Singing As Spiritual Discipline
As a member of the choir, I get to look out over the congregation during times of worship, as see many singing from the depths of their hearts while others stand mute and look a bit bored. For some believers in Christ song catapults them into worship, while for others it’s just the preliminary to what they really came for—the sermon. Whether you are in the first category, the last, or somewhere in between, have you ever thought of singing as a spiritual discipline? By that I don’t just mean the disciplines of vocal training, learning hymns, or gritting your teeth through the song set; spiritual disciplines, as defined by Don Whitney, are “those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are habits of devotion, habits of experiential Christianity that have been practiced by God’s people since biblical times.”
We can see how singing would fit that definition very well. First of all, singing has been noted as part of congregational worship all the way back to Exodus 15. This first recorded song was full of the truths of who God is and what He had done for them. Songs like this would have been very important for the spiritual development of a people who had only just recently learned the name of the God they were now being set apart to serve. We continue to see music and singing to be important throughout scripture, all the way to the book of Revelation and the scenes of the angels and redeemed people around the eternal throne.
Scripture mentions singing more than 400 times, and commands us to sing around 50 times–Commands us. Singing is not seen as optional by God. Just as we are commanded to pray, study scripture, fast, and practice other forms of what we consider spiritual discipline, singing is something that God mandates for us, His people.
God has designed our brains so that rhythm and melody drive home the ideas found in the lyrics. In fact, Plato said, “Give me the music of a nation; I will change the nation’s mind.” That transformation can be positive or negative, based on what message is being driven by the music. We are told to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and music is a powerful tool to do just that. Paul tells us that singing has a component to it that allows the word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16), as well as to encourage those around us. As such, we can see how singing fits into Whitney’s definition of “promotes spiritual growth.” When truths of the Scripture are composed into rich lyrics and beautiful melodies, they become like welcome water to a dry and thirsty soul. And they stick. One commentator I read asked how many words of the famous preacher, John Wesley we could remember, in contrast to the number of lyrics from the songs of his brother Charles? Many of us can quote far more lyrics than we can Bible verses, so it would behoove us to make sure the lyrics of the songs we sing are full of truth, beauty and glory of the Lord.
Singing these truths certainly promotes our spiritual growth—as long as we do it with intention. Just like we can read the Bible without engaging our heart, or pray without encountering the presence of God, we can sing and only make a noise. We do it all the time. “Promoting” provides opportunity for spiritual growth, but does not ensure it. Good music and lyrics can provide the perfect soil to grow spiritually, but we must plant the seed, water, weed, and harvest to have it bear fruit. We have to move past the mechanics to engaging both heart and mind in what we sing. Jonathan Edwards says, “The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections.” He said, “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” And Bob Kauflin states, “God is still worthy of our highest, purest, strongest emotions. Singing helps express and ignite them. Passionless singing is an oxymoron.” Intentionally opening up our hearts to express the words from our depths is the best way to “promote” our spiritual growth through song.
Whitney’s definition states that spiritual disciplines are habits of devotion. For many of us, the right song at the opportune moment can take our hearts to the feet of the Lord in an instant. There is just something about a turn of phrase or how it all fits with the melody that so personalizes the song as to move us to say, “This, Lord, is the expression of my own heart,” when we can’t find our own words to give adequate praise, or know how to express deep longing. But for this to take root in us, it must become a habit. This is where the discipline aspect comes in. For it to become a matter of spiritual formation, singing, like Bible study and prayer, must become an intentional habit we incorporate into our times of devotion. This makes them vehicles to become those “habits of experiential Christianity” that bring us into regular encounters with the presence of God. Just as we shouldn’t limit our prayer and Bible reading to just when we “feel like it,” we shouldn’t limit our singing by our moods either, but seek the disciplined habit of singing, whether alone in our devotional times, or together as a congregation—if for no other reason than obedience to the Lord, but hopefully to eventually deepen our adoration.
by Sheri Cook, Director of Special Ministries