Singing Transforms Us
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,… Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,… singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:15-16).
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19).
God uses singing to transform us because when we sing God’s truth the Word of Christ dwells in us richly. When we exalt Christ and God’s truth in song we teach ourselves what to desire. We see the glory of Christ and the Spirit tunes our hearts to sing God’s praise. Intentional singing (not haphazard but meditative and prayerful) leads to being transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; notice we offer up our bodies so we see cognition, violation, and emotion all involved in songs of worship and a life of worship). We behold Christ and are thus slowly transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10). We are sanctified by the word of Christ, as we sing of Christ (Jn. 17:17).
Jesus reasons with us in Matthew 6:19-24 about desire. He shows that what is in our best interest, i.e. what we should desire, is laying up treasure in heaven. He tells us specifically in verse 21 that what we desire, i.e. “treasure,” will bring the rest of us along (i.e. “heart”). Our battle is thus the battle of treasuring, desiring. It is clear then that right and good worship is vital because it exalts and holds before us our chief end. Songs of worship are teleological teachers. If our worship has as its object the wrong thing we will thus go wrong in innumerable ways (cf. Rom. 1:18-32).
“Our chosen actions are always the result of deeply held beliefs about the truest and most beautiful sources of life.”[i] So we see that “Worship is a battle—the battle of two lovers. To worship our Worthy Groom we have to put off the mindset of the flesh that conforms us to the world ruled by the False Seducer. We have to put on the mindset of the Spirit by being transformed through renewing our minds, our inner rational control center of images and ideas about the source of life.”[ii] And so we sing. We remind ourselves, sing to ourselves, and others, that God alone is worthy. Notice also that it is not just the Christian that worships, all people do. And all people have things—whether music, movies, or some other form of media—that holds before them and glorifies their chief end of life (e.g. the gangster has a certain type of rap music that glorifies their view of the good life).
Keeping our chief end in view, or the correct biblically informed chief end in view, is difficult. Truly, in the world we live in
“There is a ‘downward pressure’ continually in operation, which seeks to take that which is penultimate, and make it ultimate… The antidote to such ‘downward pressure’ is the continual eschatological emphasis of word and sacrament, of prayer and praise, and of koinonia [fellowship] lived in the present in light of the age to come.”[iii]
Thus we must focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (see Phil. 4:8).[iv] We must keep “the good,” the true good—God and His truth ever before us.[v]
We need deep and substantive reflection and celebration. We need to work at fostering worship of the one true God. John Piper rightly says,
“It is… superior satisfaction in future grace that breaks the power of lust [or addiction, etc.]. With all eternity hanging in the balance, we fight the fight of faith. Our chief enemy is the lie that says sin will make our future happier. Our chief weapon is the truth that says God will make our future happier… We must fight [our sin] with a massive promise of superior happiness. We must swallow up the little flicker of lust’s pleasure in the conflagration of holy satisfaction.”[vi]
Where do we turn for this? “The role of God’s Word is to feed faith’s appetite for God. And, in doing this, it weans [our] heart away from the deceptive taste of [temptation].”[vii] Therefore, we must feast on Scripture. And singing is an especially useful tool to help the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). Singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs in Christian community is very important because, as C.S. Lewis said, “What is concrete but immaterial can be kept in view only by painful effort.”[viii] We need each other and we need music to shake us awake to unseen realities. That’s why we’re told—commanded even when we don’t feel like it—to make a joyful noise to the LORD (Ps. 66:1; 81:1; 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; 100:1),[ix] even at times using clashing cymbals (Ps. 150:5).
We’re told to sing because when we sing with our voice our whole body, and I would argue, our whole self (i.e. our heart) reverberates with the truth of what we sing. When we sing lyrics, whether good or bad, they get into us and shape us. We are essentially preaching to ourselves, teaching ourselves, telling our self what we should desire, we are holding up a vision of prospering and “the good.”[x] If we are driving down the highway listening to Taylor Swift, Blink 182, or Eminem it has a very real potential to shape us. We, at least, very often, internalize what we are singing. We imagine and feel not only the rhythm and tone but what the whole artistic message is putting forth. Music shapes us by implanting seeds of desire.
