Praying or singing yourself into an “altered state.”

by K.W. Leslie, 06 November

Last month I had a correspondent, whom I called Fenella, object to the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) on the grounds it’s vain repetition.

Fenella’s concern is one I’ve heard dozens of times: When Christians pray something over and over and over, they figure we’re doing it to psyche ourselves into a state of euphoria. Other Christians have the very same complaint about the way certain churches do their music, or pick particularly repetitive songs: All that repetition isn’t done to praise God; it’s to whip ourselves into an altered state of consciousness. The “trance state,” as some of ’em describe it.

Once we’re in this trance, they worry we’re susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Naughty pastors might try to insert heretic ideas in our minds. Although more of these concerned Christians are more worried about demonic activity. Nevermind the fact these Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit: The critics are entirely sure devils can nonetheless climb into us while we’re praying and worshiping the Almighty. Because we’re praying so wrong.

I recently skimmed an article by a particularly fearful Christian; we’ll call him Otmar. Yeah, I skimmed the piece: I was trying to suss out Otmar’s main points, but these practices enrage him so much, he couldn’t stick to his descriptions and kept interrupting to vent his spleen. Dude’s got issues. (But now I’m digressing.)

Y’notice Evangelical churches tend to start our services with three fast songs, then three slow songs. Or more, or fewer, but it’s typically fast, then slow. “Three fast, three slow” was a joke we regularly made in my Christian college. But Otmar got hold of some charismatic church’s guidelines to their worship pastors about why they go fast, then slow, and the sort of mood they’re trying to set for the worshipers. Or “atmosphere,” as the church called it; same thing.

Most of the churches I visit totally do the same thing. And for the very same reasons. I’ll own up to it.

  • When you walk into the service, the church usually has some music playing to set the mood. Typically songs the people already know. Something what gets people thinking, “We’re gonna do worship songs soon.”
  • Then a “gathering song”—one which invites people to start singing and worshiping and praising God. One of my previous worship pastors really liked to use “Come, Now Is the Time to Worship.” Something fast and exciting. Frequently a song about praise, and why we oughta praise God—and that it’s fun!
  • Then another fast song or two. Or three.
  • Then we slow it down. Partly ’cause we can’t have everybody all amped up during the sitting-down portions of the service. Partly so people shout and jump less, and get more introspective and meditative, and hopefully pay more attention to anything the Holy Spirit might tell them.
  • Then another slow song or two. Or stretch out the one song for a while, depending on how much the worship pastor really loves that song the Spirit’s leading.

My own church tends to do four songs total. And since I get to pick the preservice music, I tend to go with gospel. They listen to enough white music on K-LOVE already.

Back to Otmar. He insisted on reading something insidious into everything this church wrote. They used the word “invocation” for the gathering song. That’s an old-timey Christianese word, found in all sorts of churches, frequently to describe the opening prayer. Otmar couldn’t help but wonder what other things it might invoke. Like devils. Told you dude’s got issues.

And as I’ve stated many times elsewhere, the issue actually has nothing to do with whether these prayer and worship practices open Christians to evil forces. ’Cause they don’t. The issue’s entirely about style. It’s about individual Christians’ individual preferences about how they prefer we pray and sing. It’s equivalent to not liking the carpet in the auditorium. Except the guy who hates the carpet is claiming mauve is the devil’s color, and having it in the auditorium is dooming us to hell.

I admit there are songs I dislike so much, I can easily accuse them of being farted into existence by Satan itself. But I’m kidding. Fools like Fenella and Otmar aren’t kidding at all.

Euphoria is hardly a new phenomenon, y’know.

Humans are in a lot more control of our emotions than we realize. And really need to take control of ’em more often. We can psyche ourselves into feeling all sorts of things.

We’re told, in the scriptures, to seize hold of joy, Jm 1.2 and contrary to those folks who claim joy’s not an emotion, it totally is. In the scriptures, exactly the same as everyday life, joy is great happiness. Only fruitless people and those with mental illness can’t be joyful—and there are meds for the mentally ill; the others just need to get saved.

So if we wanna make ourselves feel excited, we can. Sometimes consciously, by doing what we know will excite us. Sometimes unconsciously—we aren’t aware that more things trigger excitement than we realize. Christians already know our worship pastors are trying to get us excited about worshiping God. What we may not realize is they’re doing a much better job than we thought. They know how to set the mood, how to get our heart rates up, how to get us to anticipate God’s presence… and how to get us to imagine he’s here. And yeah, frequently both the pastors and us have confused our emotional responses with God’s presence. Humans aren’t always knowledgeable enough about emotion to realize this.

And this has always been true. Humans have always psyched ourselves into intense, euphoric excitement as part of religion. We blame the Holy Spirit, but let’s be honest: It’s not the Spirit who wanted King David ben Jesse to dance so hard, he flashed his penis at the Jerusalemites.

No really, that’s in the bible:

2 Samuel 6.20-22 KWL
20 David returned to bless his own house. Mikál bat Saul came out to meet David.
She said, “What honor did Israel’s king have today?
Today, he exposed himself to the eyes of his slaves’ maids,
like those going into captivity expose themselves; a worthless one!”
21 David told Mikál, “It was before the LORD.
He chose me over your father, over all his house, to appoint me ruler
over the LORD’s people, over Israel. I laugh before the LORD.
22 I’ll be more embarrassing than this. I’ll be low in my own eyes!
With the maids you speak of: With them I’ll be honored.”

