Your Emotions Matter to God

Learning from the Bible’s Songbook

Sing! 2018 Conference | Nashville

Why is the songbook of the Bible punctuated with so many commands directed to our emotions? Why do we read:

  • Love the Lord, all you his saints! (Psalm 31:23)
  • Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! (Psalms 33:8)
  • Let all the upright in heart exult! (Psalm 64:10)
  • Delight yourself in the Lord. (Psalm 37:4)
  • Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous. (Psalm 97:12)
  • Be glad in the Lord. (Psalm 32:11)
  • Hope in God. (Psalm 42:5)
  • Give thanks to the Lord. (Psalm 33:2)

Love. Stand in awe. Exult. Delight. Rejoice. Be glad. Hope. Give thanks.

None of those is a testimony. There are plenty of testimonies about our emotions in the Psalms: “I love the Lord” (Psalm 116:1); “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25); “How sweet are your words to my taste!” (Psalm 119:103).

None of those is a promise. There are plenty of promises about our emotions in the Psalms: “He satisfies the longing soul” (Psalm 107:9); “The humble . . . will be glad” (Psalm 69:32); “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance” (Psalm 58:10).

None of those is a prayer. There are plenty of prayers for emotions in the Psalms: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Psalm 51:8); “Gladden the soul of your servant” (Psalm 86:4); “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

Demands to Delight

Love. Stand in awe. Exult. Delight. Rejoice. Be glad. Hope. Give thanks. These are not testimonies, or promises, or prayers. These are commands. Commands directed toward the emotions — specifically, the positive emotions of delight, and not just delight in general, but delight in God. All of them: Love God. Stand in awe of God. Exult in God. Delight in God. Rejoice in God. Be glad in God. Hope in God. Give thanks to God — for God.

Why? Why is the songbook of the Bible punctuated with so many commands directed to our emotions? Specifically, why are we over and over again in the Psalms commanded to be glad in the Lord (Psalm 32:11), rejoice in the Lord (Psalm 97:12), delight in the Lord (Psalm 37:4)?

Rejoice for Your Life

Here’s one answer from Psalm 1. God commands us to delight in him because, if we don’t, we will perish. And God would save us from perishing. So he commands us to delight in him above all things. Psalm 1 describes two kinds of people. First, there is the blessed man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2).

Here is a person who puts his tongue to the sweetness of the word of God and tastes that the Lord is good, more to be desired than silver or gold, and sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10). But then Psalm 1:4 says, “The wicked are not so.” They do not delight in God or his word. Therefore, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment . . . but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:5–6).

So one answer to the question, “Why do the Psalms command us so often to delight in the Lord and be glad in the Lord and rejoice in the Lord?” is to save us from perishing. If we don’t find God to be more worthy, more valuable, more precious, more satisfying than other people or other things, then we will perish.

The apostle Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” And the apostle John, quoting the risen Jesus, put it like this: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).

So God commands us over and over again to delight in him above all things, to be glad in him, to rejoice in him, to exult in him — to love and prefer him and experience him as more satisfying than anything else, so that we will not perish in the last judgment, but live forever with him in everlasting joy.

Worship What Is Most Worthy

Which pushes the question back one last step: Why would we perish for not delighting in God? Why would we come under God’s final judgment and be cast out for not being glad in God — not rejoicing in God? Why would we hear Jesus say on that day, “Whoever [loved] father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever [loved] son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37)? Why would we be rejected for cherishing someone more than Christ, for delighting in someone more than God?

“What’s at stake in human emotion is the glory of God. If we don’t delight in him, we dishonor him.”

The answer has two parts. One is that God is supremely valuable. He is supremely precious. He is supremely desirable, and supremely satisfying. Like his word, he is “more to be desired . . . than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!” (Psalm 36:7). God is infinitely precious and satisfying. This is true about God intrinsically — whether anyone experiences him this way or not. That’s the first part of the answer. God is the greatest treasure in the universe — more valuable, more beautiful than anyone or anything else.

The second part of the answer to why we would perish for not enjoying God is that when we actually trust God as supremely precious and valuable and beautiful and satisfying, his intrinsic preciousness becomes experienced preciousness. His intrinsic glory and excellence find an experiential echo in our hearts and lives — and this is why God created the world: so that this eternal, intrinsic worth and beauty and preciousness would be experienced and thus externalized and magnified in the heart and lives of a people who find him supremely satisfying.

Eternity on the Line

What’s at stake in human emotion is the glory of God. If we don’t delight in him, we dishonor him.

That’s why we perish if we don’t cherish him above all. That’s why God commands us over and over to delight in God, and be glad in God, and rejoice in God. Delight in God glorifies God. Being glad in God glorifies God. Rejoicing in God glorifies God. That is, our delight and gladness and joy in God signal that he is glorious — precious, valuable, beautiful.

When the psalmist Asaph cries out in Psalm 73:25–26,

Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever,

there are no words that could glorify God more than those.

