Why sing? Why are “psalms, hymns, and and spiritual songs” important? What does singing do?
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.”[i]
Truly, “unless there is within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that which is around us.”[ii] St. Gregory reportedly said something similar: “If you do not delight in higher things, you most certainly will delight in lower things.” Truly, “worship shapes individual and community character.”[iii] That is, all worship, good or bad, Christian or other, intentional or unintentional. 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—the summum bonum ever before us.
Our ultimate love, the place where we rest our desire, has an ultimate affect. So, “moral decay doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is supported by the idolatry of the society at any given time, and expressive of its worship, even if such be completely unarticulated.”[v] Moral decay happens when something other then God is our ultimate good (cf. Rom. 1).
Thus, it is important that we temper our hearts variously through singing, community, and the absorption of God’s word. That’s how we’re shaped biblically and practically. The more we have our chief end in view, through various means, the better we will live to that end.
We need deep and substantive reflection and celebration. We need to work at fostering transformative experiential worship where we can taste and see that the LORD is good. We need God to restore to us the joy of our salvation. We need God to open the eyes of our heart, we need the Spirit to move, we need God’s strength to comprehend His amazing love that surpasses knowledge.
“It is… superior satisfaction in future grace that breaks the power of lust [or addiction]. 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.”[vii]
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 lust.”[viii] 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 psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and being involved 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.”[ix] We need each other, we need music, we need preaching 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).[x]
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.”[xi] 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.[xii]
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). 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.”[xiii]
Truly, “Reality is simply far too great to be contained in propositions. That is why man needs gestures, pictures, images, rhythms, metaphor, symbol, and myth. It is also why he needs ceremony, ritual, customs, and conventions: those ways that perpetuate and mediate the images to us.”[xiv] 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).[xv] Thus, we must work at fostering worship of the one true God.
Singing sinks God’s truth deep within our souls. Singing works because it leads us to worship. Singing teaches us what we should truly desire. Singing tunes our hearts to sing God’s praise.
[i] Doe, Created for Worship, 236.
[ii] Christian worship: it’s Theology and practice, 81
[iii] Doe, Created for Worship, 234.
[iv] Cf. Payne, The Healing Presence, 140.
[v] Doe, Created for Worship, 236.
[vi] Ibid., 235 see also Jonathan Edwards very important book Religious Affections.
[vii] Piper, Future Grace, 336.
[viii] Ibid., 335.
[ix] C.S. Lewis, Letter to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 114.
[x] “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).
[xi] “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).
[xii] Even Nirvana communicates; even if it’s emptiness or aggression that they put forward. However, realize that I am not saying that we cannot listen to Garth Brooks or Bruno Mars. Though I am not sure how or to what end those and other artist will shape you. I would say that “For Today,” a Metal band that is explicitly Christian, would have more of intentional transformative affect upon me then most artists. This is, I guess, both because of the content of their lyrics and the package in which they are wrapped (i.e. often very active and passionate singing and yes even screaming). However, Garth Brooks could perhaps have a transformative affect for some people as well (I am not one of them). Bruno Mars may be close to a-formative. Yet, as humans, I think we are similar to water. If we are not moving, i.e. being transformed, then we are stagnating, being deformed. Our bent, since the Fall, is away from our creator. Thus, perhaps, if we listen too much Bruno Mars and the like, a-formative music, we will stagnate. If we are left to our own devises and don’t have a gaud we do not progress. Our default is digression.
[xiii] 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.
[xiv] Payne, The Healing Presence, 146 cf. 148.
[xv] “Disordered action is a reflection and fruit of disordered desire” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 177)