Have you come from a worship service and had someone say to you, "God really was present in the service today!" or, "I felt the Spirit's presence in a powerful way today!" Have you said something like that yourself? Have you ever noticed that we tend to make such statements when the worship has evoked strong emotions in many of those present; but if it hasn't, then not so much?
Emotion expressed in worship is not "bad," nor should it surprise us. We are created not only as spiritual and rational, but also as emotional beings. The cry of Psalm 66:1, "Shout for joy to God, all the earth!" (author's translations throughout), is by no means unique in Scripture. On Palm Sunday, when Jesus' opponents objected to His followers praising Him "in a loud voice," Jesus replied that if the crowd were silent, "The stones [would] cry out" (Luke 19:37-40). The Bible does not discourage emotion in worship, though Paul does caution us to do everything "becomingly and in [good] order" (1 Corinthians 14:40).
However, the idea that God is present only (or even especially) when feel-good emotions run high requires another look. The book of Psalms exhorts worshipers, "Shout!" (33:4, 95:1), but just as vividly, three of the Minor Prophets tell us, in different circumstances, to "Hush!" in the presence of God (Habakkuk 2:20, Zephaniah 1:7, Zechariah 2:13.) The emotions kindled in the Holy Week service of Tenebrae (shadows) by the Gospel readings of Christ's passion—and the successive extinguishing of the candles until the atmosphere evokes the darkness of the tomb—are the somber hues of sorrow and grief. The exuberant brand of joy is excluded from that service, yet God is present both intimately and powerfully.
Further, with respect to the evidences of God's presence, Psalm 29 reports that the voice of the Lord in the storm is powerful and majestic, even breaking the mighty cedars of Lebanon (vv 4-5). Many other passages, too, portray the thunderous awe and power of God's presence, both in nature and in the course of human affairs.
On Mount Carmel, Elijah experienced the emotional crest of assembled Israel shouting together, "Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God!" (1 Kings 18:39). Yet Jezebel, Ahab's queen, rejected this outcome and threatened Elijah's life. In discouragement and depression, not in fear, Elijah journeyed all the way to Horeb (Sinai).
Amidst these overwhelming circumstances, Elijah discovered God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Rather, God spoke in the still, small voice.
The Hebrew text is most emphatic on this point (1 Kings 19:9-13).
All Scripture affirms that God is everywhere, that God created us for His presence. Yet we must move on, and we come to Jesus' words, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst" (Matthew 18:20). If we believe this promise of Jesus, can we be okay with implying that God may pick and choose when to attend a church service, or what kind of service God will attend? Is it logical to think God would not be present in, for example, a liturgical service, if we don't feel God's presence there? (We should remember, too, that others will feel it.)
If God is present always and everywhere, is He more likely to be present in, for example, an emotional revival-type service than in a time of quiet contemplation? Or vice versa?
An almost exact analogy would be to say, "I really felt the air present when I stepped outside today," because the wind was blowing at 30 miles per hour. Yes, I felt the air then, but the air is still present when the wind is calm, when one feels no breeze at all. Just so, God always is present, whatever we may "feel" from moment to moment.
We have historical reason to be cautious here, also. If we believe our emotional response is the key to, and the measurement of, God's presence, we open ourselves and the Church to grave dangers. Riveting speakers and songs that take us for emotional rides can be used in the service of evil as well as for good.
Hitler's public speeches in Nazi Germany are prime examples. If we think it can't happen in the Church, we need to remember the lessons of Jonestown and Waco. I'm not saying it will happen—or even that it's likely to happen—in an atmosphere of emotional worship. We just need to bear in mind the potential dangers and guard against them.
John counseled the Church to test the spirits (1 John 4:1), but the tests do not include emotions. Emotional worship may be constructive or disruptive, but neither the presence nor the absence of emotion in a worship gathering proves or disproves God's presence there.
God is present, always, and for that we are both glad and grateful.
Joseph Coleson is professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
Consider this Scripture passage from 1 Kings:
Then [Elijah] came there to a cave, and he went [in] there. Now, behold, the word of Yahweh [came] to him, and he said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' [Elijah answered.] Then [God] said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.' And, behold, Yahweh was passing by! Now a great and mighty wind was tearing apart the mountains and shattering the rocks before Yahweh. Yahweh was not in the wind. Then after the wind, an earthquake| Yahweh was not in the earthquake. Then after the earthquake, a fire| Yahweh was not in the fire. Then after the fire, the sound of a soughing whisper. And it happened when Elijah heard [it] that he . . . went out and he stood at the mouth of the cave, and behold a voice [came] to him, and said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13| in v. 15, the voice of the whisper'the 'still small voice'-is identified as Yahweh's).
Holiness Today, March/April 2011
Please note: This article was originally published in 2011. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.