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Religious Emotionalism: Should Feelings Be Our Guide?

Emotions in ReligionAre feelings and emotions reliable guides or standards of authority in religion? Should we design worship according to what excites our moods? 

What is the proper standard of authority and guidance in worship and service to God? Can we know we are right because we feel right? Does excitement prove we are spiritually close to God and prove the Spirit is moving? Should we shout "Amen" and "Praise the Lord"? Can we trust the Bible to guide us in all service to God?

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Human emotions play important roles in our lives. This is natural and may be quite wholesome. But we all realize that sometimes emotions cloud people's thinking, so they do things they should not. Emotions can be confusing, uncertain, even dangerous.

The purpose of this study is to consider the role emotions have in religion and to consider some ways that emotions cloud people's thinking in religion.

By "emotions" we mean inner feelings, sensations, moods, and thrills, such as excitement, anger, fear, sorrow, hate, etc.

Consider the influence emotions may have and the problems they may cause in some areas of religion:

I. Emotions as a Religious Guide

A. Many People Accept or Reject Religious Beliefs on the Basis of Emotion.

They may believe in a church, preacher, or doctrine, because they "feel good" about it, regardless of whether or not they have found convincing evidence that it is true.

Some almost rebel against the need for study and evidence in religion. They view faith as a "leap in the dark" based on feelings. A popular song said, "It can't be wrong when it feels so right." That expresses the approach some take to determining their religious views.

Consider some specific examples.

Better-felt-than-told" religious experiences

Some people had emotional experiences that convinced them they were saved. Maybe they attended a "revival" with rhythmic music, hypnotic preaching, clapping, excitement, and people claiming to "feel the Spirit moving." Perhaps emotional appeals brought them to the "mourner's bench" where they tried to "pray through."

Or some may have experienced guilt or some other deep emotional need, and they prayed to God for help. Then maybe they have heard some religious teaching and assumed this was God's answer. Maybe they received a deep sense of peace and warmth, so they just "feel sure" they are saved. Asked to describe this feeling, 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 may pray for healing or some other great blessing. Perhaps someone tells them to "expect a miracle." Maybe they speak sounds they had never spoken before, so they conclude they "spoke in tongues." This may give a deep emotional conviction that God has accepted them or that they are "led by the Spirit" to do certain things.

Some teachers tell people to pray to know the truth and God will answer in the form of a feeling of warmth, peace, conviction, etc.

Some call this a "burning in the bosom." Such feelings often come naturally, as when your ball team wins or you meet a pretty girl. But when it happens after a preacher suggested that you watch for it, people conclude God is telling them that the teacher and his message were from God, etc. The result is that beliefs are accepted on the basis of feelings, not evidence.

Strong emotional appeals are used to justify certain practices, regardless of what the Scriptures say.

People may accept a doctrine because "my dear mother (or other loved one) believed this, and I just can't believe she is lost." Or some programs and organizations make emotional appeals for money to help needy people or to save lost souls, despite the fact the program or organization itself may be corrupt or unscriptural. Many such examples could be given.

B. Are Feelings a Reliable Guide in Religion?

Can we be sure we are right religiously just because we feel right, or because we prayed and had an emotional experience?

Are feelings a reliable guide outside religion?

All of us know instances where feelings have led to serious mistakes. Movies, books, and songs urge people to "follow your heart." The Star Wars characters said, "Reach out with your feelings," and "What do your feelings tell you?" It makes good entertainment, but many people who try it in real life have lived to regret it.

* Young people "feel sure" they are in love, so they marry on impulse, then regret it for the rest of their lives.

* People become afraid and "feel sure" they hear a thief, so they shoot and kill a family member.

* Strong emotions may lead to adultery, killing, stealing, and other evils.

Are these acts right just because our emotions led us to do them?

Where does God's word say that feelings will show us right from wrong?

The New Testament is filled with examples of people who needed to know right from wrong. Where were such people ever told to trust their feelings or to pray for a "burning in the bosom" to tell them whether a church or belief is right or wrong?