We are to be filled with the Spirit, instead of being drunk with alcohol or high on drugs, in part through singing (Eph. 5:15-20).[xi] We sing because it is the means and the fruit of being indwelled by the Spirit and it is the means and the fruit of having the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (see Eph. 5:17-21; Col. 3:15-17). Thus,
“Worship is one of the most transforming activities for us to engage in as Christians… When we become duly impressed with God our lives change because the things that matter to us change. We no longer want some of the things we previously desired. An overridding and overwelming passion for God himself, God’s people, and God’s kingdom purposes in this world replace those desires. True worship happens when we get a glimpse of God–who he is and what he is about–and just stand there in awe of him, being impressed and transformed down to the very depths of our being by the magnificent vision of the glory of our heavenly Father.”[xii]
Truly, we must use a collaboration of means to remind ourselves that it is the LORD God, the Maker of heaven and earth, alone that can meet our every need. We must use good songs, good stories, the Bible, Christian community, logic, etc. to stir up our (correct) desires for the LORD and all the good He is and has for us. We must take care least there be an unworthy thought in our heart (Deut. 15:9). We must pursue things that bring light and life and reject what is rank in ruin and worthlessness (see e.g. Ps. 101).
Truly, wherever our treasure (i.e. desire, view of “the good,” or our view of the good life) is, our heart (“heart” in Scripture has to do with our whole self; cognition, volition, emotions) will be also (Matt. 6:21; Lk. 12:34).[xiii] Thus, we must work at fostering worship of the one true God. That is why we sing. It holds the goodness of God before us. It transforms us.
“Ever singing, march we onward,
victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music leads us sunward,
in the triumph song of life.”[xiv]
[i] Robert W. Kellermen, Soul Physicians, 191.
[ii] Ibid., 188.
[iii] Doe, Created for Worship, 236.
[iv] Cf. Payne, The Healing Presence, 140.
[v] In Aristotle’s terms our view of “the good” is reshaped by knowledge. Aristotle says, “All knowledge and every choice have some good as the object of their longing” (1095a14 Page 4 for in Aristotle’s Nicomachean EthicsTrans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins [The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2011]). “Aristotle famously argues that all human beings do everything for the sake of what seems or is held to be good” (Ibid., 309). Augustine used the term summum bonum, “supreme good.” It took him years of searching to find it but when he found the summum bonum he said “you made us for yourself and our hearts our find no peace until they rest in you” (Augustine, Confessions, 21).And, in catechismal terms, if our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (From the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). it will necessarily have a specific impact on our lives. That is just the way we are as humans. We all, without exception, live towards our chief end, our view of the “good life.” However, this is messy, there are many things and ideas which vie for this place. Thus the importance of “knowledge” rightly directed (i.e. wisdom), “worship,” and “practice;” all of which inform, play off, and undergird the others. Romans 12:2 says that we are transformed by the renewal of our minds, and so we are. However, what we do with our bodies is also important. Notice that in Romans 12:1 we are told to present our bodies as living sacrifices. As humans transformation through practices of mind and body are not mutually exclusive. Rather, what we do with our mind and what we do with our body are closely linked together and have a continual corresponding effect on the other (cf. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, 647 and John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans, 321).
[vi] Piper, Future Grace, 336.
[vii] Ibid., 335.
[viii] C.S. Lewis, Letter to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 114.
[ix] “Worship isn’t merely a yes to the God who saves, but also a resounding and furious no to lies that echo in the mountains around us. The church gathers like exiles and pilgrims, collected out of a world that isn’t our home, and looks hopefully toward a future. Our songs and prayers are a foretaste of that future, and even as we practice them, they shape us for our future home” (Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel [Wheaton: Crossway, 2013] 104).
[x] “Music gets ‘in’ us in ways that other forms of discourse rarely do. A song gets absorbed into our imagination in a way that mere texts rarely do… Song seems to have a privileged channel to our imagination, to our kardia, because it involves our body in a unique way… Perhaps it is by hymns, songs, and choruses that the word of Christ ‘dwells in us richly’” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 171).
[xi] “At the conclusion of a passage warning against irrationality and sins of flesh—Paul urges singing and music making… Augustine says: ‘Irrationality is bad. Sensuality is bad. Therefore, be careful about music.’ Paul on the other hand says, ‘Foolishness is bad. Sensuality is bad. Therefore, you had better sing’” (Steven R. Guthrie, “Singing, In the Body and In the Spirit,” 638).
[xii] Richard E. Averbeck, “Spirit, Community, and Mission: A Biblical Theology for Spiritual Formation,” 38 in the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care). I think Eph. 5:17-21 is noteworthy here. See also “Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit” by Steven R. Guthrie in JETS and “Being the Fullness of God in Christ by the Spirit” by Timothy G. Gombis in Tyndale Bulletin.
[xiii] “Disordered action is a reflection and fruit of disordered desire” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 177)
[xiv] “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”