Songs for the Suffering
Here’s a list of songs that my family has found helpful and comforting as we’ve faced various forms of suffering:
It Is Well
Be Still My Soul
He Will Hold Me Fast
Lead Me To The Rock
I Will Never Leave You Alone
If you’re interested here’s my thoughts on singing songs of ministries that you disagree with.
*Photo by James Barr
The Hallel Psalms and the Supper
Psalm 115 is part of the Hallel Psalms. Hallel means, “praise.” Jesus would have sung the Hallel Psalms (Ps. 113-118) with His disciples on the eve of Passover. Psalm 114 speaks directly of the exodus. From a New Testament perspective, we know that the salvation which began in Egypt would be finally filled in and through Jesus.
The Hallel Psalms were probably the last psalms Jesus sang before His suffering and death (Mk. 14:26). Jesus would have sung Psalm 115 knowing that He was Himself definitively showing God’s glory, love, and faithfulness. It is amazing also that Jewish people concluded the Hallel Psalms with the prayer:
“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God; beside thee we have no king, redeemer, or savior; no liberator, deliverer, provider; none who takes pity in every time of distress or trouble. We have no king but thee.”
Truly! Apart from Messiah Jesus, there is no “no king, redeemer, or savior; no liberator, deliverer, provider.”
As we see in Psalm 115, idols are inept but God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness. Whereas idols are inept God is involved. In fact, so involved that He came to this broken world in the form of Jesus Christ.
Idols are silver and gold but God came in flesh. Jesus has a mouth and with it, He spoke words of life. Jesus has eyes, and He saw this broken world and wept. Jesus has ears, and He heard the world’s bitter cries. Jesus has a nose, and He smelled the putrid smell of death. Jesus has human hands, and they were pierced. Jesus has feet, and they carried a cross, and were pinned to a cross. Jesus has a throat, and with it, He cried out: “my God, my God, why have Thou forsaken Me?!”
The Psalms and Our Songs
The Psalms are important for a number of reasons. For one, they take up a fairly large portion of Scripture and they have been a comfort for many. Spurgeon, known as the “prince of preachers,” struggled with depression and he found comfort and solace in the Psalms. He spent some twenty years writing his three-volume commentary on the Psalms.
The Psalms are also important because we are exhorted to sing Psalms. The Psalms are important because they give powerful truths poetic expression. This is helpful because it not only helps us remember the truths but helps us feel the truth. The Psalms are beautiful and will have a very practical impact on us when we soak in them.
Interestingly, Scripture has laments in it and so does our surrounding culture. Most Christian circles, however, do not have laments. Why is this? Is it because Christians are always happy? And always live victoriously? I don’t think so.
The Regulative and Normative Principles of Worship
Brief History of the Principles
Humans have been worshiping and thinking about worship since the beginning. We see this, for instance, by looking at the narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Further, all of life is about worship. The question we are considering here, however, is how are we to formally worship God as the gathered church?
The two classic Protestant views of worship are the normative principle of worship and regulative principle of worship. There is a lot of confusion as to what these principals mean and how they are worked out in the life of the church. For example, an article online said that those who hold to the regulative view do not use instruments in their church services.
Why do we worship?
If “worship” means singing songs of praise, as “worship” is very often used, then here are some goals of worship: We strive to build each other up (1 Cor. 14:26), be filled with God’s Word (Col. 3:16), be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18ff), be a testimony to an unbelieving world (1 Cor. 14:24-15), and gives thanks to God for all He is and has done for us (Eph. 5:20). It is our joy to sing but we are also commanded to sing (e.g. Ps. 100:1-2). Singing is serious.
We do not, however, want to worship God merely in song for if our worship is only in song it is not true worship. We show what we worship by what we give worth. Jesus said, where your treasure is your heart will be also. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters, but we will serve one. So, worship is inevitable; it is not a matter of if but of what or who. We will serve one or the other. We will worship.
Why Do We Sing In Church? [Part 1]
A lot of times we find it hard to engage in singing at church. There are a lot of things to distract us: funny unfamiliar phrases, me singing off-key in front of you, and a thousand other things. Why sing? Why purposely engage in worship?
