The Manipulation of Sentiment

[Sentiment is] the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it.” – Oscar Wilde


In the mid-1700’s, a series of Christian revival campaigns took place in colonial American and Great Britain.

Preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield called unsaved listeners to make a profession of faith and believers into a deeper personal piety, often through flamboyant and highly emotional speech. And during these meetings, it wasn’t uncommon to see participants overtaken with sentiment. Faintings, weepings, and shriekings were all commonplace.[1] Church attendance skyrocketed as a result.

But not everyone who participated in the First Great Awakening, as it later came to be called, continued on with the commitments that they made. Once the tents were put away and the large crowds dissipated, fiery piety was replaced with apathy. In fact, many people who responded in a highly emotional way to the calls-of-faith offered up by the revivalist leaders ended up backtracking.

This is what led Jonathan Edwards to write his treatise “The Religious Affections.”

Within it, Edwards argued that affections, or heart-level attitudes toward God expressed outwardly through emotion or action, were not necessarily bad in and of themselves. And there were surely many participants in the First Great Awakening that had false affections, but some expressions were genuine. More so, David, Paul, and Jesus expressed themselves in very emotional ways in scripture.[2] So, as Edwards explains, dismissing all affections as ingenuine would be wrong; nevertheless, it’s of vital important to learn how to discern between a “gracious” affection and a false-one.[3]

But how is this accomplished? Jonathan Edwards writes that:

The primary ground of gracious [genuine] affections is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.”[4]

Conversely,

If men’s affections to God is founded first on His profitableness to them, their affection begins at the wrong end; they regard God only for the utmost limit of the stream of divine good, where it touches them and reaches their interest, and have no respect to that infinite glory of God’s nature which is the original good, and the true fountain of all good, the first fountain of all loveliness of every kind, and so the first foundation of all true love.”[5]  

and,

Having received what they call spiritual discoveries or experiences, their minds are taken up about them, admiring their own experiences. What   they are principally taken up and elevated with is not the glory of God, or beauty of Christ, but the beauty of their experiences.”[6]

Said in a more modern way, Edwards was arguing that expressions of emotion and sentimentality are good if they come from, and are directed toward, the right source: God. But once sentiment becomes the object of attention instead of Jesus, disaster follows.

The (Modern) Manipulation of Sentiment

I grew up and learned my expressions of faith mostly from revivalistic youth ministry campaigns in the mid-2000’s. At one such conference called “Acquire the Fire,” I remember being washed over with emotion brought about by the dramatic skits and the performance of a top-notch worship band. And on the last night of the conference, I also remember being overwhelmed with excitement at seeing so many teenagers come forward at the moment of altar call.  

It wasn’t until a bit later on that I learned Acquire the Fire had a secret hired staff, hidden within the crowds, whose job was go forward during those altar call moments in order to make others more comfortable to do similar.

Is using manipulation as a weapon with the hopes of producing a higher number of conversions a good thing? Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” so, of course, an individual pledging their allegiance to Christ is always good. But is there a cost to this evangelistic method?

I also spent a few summers working for a Christian summer camp. And while there was no intentional emotional manipulation that took place there, it was always interesting to see the same students accept Christ over and over again each year. Whether it was something that season’s camp speaker said which made them re-evaluate their sincerity, or whether they were merely attracted to the dopamine-rush they received from going forward, it’s hard to tell.

However, I can tell you that I was taught good story-telling techniques, as well as how to raise and lower the pitch and speed of my voice in order to add “hooks” to a sermon in seminary. And it’s interesting to note that, when someone wishes to discuss a sermon with me that I’ve delivered in the past, the questions they ask are more often about illustrations or anecdotes that Bible passages. This must mean that I am not guiltless when it comes to manipulating sentiment either.

But that’s the tricky bit about all this.

