We Should Manipulate Emotions During Worship
Modern Worship Music (from now on, CCM)[i] seems to always be up for debate. Whether it’s the lyricism, or the style, or just everything about it, some Christians wish we’d just go back to the hymnals. Now, by no means can I defend every single new worship song. There are certainly some not worth singing – maybe even a majority – but my concern is with the attack on the approach of CCM itself. These are the three things I most often hear: “CCM just repeats lyrics over and over again,” “CCM just isn’t like the old hymns,” “CCM just manipulates people’s emotions!” However, upon further examination of these claims, I think, according to Scripture, the very thing we criticize CCM for, is the very thing worship music is for.
I will fully admit: The title of this article is meant to be provocative. In it, I use the word “manipulate” to mean to influence or seek to influence. Yes, most often “manipulate” is used in a negative sense – like, a politician manipulates the facts, or a dishonest accountant manipulates the numbers. This is why the word has become a synonym for “exploit” because, in these examples, someone is doing an action for their own gain. However, I use this word because I think that those who criticize CCM music for “manipulating emotions” are often going too far, suggesting that any kind of approach in worship that seeks to influence the emotions of the audience is wrong. They seem to relate it to the idea of “manufacturing,” that is, they are claiming that emotions are being fabricated through big choruses, building bridges, and the repetition of lyrics. But again, this argues too much.
Ecclesiastes 2:24 says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (ESV). So, say I take my wife out for a nice steak dinner. We get all dressed up, we drive downtown, and we order the finest steaks the restaurant provides. Now, I’d imagine that I (and anyone who likes steak) will feel a great sense of enjoyment upon eating the steak. There might be a rise of happiness, a delight in the flavors, joy in the whole experience. The steak may even be so good you might rejoice in God for giving you tastebuds and making such a delicious thing, and you’d be right for thanking God for the steak – but a chef still cooked it. For all intents and purposes, this steak has manipulated your emotions. God provided certain means (the steak), that, when combined with the body (your tongue), naturally produced emotions. And God made the body for this purpose, because these emotions can actually bring us closer to God and to a fuller enjoyment of Him (Ecc. 3:13). Now, we would never accuse the chef of manufacturing your emotions. He picked out the highest quality meat, he seasoned it, he marinated it, he cooked it to the requested temperature with care and precision, and then he plated it in the most appealing way possible. All of this preparation, all of this attention to detail, all of this work was put in so that you would enjoy the steak. And you did. You truly, really, actually enjoyed it. Your affection caused by the steak was genuine and good (1 Cor. 10:31).
We also wouldn’t say that the joy you felt in God while eating the steak wasn’t genuine simply because you had a good chef. Maybe the chef went to culinary school, maybe he’s the best steak chef in the country, maybe he’s cooked a thousand steaks before; it doesn’t matter. You enjoyed God because God made the earth, and the meat, and the chef, and his talents, and your tastebuds, and your teeth, and your brain, and everything that went into that experience has its existence from God.
It’s What Music Does
Music is also like this. Our brains are hard-wired in such a way that an A minor chord will make us sad, a C Major chord will make us happy; a good singer will make us elated, and a bad singer will make us cringe. It’s just how God made us. I’ve heard it suggested that worship music can be “more genuine” when a singer is bad, or the song is slow, or the worship isn’t exciting, and yet that assumes our enjoyment in good things is ingenuine. However, as discussed above, reason clearly denies this. God is a perfect being, the greatest being which can ever be conceived, and all goodness, majesty, and beauty flow from Him. A good singer is good not simply because they are able to hit the mathematical center of a pitch we call C#, or simply because they are able to keep in step with the 4/4 time signature of a song, but because they are able to sing in a way that most aligns with God’s standard of reality and beauty. See, good worship is about God because good music is about God, good art is about God, and everything good in this world is about God. Humans are made in the image of God, and we can’t help but reflect His glory in everything we do.
