The Temple, Incense, and the Mind
I realize that many of my fellow believers find the idea of incense to be almost repulsive in church, owing to the fact that it is used in Roman Catholicism. As Scripture makes clear, the Roman Catholic Church didn't invent the idea of using incense in worship, but rather God ordered it Himself. I think there are a few reasons for this, which I'd like to explore a bit here. First, it is always a good thing to offer God all we have, all the blessings of creation, all the blessings of the human mind in worship and praise of Him. This would include money, food, our homes, land, and yes, incense. After all, we're simply the custodians of these blessings for a short time. With respect to incense in particular, it also appears to be an earthly reflection of a heavenly reality.
"..and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel."- Rev. 8:4
Another reason, which seems to be physiological and psychological, is that incense does have an impact on emotional states. A few studies have demonstrated that the scent molecules correspond to select receptor cells that line the olfactory epithelium. These scent molecules then activate the lining of nerve cells, triggering electrical impulses to the gustatory center (the place where taste is perceived), and the amygdala, the place where emotional memory is stored. It then goes on to impact other limbic areas of the human brain. When we smell something familiar, it usually triggers an emotional memory of a time and place. It can be either pleasant of sorrowful. Psychologists refer to this as "associative learning". If the emotional memory is a pleasurable one, we always associate that scent with that emotional state, even if unconsciously. Certain fragrances, mostly those taken from nature, such as those God commanded Moses to make an incense from, have an impact on our minds and bodies through the limbic system of the brain, which controls our heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, etc. It is interesting to note that, of the five senses God created humanity with, only the limbic can have this impact. It is important because this is where our fears, anxieties, happiness, joy, etc. all come from. For the Israelites, going to the temple and being met with the scents from the Altar of Incense would have placed them in the frame of mind to worship the Lord. It would bring to mind their need for repentance, as well as to praise Him, give to Him of their goods, and to leave the temple with a renewed fervor for His ways. To me, this says God immersed the Israelites fully in worship of Him; as fully as a human possibly could be. They were immersed with all their senses, thoughts and emotions, as well as their bodies.
I know some are still afraid of incense because they associate it with eastern religion or "mysticism", but if God commanded it to be used in His worship, then our perceptions, as correct as they may be on a mundane level, do not reflect the mind of God on the matter. The difference is one of intention. Are you burning incense because you think it somehow makes you more holy, or brings you closer to God? That would be an error. If, however, you burn it to simply relax, it helps you be more studious in Scripture study, it is a psychological aid in your worship, or it helps you decompress and focus during prayer, then there is no sin involved. That's my take on it. I'm open to hearing yours.