Pastor John, last Friday — in episode 263 — you said that the essence of worship is not what we do with our lips or our hands or our knees or our tongues, but what happens in our hearts — affections for God that correspond to the truth he reveals about himself. So what about times when we don’t have those affections? Are you saying when we feel no emotion, we cannot truly worship God?
Here is the answer. Let’s remember the text, first of all, from yesterday. It is Matthew 15:7–9: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.’” So this is a text that says it is empty. It is vain. It is non-worship if it is only lip worship. And I argued that is just willpower religion. They had the willpower to move their lips, go to church, sing the songs, but it is not worship to just move your lips. There needed to be emotions like contrition, sorrow, longing, desire, fear, awe, gratitude, joy, hope. These are essential to be a real worshipper.
Worshiping with Fickle Emotions
So now the question is being raised, I gather: What do you do if those emotions are absent? Can you worship? Should you even go to church? What do you do if you are sitting in the pew, and those emotions aren’t there? Should you get up and leave?
The answer to that question is very delicate. It has to be handled, I think, with pastoral care and biblical faithfulness. Our emotions and our spiritual affections — and when I say emotions, I am not talking about physical things like sweaty palms of fluttering eyelashes or wobbly knees or butterflies in the stomach or anything like that. I am talking about real spiritual affections rising in the heart — rising and falling. We are seldom the same in the morning as we are in the evening.
We are affected by many things in the rise and fall of our spiritual affections, from weariness, to hunger, to Satan, to sinning. A lot of things affect how intensely we feel God. And so I don’t want to be naïve at all that there is just one strain and that is, you know, one hundred percent engagement of your affections, and short of that, there is nothing worthwhile. That is just not true.
In the Slough of Despond
Let’s use David as an example:
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1–3)
David was in a pit with no song. And that means he was emotionally flat. Could he worship in the pit, waiting for a song? “I waited for the Lord.” I waited. I don’t know how long he had to wait.
I preached a sermon one time called “In the Pits with a King.” And I am so encouraged that David had these pit experiences, because everybody else does too, if we are honest. And sometimes you have to wait a long time. Could he worship in the pit, or could he only worship after he got out of the pit? And I think the answer is, his waiting for the Lord was worship. It wasn’t what he wanted it to be, because he had a new song when he got out, and many saw the new song, and they were moved to trust the Lord. But he was not waiting for pills, and he was not waiting for somebody else. He was waiting for God, because he had tasted and seen that the Lord was good (see Psalm 34:8).
Levels of Worship
So here is my way of describing the levels of worship that move from the strongest to the weakest, and to non-existence. This is my answer to the question, “Can you worship when your emotions are flat or gone?”
1. Eyes Open to God’s Glory
First, the highest level of worship is when you see some aspect of God’s glory, and you feel affections that are corresponding to that glory, grace, justice, goodness, wrath, or wisdom of God. Your eyes are open. The Spirit moves. Thankfulness or admiration or contrition or wonder or hope well up in your heart. It is lively; we feel it, and then we can express it. That is the top level of worship.
2. Aching for Heartfelt Worship
Second, we see God in some measure — we’re moving down now to something less than ideal — in his glory, but the corresponding affections are just not lively. They are scarcely there. What we see is true, and we long for those emotions to be there, but they are not. We have tasted that God is good. We remember it, and we ache for the former love and for the former passion and affections. And my answer is that the ache and longing for what we are not presently experiencing is genuine worship — is genuine affection for God. It is not ideal, but it reflects God’s worth and value that you ache to want him. You ache to want him. You ache to delight in him like you once did. And that very ache is worship.
3. Regretting the Emptiness
And on the third level, we see God weakly, and we are unmoved by this weak sight. We are so down and so lifeless that we not only don’t have the corresponding affections worthy of God, but we don’t even feel a desire for them. Now this is getting scary. We are blank. There remains a seed of some new life in us, but it expresses itself not in, “O Lord, I want to want you,” but instead, it expresses itself in a bare regret that we don’t long for anything. But we still can feel some seed of regret, some remorse, some sorrow at how utterly blank and flat we have become toward God that we don’t even want to want him. We just feel sorry for the mess we are in. And my answer is, That sorrow, that regret is worship. It is far from ideal, but it is still a seed that reflects what we are missing, that we know we are missing it, and it reflects itself in that regret.
4. No Emotion, No Worship
Now there is one step below that, and it is non-worship. We see no beauty in God. We feel no admiration for God. We feel no longing to have those affections for God, and we feel no regret. We feel no conviction, and we feel no remorse. And I would say at that point, No. You cannot worship. I don’t care what you do. Go to church, sing, pray, jump up and down. You can’t worship, because your heart is gone.
So my answer to the question is, yes, there are levels of worship when the affections are weak or almost gone, but if all the affections are gone, there is no longer any worship. If there is no longing to desire, if there is no regret or remorse at failing to long for the desire for God, then we are beyond worship. At that point we are utterly cast upon the sovereign grace of God alone, and there is nothing in us until he creates it.