) They are a group of young upstarts that fall in with this way, and some of them are lewd and loose.
This list was compiled by Thomas Symmes in 1723 over the signing of psalms and hymns to four-part music rather than lining them out as had been done.
In his book, I Don’t Like That Music (great title, is it not?), Robert Mitchell observes that musical forms are often the “primary, familiar liturgical structure [for the service]. This element of worship must be recognized, protected, nurtured and maintained. However, an opposite dynamic is also present: ‘I know what I like!’ is often a way of saying, ‘I like what I know!’ Such a stance represents a commitment to the status quo and an attendant resistance to anything new that might disturb it…. We need to ask, ‘How did we get this way?’ and, ‘What might we do to expand appreciation and permit a richer, fresher experience of worship?’”
It seems to me that a forms in worship become important to us precisely because of what Jesus speaks about in Mark 7. For any variety of reasons, a particular reality expressed comes very close to matching the emotions we feel. When that happens, we want both to preserve and expand it. Preserve it, because both critical aspects of God-honoring worship are present: truth and affections. Expand it, because we want more of it and we want more people to experience it. Then, over time, we continue doing it the same way, even if we cannot remember why, even if the only emotion we feel is nostalgia. Thus a tradition is born, one which may not die until that church closes its doors.
I am convinced (and I hope you will consider the possibility) that God is dishonored by worship in which the emotions we feel are disjointed from the doctrines we profess. The duty to worship is more than the duty to express truth in a Biblical way; it is also the duty to feel the truth in a consistent way. Or, as Dr. John Piper explains (Desiring God, 85-86): “An act of worship is vain and futile when it does not come from the heart…. Worship is more than an act of mere willpower. All the outward acts of worship are performed by acts of will. But that does not make them authentic. The will can be present (for all kinds of reasons) while the heart is not truly engaged (or, as Jesus says, is ‘far away’). The engagement of the heart in worship is the coming alive of the feelings and emotions and affections of the heart. Where feelings for God are dead, worship is dead.”