So, we create music, and lyrics, and bridges, and crescendos, and reverbs, and compressors, and all sorts of things that make music sweet because we want it to be good, and we should want it to be good, because God is good. You see, most of the hymns we find so beautiful were simply songs written within the style of music of the author’s day. The 21st century man writes songs differently than the 16th century man, and that’s ok, because they had their audience, and we have ours. Some hymns still sound great because they tapped into that universal beauty we already discussed – combining a timeless melody with deep, theological lyrics – and so there’s no problem in still singing them, but there’s also no problem with writing new music and shaping a new generation of art that taps into even more of the infinite fount that is God’s glory. And naturally, when we write music that is good, we desire to receive good responses. We don’t want people to feel sad during a happy song, nor vice versa. So, we seek to have the audience respond in a certain way. We are similar to God in that way. God gives us grace and mercy, and desires a certain response back – namely, joy, peace, love, etc. – because it is good to emotionally respond to things in the way which they demand to be responded (more below).
Our Joy Was Meant For God, And God Delights In Our Joy Of Him
Jonathan Edwards, a pastor intimately involved with the Great Awakening and perhaps the greatest theologian of all time, had his work A Dissertation Concerning The End For Which God Created The World posthumously published in 1765. His great-grandson, Sereno Dwight, wrote about the work:
From the purest principles of reason, as well as from the fountain of revealed truth, he demonstrates that the chief and ultimate end of the Supreme Being, in the works of creation and providence, was the manifestation of his own glory in the highest happiness of his creatures.[ii]
To quote Edwards himself, “The happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted.”[iii] To put it simply: God created us to delight in God, and in our delighting in God, God is glorified. As John Piper, author of Desiring God, famously says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”[iv] There is so much biblical weight backing this statement, defending it is outside of the scope of this article (I’d highly recommend both The End For Which God Created The World and Desiring God for more on this topic), but the point in bringing this up is: Emotions are not antithetical to the practice of Christianity, but essential for it. This is what Edwards also argued in his book Religious Affections. We do not glorify God in a melancholy attitude towards Him; indeed, we cannot! God is glorified in people who have been regenerated and have their affections for God overflowing (Titus 2:14). So, it is the logical conclusion of this foundational truth that it is good for worship music to affect our affections towards God. And God knows this, which is why He repeatedly commands us to sing in the Bible!
Another Insight From Jonathan Edwards
After revival hit New England in the early 1740s, Jonathan Edwards wrote Some Thoughts Concerning The Present Revival where he says a statement about preaching that change my life:
I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.[v]
In other words, Edwards is saying that the goal of the preacher is to approach teaching the Scriptures in such a way that desires a certain response. This response should be emotional, but the emotions should be tied to the truth of God’s Word and should be consistent with the tone of God’s Truth. For instance, if one is preaching on Heaven, the audience should be feeling indescribable pleasure; if preaching on Hell, the audience should be feeling the weightiness and terror of that reality; and if preaching about God, the audience should be feeling elated by the glimpse of His divine majesty on display.
So, Edwards says ministers are not to be blamed for having their audiences emotional, as long as their emotion is being brought from a true presentation of the truth, and that the emotion affected is consistent with the content of the truth. In fact, that is the very goal the minister should have in mind. Ministers should want to raise the affections of their hearers so that their hearers are brought closer to God.
But What If It’s Fake?
I suppose the concern might be, “What if we raise the affections of an unbeliever, and so give them false confidence?” However, Edwards might respond like this:
First, raised affections are not a proof of salvation, but can be a means of growth for salvation. Whenever the Gospel is presented, there is only two responses: Repentance or rejection. Through the same Gospel call, one man may be saved; another may be hardened. It isn’t our responsibility to determine how the means is taken, but to obey God and be the means God uses. So, since the local church is ultimately for believers, we should approach worship in pursuit of giving believers the means to raise their affections towards the one object of ultimate satisfaction, God Himself.
Second, the use of music to raise affections does not negate the ability to warn your audience. There is plenty of room from the pulpit to say, “Hey, if the only time you feel close to God is during the bridge and final chorus of a song, you might not have a genuine relationship with God.” There’s plenty of biblical content to call out hypocrites and expose the frauds among us. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t create our practice off the possible abuse of it. That’s like not preaching about grace off the chance someone will keep on sinning (see Romans 5-6). We faithfully and clearly practice what we see prescribed in the Scriptures, and leave the rest to God.
So, we see that ultimately, the raising of affections is targeted for the believer, and though we’ll keep the unbeliever in mind, the believer is our focus.
But Does This Really Apply To Music?