Singing at Sunday gatherings is basically one-third of what we do. Why do we do it? Why does so much time go into singing? Why have a worship team? Why should so many dedicate so much time so that we can sing songs? There are a lot of reasons. We will only look at three below; the three “T’s” of singing within the church. Singing teaches us, transforms us, and helps us cultivate a heart of thanksgiving.
Singing Teaches Us
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
“Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19).
Singing teaches us. But how? First, what is singing and what is music? Dicionary.com says singing is “to utter words or sounds in succession with musical modulations of the voice; vocalize melodically.” Music is “an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.”[i] So, singing can “expresses ideas and emotion” in a unique way. In a way that informational teaching cannot. I can teach on the fact that God sent His Son to die for us but singing that same truth will impact us diffrently. Take these lines for example:[ii]
“And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.”[iii]
Singing and music hold the glories of Christ before us in a unique and powerful way.
Singing is a form of communicating ideas and emotions with voice and tune. Music is a gift. Music has the distinct ability to focus truth with laser precision. Music in Scripture is thus rightly placed in the same category as other speech gifts (see 1 Cor. 14:15, 26).
It is widely known that music has a special ability to affect people emotionally. It can help men march into war or weep at a funeral. Music is a powerful and precious gift but should not be wrongly used to stir peoples’ emotions up. That is, we desire the Spirit to move and transform people by the content of the song, not merely by the contours of the song. We are to sing praise with our spirit, and our mind also (1 Cor. 14:15). So it’s important that when people are moved in Christian worship that they “be moved by the impact of the truth on the mind and conscience. Any attempt to bypass these is both wrong and dangerous.”[iv]
First Corinthians 14:26 tells us that “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” So when we “come together” we have “a hymn” for the purpose of “building up” each other. Thus, one of the reasons we sing and play various instruments is for the purpose of building each other up.
The “word of Christ dwells in us richly” not just through listening to preaching, talking with friends, or even through the memorization of scripture, but also through “singing” (Col. 3:16). Thabiti Anyabwile has said, “Singing is the moving van taking the Word of Christ into the temple of our lives.” Notice that when we sing more of our whole person is involved—our intellect, emotion, and volition. It should be our desire when we worship to involve as much of our self as we can—body, mind, emotions.
We are physical people; we’re not just souls. We have bodies. So, I believe physical actions (see kinesthetic learning) are important while we sing. So, when you worship: kneel, clap, raise your hands, bow your head, and even dance! We see precedence for these things in Scripture (Ps. 2:12; 47:1; 95:6; 134:1-2; 150:4). Of course, everything should be done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).
We must consciously think hard about what the song is communicating (thus we use our mind/cognition; 1 Cor. 14:15). We should thus also be greatly impacted by it (emotions). And as we worship our will (or volition) should be actively engaged as well (both in short-term kinesthetic acts and by long-term acts of service like ministering to orphans and widows). That is, we should actively pray for God’s truth to impact us, we should actively contemplate why God’s truth is amazing, we should actively think about the emotional response we should have, and we should actively evaluate how our everyday life should be reshaped in light of God’s truth.
The question could be asked, “To whom do we sing? I thought that when we gather and sing together, we sing praise to God. So how is teaching part of our songs of worship? How does singing teach us?”
Perhaps surprisingly, we see from Scripture that there are two audiences. We sing to “one another” and we “make music in our hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Music has both a horizontal and vertical element to it. Music has the function of edifying and transforming us from the inside out as we meditate on and proclaim God’s truth (cf. 17:17) and it also thanks God for who He is and what He has done.
As we sing praise to God we are also teaching our brothers and sisters (and even ourselves). As we sing in unison we are united in the teachings of the church. We are confessing truth. We are telling others of the gospel and the wonders of God. We are also internalizing God’s truth for ourselves. We are hiding God’s truth in our heart. We are letting Christ and His truth take up residence within us. We are teaching ourselves what to treasure and love.[v]
We give roughly one-third of our Sunday gatherings to singing songs of worship because singing these songs not only teaches but also transforms us. How does God use singing to transform us? …See Part Two.
[ii] However, I do not mean that teaching is not important. Instead, I believe they compliment each other.
[iii] “How Great Thou Art.”
[iv] Noel Doe, Created For Worship, 235 see also Jonathan Edwards very important book Religious Affections. John Calvin said, “We should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words” (Institutes book III, 895).
[v] “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).
Singing, Sanctification, and Transformation
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)