Perhaps you have heard someone say something like this before: “Wow, the Spirit was really moving among us strongly today!” You might hear words like these after a worship service. Usually expressions like, “the Spirit was strong,” mean something like this: The music was enthusiastically sung, or The preacher was passionate in his delivery, or The worship was deeply touching to a person.
These are not necessarily bad things. At least sometimes, we should feel something in our worship. If we are always bored with the Divine Service, then something is wrong; perhaps with the service, or perhaps with us. It is good, at least sometimes, to sing out with gusto. The Word of God should touch us deeply, although our emotions will not always feel what the Word is doing.
As for the preacher being enthusiastic, that is a more complicated matter. There is no such command in Scripture. So if we make heartfelt delivery the standard for good preaching, then we introduce man-made rules, as the Pharisees did.
But the bigger question behind all this is, can you tell if the Holy Spirit is stronger or more active among us from the emotions of the people? If you strongly feel the sermon message, did that mean that the Spirit was working on you more than usual? If the preacher gets all worked up in his delivery, is that evidence of the Holy Spirit? If your favorite song was sung and you sang more loudly than usual, with a pleasant feeling in your heart, does that mean that the Holy Spirit was there?
What does the Word of God say about the Spirit? The Holy Gospel calls Him the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, who testifies of Christ.
But we ask, HOW does the Spirit testify of Christ? Is it the burning in your bosom when the Word is read? Is it your emotions, or something else?
Notice that in the Gospel the Spirit is associated with the truth, as well as testimony. Testimony is the same as witness. If I see a car accident and then I am called upon to be a witness in a trial, then I give my testimony. If I am a truthful witness, then I speak exactly what I saw; in other words, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
This is the standard for judging whether the Spirit is bearing witness; not “Does the song or preaching move me?” Instead, is the song or preaching the truth, and the whole truth? That is the mark of the Spirit of Truth.
But what about comfort? He is called the Comforter, so we should feel some comfort from the Spirit’s presence, right? Yes, we should. But it will not always work that way. The Spirit objectively comforts, which means that He speaks the truth about Christ, which is the Word that gives eternal comfort to men. After all, Christ has conquered sin, death, and the devil. He has opened the door to heaven for you forever, and won for you resurrection to eternal life. These facts are comforting, whether someone happens to feel comfort from them or not.
The Spirit does not simply give emotional comfort. He is not a drug to make you happy. Instead, He gives you the right medicine, the Word of truth, that should help you and make you feel better.
But it might not. You might hear the Gospel truth and feel nothing at all, or even feel bad. Why? Well, perhaps you got stuck on the Law. Sometimes a person hears a sermon and the Law steps on their toes, so to speak. Perhaps I attacked your favorite idol. Perhaps I touched upon something with which you have struggled. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the sermon at all. Perhaps you just got fired from your job and your spirits are low and the Gospel did not break through that emotional fog. Perhaps you are distracted and you just could not focus on the sermon.
But here is a comforting truth: Because the Gospel that is preached and sung in this Divine Service is the Word of Truth, that means that the Spirit is always here at work. You may not have been aware of Him. You may have tried to resist Him. But regardless of you, the Spirit works with this living and active Word. He is here, busy, working faith, repentance, and sanctification. He is here, whether the Service seems boring or exciting. He is here, whether the sermon seems passionate or not. You can count on the Spirit’s presence, because here the Word of truth is the heart of this Divine Service.
If the preaching and teaching of this worship are not in line with the truth, that is a different question. A person may even preach the Word factually enough, yet omit certain teachings that should have been taught. For instance, a preacher that never mentions Holy Baptism from the pulpit probably has a problem with the Biblical teaching of that Sacrament. Or a person who regularly preaches the Gospel but leaves out the Law is creating an imbalance that robs the Gospel of its truth.
The same kind of principle works with our hymns. Do the songs we sing preach the Word accurately? I am not aware of any in this hymnal that are outright heretical. But a more common problem with worship songs is, do the songs teach anything of substance? Some songs say little if anything, and sometimes the little that is there is not terribly spiritual. Often, songs go after emotions directly, or sing about how we feel about Christ without actually talking about who Christ is or what He has done.
Although we have a rich heritage in our hymnal, not all hymns are created equal. Some are chock full of the truth of the Word. Others are less full of truth. The thing is, the hymns that are densely packed with the teaching of the Word are not usually the ones that we feel strongly about. They are not usually our favorites.
Still, that does not mean that we throw out all favorite hymns, but we need to be cautious about their use. It is like dessert. Chocolate cake, for example, is a fine gift from God. But if you only ever eat chocolate cake, you will soon have serious health problems. A little now and then is okay. In the same way, hymns that are not as full of good doctrine are okay from time to time, so long as they are used in moderation. We need the good, solid Lutheran hymns of our heritage because they teach the Word so well. They are the fruit and vegetables that give spiritual nutrition.
The point is this: Since the Word of truth is what the Spirit works through, we want to pack a lot of the Word of truth into our Service. That includes our sermons and hymns. Do you want the Spirit to be active and powerful in our worship? Then look for lots of the truth of God’s Word being sung and preached.
We should train the human heart in the same way. We should learn to listen for the Word and love it, because it is the Spirit‘s voice through which He works. That is what makes our worship great.
We need to train ourselves because there are other voices that want to train us differently. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are all active this way. They want you to be moved emotionally by other things.
Other churches want to lure you in with revivalistic worship, which is specifically devised to move your emotions. They want you to be excited and deeply touched. They want to give you an experience that makes you feel as if the Spirit is there. They look at our Lutheran worship, which centers around the sacred Word, and they think that we do not have the Spirit at all, because we do not seem to have the same excitement and passionate emotions.
Or perhaps you have a friend who tries to lead you away from worship. Since that person is close to you, you trust him and think highly of his opinion and want to please him. You certainly do not want to lose your friend. But if that friend disapproves of your Lutheran worship, they may pressure you to go somewhere else, or abandon the Christian faith completely. According to them, the true Spirit is found somewhere else. How do you resist a friend, especially a family member or girlfriend or spouse?
As the Spirit speaks through chosen servants, so the devil will speak through people to try to lure you away from the Word of truth. But the devil is usually very sly and pleasant, almost never harsh and forceful. The devil knows that emotions are a powerful tool to lead people. He knows the right buttons to push.
The old Adam in your heart is only too willing to follow along. Instead of submitting to the Spirit’s will, how easy to want the Spirit to come and go at our beck and call, through the emotions we expect.
But we should make ourselves deaf to the voices that try to lead us away. We should make ourselves ignore the emotions that try to influence us. Instead, we should concentrate on one thing alone: the Word of truth, the Spirit’s voice. Listen for that, and train yourself to love it. This does not come naturally, but requires discipline and diligence. For it is not enough to use your feelings to determine what is the Word of truth. You need to know for certain, which means studying carefully and listening to orthodox teachers.
If you are not certain what the Word says and does not say, or only feel that you know what it says, then the devil has an opening.
But the Spirit will guide you into all truth. Christ our dear Lord is the way, the truth, and the life. In Him is all that we need. The Spirit, who loves us and knows what we need, seeks to constantly point us to Christ.
He points us to the Baptismal Font, where we were buried with Christ. He points us to the Sacrament where we eat and drink Christ. He points us to the pulpit, where Christ is preached. He points us to Absolution, where Christ forgives us all our sins through His bloody death and glorious resurrection.
Pure teaching of the Spirit will lead us to these things, because the pure Word teaches about the Cross and Empty Tomb. The Spirit wants us to be satisfied with nothing else.
May we so heed the Spirit’s voice. Amen.
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