2 Timothy 3:16,17 - The Scriptures provide us to "all good works." If we ought to trust our feelings to tell us right from wrong, then the Bible should say so. Where does it say this?

If this approach is good, why do people who use it end up contradicting one another?

When questioned, Mormons, Pentecostals, Catholics, Baptists, and Charismatics often tell about their emotional experiences. They may tell how they prayed to know what was right or had an experience that gave them peace and assurance that they were right. There is not a nickel's worth of difference in their stories that would convince you which one believes the truth. Yet they thoroughly contradict one another and many believe the others are wrong. Do the feelings really prove they are all pleasing to God?

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 and from time to time.

Following feelings to guide us in religion results in division, but God condemns division. Therefore, God does not want us to follow our feelings in religion!

[1 Cor. 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. Everyone knows that Satan and evil may inspire feelings like anger, hate, etc. So why can't they inspire us to feel sure certain doctrines are true, when really they are not true? (2 Cor. 11:3; Matthew 24:24).

I read of a Buddhist monk who felt he should have other monks kick him down a flight of over 250 stairs. They did. Afterward he said he "felt a great sense of peace with God." Did his feelings prove God was pleased with him? Should we all do the same?

Hosts of other people tell experiences that led them to "feel sure" they were right, but their practices thoroughly contradict the Bible. How do you know when a feeling does or does not really tell you God's will? How can you be sure your feeling is really from God?

The Bible expressly teaches us to control our feelings, not vice-versa.

Some emotions we are told to control are:

Fear - 2 Timothy 1:7 (cf. Joshua 1:9; Revelation 2:10)
Anger - James 1:19,20 (cf. Proverbs 16:32; Matthew 5:22)
Hatred (1 John 3:15; 4:20)
Love (1 John 2:15-17; 1 Timothy 6:10; 2 Timothy 3:2-4)
Joy (1 Corinthians 13:6)

These emotions are not necessarily bad, but they can lead to serious error if we let them control us. If we cannot trust these emotions to guide us, how can we trust any emotions? How could we know which to trust and which not to trust?

The Bible specifically warns that the feelings of our hearts may lead us into error.

Jeremiah 17:9 - The heart is deceitful above all things and is exceedingly corrupt. Who can know it? Would God use something so unreliable to lead us to truth? [Matt. 15:18-20; Prov. 4:23]

Proverbs 14:12 - There is a way that seems right to man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. How can this be harmonized with the idea that "it can't be wrong if it feels so right"?

Proverbs 28:26 - He who trusts in his own heart is a fool. Why? Because the urgings of the heart are unreliable and often lead to error! Poets may say to "follow your heart." But the Bible confirms what we all really know: trusting your feelings can lead to tragic error.

Acts 26:9 - Saul of Tarsus really thought that he ought to do many things contrary to Jesus. He felt sure he was right. But he was really the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-15).

Jeremiah 10:23 - Proper guidance in how to live is not found inside man. It comes from outside man. Clearly we cannot expect to find assurance of truth in our feelings.

Emotions are neither good nor bad of themselves, but God never intended for them to guide us or to reveal what is good or bad. We should control them, not let them control us. They are followers, not leaders. To follow them is to get the "cart before the horse."

To believe that we can know 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.

(Study also Matthew 7:21-23 and 2 Corinthians 10:18.)

C. What Guide Can Tell Us What Is True in Religion?

If we cannot know right from wrong by following our feelings, how can we know? It was exactly to meet this need that God gave us the Bible, the Scriptures.

Consider these passages:

Romans 10:17 - Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Faith does not come by feelings or by praying for emotional experiences.

Psalms 119:105 - God's word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. The Bible (not feelings) shows to us the proper way to go. (Cf. Psalm 19:7-11.)

Acts 17:2,3 - How did the apostles convince people what is right or wrong? Did they say to pray for a feeling of peace and assurance? Did they arrange emotional meetings with exciting music, shouting, clapping, and prayers at the mourners' bench? No. They just reasoned with people from the Scriptures! (See also Acts 28:23; 18:28; 17:17; 18:4,19; 19:8,9; 24:25.)

