Do I Have to "Feel" the Words?

Many worshipers and worship pastors alike worry about whether or not their worship is genuine. In our current culture where authenticity and "being real" are valued so highly, many wonder whether it is even worthwhile attending worship services and singing along with words they aren't actively feeling at that moment.

Standing in church and singing about how much Jesus loves me during a time when I am feeling decidedly unloved by Him can seem dishonest and even pretentious. When I spent Saturday questioning His goodness and wondering why He has forsaken me, spending Sunday morning corporately proclaiming His faithfulness doesn't sound particularly appealing. I don't feel these things in my heart, so why should I act like I do?

I don't feel these things in my heart, so why should I act like I do?

There is a lot that is good and right about leaning into the emotion of worship and celebration. We are commanded to rejoice, after all, and an emotional response to worship is appropriate. One of the functions of attaching the words to music is so that our emotions can get involved - the content of the lyrics gets into our hearts in a more meaningful way.

An emotional response can be very good, but it is not the purpose of worship. The purpose of worship is to exalt the Lord, to glorify him together. While getting a "spiritual high," or warm, pleasant feelings during worship are good things and often gifts from God, they are not the reason we sing or partake in any other form of worship. Worship gets my eyes up out of the daily rat race and refocuses them on eternal reality. Worship is about ascribing rightful glory to God. We do it because He is worthy of our praise. We owe everything to Him. We know these things, but they can sometimes feel--what's the word?--maybe theoretical.

Worship is about the Good News. That's profoundly practical. It's also continually good. When we were lost in our sins, without hope and without God in the world, at just the right time, God accomplished the decisive, once-and-for-all victory over sin, hell, and the grave. "Death is crushed to death; life is mine to live, won through his selfless love." The Gospel changes everything. The answer actually is Jesus. So worship is both our response to who God is (glorious/worthy) and what He has done (Good News).

Worship is about the Good News...The Gospel changes everything.

These things remain true regardless of how we feel. The Cross is still the decisive moment of world history. Jesus is still Savior. If you're angry about something going on at work, God is still God and He is worthy of praise. If you were so tired you could hardly drag yourself out of bed this morning to attend the service, God is still God and He is worthy of praise.

The most important thing about me is still the fact that my life is hidden now with Christ in God. I don't have to feel the words for them to be true, because their truth is not dependent on me. I'm very thankful about that.

Worship, Action & Integrity

David is a prime example of worshipping when we don't feel like it. He begins Psalm 22 by asking God why he has been forsaken. Clearly the Israelite king is not experiencing any warm feelings when it comes to God. And yet he still worships out of obedience, honestly bringing his heart before the Lord and praising Him. He doesn't check his pain at the door, pretending it has somehow evaporated. He keeps it in the front of his mind, bringing it to God. The song ends with David proclaiming God's righteousness.

In C.S. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon Screwtape famously advises his nephew Wormwood,

"Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

What a poignant description of Psalm 22, and the type of obedience to which we are called. Stepping out in obedience when we don't feel like it is when our faith is called into action! This is not a lack of authenticity, it is a display of integrity.

Stepping out in obedience when we don't feel like it is when our faith is called into action!

Lying Feelings, Willful Worship

Our emotions are wonderful gifts from God, but they do not determine truth, they merely react to it, and sometimes they react rather poorly. As the great Eugene Peterson famously said, "Feelings are great liars." 1 We are meant to use the functioning wills God has given us--even on a bad day, through the prompting and power of the Holy Spirit, I can engage myself to worship. And often, proclaiming truth to myself helps to straighten out my emotions so that I am feeling what I'm saying.

"Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship." 2

In our modern culture which exalts our ever-changing emotion as ultimate truth, we must be careful to reject those lies and lean upon biblical truth. Christ is the truth.3 Christ perfects my imperfect worship. That is something I can genuinely feel thankful for.

  1. Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000), 54. Highly worth the read. "If Christians worshiped only when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship. Feelings are important in many areas but completely unreliable in matters of faith. ...we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting."

  2. Peterson, 54.

  3. John 14:6