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]
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.”
this land is as dead as my soul so purge and make new even if it means a knife i want life new life spring make me clean new i want You oh God, rescue me i'm drowning i don't see the light all is night an endless cycle down my soul's diseased and I need You please because the light is fading i'm forgetting You and Your ways the Devil's lies seem sweet give me swift feet to run for I am Your son let me not believe his lies they are my demise i need You.
The Word is a sword that slays our sin (Eph. 6:17). If we say we want to fight sin than we must have our sword. We can’t fight sin let alone experience any victory if we don’t always have the Word ready at hand.
We see this truth attested to in various places in Scripture:
“How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.” ~Psalm 119:9
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” ~John 17:17
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” ~Hebrews 4:12
“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” ~James 1:21
We also see that Scripture is our bread, it is life supporting. We need it desperately. We need it to live (Ps. 119:144). We need the “words of life” (Jn. 6:68). If we think or act any other way we are ripe for a fall. The soldier who doesn’t have his weapon dies just as the person who doesn’t eat the life-giving bread.
We need the Word. We need bread. We cannot live any other way.
Thankfulness to God, who is our Father, should be a defining characteristic of our lives. However, I fear we have a tendency of being practical atheists. I know I do. We may not say we don’t believe in God but we often act like we don’t.
What does this practical atheism look like? It looks thankless. Sometimes when everything is great we forget God. We’re actually really prone to do that as humans (Israel was prone to do that as well; cf. Deut. 6:10-12).
Why does God want us to have a thankful heart?
We are told to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Why? Why does God want us to have thankful hearts? Because we have a ton to be thankful for. We use to have our eyes closed tight. When we were unbelievers we didn’t give thanks to God (Rom. 1:21). But now we see things in a different light. We see all we have is a gift we don’t deserve.
God has given us new eyes! Life! We we’re dead. Now we’re alive.
Ephesians lists out some of the amazing things God has done in saving us and then says “to the praise of His glorious grace.” We are adopted by God through Jesus Christ “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph. 1:5-6). We have an eternal glorious inheritance through Jesus Christ “to the praise of His glorious grace” (v. 11-12). We have been given the Holy Spirit “to the praise of His glory” (v. 13-14).
We should have a thankful heart because there are so many reasons to be thankful!
We were dead in our sin. Christ made us alive. We were aliens, cast out. Christ brought us close and made us friends. We were enemies of God. Christ brought us peace. We use to walk in the darkness of sin. Now we walk in the light of Christ.
So why does God want us to have a thankful heart? Why are we told to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father”? In part because He is our Father through Jesus! We have so many reasons to be thankful! Actually, how could we not be thankful?!
It says in Romans that if God gave us His Son how will He not also graciously give us all things? Wow! That is astounding. And think of all God already gives us. He gives us breath. We typically don’t really think of that being that amazing, right? We don’t really think about it. Breathing is so easy, so constant, so natural. Yet, it is God that gives to all man life and breath and everything. He gives it. It’s a gift. A gift we don’t deserve.
What gets in the way of having a thankful heart?
For me I think there’s quite a few things. I think sometimes I’m not even aware of things to be thankful for. Or I’m not aware that the good things I’m enjoying are from God. I often just think it’s just the way it just happened to turn out or it’s because of something I did. In short, when I’m not thankful I am acting like I don’t believe in God. I am acting like an atheist.
God created many good things that are to be received with thanksgiving. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4) (notice it is not saying everything without exception, it says everything created by God, so wicked things that displease God are not good). But there are many many good things that we can receive with thanksgiving. Medication, walks in the woods, food, sports, music, Pop Rocks, etc. Yet, how quick I am to take those things and so many others for granted!
There are so many good gifts that God has given us. Yet if we forget to praise Him when we’re enjoying them we are liable to think the gifts are our due. And thus we’ll get upset when the littlest thing doesn’t go our way even though God has heaped good upon good. When we cultivate a heart of thanksgiving it builds us into God and protects us from grumbling and complaining.
Often times when we’re cheerful, whether from God’s gorgeous creation, good food, or good test results, or something else, we don’t think about God. We might bask in the warm sun on the beach, we might celebrate our work on an exam, we might scream out or tell someone why we’re so happy but we often don’t purpose to praise God.
So what seems natural is a response maybe even praise. But not always praise to God. If we’re eating good food we might praise the chef or Taco Bell because it seems like we’re hardwired to act out like that. However, do we thank God? Obviously I’m not saying you can’t tell the guy at Taco Bell that rolled up the mystery meat thanks but ultimately we need to thank God for that crunchy burrito grande thing. It may seem kinda silly and obviously I’m joking a little but I’m also super serious. “Every good [perhaps Taco Bell?] and perfect gift [Chipotle?] comes from the Father” (James 1:17).
We often, myself included, get caught up in the gift and forget the Giver.
How can we grow in thankfulness?
We are to rely on God for all things and look to Him for all things. So when someone is sick or suffering they are exhorted to pray (James 5:13-15). Because sometimes in those situations we can be hopeless and forget that we have a God in heaven who cares and can help. Or we think we can be self-sufficient and handle it ourselves.
However, on the other side, we are also prone to forget our need for God when things are going well. Maybe more prone to forget. So, either way, good or bad, we should turn to the Lord (James 5:13). If I’m thankful because I don’t loss it when I get mad, feel like I had a productive day, or do something well my tendency is not to thank and praise God but to be proud of myself. And God knows that. God knows us and knows our struggles. He knows that we are quick to forget that He is the giver of all good gifts (Acts 17:24-25).
