Ordered Emotion and Heart-felt Formality


This is the fourteenth and final installment in this series on the worship we offer to God together in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day. We have covered matters both large and small: from the nature of a biblical liturgy to the question of what the minister should wear when presiding in the sanctuary; from the singing of hymns and the practice of the Lord’s Supper to the meaning of the benediction.

Most of what we have considered concerns the objective side of right worship – what should be done and how worship should be ordered – though, along the way, we have said a good deal about the attitude of the heart. But I want to conclude this series by noticing again what great emphasis the Scripture places on the subjective side – the attitude of our hearts when we participate in corporate worship. It was a major theme of the Old Testament prophets that Israel and Judah worshipped God, that is, they participated in the forms of divine worship, but “their hearts were far from him.” Already in Deuteronomy the Law of Moses required that God’s people rejoice before the Lord in their worship (16:14). It wasn’t enough to go through motions. And God’s people did rejoice. We read of that joy often enough, especially in the Psalms. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” [Ps. 122:1]

The Lord made a point of the same thing in his preaching and teaching. He told the woman at the well in Samaria that the Father was seeking those who would worship him “in Spirit and in truth.” Whatever else that means, it surely means that right worship must be sincere; it must be real love, real thanksgiving, real joy, and the real promise of one’s life, even to a God who looks upon the heart.

Dante has a sinner in his Purgatory who, while he is confessing his sins, is all the while planning to commit them again. But we all know how easy it is to say words that we don’t mean or hardly mean; words we utter without thought or genuine intention. A puritan by the name of Richard Steele wrote a book entitled A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in Worship and every earnest Christian knows he needs to apply that remedy many times.

But when we come to think about genuineness in worship, about true and deep emotion in worship, especially in corporate worship, we cannot help but be dragged into the current controversy over right worship in the evangelical church. It is a controversy as likely to be encountered in the Reformed wing of that church as in others.

On the one side are many who fear that structured worship, especially of the classically Christian type, in the nature of the case works against true emotion and deep feeling. They imagine that such a worship service must be boring and who can be sincere while bored? Or they think that the formality of an ordered worship service must kill spontaneity and thus stifle the sincere engagement of the heart. Real interest and heart-felt participation succumb to personal detachment as the same rituals are repeated Sunday after Sunday.

On the other side are those who fear that sacrificing order and content for spontaneity must finally result in worship that is immature, mindless, and, while fostering emotion, it is emotion that is, however strongly felt, emotion only for its own sake. It may be joy, or look like joy, but is it joy in the Lord? These are fair questions and they go a long way to explain what have been called “the worship wars” in contemporary American evangelical church life.

It will not surprise you to learn, of course, that at Faith Presbyterian Church we stand on the side of those who argue that deep emotion and the true engagement of the mind and heart is not only not hindered by a thoughtful, ordered service of worship but that it is actually fostered by it. We point out that the very biblical texts that stress joy and love and thankfulness and sincerity in worship do so in the context of a worship service that was ordered ritual, formal, and full of content that required spiritual maturity fully to appreciate.

In the middle of the last century, the English Congregationalist P.T. Forsyth expressed the reason for our concern at the popularity of new forms of Sunday worship that omit much that has always been included and made lighter what remains.

“There are few dangers threatening the religious future more serious than the slow shallowing of the religious mind…. Our safety is in the deep. The lazy cry for simplicity is a great danger. It indicates a frame of mind which is only appalled at the great things of God, and a senility of faith which fears that which is high. Men complain that they are jaded and cannot rise to such matters. That may mean that the matters of the world absorb all the energies of the great side of the soul, that divine things are no more than a comfort. And, if so, it means much for the future of religion, and much which is ominous. And the poverty of our worship amid its very refinement, its lack of solemnity…is the fatal index of the peril.”

It is, of course, precisely solemnity that has been lost in modern evangelical worship, the sense of the fear of the Lord, that God’s people have come into the presence of the Almighty and are offering their service to him. Some will say, “But worship ought to be joyful, not solemn.” No, in the Bible worship is both, always both. They were to rejoice, but they were to also to humble themselves before their high God, confess their sins, promise their lives to him again; they were to sing of and to hear preaching about the glory of God and of his terrible judgments as well as his grace and mercy.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that solemnity “implies the opposite of what is familiar, free, and easy, or ordinary. But it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity.” He goes on to illustrate the point.

“The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’…. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious Gloria as in its poignant Crucifixus Est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. …We have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity.’ To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must reawake to the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in.”

Fact is, were we to find ourselves visibly in the presence of God, and when we find ourselves there, we would and will experience love, joy, fear, humility, and confidence more intensely than we have ever experienced them before and all at the same time. But “informality” will be one word no one will ever think to use to describe that scene! We will bow down together and stand at attention; we will sing great hymns of praise to God whose texts rise to express the deepest, the most serious, the most wonderful thoughts about him in the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry.

When he speaks we will listen with rapt attention. We will speak only when we are called upon to speak and then with the greatest care. There will be a thoughtful order to all that is done. There will be a formality to it all. Such is inevitably the expression of reverence. Sunday worship, when by faith we come into the very presence of that same Almighty God, ought to be, as much as it can be by faith, as it will be by sight. Reverence and awe, gratitude, love, and joy all compact.

The heart that on a Lord’s Day morning truly prays to God

Let me with my heart today, Holy, Holy, Holy, singing,
Rapt awhile from earth away, all my soul to thee upspringing,
Have a foretaste inly given how they worship Thee in heaven

will love the formal order of worship even as he seeks to invest that order with all the emotion of his heart and sincerity of his mind.