GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 566 • September 25, 2020
SPIRITED SINGING MAY NOT ALWAYS BE SPIRITUAL
Apostle Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). I’m sure I would have enjoyed singing with Paul – I would be happy to let him lead, and I would try to match him in the spirit and the understanding too. I’m sure Paul would know and appreciate the difference between spirited and spiritual singing. A catchy tune with a thumping, bumping, herky-jerky rhythm and a bouncy boogie beat may have you swinging and swaying and tapping your toes or snapping your fingers while you sing — it may be ‘spirited,’ it may give you a physical and emotional workout and may even qualify as ‘joyful noise,’ and yet not be acceptable to God as worship.
Have you given much thought to what it takes to make singing an activity of worship? The song itself must be appropriate for worship and it must be sung in a worshipful way. Take a few minutes with me here for a little lesson about worship in song. I’m going to mention a few things that are not important – may actually be irrelevant – to God (you may be surprised). I’m also going to explain the one thing required for worshipping God in singing, one thing without which singing cannot be acceptable worship, one thing which, if present, will compensate for many technical and mechanical deficiencies. Actually, in some ways it is a complex thing of two parts, two sides, or two aspects. But we can bring it all together in one comprehensive statement.
Please do not leave the discussion yet. We want to end up singing to please God (Hebrews 13:15, 21), not just to please ourselves.
Every congregation is conscious of the quality of its singing. Every Christian should be conscious of the quality of his own singing too. Most seem to know that our singing can make public worship enjoyable and inspiring or can make it drag. It can attract visitors or repel them. But it isn’t so much what we know as what we do. Do we really sing with spirit and understanding?
The standard by which we judge our singing is often the standard of human talent and the effort put forth by the singers. When we say “the singing is/was good” it may often mean we have some good voices and perhaps a good leader and that we ‘sound good’ and the tune fits the words, and we are generally able to sing it – not too high or too low, not too fast or too slow. Some, probably not many but at least some, are conscious of the mechanics of singing – it is important to them that we sing the song ‘as it is written,’ that we stay “in tune” and keep proper time, sing all the parts and harmonize well, that we observe proper dynamics of soft and loud, and that we sing enthusiastically. We may try to match the aesthetics to the words, to sing ‘with feeling.’
To the extent that these elements are present one may say the singing is or was good. If any of the expected mechanical or dynamic ingredients are missing one may say, “the singing is/was not so good.” But in both cases the one who judges it to be good or not good may simply be saying the singing did not please him personally. It that a valid judgment? Does it have to please the singers in order to be called good singing? Does it have to please those who hear it? Do we sing to please ourselves or to please others in the audience, or do we sing to please God?
Singing, as is true of any aspect of worship, must be pleasing to the Lord. It may not be technically or mechanically correct, since most of us are not trained singers. But if it takes technical perfection to please God, very little of what any of us does will win His approval. We have learned to excuse ourselves by saying, “The Lord looks on the heart – it’s the heart that counts with God.” Though there is truth in that, it can be simply shallow excuse-making, a cop-out and a cover-up for not doing the best we can. If we make no effort at all, to say nothing of not doing our best, how can we claim our heart is right? Even if our best isn’t very good, when we do our best we can’t really do more and God will be pleased with it if it does come from our heart. We can only give what we have. Yes, we can improve – we should want to give of our best to the Master. But we still can only do what is possible for us at any given time – do our best at that time and for that time.
Now let’s talk more about “the spirit and the understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15) in regard to our singing, and also about Jesus’ statement that God seeks true worshipers who worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
The spirit in both cases is the human spirit, not the Holy Spirit. If singing, or any other activity, is directed or controlled by the Holy Spirit the result is His work, not the person’s. Yes, there’s an element of doing what the Holy Spirit has taught us, being led by the Spirit’s instruction and guidance as stipulated in His word (Romans 8:14-15). But that does not mean singing with the voice, the words, the sounds, etc., given to us at the time by the Holy Spirit. “In truth” must mean that what we say or sing is not contrary to what the Spirit has taught – we should not sing anything that is not true. Perhaps we should not sing anything we do not understand, words whose meaning we do not know. But it is certain we should not sing things we do not mean, whether it be promises, praises, or requests.