Experiencing God as your desired portion so deeply, so sweetly, that other desires are as nothing in comparison makes God look glorious.

Joy-Filled Sacrifice

Jesus told a one-verse parable that goes like this:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

Notice that this parable does not teach that we signal the preciousness of the treasure by selling all we have to get it. It is way more radical than that. It teaches that we signal the preciousness of the treasure by joyfully selling all we have to get it. Burdensome, dutiful, dour sacrifices for God make God look bad. The radical early Christians in Hebrews 10:34 made him look glorious:

You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

What did they sing while their houses were being plundered? In the sixteenth century, they might have sung “let goods and kindred go” from Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” But more likely, they sang a psalm. Perhaps they sang Psalm 73:25–26:

Whom have we in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that we desire besides you.
Our flesh and our heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of our heart and our portion forever.

And when they endured affliction with that kind of joy in God, the beauty and worth of God shone like the sun on their tearstained, joyful faces.

Glory Is Not Optional

What’s at stake in human emotion is the glory of God. If we do not delight in God, we dishonor him. And the more we are satisfied in him, the more he is glorified in us. That’s why the Psalms command us to be glad in God.

“We perish if we don’t cherish God above all.”

It is no more optional for us to pursue gladness in God than it is for God to pursue glory in us. Both are essential to the purpose of creation and redemption. And in the redeemed, both happen together. God pursues the magnifying of his glory in the satisfying of our souls — with himself.

In this way, the Psalms clarify for us how essential spiritual affections are for authentic, God-glorifying worship. They are not optional because the glory of God is not optional.

Embattled Joy

But right here, the Psalms also do something else for us that is utterly crucial for life and worship. They protect us from naïve optimism about the emotional possibilities of fallen, sinful, finite, culturally-limited human beings. And they help us navigate the rough seas of our embattled emotions.

When we are born again and the Spirit of God opens the eyes of our hearts to see God — to see Jesus Christ — as more valuable and more precious and more satisfying than anything, it would be naïve and unbiblical to think that our gaze on that glory could remain so clear, and our hearts remain so responsive, that for the rest of our lives in this world we would have unclouded vision of God and unhindered joy in God. That does not happen — for anyone. And the Psalms, more than any other book in the Bible, illustrate that fact.

The psalmist’s vision of God is often obscured, and the joy of his heart is often conflicted and hindered. Just a few examples:

I am ready to fall,
   and my pain is ever before me. (Psalm 38:17)

   I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged. (Psalm 25:16–17)

There is no soundness in my flesh
   because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
   because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
   like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. (Psalm 38:3–4)

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you in turmoil within me? (Psalm 42:5)

You have rejected us and disgraced us
   and have not gone out with our armies.
You have made us turn back from the foe,
   and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter
   and have scattered us among the nations. . . .
All day long my disgrace is before me,
   and shame has covered my face. (Psalm 44:9–11, 15)

I am weary with my moaning;
   every night I flood my bed with tears;
   I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief. (Psalm 6:6–7)

This is why we cleave to the Psalms. They are us. Pain. Loneliness. Affliction. Trouble. Guilt. Burdens. No health. Cast down. Turmoil. Shame. Moaning. Weeping. Nights flooded with tears.

Christians Suffer Too

And if some soft-prosperity preacher should object and say: “All those miseries and all that conflict was before Christ and before the Holy Spirit was poured out. Christians live on another plane,” we may answer: “No. We do not escape the miseries or the conflict.” Consider the apostle Paul:

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. (Romans 9:2)

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:8–10)

Not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)

Our outer self is wasting away. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

No. The emotional realism of the Psalms is not owing to their being pre-Christian. Before and after Christ, joy in God is embattled. We will fight for joy until the day we die. We will sail through the waves of every imaginable discouragement. And the Psalms are in the Bible to help us make it through.

Fight with Everything You Have

But make no mistake. It is a battle for joy. Joy in God. And our lives hang on it. Life is a battle against delighting in anything more than we delight in him. The psalmists show us over and over, not how smooth the sailing is, but how they battled through the waves of impossible obstacles. They show us how they fought for joy:

  • How they looked to the Lord (Psalm 34:5),
  • how they remembered his wondrous works (Psalm 105:5),
  • how they meditated in the watches of the night (Psalm 63:6),
  • how they confessed their sins and received forgiveness (Psalm 130:3–4),
  • how they gathered in worship with the great congregation (Psalm 42:4),
  • how they cried to the Lord in every form of prayer (Psalm 51:8–12),
  • and how they waited on the Lord (Psalm 130:5), and hoped in him (Psalm 39:7).

To be bought by the blood of Jesus and to be born again by the Spirit means that you have beheld and embraced Jesus as your all-satisfying treasure. The rest of life is war. We don’t fight for forgiveness. We fight as forgiven. We fight for joy with all the strategies of the Psalms. We fight until we can say,

Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)

Then we fight until we can say it again. And if it is slow in coming, we do not turn to broken cisterns and empty wells. We wait for the Lord. We wait. And we trust.