The LORD warned Moses to not put steps on the tabernacle altar, lest people could see up the priests’ kilts. Ex 20.26 Same verb, galá/“reveal.” God didn’t want people to get flashed, or to flash others, during worship. Praise him, but keep your clothes on! Yet that’s what David did as he celebrated God’s ark coming to Jerusalem. 2Sa 6.12-19 And because the author of Samuel doesn’t condemn him for it—in fact it kinda looks like he condemned Mikál 2Sa 6.23 —we honor what David did. Even though, to be honest, David clearly had a lapse of self-control there. Which happens, y’know. God’s exciting!

Had Samuel’s author not indicated otherwise, I’m entirely sure the people who aren’t into exuberant prayer and enthusiastic worship music, would’ve condemned David for dancing with all his might before God, same as they condemn various Christians for moshing with all our might before God. Even mighta claimed this sort of vigorous exercise might put David into anaerobic respiration, into a state of euphoria, and even open him up to demons or something. Because, like David’s annoyed wife Mikál, they don’t approve of this behavior. It’s undignified.

Otmar pointed out other religions work themselves into euphoric states with their repetitive prayers, chanting, dancing, or what have you. Like the Hare Krishnas, chanting till they reach what seems to them to be a higher plane. Like the Sufis, dancing till they feel closer to God. Like the Mormons, praying, “I want to believe” so hard they actually feel something. Loads of religions do this sort of thing. And y’know what? So do we.

But grousing about it skips, if not avoids, the more important relevant questions:

  • Does it actually open us up to dark forces?
  • Does God even forbid such behavior at all?

Pretty simple answers to both: No and no.

Suppressing our freedom in Christ by calling it demonic.

First: Did Jesus ever warn us not to pray so hard, we might get too emotional? Light-headed? Start sweating blood? Lk 22.44 Grow susceptible to evil spirits? Hypnotize ourselves, and render ourselves able to be hypnotized by others? Did any of the apostles and prophets warn us of such things? No and no.

Yes, our enthusiasm and lack of impulse control can lead us astray, and the scriptures do address that. If you think God gave you a bright idea, confirm it came from him! Not enough Christians do this, and that’s a whole different problem. But its solution isn’t to suppress enthusiasm. It’s to temper our zeal. Self-control, not self-denial.

Second: Arguing that because another religion does it, it must therefore be evil, isn’t just illogical: It’s stupid.

Other religions pray. Does that mean Christians should avoid prayer, lest we accidentally pray to the wrong god and call down evil spirits? Of course not. Yet I’ve often heard foolish people insist Christians shouldn’t meditate, because Hindus and Buddhists meditate… and we might accidentally meditate on the wrong god and call down evil spirits.

Other religions ritually eat things. Other religions ritually wash their practitioners. Does this mean Christians must get rid of holy communion and baptism? Of course not; what a stupid idea. And yet I’ve often heard foolish people insist Christians shouldn’t have drums in our churches, because native tribal religions use drums to call upon their spirits, both good and evil.

You realize a tof/“timbrel” is a percussion instrument, right? We’re encouraged to praise God with such things. Timbrels even get a specific mention in Psalms. Ps 150.4 You wanna ban drums, you’re gonna wind up banning timbrels. (And in fact if you attend these killjoys’ churches, you’re not gonna find timbrels or drums in ’em.)

Because regardless of what these people claim about what evil spirits might do, the reality is they haven’t seen a single instance where that’s happened. Oh, they might tell us a horror story or two: “No, it totally happened! There was this drummer, and he was playing some of that Christian rock, and suddenly he fell down possessed…” and the rest of the story indicates nobody had the presence of mind to throw the demon out of him, so nobody looks good in this story. But it’s pure fiction. Somebody invented it to scare people. It’s working, too. But it’s fake. There are a lot of fakes in Christendom, and not just false teachers and fake prophets: There are plenty of fake “spiritual warriors” who’ve never knowingly seen a real demon.

Their real motive, as I said, is to be rid of any practices in our churches they don’t like. And since Christians are scared of devils, they get their way by threatening us with devils. Praying wrong? Devils. Singing wrong? Devils. Reading C.S. Lewis, who for some reason put magic in his Narnia books? Devils. Listening to any music but hymns and white gospel? Devils.

Too much excitement and euphoria in your worship? Enjoying Jesus more than they are? Devils.

You see how devilish this dark Christian practice actually is. It’s like they can’t rest until all the joy has been sucked out of our relationship with God.

So when I encounter people like Fenella and Otmar, who want to clamp down on our freedom in Christ to worship in a way which doesn’t bother our consciences any, and instead threaten us with the stumbling-block of devils always waiting to pounce, Ro 14.13 I know exactly where they’re coming from, and it’s no place good. It’s from a place of fear, a lack of love, an easily-offended soul, great bitterness, and the desire to spread these things. I’m not claiming it’s really them with the devil in ’em… just that they’ve totally fallen for a rather hellish delusion. Let’s not let them perpetuate it.