“Sing with the spirit” means sing with the proper attitude and disposition – sing from your heart, with your heart, with a joyful heart, a heartfelt desire to please God. “Let us offer up a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of the lips” in an effort to “do what is well pleasing in His sight” (Heb. 13:15, 21). The standard God uses in judging our singing is not ‘talent’ or ability and technical proficiency but sincerity.
Poor talent is one thing, but poor spirit is another.
Sing with the heart and mind – know what you sing or say and mean what you sing or say. We can say that God is not impressed by technicalities. The tune, tempo, harmony and counterpoint (“moving parts”), sonics and aesthetics are irrelevant to Him.
All that really matters to God are the words and the meaning or message of the words.
What you are say is more important to Him than how you say it. Singing that qualifies as worship must satisfy these two aspects: the song itself must be proper and the attitude and action of the singer must also be proper. The song must be appropriate, words understood and agreed to and sung with the appropriate intention, to praise and please the Lord, to pledge oneself to Him in gratitude and appreciation and/or to make requests for His continued involvement in one’s life. Do not sing something you do not understand, something you do not agree with or do not intend to be and do.
Let’s offer some final words about the spirit and understanding that should mark our singing, if we are to apply Paul’s words with which we started this essay (1 Corinthians 14:15). We will emphasize especially the need to understand and mean the particular words we sing.
Some songs, especially hymns composed in prior generations in language meaningful for their authors but perhaps meaningless or misunderstood for us – even though they are loved and respected by us, the fact is we do not know what we are singing when we mouth the assumed-to-be pious words. Probably most or all the hymn books used in our churches have some archaic words and expressions. Many hymns are doctrinally incorrect – the singers will be making statements that are not true, whether or not they know it. Many songs have the singers pledging and promising things they do not want to do and do not really intend to do – in effect they will be singing lies.
We can illustrate the point with several examples.
- Have you been aware of a black-winged night – night with ebon pinion – brooding over a vale?
- What is your Ebenezer and how would you raise it?
- Could you put on the panoply of God?
- Have you gone to the garden to meet alone with Christ, and do you talk to him face to face as good friends should and do?
- Do you know if, at the Lord’s next coming he will walk around on earth with you or if you will be “raptured” up to meet with him in the air?
- Are we really enduring troublesome times that mean Jesus is coming soon?
- What do you suppose would happen if all who sing, “I want to be a worker for the Lord” really did, and if they went to work with him and for him immediately?
- Have you sung, “Have thine own way, Lord” and asked Him to hold o’er your being absolute sway?
- You have probably sung: “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Take my will and make it Thine – it shall be no longer mine. Take my silver and my gold – not a mite would I withhold.” Did you really mean all of that?
- Imagine what the result might be if all who sing, “Have Thine own way, Lord” would actually let Him, would allow their lives to be consecrated to Him?
Don’t sing, “I am coming Lord, coming now to Thee,” if you aren’t coming to Him. Do not sing, “Just as I am, O Lamb of God, I come,” when you are not coming and do not intend to do so.
May I tell you a little secret? Your loved ones who have died are not in heaven and are not waiting for you to join them there. Some of our most loved songs are about heaven where our friends and dear loved ones are waiting for us, to welcome us home, but that is false doctrine. You are not standing on Jordan’s banks ready to cross over into Canaan’s fair and happy land to claim or reclaim your possessions the moment you die. There won’t be any golden bells ringing for you and, and you aren’t going to “walk right up and shake the Master’s hand.”
Before you sing any song read the words, carefully making sure you understand them. Never mind the tune or the harmony or the ‘moving parts’ that so many are so fond of – just read the words and then ask yourself, “Can I sing those words with the proper understanding and attitude? Can I sing what this song says and really mean it?”
Think what a practical transformation of our lives might take place if we improved the quality of our singing – with the spirit and the understanding also. Remember, it is “in spirit and in truth” with proper understanding and intention that God wants you to speak and pray and sing. <>