Why does singing in church sometimes feel unengaged, flat and a bit ritualistic? I suspect it is because we don’t know how to relate what we are singing to our current emotional state. So we suppress the emotion and sing mechanically. Singing is not the first thing I think of doing when I’m upset. The lyrics then serve to remind me of the discrepancy between their colour, and my lack. Perhaps it is because of the active nature of singing… it involves us physically as well as mentally and emotionally. In a dark cloud of depression or anxiety, it is difficult to sing. We can feel numb, guilty, or all too aware of our failings…everyone else is joyful. We feel this discrepancy and distance ourselves even further from those we worship with. How are we to be edified by the corporate worship of God through song regardless of what is going on privately when we enter the church gathering?

Singing together as a church plays a role in impacting and refining our emotions. It can play an important role in feeding the right emotions as we sing of what God has done for us in the gospel of Jesus. With this holy, loving and merciful God being the object of our praise, many of the songs we sing in our churches express positive emotions. Yet often these truths don’t line up with how we feel and we don’t know how to lift our spirits to sing. We know in our heads what is objectively true, but our hearts are often playing catch up. Given that music usually stirs up things we are already feeling it can be difficult to praise when you are in the mud. However, this may reveal a misunderstanding of the purpose of singing in our congregations, specifically an uncertainty of how to engage these negative emotions in singing. While scripture encourages the elevated emotions that should characterize our new life in Christ, it does not ignore the fact that we live in a broken world and experience the emotions of a broken heart [1]Philip Percival, Then Sings my Soul, Matthias Media, 2015.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Feel unto God…

Singing can have an impact on our brokenness. This can be seen most clearly in the Psalms of Lament. In particular, in Psalm 42 the psalmist is experiencing deep anguish, yet brings that anguish to what he has known of God: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise him, my salvation and my God’ (Ps 42:5–6). In his singing there is an honest expression of the negative emotion that is felt and a movement toward what he desires to feel, namely to praise God.

2) Sing yourself the truth…

One element of the psalmist’s upward movement is telling himself to ‘hope in God’. Speaking to one’s self aims not to just stir up a positive feeling but to believe[2]Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, WM. B. Eerdmans, 1965. Singing can serve the purpose of reminding ourselves of what we believe and seeking to bring our emotions to submit to that truth. This may be one way that we can be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’ (Rom 12:2). This is not limited to but includes emotional transformation, as our whole person is being restored by the gospel. This does not mean suppressing a negative emotion when one sings, but bringing those negative emotions to the truth of what we know of God in his word like the psalmist does. The word of God is profitable for changing us so that ‘the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16–17). Therefore the same can be said of singing God’s word. Singing allows the negative emotion to be felt and expressed but also to engage with and be changed by God’s word that is sung.

3) Be sung to by others

One beautiful thing about singing congregationally is that we sing to each other as well as to God. It is not just singing alone in the presence of other people but also singing to each other (Eph 5:19). Rob Smith helpfully expresses that singing together ‘reorients us personally and corporately ….drawing us out of ourselves and toward each other in genuine love and sympathy’ [3]in True Feelings, edited by Michael Jensen, IVP, 2012. It is a means to receive God’s truth from God’s people. Therefore singing may be a way we can ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2) as those who are experiencing deep anguish, great joy or even apathy can be drawn out of themselves and into God’s word with each other. So sing, but also allow yourself to be sung to.

References   [ + ]

1.Philip Percival, Then Sings my Soul, Matthias Media, 2015
2.Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, WM. B. Eerdmans, 1965
3.in True Feelings, edited by Michael Jensen, IVP, 2012