A Look Along the Emotions
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against “happy”. Even though happiness is based on happenings, and joy is a fruit of the Spirit that is far more substantial, I’m not against rejoicing, singing, and celebrating. In fact, Scripture commands it. The psalmist says, “let them ever sing for joy” (Ps. 5:11), and again says, “my heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music.” (Ps. 57:7). It seems in these two verses, that happy emotions—and any emotions for that matter—are both a cause and effect when strung together. In Psalm 5, the singer sings for joy, almost as if they are singing to acquire more; singing solicits joy as an effect. On the other hand, in Ps. 57, the Psalmist seems to be already steadfast, and thus their internal joy, already present, causes them to sing in happiness.
So: I’m 100% for singing and great joy! However, Proverbs 25:20 implores us on the other side of the coin and says, “whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” It would seem that singing “happy” too prematurely might breed contempt and explosive reaction. I suggest then, that to adequately disciple and form people, we must consider emotions, look along them, and be ready to embrace even the most bitter of them.
This is where I believe that God’s canon of songs (the Psalter), and music as a concept in general, can instruct us in today’s church. Like music itself, the Psalter is full of tension and resolve, highs and lows, fast and slow, ecstatic joys and dismal despairing, etc. For life to sound a symphony, we must not seek to alleviate or avoid every unresolved note, but in embracing the conductor’s tension in life’s violin section, we ready ourselves for the beautiful blare of the trumpets’ victory.
Sound has a brilliant way of capturing the movement of people’s emotions. If you simply ask someone what kind of song they listen to when they feel angry (rap – hard rock – death metal), blue (blues), relaxed (jazz and folk), worshipful (classical), fun (pop and hip-hop), and lively (techno), you’ll soon see this is true. Songs are as important in discipling and shaping our emotions as they are in shaping our beliefs. We need a smorgasbord of styles—louds and softs, wordy and brief, bright and dim—to help reveal to us the depth of emotion that is inside of us. Good song choices should acknowledge that we are human, and we need to be fully represented in all our depths of feeling.
The Psalter, God’s Song-book in the Bible, (which has been largely lost in most contexts today) is full of songs that cover the whole range of human emotion. Don’t believe me? Feel free to explore all the Songs God includes in his Top 150 List: Laments (sorrow, questioning, doubt), Penitential (confessing) and Imprecatory (praying for judgment and calamity), Thanksgiving (Todah) Psalms, Salvation History, Songs of Trust, Hymns and Doxology, Liturgical Covenant Songs, Royal (Kingly) Enthronement Psalms, Songs of Zion (Kingdom), Temple Liturgies, Wisdom, and Torah Psalms (Law and Word). Not only do the Psalms help us wade through the FULL dynamic of human experience, but they teach us and require us to Praise (external expressive action) and Worship (internal contemplative act of adoration) God in the midst of everything.
We must ask ourselves: are our emotional psychologies and song choices discipling our churches with a full and nutritious diet of melody and emotion?
First if you’d like to consider this more fully, I’ve included here what I call a Song Rubric. It helps me to objectively and thoughtfully think through a variety of aspects in singing and corporate song. This tool has helped me over the years to assess the Canon of Song at a variety of churches in which I’ve served, and to pastorally find the strengths and weaknesses of our theological diet, and provide supplement as needed. As you consider this post, I hope this will give you a practical application.
The ideas in this post drove my network of artists, Garden City, to record an album looking at some of the "darker Psalms,"--the laments (sorrow and grieving) and imprecatory (justice) psalms. The album is called The Songs of the Forgotten. The heart was to be able to give away this album FREE to the church to help those who are hurting, grieving, lost, and caught in despair, bitterness and even rage—whether their feelings be toward God or injustice shown to them in their own lives. These "darker" Psalms are largely lost in our days of “happy singing,” but many feel they are needed to give people a language in how to process and speak to God in their darkest moments.
But enough plugging of our new album ☺. Seriously though: it’s free, go download it!