By Michael Riley

Suppose I told you I have a new car for you. And not just any car: it’s the car you’ve always dreamed of owning, in just the color you imagined it would be. Suppose I hand you the keys and tell you to take it for a spin. I think we all would agree that this would give you a kind of joy.

Now, change illustrations. Suppose you are fighting cancer. It’s a particularly aggressive cancer, with a remote chance of your survival. The treatment is brutal, with drugs and radiation that place you on the verge of death. And now the doctor walks into the room with a clipboard to deliver the news: the cancer is gone. It is not hard to imagine that you might cry. But who would doubt that those tears are tears of joy?

In both examples, the response to good news is joy, yet these joys are quite distinguishable from each other. For someone to hear that his cancer is gone and respond as though he just won a new car would indicate he is oblivious to the stakes of his situation. We don’t doubt that he is happy; we might rightly doubt that he fully understands the magnitude of both the threat he faced and the good news he has received.

Emotion in Worship

We are Bible people, and that makes us gospel people. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message we proclaim. We announce that we are guilty people; we are without God and without hope in the world. God is our judge and His verdict must go against us. Our sentence is certain: eternal torment in Hell, a judgment that we richly deserve and cannot righteously protest. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–8).

Do those verses give you joy? If they do not, there is a major problem. But what sort of joy? Free car joy or no more cancer joy? Which of these joys better accords with the redemption found in the gospel? And how might we best express a joy like that? How might we help others understand—indeed, feel—the depth of joy that our salvation produces?

In my estimation, this question is at the heart of the music debate.