Emotions And The Church’s Song

I am like many Lutherans.  I tend to downplay emotions and their place in matters of faith.  Like a much respected professor of mine once said in class, “Does having the joy of Jesus mean I have to have a smile on my face today?”  My immediate answer is No.  Lutherans are not an emotional bunch.  Perhaps it’s a consequence of “Lutheran guilt.”  Perhaps, (only perhaps), it is a mark of our German heritage.  Perhaps it is a belief that feelings can confuse a person as much as they can bring certainty.  The devil can use emotions as well as God can, it would seem.

The fact is, nevertheless, that our emotional makeup is part of how God, our good Creator, has made us.  In counseling over the years, I have seen how ready access to the emotions actually helps a person in healing from psychological and spiritual wounds.  In our over-medicated age, I see the clinically depressed sometimes being medically squeezed into an emotion-less middle which only hides the symptoms of their depression.  Without access to the complete range of emotions, bringing healing the to depression, in my humble opinion, can never happen.  (This does not mean that I do not see the need for medications.  They do provide functionality.  Nevertheless, especially with depression, medication without counseling is not very helpful.  I do believe that counseling with, possibly without medication, can provide real mental health).

For many of the people I have had the privilege of serving, an emotional response is often tied to the church’s hymnody.  Sadly, much of this is connected to hymns sung at a loved one’s funeral (ie. “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” “Abide With Me,” “Amazing Grace,” “I’m But A Stranger Here,” etc.).  Music, it is said, “hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”  The hymns of the Church affect me also.  For me personally, however, it is not so much the funeral hymns.  It is the great prayers buried within some of the more content-filled hymns which get me.  Indeed, it is hard to find more beautiful prayers than you will find in any Lutheran hymnal.  I actually believe that if Lutherans today were encouraged to read/sing the hymnal looking for these prayers, I suspect the Lutherans would be fairly immune to the so-called “worship wars.”  (Why would we ever trade these marvelous prayers)?

So last night, as I was calming down from a spectacular Brewers win, I put on my headphones and started listening to “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love To Me” (LSB 683) from Concordia Publishing House’s fantastic 4-CD collection, “Heirs Of The Reformation.”  Even though I wouldn’t have thought myself emotionally vulnerable, the wonderful, indeed elegant, new tune, combined with some of the most powerful words ever put into a hymn, got the best of me last night.  How can one avoid an emotional response to the words of stanza 2 below?

O grant that nothing in my soul may dwell, but Thy pure love alone;  Oh, may Thy love possess me whole, My joy, my treasure, and my crown!  All coldness from my heart remove; My ev’ry act, word, thought be love.

And from stanza 4,

In suff’ring be Thy love my peace, In weakness be Thy love my pow’r; And when the storms of life shall cease, O Jesus, in that final hour, Be Thou my rod and staff and guide, And draw me safely to Thy side!

Granted, the musical arrangement on the CD had something also to do with it.  But this is my point exactly.  Music and text came together in a holy way and I was overwhelmed by it.  The elegance, the beauty; these served as instruments bearing the TRUTH.  We are dearly loved by Christ.  Yes, even we are dearly loved by Him.  That our Lord would give up His life into death to save us, such love cannot be expressed well in words.  Put such a thought to music, on the other hand, and (at least for a fleeting moment), the whole body feels it, emotions and all.

In short, such an emotional response to the Bible’s teaching is a good one.  The Word guides the emotions, not the other way around.  The Gospel, undeserved, unmerited, is given voice and it touches deeply.  Christ is still first and, indeed, when our emotions are affected, it is a doxology (word of praise) in its own right.   Emotions are not an end in themselves.  But if our end is to praise God for His love and mercy, emotions can be a great servant to the Christian’s duty to “thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”

2 thoughts on “Emotions And The Church’s Song

  1. Dan:

    What an excellent post. I am often taken aback in the middle of a seemingly “mundane” green season worship service by the words and prayers of hymns that just seem to hit me out of the blue. I get up to preach and feel a very real lump in my throat, often due to the pure joy I feel from what I have just sung.

    The examples you give here are excellent ideals of your point. We have had some great poet/theologians write some incredible hymns. Thanks for the reminder.


    • Hi Tom, Sorry I didn’t see your reply. I am always surprised at the spontaneity of my reactions. I don’t have certain hymns that do this to me. (I may have certain hymns that do not). It really depends on “the moment.” I hear pastors complaining that leading worship means not really getting the opportunity to worship themselves. I thank God this isn’t true of me. So I guess they sneak up on me…even on Sundays sometimes.

      It should be said that this isn’t about contemporary vs. non contemporary per se. I would be glad to see Lutherans writing such powerful stuff in a more contemporary style. Kurt Marquardt’s old “sentics”-based argument that rock and roll mimicks the rhythm of sex and should not be used for worship totally misses the point that sentics was born out of the same inner circle which included Freud and De Saussure, who found sex under every rock they bothered to investigate. A convenient argument is not always a sound argument. I would love to see Lutherans putting their powerful theology to a today’s music the same way Bach did.

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