Every Sunday morning before I stand up to preach, I take my seat on the left side of our church’s auditorium. From where I sit, I have a fairly good view of the people in the congregation. While I know that I ought to concentrate on singing, I sometimes find myself watching the people around me during our worship time. (Don’t judge me! You’ve probably done it too!) Although some people don’t sing at all, other people sing enthusiastically. They keep their eyes focused on the worship leader or the lyrics, and they even raise their hands or close their eyes.
Sometimes, when I see a person singing praise songs with that sort of abandon, I think, “Wow, that person must really be feeling the goodness of God right now. She’s responding to a feeling that God has been good to her, so she’s singing wholeheartedly.” And quite often that’s true: sometimes we sing because we are in a joyful frame of mind, and we respond accordingly.
But that’s not always true. Sometimes we sing aloud because we don’t currently feel the goodness of God. But we want to, and we need to. One reason that we sing is so that we can connect what we believe about Jesus with what we feel about Him. Singing reflects our emotions, of course. But singing does something else: it evokes our emotions. Sometimes we sing because we feel a certain way about God, but sometimes we sing because we want to feel a certain way about God.
In those moments, our songs become more like prayers, as well as affirmations of what is true about God. We are essentially praying, “God, this is who You say You are. Will you remind me of it, and help me to believe it? Because right now I’m not sure whether I do or not.” Singing is often the musical equivalent of “I do believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Nobody is immune to feeling distant from God. Nobody is immune to doubt, to struggle, or to pain. Not even pastors like me. When I’m struggling with those things, I don’t always feel like listening to worship songs and singing along. When I hear a song about how Jesus is my living hope, or how God is a good, good Father, I might feel resistant to singing about things I’m not feeling. I am tempted to fold my arms and close my mouth.
But I’ve learned something important about those moments: Those are the moments when I really need to sing. So I try to sing anyway, and I sing loudly. There’s often something very powerful in singing the truth about God even when I’m not feeling it. Quite often, by some miracle of God’s Spirit, singing reminds me of what is true about God, and helps me to believe it again. The singing transforms my heart and my mind. Or more accurately, the Holy Spirit uses songs to transform me.
We see that pattern in the Bible, by the way. For example, we see it in Psalm 63, when a distraught and spiritually struggling man named David wrote a song to remind Himself of God’s goodness. He was quite literally alone in the desert, facing the very real possibility of death. His life was not going at all as he’d hoped. In his distress, though, he began to sing about and to remember who God was and what God had done. And His heart was changed, to remember and to trust God’s promises.
So sometimes we sing because we feel that God is close to us, and we’re responding to Him joyfully. But sometimes we need to sing because we don’t feel Him close at all. In those moments, maybe the best thing we can do to fight that darkness in our souls is to sing songs about the Light, and wait for His Spirit to fill our hearts with His joy and peace once more.