What exactly is joy?
I can say that I experienced the emotion of joy while riding a roller coaster. It’s this thrilling enthusiasm that sends tingles all up and down my spine. It’s an exhilaration that permeates my whole body.
I can also say that I experienced the emotion of joy while worshiping. But is it the same thing?
When I hear or read most folks talk about emotion in worship, I’m convinced that for them emotion in worship is no different than emotion in other realms of life except that it is (1) biblically informed and (2) directed toward God. I know that they think this because of the illustrations they use and comparisons they make. I’ve heard preachers compare worship to watching a sporting event in order to argue that if we can be exuberant and even physical while watching a sporting event, why can’t we do the same while worshiping? I’ve heard a popular worship author compare worship to watching a movie to make the same kind of argument. For these folks, the quality, character, and intensity of certain emotions is no different in worship than other areas of life. In fact, they use these other activities as models of what our joy should look like in worship, as long as we have good biblical doctrine accompanying the emotion.
I would suggest, however, that what we call “joy” in activities such as riding a roller coaster, watching a movie, or viewing a sporting even is nothing like spiritual joy.
This was the primary argument of The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards argued that religious affections were different than other affections, and certainly from the passions. To make this point, he argued that certain physical manifestations, intensity, excitedness, etc. are never signs of religious affections. Instead, religious affections are characterized by humility, reasonableness, self-control, tenderness, symmetry, and proportion.
This is why mere words are inadequate to describe emotion. The word “joy” isn’t specific enough to really describe what happens on a roller coaster or in worship.
And this is why music is so important. Music can communicate emotions more subtly and nuanced. Music can communicate the difference between the kind of joy experienced on a roller coaster and the kind of spiritual joy that should be experienced in worship.
And therefore, music that communicates the kind of “joy” experienced on a roller coaster, at a ball game, or at a pep rally doesn’t have a place in the worship of God.