The Difference Between Emotion & Emotionalism

by William J. Stewart

Perhaps you’ve heard about it. Maybe you’ve seen it. Possibly you have even experienced it. Cunningly orchestrated music is used to stir the emotions of the crowd; an emotionally charged evangelist spurs them on with repetitive chants; hands and bodies sway to and fro; the atmosphere has been established. As the crowd is further worked into a frenzy, often times, folks will end up rolling about in the aisles, bursting out in uncontrollable laughter, shaking, jumping, and shouting out unintelligible speech. Is this worship that gives glory to God, or merely a display of unbridled emotions?

Experiences based solely upon felling and devoid of Biblical validity have increasingly become the norm in our religious world. Some time ago, while perusing an atheist site (Internet Infidels), I came across a statement which accurately summarizes the results of emotionalism in worship. It is “…used to bring about a sort of altered state of awareness and emotion that does make one more susceptible to make choices you might not normally (like convert) or believe you have experienced a supernatural occurrence.”1 As I read this statement, it brought to mind a faith healing service I attended some years back. All manner of emotional appeal was used to capture the audience; to prepare them for “healings,” for the supernatural experience about to take place. One can easily get caught up in the moment; get a high from the emotion—but understand, this is not godly worship.

One writer has said, “Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full of artificial admirers… On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the discipline of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine. Strong affections for God rooted in truth are the bone and marrow of Biblical worship.”2 Without doubt, emotions have a place in worship. They are God-given, and when kindled and handled properly, worshipers are edified and God is glorified. However, when they are misused, they beget emotionalism—a profane worship. Webster’s defines emotionalism as “…undue indulgence in or display of emotion…”3 When “undue indulgence” is given to emotion, the result is more akin to a circus of giddy drunkard than a worship assembly. With such displays the Lord is not pleased.

The Bible identifies the heart as the center of man’s intellect (Matthew 13:15, 22), emotions (Matthew 22:37), conscience (Acts 23:1), and volition (Hebrews 4:12). If we are to use our heart appropriately, we cannot forsake any of these. If our hearts are to rightly enter into worship of the Almighty God, it must be a conscious decision, combining both our intellect and our emotions. Never should emotions be permitted to overrule intellect. Our emotions in worship must be a response to our intellectual acknowledgement and acceptance of God and His ways. When emotions are given the dominion, our worship is no longer emotional praise to God, but emotionalism, devoid of intellectual subjection to the will of God.

We need go no further than the book of Psalms to understand that worshiping God is an emotional experience. David wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Again, the psalmist wrote, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, ‘Where is your God?’ When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast” (Psalm 42:1-4). Again, “Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands! Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Know that the LORD, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. for the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations” (Psalm 100).

Worshiping God should bring a variety of emotions in us: contrition and sorrow for sin; a fervent longing to be in the presence of God, a trembling awe of the glory of His presence and greatness of His power, thanksgiving for the blessings of God, rejoicing and hope for the salvation which God supplies. Emotion is necessary, but it is not to be the basis of our faith and worship, nor is it an end to itself. Welling up emotions for the sake of being emotional is not sincere worship. It is emotionalism.

Let us be diligent students of God’s word, and enter into worship with a readiness to give glory to God and encouragement to our brethren. If we will do so, our emotions will most certainly be stirred, as will the emotions of all others who have prepared themselves for worship—but not stirred by human manufacture, but by our desire to uplift the name of God, in accordance with His will.



  1. NeoApostate, Internet Infidels Discussion Forum.
  2. Piper, J. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Multnomah Press, 1986.
  3. Merriam-Webster Deluxe Dictionary, 10th Ed.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email