1 Peter 3:15 - We too should persuade people, not by telling them to follow their emotions, but by giving them reasons: evidence from God's word.

John 20:29-31 - The Scriptures were written to provide the evidence people need in order to believe and be saved. Bible writers did miracles to prove their message was from God, but now their message and eyewitness testimony of their miracles is recorded in Scripture. So we do not need to see miracles today; we believe on the basis of the testimony in the written word.

Acts 17:11 - To know whether or not some teaching is true, we should search the Scriptures daily, not pray for an emotional experience.

Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1,6; 2 John 9-11 - Many false prophets are in the world. How do we know who speaks the truth? Not by feelings, but by comparing what men teach to the true gospel recorded in the New Testament.

2 Timothy 3:13-17 - The Scriptures are the guide God provided so we can avoid being deceived. What we need is, not an emotional experience, but a knowledge of the Scriptures that teach, correct, instruct, and provide us to all good works. (Cf. 4:1-4.)

1 John 2:3-6 - How can we know whether we know God and are in fellowship with Him? Not by emotions, but by whether or not we keep His commands. And the commands are recorded in the Scriptures - 1 Corinthians 14:37 (cf. 1 John 3:7-10).

This is why the Bible so frequently tells us to study diligently and meditate on 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. People go into error, not because they lack an emotional experience, but because they lack knowledge of the Scriptures (Matthew 22:29; Romans 10:1-3; Hosea 4:6).

When people rely on emotions, they often end up in error because emotions are fallible and changing. The Scriptures, however, are infallible and can never be wrong (John 17:17; Psalm 119:128; 33:4; 19:8; Romans 3:4). But we must study the Bible diligently with an honest heart, or we will misunderstand it and still be wrong.

Someone may point out that we should pray for wisdom and knowledge (James 1:5-8; Colossians 1:9,10).

True, the passages do say to pray for wisdom. What they don't say is to pray for a "burning in the bosom" or a feeling! To conclude that a prayer for wisdom will be answered by a feeling is to assume what is nowhere taught in Scripture and in fact contradicts the many passages we have studied.

In order to properly understand Bible teaching, we must consider other passages about the subject (Acts 3:22,23; Matthew 28:20; Matthew 4:5-7). Specifically, to understand how God answers prayer for wisdom, we must remember that God answers prayer only if we pray according to His will (1 John 5:14; Matthew 26:36-46).

To illustrate, the Bible says to pray for bread (Matthew 6:11), but other passages says we must work for food (2 Thessalonians 3:8-10). This shows that the way God answers a prayer for food, is to help us obtain a job so we can work for it.

Likewise, God will answer a prayer for wisdom and knowledge in accordance with His will, not contrary to it. But we have already learned what His will says. It says that the truth is revealed in the Scriptures, and in order to learn what is true we must study. So the prayer for bread is answered when we work, and the prayer for wisdom is answered when we study God's word. To pray for God to tell us right from wrong by a feeling, would be an unscriptural prayer.

So the Scriptures are our God-given guide in religion. If we trust our emotions to show us right from wrong, we pervert the purpose of emotions and show a lack of faith in the Bible.

II. Emotions and Worship

A. Many Churches Design Their Worship to Excite Emotions.

People often mistake emotional feelings for true spiritual-mindedness. When they get excited, they "feel close to God" or claim they "feel the Spirit moving." Some people will only attend churches where they get this emotional "high." So some churches appeal to such thinking by deliberately arranging activities that provoke excitement and emotional stimulation. They intentionally use such emotionalism to draw crowds. Consider some examples:

Beautiful cathedrals with fancy artwork to create a "mood" that people enjoy

Exciting preachers with dramatic eloquence or dynamic speaking rhythm that arouses and excites

Thrilling music with instruments and special singing groups or with hypnotic rhythms that arouse, excite, entertain, and "move the audience" (emotionally)

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

"Tongue-speaking" and "healing testimonials" that excite people emotionally - Often it is the emotions involved that lead people to desire these gifts, regardless of what the Bible says about the true purpose and use of the gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14).

