What do you think about emotional sensationalism in the modern church?

3 Min Read

NICHOLS: First of all, God made us whole people—we’re not just brains. We’re not just rational. So we’ve got to resist the urge to reject something just because we hear “emotional” or “sensational.” You have to realize that God made us as persons with valid emotions.

We see valid emotional expression in the pages of Scripture. We see depression and sadness, and we see how the psalmist or the prophet will take that to God. We see joy and elation in the text, and we see how that comes into worship. So let’s not just have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “Emotion is bad.”

But, especially in the American church, we seem to be very susceptible to this. There is a difference between emotion and emotionalism.

When you get into emotionalism, the barometer for what is true or what is real becomes how I feel about it. So if I feel excited about this, this thing is good. If I don’t feel excited about this, this thing is bad. We can even judge doctrine that way and begin to ask, “How does this make me feel?” or, “How does a biblical book make me feel?” and judge its value to our life and our Christian walk based on that.

Sometimes in emotionalism, we can say, “Well, you know, I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I don’t really feel like praying today. The last thing I want to do is be a hypocrite, so I’m not going to pray.” Well, we should just start praying, right? It is our duty and our obligation, so we should just start praying and see what comes of that.

Again, there are examples of emotions and being emotional in Scripture. It’s how God made us. But it can get carried away with itself, so we have to be very careful because we are very susceptible.

When Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Eleazer Wheelock was there. Wheelock was a minister and went on to found Dartmouth College. He was in the audience on that night when the sermon was preached in Enfield, Connecticut, and he was taking notes and observing. At certain points in the sermon, Edwards is full of imagery: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow is aimed directly at you.” This was intense.

BINGHAM: It wasn’t seeker-friendly.

NICHOLS: Not at all—it’s all about sin, and your precarious situation, and so on. So what happened? Well, this had an impact. Wheelock said that people were shrieking in the audience.

So here is what Edwards did: he stopped. He stopped talking. He let people calm down so they could get a hold of themselves, then he proceeded with the sermon. Then the same thing happened again—it built up and he stopped talking.

This is the opposite of what happens today. You see it on television: they play it up, they know how to do it, and once they get them going, there is no way they stop the train.

BINGHAM: “Play that chorus one more time.”

NICHOLS: They ramp it up, you see? So what was Edwards saying? He was saying, “Listen, it’s the idea here that you’ve got to reckon with.”

I don’t know how to judge your emotional response. I was at a hockey game the other night, oh joy. Well, not so much, right? Is that my judge of truth, that just because I am happy about something or crying about something and shrieking out, it’s true? The question is, “What is going on in my heart?”

So I think we can learn a crucial lesson from Edwards. Those who teach the truth, and those who are teachers in general, can manipulate the emotions. Be warned against that. For some reason, American evangelicalism has always been susceptible to it, and it gets played up. It is not a responsible handling of God’s Word, nor is it caring for the flock.

BINGHAM: And it’s a comfort for the Christian too knowing that God’s Word is true, whether you feel good about it or not. His promises are faithful.

NICHOLS: Absolutely. Luther has a hymn. It goes something like this: “For feelings come and feelings go, and feelings are deceiving.” And if anyone knew about feelings, it was Luther. He’s the whole range. And then he says, “My warrant is the Word of God, naught else is worth believing.”

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Stephen Nichols and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.