So, God says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” That is let him or her be happy but let them not forget who it is that brought that situation. God did! Paul reminds us to give thanks for everything God gives (Eph. 5:20). So God is reminding us not to forget Him in the midst of our good times. God is telling us to cultivate a heart of thanksgiving and praise.
It’s amazing how helpful and practical it is when we cultivate a heart of praise and thanksgiving. If we cultivate a heart of thanksgiving then we won’t be drawn away from the Lord when something good happens. And when something bad happens we’ll remember how good and gracious God is.
How do we cultivate a thankful heart? It says, “giving thanks” (Eph. 5:20) and in other places it says, “sing praise” (James 5:14). So there’s active intentionality. It’s not passive. It doesn’t just happen.
That’s typically why we pray before meals. Why? Because we’re giving thanks to God and acknowledging that it’s Him that provided it. This was Jesus’ practice. He gave thanks before meals (Matt. 15:36; 26:27; Jn. 6:11, 23 cf. Acts 27:35). In this way we infuse mundane activities with worship. In whatever we do we are to glorify and give thanks to God (1 Cor. 10:31).
How can we purpose to praise even with seemingly “run of the mill” things? I think it’s important that we look for things to be thankful for or realize what it is that we’re enjoying and then intentionally thanking the Lord for that. First of course is Jesus our Savior! But a few other big things are my family, outside, food, and being able to serve at my church.
It can be tempting to wonder why we’re thanking God for our meals. Why? Because after all, didn’t we buy the food? Didn’t we make the food? Didn’t we set the table? Yes we did. But all of that is a gift from God! We are so liable to forget that!
It’s sometimes strangely difficult to be thankful. So I think it’s also helpful to tell others about things that we’re thankful for. That’s part of what it means to sing (James 5:14), right?
What practical impact does having a thankful heart have?
Having a thankful heart changes the way we look at things. If I’m upset with my wife about something but I’ve been cultivating a heart of thanksgiving then I am in a much better place to handle disappointment. If I am cultivating a thankful heart and something happens to me, my car breaks down, someone offends me, I stub my toe, or whatever, I am in a much better place to handle the situation.
Thanksgiving is even an antidote to sin (cf. Eph. 5:4). Partly because sin is often a form of ingratitude. Actually, to neglect thanksgiving is sinful (cf. Lk. 17:16-18; Rom. 1:21). Ingratitude is one of the things that characterize wicked humanity in the last days (2 Tim. 3:2). Instead, we should give thanks continually (1 Cor. 1:4; Col. 2:6-7; 4:2), in all circumstances (Phil. 4:6), to God through Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17).
Thanksgiving should be more and more a characteristic of our lives and as it is we will be empowered to fight against our various nagging sins. We will see all God has given us and see sin for what it really is.
Questions to consider:
1. Do you struggle with being thankful?
2. Why does God want us to have a thankful heart?
3. What gets in the way of having a thankful heart?
4. How can we grow in thankfulness? How can we be intentionally thankful?
5. What practical impact does it make when we have a thankful heart?
6. What’s wrong with being unthankful?
7. What are some challenges you have to work through for you to be thankful?
8. How can cultivating a heart of thanksgiving have a positive impact on your life?
- “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent” (Prov. 1:10 cf. v. 17-18)
- “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on” (Prov. 4:14-15)
- “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray” (Prov. 5:22-23)
- “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Prov. 10:17)
- “Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded” (Prov. 13:13)
- “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Prov. 13:14)
- “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20)
- “The backslider in heart will be filled with the fruit of his ways, and a good man will be filled with the fruit of his ways” (Prov. 14:14)
- “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Prov. 14:27)
- “There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way; whoever hates reproof will die” (Prov. 15:10)
- “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1)
- “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1 cf. 23:29-35)
- “One who wanders from the way of good sense will rest in the assembly of the dead” (Prov. 21:16)
- “Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich” (Prov. 21:17)
- “Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day” (Prov. 23:17)
- “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Prov. 23:20-21)
- “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28)
- “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Prov. 26:11)
- “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling” (Prov. 26:27)
- “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity” (Prov. 28:13-14)
My book Gospel-Centered War: Finding Freedom from Enslaving Sin just got released! Here are a few of the things people are saying about it.
“As the title of this book makes clear, a gospel-centered approach is, in the long run, the only effective way to combat sin and addiction. Any resource, like this one by Paul O’Brien, which helps us fight our sinful compulsions by means of the gospel of Jesus Christ is one I recommend.”
—Dr. Donald S. Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Gospel-Centered War is for those who struggle with life-dominating sin and for those who counsel them. Instead of simply addressing behavior modification, Paul O’Brien gets to the heart of the matter. This book addresses the issues that provide freedom from destructive, self-defeating behaviors by helping the reader understand how God can change their heart and passions. Read it, devour it, and then be changed from the inside out.”
—Pastor Mike Wilson, Lincoln Heights Baptist Church, Mansfield, Ohio
“Paul is a genuine man of faith who has dedicated his life to Jesus and his calling. As a former heroin addict who was mentored by Paul, I had the privilege to witness his passion for Christ and his desire to help people through God’s word. This book shows that same passion.”
—Ricky Upton, Louisville, KY