What is the best advice someone has given you lately? As a working mother of twins, I hear a lot of advice; take walks, make sure you have “me” time, get enough sleep, don’t forget to make time for your husband. While these are all good suggestions, I have found one activity to be the most important re-focuser, mood-booster, and practical tool in the midst of a wild, wild year: singing.
Scripture tells us again and again to sing; O come let us sing a joyful song to the Lord (Ps 95:1); address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Eph 5:19); But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning (Ps 59:16). God himself sings when he rejoices over us (Zeph 3:17), and as those who are made in his image, who are filled with his very breath of life, we too are made to sing, having our lungs filled with words of praise, supplication, and longing.
Singing is not just for Sunday mornings, it is a means of discipleship—a way we follow the Lord in our day-to-day lives by choosing to lift our voices in all circumstances to worship. Singing forms us as followers of Jesus, engaging our bodies, helping us process our emotions and experiences, and connecting us to our Heavenly Father who sings over us. Singing is one of the most powerful tools we have, let me show you why.
Singing literally changes our bodies. Singing releases endorphins and oxytocin which make you feel relaxed and happier, lowers stress, and reduces anxiety and loneliness. It also changes your emotional and physical state as musical vibrations move through your body helping you to breathe more deeply and effectively. As the kids might say, singing is a body hack, but as Christians, we know that this is not by accident, it is by design. Our God quite literally hardwired us to be able to change our bodies and emotions through singing—through worship, so we might be comforted when we are in trouble.
So when the Psalmist says, O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done wonderful things (Ps 98:1), he is inviting us to bring our whole bodies into worship. By lifting our voices, we are changed, our breath united to the life-breathed Spirit that God has given us, our bodies engaged in attention to the God who knit us together, knows us, and speaks to us so that we might worship him with our whole beings.
Singing brings us out of ourselves. I was reading my girls one of their favorite books while they ate dinner. I was exhausted and annoyed at how much of their food was on their laps and the floor. I wasn’t in a great mood. But we came to a page of the book about which I had made up a silly melody and would sing every time I read it. This time I didn’t. I wasn’t in a singing kind of mood. But, of course, they shout, “sing it, Mommy!” Begrudgingly, I sang it; a few lines in a rhyming story about a farm. But I noticed something immediately: it’s hard to stay angry when you are singing.
In the middle of three conversion stories, Paul and Silas get thrown in prison. They were in stocks, very uncomfortable, and on top of that, wrongly imprisoned. And yet, we read that around midnight, they were praying and singing hymns to God and the other prisoners were listening (Acts 16:25). The saints that went before us turned to singing, but there is more to singing than heritage; singing is an embodied discipline, something we do on the way as we wait and walk with Jesus the reorients us towards his promises and provision.
When we think of singing as only a joyful response or something we do in congregational worship, we limit the gift God has given us. Paul and Silas show us how to sing and worship in all circumstances, not simply when we feel like it or are supposed to. Just like singing for my daughters changes my disposition to lean towards them in love, singing to the Lord when we are angry, confused or upset reorients our hearts and minds to make space for the Lord in our circumstances. Singing draws us out of our emotions so that we might situate ourselves in God’s story, remembering his promises and anticipating his faithfulness when we can’t see what he is doing.
Singing is a physical act of defiance that says, I can and choose to worship in any and every circumstance, not just when I feel like it.
Singing helps us process our emotions. Sometimes when I start singing, I start crying. It seems that singing has a unique way of allowing hidden emotions to surface and helping me bring them to the Lord. We often struggle to put into words how we feel, opting to feel nothing rather than be honest about how we are doing. But ignoring emotions is an attempt to remove ourselves from reality. When we deny our experience and the emotions they produce, we are effectively saying that God has nothing to say or do here. But God does not make us his children to remain emotionally distant from him; He wants us to come to him with our hurts and brokenness, trusting that he will comfort and encourage. Singing is one way we can do that.
As an embodied spiritual discipline, singing helps us connect our mental, emotional, and spiritual reality to our physical experience. We typically think of singing as a response to joy, but singing in despair, hopelessness, and sorrow has a long and valuable tradition we should remember. It’s no surprise that in the midst of oppression slaves turned to singing; acknowledging their pain and suffering while steadfastly hoping in a just God who was bigger than their circumstances. Likewise, the majority of the Psalter are not songs of joy, they are songs that express confusion, doubt, and lament. The songbook of the covenant people of God gives language to the full human experience— How long O Lord is the anguished refrain we hear again and again.
Singing is a tool for all of life; the small hopelessness of a child crying at 3 am and the large hopelessness of grief or depression. And singing in spite of how we feel actually changes us, unearths our emotions, engages our bodies, and tunes us to something that is beyond our present moment. This is how God made us—to sing to him, have our hearts softened and comforted, our anger quelled, and our hopes levied as we remember that even in our tough moments, he is with us, he is for us, and he sings over us in return.
Singing forms us. A few years ago on a retreat with college students, we spent time in small groups encouraging one another. What struck me most was how the students quoted song lyrics to one another more than they quoted scripture as a means of encouragement. While this opens the door to another conversation about why the songs we sing are important, these students spoke the things of God over one another as they had learned through singing.
Songs have a way of sticking with us in a way that other mediums don’t. We connect the melody and rhythm to words that have value and they become part of us, beating in our hearts and springing to mind unexpectedly, giving us language when we don’t know what to say or how to pray. No bride forgets her first dance song, no teen forgets the song that got them through a breakup; music stays inside of our bodies. But even more, songs that give language to our faith have the ability to shape our theology, the very things we think and believe about God and ourselves. As we sing these words, we speak into being the truths that God has spoken over us; we are loved, justified, forgiven, Spirit-filled children of God. Singing about our Good King is a way of testifying to ourselves the news of grace again and again.
So today, sing. Sing when your children frustrate you, when you are tired or disappointed, when you are delighted by something. But sing. Sing a new song to the Lord today knowing that as you do, he hears you, forms you, lifts your head, and sings over you in return.