As Jonathan Edwards explained, emotion itself is good. God created it. “Feelings” aren’t sin and Christianity isn’t meant to be expressed through stoic-lifelessness. King David danced before the Lord in 2 Samuel 6:14-22. Paul bared his heart to other believers and expected the same in return (2 Corinthians 6:3-13). And Jesus wept deeply over the loss of his friend (John 11:35). Yet, just like any good thing, emotion can be twisted into something bad.

Strong emotions are addicting. Because of that, it is very easy to begin to seek after those strong emotions instead of the One who created them.

Sentimentality as an Idol

In what ways are we elevating our emotions into an idolatry within the church? Let’s now explore a just few avenues where sentimentality might be hiding now so that we can be sure that we’re not falling prey to its allure.

1. Atmospheric Addiction

I have enjoyed worshipping the Lord in large churches that incorporated smoke machines and rock music into their services. I’ve also enjoyed worshipping the Lord in small country churches where the only instruments used were hymnals. I’ve attended churches that are afraid that the addition of a drum to the stage might scare away the older generation. I’ve also attended churches in which people complained if the worship wasn’t dynamic enough or were upset if the song-set wasn’t uplifting enough.

We all have our preferences. But if worshipping God in a particular style makes us feel good, we might mistakenly think that good feeling is God’s presence. And if we’re suddenly thrust into a congregation that worships differently that we prefer, we might be tempted to think God’s presence isn’t among them. If we feel this, we can be sure that we’ve fallen into the trappings of sentimentality.

2. When ‘Feeling’ and ‘Truth’ Intersect

Anger is a powerful emotion.

When we are driven to anger about something, if we’re not careful, it can be hard for us to act or think rationally. This is especially difficult when we get angry defending something that’s immoral. If something immoral elicits a strong emotional response within us, we might be tempted to justify it based on that feeling alone. Apply this to some of the harder ethical demands of the Bible like the prohibition against sexual acts between people of the same gender, and you can see where there might be a problem.

At the same time, though, there’s also a type of validation-high that one might derive from a public condemnation of another’s sin. It feels risky to go against a cultural sentiment, and that adrenaline response you might receive when you “say it like it is” can be equally addicting. We shouldn’t shy away from speaking truth as scripture defines it. But it’s best to do so lovingly, soberly, and shrewdly.

3. “Social Media” Justice

In Isaiah 58:1-14, God’s prophet describes a situation in which the people of Judah were fasting, praying, and inquiring of the LORD through specifically prescribed religious avenues. But, and despite doing so, they were still under God’s judgement.

This was because their fasting and praying was superficial. They were participating in these observances on only a surface-level. They weren’t really concerning themselves with the true meaning behind the acts. That is, many were ceremoniously fasting but paid no mind to the hungry and poor in their midst (Isaiah 58:7). They were praying to God but also acting violently against their neighbors and refusing to shelter the homeless (Isaiah 58:4, 7). Their acts were for show only and void of true meaning.   

This is somewhat similar to how many use social media platforms to enact “justice” today.

It would not be fair to say that everyone who changes their Facebook profile picture to raise awareness of a social cause, or that all who posts articles with the hopes of informing others of an injustice, are doing so for selfish means. For some, that may be the only way they can get involved with matters of justice. And even others might combine their efforts of raising awareness with genuine action.

However, for many, a few tweets and a post on Facebook is the extent of their involvement. That’s because their actions online usually find their origin in a short-lived wave of sentiment directed toward an injustice that’s in-vogue for a week or two. Yet, and once the next crisis arrives, profile banners are switched and the lives of the people who are truly being affected by the previous hot-button oppression are all but forgotten.

There’s something stale about doing justice with only a keyboard. It feeds your own emotional desire and offers no real respite to the ones who are really hurting. Like the people of Southern Kingdom who were only fasting for their own validation, we need to carefully consider what is really motivating us to share an article or re-tweet a post.


[1] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 286-287.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2013), 37.

[3] Edwards, The Religious Affections, 50.

[4] Edwards, The Religious Affections, 165.

[5] Edwards, The Religious Affections, 168-169

[6] Edwards, The Religious Affections, 177.

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