Clapping, shouting, continual "Amens" and "Praise the Lord" - Such activities are often deliberately used by preachers to stir up emotions and excitement.

Some people think these activities are highly "spiritual," but honest observation shows that they are just natural emotions, which appeal to man's carnal, physical desire for excitement and thrills. They are not truly spiritual at all, but are mere externals. They motivate people by means of emotional excitement very similar to what attracts people to ball games, rock concerts, and pictures of pretty girls. People seek "a good time," enjoying the mood and excitement. But excitement does not equal spirituality.

Outside religion, such desires are often used to lead people to participate in immoral conduct. When done in the name of religion, such motivations often lead to unscriptural beliefs and practices, which are justified as being the will of God but which really do nothing but satisfy fleshly desires.

Is God really pleased by such motivation in worship?

B. What Is the Purpose of Worship?

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

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

Hebrews 13:15 - We "offer the sacrifice of praise to God..., the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name."

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

Sometimes people say, "I just don't get anything out of worship," meaning that it does not please them like they expect it to. But this is no excuse for failing to worship, or for changing the worship so that it does please us. The purpose of worship is to please God, not to please the worshipers. We should participate, not for the feeling we "get," but for the honor we can give to God.

(See also 1 Chron. 29:10-13; Neh. 9:5,6; Psalm 148).

Another purpose for worship is to teach people God's will and to encourage them to obey it.

Hebrews 10:24,25 - We assemble to "provoke one another to love and good works" and to "exhort one another." Note that it does not say to provoke one another to excitement and a "good time."

Colossians 3:16 - We sing to "teach and admonish one another" as well as to express praise to God.

2 Timothy 4:2-4; 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 - Scriptural teaching may, at times, rebuke people and lead them to sorrow for sin. This may not be enjoyable or pleasing to the people, but it is still an essential part of worship.

(See also Acts 20:7; 11:26; 1 Corinthians 14:19-26; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).

To be sure our worship accomplishes these purposes, we must practice only what is authorized in God's word.

Matthew 15:9 - Worship based on human invention is vain. We must avoid things that people invent or choose to participate in, either because of human wisdom or because of human feelings.

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 any practice that cannot be found in God's word.

So we should not design acts of worship or choose to participate in them simply or primarily because they give people a certain feeling or emotion. We must determine what we practice or participate in wholly on the basis of what God's word says to do.

Now when Christians worship as God instructs, they surely will often experience emotions. This is good. But again the point is that we must control our emotions, not let them control our decisions about what we do.

All people have emotions. But emotions are cyclical. People have highs and lows. Some go way high and then way low. Others vary relatively little. But everyone has times when we are emotionally up and times we are down or "blue." If the purpose or success of worship were to be measured by our emotions, there would be no standard for how to worship or what constituted acceptable worship, because it would vary so much.

So the standard God set is an absolute one, not determined by our emotions. We must choose to do what God says to do, motivated by our devotion and trust toward Him, regardless of what our emotions would encourage us to do. As we obey God in this way, we will develop a true and abiding sense of joy, not based on natural thrills or artificial excitement, but based on our conviction that we have pleased God according to His will. This is true spirituality.

(See also Phil. 4:4; Psa. 122:1; 1 Chron. 16:29-31.)

C. Do We Convey a Message that We Mean and People Can Understand?

When emotions are the emphasis, many things may be done that excite and thrill, regardless of whether or not they are reasonable or easily understood. For example, instruments, clapping, shouting, and strong musical rhythms arouse feelings, but convey no understandable message. Continual repetition of "Amen," and "Praise the Lord" may lead to excitement with no thought of the meaning of the expressions.

"Tongue-speaking," as practiced today, never of itself conveys an understandable message, and often no effort is made to "interpret." Some preachers preach with a sing-song, hypnotic rhythm, often interrupted by interjections from the audience, to produce excitement with little emphasis on the meaning of the message.