An astute reader might be wondering, “But Edwards is talking about preaching. Would he really approve of this applying to music?” I think the answer is “Yes” for three reasons.
First, when Edwards is talking about ministers raising the affections of their listeners, he is really discussing the whole action of all that ministers do. Preaching may be on his mind, but it is perfectly reasonable to think that any presentation of the truth, any action of the minister, and any means of worship should be pursued in this same way.
Second, if it is true that God’s ultimate purpose in creating everything “was the manifestation of his own glory in the highest happiness of his creatures,” then the pursuit of all things is to bring us more happiness in God Himself. Logically then, if musical worship genuinely brings us more real, fulfilling joy in the true Triune God of Scripture, then this means is just.
Third, Edwards said so! He explained, “The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections… No other reason can be assigned why we shall express ourselves to God in verse rather than prose.”[vi] Notice what Edwards just said: It’s not only good that we should excite emotions and express those affections is musical worship, but it’s essentially the only reason to do it.
But There’s Just Too Much Repetition!
I know it’s also often a complaint that CCM doesn’t have the lyrical content of old hymns – that CCM music just repeats the same lyrics over and over again. Now again, I’m not here to defend every song, and certainly there are lyrics not worth repeating, but I’d caution once again from arguing too far. It only takes a quick read of the Psalms to see that God, apparently, likes repetition. The poetic style of the Psalms is parallelism, where one basically says the same thing over and over with just slightly different words. Many Psalms start and end with the same line. Psalm 136 repeats “for his steadfast love endures forever” in every single verse! If you really want to throw out songs simply because they are repetitive, you’ve just thrown out one of the largest books of the Bible.
I find it helpful not to think of it as being repetitive, but instead to look at it like lyrical chanting. Like the angels in Heaven (Rv. 4:8), we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” because of our total awe of God and need to dwell on His being.
Also, remember, we are writing music for the people of our day, and most popular songs are not very wordy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, sometimes it just makes the songs clearer, and allows them to have melodies that are more beautiful. It’s no wonder why Jonathan Edwards, in a day where churches only sang Psalms word-for-word, began to incorporate contemporary music: Because Edwards’ goal was to raise the affections of his hearers.[vii] Our goal should be the same.
Musical worship is a means in which God has given us to excite, express, and experience our affections towards God and other believers. It is the goal of worship to bring us closer to God and to closer fellowship with the body of Christ. We must choose the songs which we think best accomplish this goal and best display God’s truth. When looking at lyrics, we should be fair to songs. Don’t look at each lyric in a vacuum, but, like biblical exposition, look at the entire song, and interpret the lyrics through the other lyrics of the song and the whole context. Be wise, and pray. If there’s something troubling in the song, don’t feel pressure to sing it. There’s way too many good songs to choose from throughout all of Christian history to settle for a theologically troublesome one! Don’t just judge the lyrics, but judge the instrumentation, change the arrangement if you have to, determine a good key, get the audio engineer to mix musically, make sure the singers are on key – do whatever needs to be done so that the affections of your hearers are raised as high as they can go. And God will be glorified through the Holy Spirit using music to manipulate our emotions.
[i] I understand that, at least prior to 2013, “CCM” normatively referred to Christian Pop-like music, like Amy Grant or Toby Mac. However, since the release of ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong, I have noticed a shift in the language. When I hear the term CCM used now, it usually is referring to Hillsong, Elevation, Bethel, Maverick City, and so on, since those are the Christian songs that are charting. That is why, in this article, I am using CCM as a short hand for Modern Worship Music.
[ii] Sereno Dwight, Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), p. clxiii, In John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory: Living The Vision Of Jonathan Edwards With The Complete Text Of The End For Which God Created The World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 32.
[iii] Jonathan Edwards, The End For Which God Created The World, ¶ 72 and footnote 40, In John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory, 47.
[iv] John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory, 47.
[v] Jonathan Edwards, In John Piper, Emotions And The Aim Of Preaching (DesiringGod.org, May 11, 2009, accessed September 23rd, 2022), https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/emotions-and-the-aim-of-preaching.
[vi] Jonathan Edwards, The Perpetuity And Change Of The Sabbath, Quoted In Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh: Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, reprint 2020), 187.
[vii] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 143-145.