Is it Okay to be Singing in Worship about Feelings I Don’t Have?

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought1 Comment

I’m Singing It, But I’m Not Feeling It

A recent, edifying Facebook exchange I had with a friend this week about a lyric of mine got me thinking about the “dishonesty” we all feel when songs and prayers are sung and prayed corporately which DON’T reflect our current emotional frame.

It brought me back to the early conversations I had years ago with several rehymn movement pioneers. We all collectively said, “I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t sing these happy worship songs when I don’t feel happy. I can’t sing about living for Jesus every day when I know I don’t live for Jesus every day.” In reaction, we abandoned ship and found solace in the church’s rich hymn tradition. It gave us language for sung prayer that we never had access to before–lamentation, fear, longing, delayed hope, eschatological angst. And so we all embarked on a collective, not terribly organized quest to re-give these songs to the church in our own ways.

What I describe in the above paragraph isn’t really what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about emotive, evocative language that speaks very specifically to a certain moment of feeling. Should we write and sing worship songs that dabble in this very subjective reality? Or should we, away from our fleeting feelings, sing only of the unchanging Truth which is the the bedrocked lighthouse amidst the ever ebbing and flowing tides of our emotional state? 

I used to think the latter, not the former. Perhaps in reaction to the hyper-emotionalism of contemporary worship (which is increasingly a caricature more than a reality, despite its current detractors’ insistence on saying the same old straw man-y thing they’ve been saying for well over three decades now), where it seemed like one worship song after the other was nothing more than a gush of subjective feeling devoid of any objective truth, I was throwing the baby out with the bath water in insisting upon a pure singing of Truth with a precision removal of all emotional prattle. Worship didn’t need a feeling-ectomy.

A Friend Comes to the Rescue

But then a mentor came along. He immediately caught my attention because, first, he was a Grade-A intellect with all the theological pedigree of which I could only dream, and, second, the kind of worship content he was writing and the kind of worship he was leading was FULL of (maybe even over-saturated with) gushy, sappy, emotionally charged rhetoric. When I studied the worship services that this guy planned and led, I noticed that he was beating the hyper-emotionalists at their own game. My mentor’s name is Thomas Cranmer, 16th Century Archbishop of Canterbury. 

What? An Anglican out-emotionalizing contemporary worship?!? I think so. Check out the charged language of this prayer of confession, penned by Cranmer:

Almighty God…we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we…most grievously have committed…The remembrance of them is grievous to us, the burden of them is intolerable: have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.

This might sound stately and “Elizabethan” to our ears. For Cranmer and his original audience, it was quite the opposite. Its evocative language, its repetitious use of synonyms, its sensual words, its melodrama were all meant to drive the pray-er to desperation. Cranmer’s liturgy is saturated with this kind of stuff.

My Conversation with Cranny

Therefore, this week I started having a little dialogue in my head with Cranmer. “So, Cranny [that’s what I call him…I know, disrespectful…I bewail it], you’ve got to believe that there are going to be some Sundays when some folks are actually not feeling all that sorrowful about their sin. You know, those ‘meh’ weeks we all have? Why in the world would you put words in people’s mouths that were so specific that they would inevitably alienate some who aren’t feeling the feelings your portraying?” Cranmer gave me a few answers in this imaginary dialogue:

1) Look at the Psalms.

The more I read Cranmer’s 1549 and 1552 liturgies, the more I’m noticing that his affective prayers and readings are often nothing more than allusions to and expansions of the Psalms. I’m probably just dense, and perhaps tried and true Anglicans have known this for years, but the extremist and quite desperate phrase “there is no health in us” from another one of his confessions, for instance, is nothing more than a quote from Psalm 38. Psalms like 13, 42, and 51 are great examples of “hyper-emotionalism.” They grant us permission to experience God and life–and then sing about it–in an emotionally-charged way.

2) Remember the formation that happens even when you’re saying things you don’t really feel.

Just because some voiced feeling isn’t actually felt doesn’t make it unprofitable to say it. It just might be that it’s setting up some training wheels on you so that when the waves of joy or difficulty hit, you’re not whipped over on your side. It just might be that the repetitious voicing of joy might best prepare you to experience true moments of joy in the most deeply human and most fully Christian fashion. It just might be that “going through the motions” of sorrow will prepare you to repent in the best fashion in the moment when you actually blow it big. Emotional formation is a complex thing. We shouldn’t discount the “numb” or disjunctive moments as being inconsequential. They are perhaps just not, in those moments, simultaneous in their experience of the verbalized word and the affect it’s describing.

3) Objective truth might just be most deeply known when it is subjectively felt, not just intellectually assented to.

I was also hearing Cranmer tell me to remember what I read in James K. A. Smith’s landmark, Desiring the Kingdom. (Though Cranmer obviously never read Smith, both of them were big fans of Augustine, who, distilled through the other 16th century Reformers [particularly Melanchthon], championed this anthropology.) If human beings at their core aren’t so much heads on sticks but desire-based creatures, then it changes the game a bit on what “knowledge” and “understanding” are from the human perspective. Emotions devoid of objective truth might seem vapid, but emotions tethered to Truth might just be the deepest kind of full-orbed “knowing” there is. One of the reasons we want worship to be emotionally charged is simply because it’s more honest with the way humans experience the world and its truths. When your loved one dies, there is a sense in which you experience that death most deeply not when you’re informed of their passing (intellectual assent, a transfer of facts from one party to another), but when you’re huddled up in a ball on floor, weeping your guts out. Worship needs to be emotionally charged because it is the most deeply human way to experience all of life. 

4) Not everything is for everyone at every time, but that’s not a sufficient reason to dial down the emotional language.

Still, this is all going to mean that some folks just “ain’t feelin’ it.” For all the above reasons and more, this simply isn’t a sufficient enough reason to jettison the project. Life is messy, and emotions are complicated. Perhaps all this will be resolved when all our emotional, hormonal, and chemical disorders are rightly aligned and balanced with our new resurrection bodies on the other side of this very confused existence. But for now, things are just messed up, and so are we. I guess another way to answer this issue is to ask, “What’s the alternative?” Do we strip our worship of all its emotional language? It sounds noble at first, because perhaps you’re allowing people to feel purely what they’re going to feel without any coercion. But what if people, this side of heaven, need more emotional guidance than that? It seems more pastoral to help people along by gently (or not so gently) encouraging, “Hey, this is what you should feel in this moment.” You’re confessing sin. You should feel pretty despondent. You’re hearing the gospel. You should feel pretty relieved. You’re lamenting. You should ache. This idea of emotional formation, then, actually becomes a positive reason to jam-pack our worship, not with aimless, nebulous, “feelings,” but with intentional, pastorally-motivated language that provides appropriate emotional tethers to the various ups and downs of worship’s narrative.

Well, thanks, Tom. Great points. It was nice talking with you. Stop by anytime. 

One Comment on “Is it Okay to be Singing in Worship about Feelings I Don’t Have?”

  1. This Lent, as I did last Lent, I'm reading through the Psalms and have felt this exact problem. I'm just not feeling the "enemies" Psalms, which is most of David's psalms. I've even prayed through that and asked God to show me what he wants though I'm in a very content state of heart this Lent. This post is a God-send.

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