Consider these passages:

Mark 7:14; Ephesians 5:17 - The intent of our teaching should be to convey a message that people can understand (see also Colossians 1:9; Ephesians 3:3-5).

Nehemiah 8:8 - The Levites taught Israel by reading God's law and then giving the sense so as to cause people to understand.

Acts 17:2,17; 18:4,19,28 - Faithful teachers taught people by reasoning with them. While emotions may have been produced as a side effect, they were never the main emphasis. People's convictions must be based on evidence and on the meaning or content of the message, not on emotion. (See also Acts 19:8,9; 24:25; 28:23; etc.)

1 Corinthians 14 - This chapter discusses spiritual gifts in the age when they existed, prior to the completion of the Scriptures ("that which is perfect" - cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-13 to James 1:25; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; etc.). However, the principles discussed would apply to all things done in worship assemblies (vv 26,40). All is to be done for the purpose of edifying by means of conveying an understandable message (vv 6,9,12,19,26).

Specifically, singing and praying must be understandable (vv 15-17). Unbelievers will not be persuaded and converted unless they hear a message they can understand (vv 23-25). God is not the author of confusion (v33), so worship must be decent and orderly (v40).

When they emphasize emotions, people depart from proper concern for an understandable message. Much of what is done is confusing at best or even completely incapable of being understood. The emphasis is on feeling, not on reasoning and understanding. This is clearly rebuked in 1 Corinthians 14.

Specifically consider phrases like "Praise the Lord" and "Amen."

Surely such expressions have a proper place in a Christian's vocabulary. But consider:

Matthew 6:7 - Jesus taught His disciples to not use "vain repetitions." Vain repetition refers to repeating words or phrases without seriously considering the meaning. We are just mouthing words. In their desire to stir up emotions, some preachers and audiences repeat "amen" and "praise the Lord" so often that they become vain repetitions.

I have heard audiences "amen" a preacher so much that they said it even when he made completely meaningless statements. One preacher got tangled in the microphone cord so he made some insignificant comment about the cord, and several people said "Amen"!

I have talked with charismatic folks who used the phrase "Praise the Lord" for everything. We would discuss a practice they participated in, and I would give a Scripture to show why I believed they were wrong. Even when they could not answer or explain their practice in harmony with the passage, they said, "Oh well. Praise the Lord!" Surely these expressions have lost their true meaning to these people. They are "vain repetitions."

"Amen" ("so be it") is used Scripturally at the end of prayers (1 Corinthians 14:16; Matthew 6:13), at the end of songs (Psalm 41:13; 72:19; etc.), or at the end of a book or sermon (Matthew 28:20; Romans 16:27; 2 Corinthians 13:14; etc.). It is sometimes used when there is a logical break in thought in a lesson (Romans 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 15:33; Ephesians 3:21; etc.).

But never in the Bible is "amen" used in ways that repeatedly interrupt the train of thought, even in the middle of sentences. Such a practice hinders the ability of the speaker to reason with the audience. And continual use of the word causes it to lose its significance and become a "vain repetition."

The word "Amen" is used less than 80 times in the whole Bible (King James Version). That amounts to about one occurrence in every twenty pages! Yet some preachers and audiences use it that often in ten minutes of a sermon!


We have learned in this study that we should avoid the abuse of emotions. At the same time, we should not overreact by concluding that all expression of emotion is bad and should be suppressed. The truth is that emotions can be good, but only when we are in control so that we are doing what is scriptural, understandable, and edifying.

It is only good and natural for Christians to feel and express emotions as they serve God. But we must not let emotions determine for us what we will believe or what we will do in worship, nor may we let them hinder people from understanding the meaning of what is done in worship.

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

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Topics for further Bible study

The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
The Claims of the Bible
Tradition as Religious Authority
Is One Interpretation as Good as Another?
The Inspiration of the Bible
Can We Understand the Bible?
Authority of Teaching of Apostles & Paul
Are Bible Examples Binding Authority?
Necessary Inference/Conclusions as Authority - Return to the Gospel Way home page.

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