Last week Donald Miller, probably best known as the author of Blue Like Jazz, wrote a blog post called, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.” It came as I was working on a chapter for my book, True Worshipers. A chapter called “True Worshipers Sing.”
I was surprised by the categorical nature of Don’t title and even more concerned after reading the post. Don seemed more committed to being honest (brutally honest at one point) and telling us about his learning style than helping us see more clearly what God might think about our singing.
I’ve read some thoughtful responses to Don’s post from Mike Cosper, Denny Burk (Part 1 andPart 2), and Jonathan Leeman. Among other things, they helpfully address the formative practice of liturgy, the relationship between our faith and the gathered church, and the importance of the sacraments and relational accountability.
In this post, I simply want to explore some thoughts from Scripture about singing. If Don’s post is any indicator, and I think it is, a lot of us may not be that clear on why God wants us to sing. And no, I’m not writing this out of concern for my job security…
I’ve been a musician for 50 years, so singing makes sense to me. But I know there are plenty of non-musical Christians in the world. People who don’t like to sing. People who sound terrible when they sing. People who have been told they can’t sing. People who don’t “get” singing. And people like Don, who aren’t able to “connect with God” when they sing. Should they be encouraged to sing?
I could tell you what I think based on my experience But I’d rather take you to God’s Word.
Singing in the Bible
There are almost fifty direct commands to sing in Scripture, as well as four hundred references to singing. Two of those passages (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16) instruct us to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God and to one another. These aren’t suggestions, preferences, or good ideas. They’re commands. Which means God intends for us to obey them.
Since everyone isn’t a musician, how do these apply to us? Why does God want us to sing?
1. Singing is more a matter of our hearts than our voices.
Years ago Ronald Allen wrote in his book Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel:
When a non-singer becomes a Christian, he or she becomes a singer. Not all are blessed with a finely tuned ear and a well modulated voice; so the sound may not be superb-it may even be out-of-tune and off-key. Remember: worship is a state of heart; musical sound is a state of art. Let’s not confuse them.
We sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts (Eph. 5:19). The sounds we make affect those around us, for better or worse. But God hears what no one else can. It’s the song of the Redeemed for their great Redeemer. It’s a song we didn’t originate and can’t improve upon. It’s true that those who led the singing at the temple were trained and skilled in music for the Lord (1 Chron. 25:7). But there’s no indication either in the early church or in Revelation’s depiction of heaven that anyone gets a pass when it comes to singing praises to God. Even if we can’t sing a note, we can still sing in our hearts.
2. Singing helps us remember words.
Throughout Scripture, God reminds his people of their tendency to forget his promises, commands, and warnings. In Deut. 31, as Israel is about to enter the promised land, God tells Moses that his people will turn to idols after they enter Canaan. He then instructs Moses to teach the Israelites a song, so that, “when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring)” (Deut. 31:21).
We sing to remember God’s word, and most of all, the word of Christ, or the gospel (Col. 3:16). Science has confirmed that we remember words, patterns, and categories more easily when words are set to music. It’s why hardly anyone can quote a John Wesley sermon, yet most people know the words to Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
3. Singing expresses and engages our emotions.
In every culture, music is a language of emotion that helps express what we feel. So David writes, “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps. 71:23). The words of his redeemed soul overflow into song. It’s why musicals are so popular, why we sing our country’s national anthem, and why every revival since the Reformation has been accompanied by an outpouring of new songs. As John Piper said in a sermon,
The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights and intensities and kinds of emotion that will not be satisfactorily expressed by mere prosaic forms, or even poetic readings. There are realities that demand to break out of prose into poetry and some demand that poetry be stretched into song.
At the same time, music engages our emotions. In Mt. 11:17 Jesus implies that music can lead us to either dance or mourn. It can draw out a variety of feelings including romance, peace, joy, fear, playfulness, sadness, or awe. Singing can help us feel the truth more deeply.
4. Singing reflects the nature of God.
The Father sings over his redeemed people (Zephaniah 3:17). Jesus sings with us in the midst of the congregation (Heb. 2:12). One of the fruits of being filled with the Spirit is singing (Eph. 5:18-19). We worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him.
5. Singing together reflects and deepens our unity in the gospel.
Being together in the same room is one way we can express our unity. But singing together draws attention to that bond as we sing the same words at the same time. In fact, Paul uses a musical analogy when he wants to encourage gospel-driven unity: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).
Connecting with God
There are more reasons to consider, but this is a blog post, not a book (which I’m currently writing). God never promised we would connect with him through singing. The way we “connect with him” is through faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, that paid for our sins and reconciled us to God (Heb. 10:19-22; 1 Pet. 3:18).
The way we express that faith are wonderfully varied – working, playing, serving, proclaiming, gathering, etc. But we have no reason to abandon God’s good gift of singing in the name of being more genuine. God knows how we work. And he’s appointed singing to be one way we deepen our relationship with him and each other.
The singing in your church may be dreadful. Your voice might sound like a cross between a beached whale and an alley cat in heat. Singing might make you feel uncomfortable. Those who lead the singing in your church might do it poorly. And if there’s anything we can do to change the situation, we should.
But our confidence and comfort in singing comes from this: Jesus, our great high priest, makes all our offerings acceptable to God through his perfect life of obedience and his perfect sacrifice of atonement. The Father loves our singing not only because it’s sincere, but because when offered through faith, it sounds just like his beloved Son.
And besides. One day we’ll all have better voices and our songs will far surpass anything we’ve sung here. It’s then we’ll realize that eternity won’t be long enough to contain the songs worthy of the Lamb who was slain.