Hymns and spiritual songs bless my life and teach me about God. Through learning and singing songs that proclaim truth about God and our faith, I have a ready source of reflection on God through so many situations of life. Hymns grant me access to the wisdom that countless people before me gained on their journey following God.
My Hymn Roots
I grew up in the Methodist church, so John and Charles Wesley were the major influences on the hymns of my faith tradition. They placed great emphasis on the role of hymns in the life of a believer. Here are the “Directions for Singing” that John Wesley included in Methodist hymnals:
1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please.
2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
3. Sing All—see that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
4. 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. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
5. Sing Modestly—do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together so as to make one melodious sound.
6. Sing in time—whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before and do not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices and move therewith as exactly as you can and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
7. Sing spiritually—have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Now, you might balk at some of these instructions, which seem a bit strict and harsh to our modern sensibilities. (For some great insights and thoughts on these directions, check out this post. I thought it was a great explanation.) For some people, these seem much to regulated and legalistic.
While I can understand that, I think that view misses the intention—and wisdom—behind these.
What is the point?
The main point of these instructions is that music can bless our journey of faith; it can strengthen our understanding, bolster our courage, remind us of our place within a community of believers, and fill our hearts with love for God.
The admonitions and directions found here remind me of these verses (which also form the first part of the Shema, the most important daily prayer in Judaism):
“”Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV
The Wesleyan singing instructions recognize the necessity of constant and consistent affirmation of our beliefs and reminders of our faith.
Is other music bad?
I listen to and appreciate a variety of music. Certainly, there is an abundance of music that can direct our hearts and thoughts toward God. It doesn’t always have to be explicitly Christian. Other music is not necessarily “bad” just because it isn’t sung in church.
(Also, please note, I’m mainly talking about singable music, i.e. musical lyrics, not just music, broadly speaking.)
Songs express human emotion, struggle, creativity, and a view of the world. As such, they have the powerful ability to give us insight and empathy into a wide range of human experience.
This valuable facet of music can easily be eclipsed by unintended negative consequences, though, when we allow this insight to instead become our sight—when our understanding of and reactions to life are shaped by a perspective other than God’s.
What direction does our music take us?
Just as music has the power to turn us to God, it also has the power to distract us and weaken us in moments where we most need godly perspective and strength. Do I really believe:
- sexual gratification is the highest goal of life?
- the world is miserable and ugly and devoid of hope?
- my worth is based on my appearance or desirability?
- it’s good to foster resentment, hate, or bitterness toward others?
- my spouse will complete me and fulfill my every need?
- the best use of my life is pursuing all personal pleasure and happiness?
These are just a few of the common themes I find in music that is written without God in view. If I don’t believe these things about life and the world, why should I fill my mind with songs that assert this perspective?
I am very much a “words person.” Song lyrics don’t just pass through me; they carry meaning and weight and stick with me. (Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate a catchy tune, even if the lyrics are questionable. I just don’t want it stuck in my head. 🙂 This is where I think there’s a lot of wisdom in #1 of Wesley’s directions for singing.)
When the songs that infuse my soul and spirit proclaim attitudes and an understanding of the world that are wholly apart from the truth that God speaks, I feel the tug away from God and division within me.
Godly music speaks truth.
Instead, I want the words that are racing through my head on a daily basis to be ones that affirm God’s perspective. Godly music speaks to me and reminds me of vital truths. Namely:
- God is sovereign and all the earth is under His rule.
- God is loving and attentive.
- I am a beloved child of God, saved by grace.
- I am weak and sinful, but God is strong and an ever-present help in trouble.
- God is glorious, magnificent, and praise-worthy.
- Other Christians have walked (and are walking) this road of faith, just as I do now.
These are just a few of the lessons I derive from godly songs, but even this incomplete list has some important truths to keep at the forefront of my mind.
Sometimes I find truth in songs that weren’t intended to be about God at all! More commonly, though, psalms, hymns, and other spiritual songs (like praise music or current Christian music) build up a store of godly truth within me to apply to life.
To be honest, though, hymns are far and away my favorite.
Why hymns, in particular?
I remember listening to an “Oldies” radio station of hits from the 1950s-1970s with my mom one time when she said, “Music really was just better then.”
I laughed and responded, “This is THE BEST of a thirty year range! There was a ton of terrible music back then, it just doesn’t get played anymore,” to which she laughed, and conceded the point.
This is similar to how I feel about hymns.
While some might claim that hymns are outdated, I appreciate that these songs that have stood the test of time. If Christians have found a song to be edifying and instructive to their faith in different languages and cultures for the past 300 years (and some hymns are much more ancient than that!), I’d say it’s a safe bet that I could benefit from it, too!
Here are my top 25 favorite hymns (in no particular order):
- Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
- This is My Father’s World
- Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
- God of Grace and God of Glory
- Happy the Home When God is There
- This is My Song
- Oh God Our Help in Ages Past
- For the Beauty of the Earth
- When We Walk with the Lord (Trust and Obey)
- We Gather Together
- When Morning Gilds the Sky
- Fairest Lord Jesus
- Amazing Grace
- Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
- Be Thou my Vision
- Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
- Abide with Me
- Breathe on Me, Breath of God
- My Hope is Built
- Guide Me, Oh, Thou Great Jehovah
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
- The Church’s One Foundation
- Be Still My Soul
- To God Be the Glory (Great Thing He Hath Done)
Check some of these out! Also, now that you know why I love hymns so much, keep your eye out for more posts on easy ways to incorporate hymns into your life and deeper explanations of particular hymns and what they’re teaching me! 😉
If you’d like some ways to add more hymns into your life, here are a few of my personal recommendations. It’s a bit old now, but I LOVE this a capella hymns album. It’s so easy to sing along; there are many songs here that I didn’t grow up singing, but now know and have memorized from listening to this in the background while I clean or cook, etc. (I haven’t read these books, but they look great. I know some people who really loved reading “Then Sings My Soul” on the backstory of many popular hymns.)