Every Thought Captive

Of Dopamine and Devotion

"Let us offer to God acceptable worship..."

Hebrews 12:28

We knew this day would come—just not when she was six.

A little context: From the moment we saw the first trailer, our family has been waiting with bated breath for the Christmas Day release of a new cinematic version of Victor Hugo’s celebrated epic, Les Misérables. We’ve replayed so many times that two-minute taste of director Tim Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) film adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical that our everyday humming has been overtaken with the arresting melodies of Boublil and Schönberg.

My wife and I took pleasure in the fact that our children had so quickly found an appreciation for this enduring tale. But our pride turned pale when my wife found our six-year-old daughter replaying the trailer repeatedly, only so she could freeze frame on the images of Marius—the robust, yet melancholy soul caught between competing impulses of romance and revolution. My wife didn’t know whether to chuckle or choke when Little Miss Precocious, upon being discovered, turned to her mother and said unapologetically, “I think I’m in love with him.”

As they say: "Parent a son and you have to worry about one boy, but parent a daughter and you have to worry about every boy."

It’s meager consolation, but our (prematurely?) budding romantic is only doing what the young tend to do. Research shows how young brains have a built-in propensity to become almost hysterically stimulated by demonstrations of beauty, grace, and prowess. The grainy films of shrieking girls swooning at the sight of John, Paul, George, and Ringo picture less a new wave in pop-culture than a prodigious biochemical reaction.

So there’s a biological construct to explain, at least in part, this awakening of powerful, if passing, affections for other ostensibly larger-than-life personalities. The phenomenon has other names like infatuation or crush, but it certainly has resonances with what we know as worship.

And that begs some questions: Is the kind of unbridled affection for celebrities we see in the young what we’re meant to experience in our worship of God?

Conversely, if we are never moved to tears by the majesty of God, or the supreme kindness of His salvation in Christ, to the same degree that adoring fans of the latest pop icon are, have we unwittingly adopted a cynical edge or simply failed to cultivate an emotional pliancy to His glory?

In short, is worship not worship until a pleasure-inducing mélange of neurotransmitters is being secreted?

On Sunday Mark led us to consider what is the essence of Christ-centered worship, how knowing God as He is and by what He’s done will naturally and necessarily lead to admiration, affection, and yes, exultation of God.

At the core of our affliction—the one from which Christ came to rescue us—is distorted and misplaced affections—drawn too much to the trivial and insensible to the profound. We are reborn when the “love of Christ compels us...so that we no longer live for [ourselves] but for Him who for our sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15). Here in Paul’s briefest summary of the Christian life, we see the fusion of love and worship. And while the two ideas are not, strictly speaking, synonyms, they bear a kindredness between them that, I would argue, provides insight into what true worship is.

Like love, worship basks in the sweet light of the one esteemed. It takes delight in communing with and in serving the object of its affection. For both love and worship presupposes gratitude unto whom they are devoted; and gratitude by nature elicits joy.

But as it is with love, worship does not depend on delight to express its regard for the one esteemed. That is, it doesn’t demand a palpable exultation at every given moment in order to fulfill the exaltation that worship purposes. For just as love must sometimes do what love does before it feels what love enjoys, so worship may often proceed with its characteristic humility, attentiveness, and submission without overwhelming emotion.

To put it more succinctly, worship takes strong delight in God but doesn’t make delight its god. So we dare not satisfy ourselves with an emotionless spirituality—we are made to feel, and so as part of our redemption we are remade to feel rightly, and passionately for God. But we likewise must not place the palpable upon a pedestal that stands above our submission to His holiness.

So what are the implications of a worship that may well involve dopamine but which has purposes far deeper than what dopamine can effect?

Have you withheld from God the submission He deserves citing as your justification a lack of palpable delight in who He is? Worship the Lord by doing His will, deferring to His honor more than demanding gratification.

Or have you reduced communion with God to be all work and no pleasure? Worship the Lord with gladness that through Christ’s work He takes pleasure in you—and only by trusting in that work first can we ever do work that pleases Him.

My daughter’s affections for Marius will fade in time; her brain isn’t meant to sustain that kind of devotion. But we’ve been fashioned to find an enduring appreciation of God that provides satisfaction and sustains commitment. For since He was raised we glory in the hope that “even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise.”

About the Author

Photograph of Patrick Lafferty

Patrick Lafferty

Senior Pastor

Grace Mills River Church in Mills River, NC

Patrick Lafferty, Pastor of Grace Mills River Church in Mills River, NC, grew up in Houston, received his undergraduate degree in liberal arts from the University of Texas at Austin, and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS).

He is married to Christy. They have four children: Seamus, Savannah, Bella (deceased), and Jedidiah. Patrick and his family have a love for dancing, good stories, good food, good music, all things Irish, and raising chickens for their eggs.