“What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also. I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
This spring break, I took some time to go through my iTunes library just to enjoy some good old praise music. As I was going from song to song, from Chris Tomlin to Phil Wickham to Hillsong United, I began thinking, “Isn’t it SO easy to praise and worship God?” I mean with the ABUNDANCE of praise music out there, with the number of uplifting albums available for me to listen to, it’s so easy for me to tune into something wonderful and beautiful at any time of the day to set me in that joyful/contemplative/thankful mood. For those of us who listen to praise music regularly, we can probably identify at least three or four, if not ten, praise songs in our list of top ten favorite songs of all time (this is definitely true for me: all of the non-Christian songs in my top ten are but a few by my girl t-swizzle). Renewal even does a great job contemporizing rich hymns into tunes and melodies that are more agreeable with my ear. And with a heart filled with praise and an ear tuned to hear the Word of God, the Scriptures become so much more vibrant and so much more alive. It’s so easy, so fun, so right to worship God, isn’t it?
But as I was thinking and listening, I tried to understand why I enjoy this music so much. More specifically, what separates my love for secular music and praise? If I could look at myself in the mirror, I would see my face light up when Shane & Shane’s “The Answer” plays on shuffle the same way it does when “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne comes up. How can it be that I can grow excited in anticipation for Shane #1 to hit that note at 3:56, and at the same time reach a similar level of excitement for the key change at the end of “Stacy’s Mom”? It’s a difficult thing to reconcile. The easy answer is to say that praise music strikes a different chord within my brain: listening to Katy Perry may entertain me, but David Crowder really resonates with me on a deeper level. But then that begs the question, does praise really resonate with me on a deeper level, or am I just mindlessly singing the same tunes I’ve familiarized myself with over my 21 years in the church?
If I’m honest with myself again, I can’t truthfully say that every time I sing praise my heart goes into super spiritual mode. In fact, sometimes I’m even in super bitter mode. Even as I sing “Heart of Worship” (I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself, is not what you have required), I confess sometimes it’s just a song. And how can it not be? I’ve sung the song more times than I can count. I’ve played that song to memory so often that it feels weird when someone plays the actual chords instead of playing a shortcut chord like I do (I play the standard A instead of A2/C#… I don’t even know what that is). At one point, it might have even been a “go-to” song when I didn’t feel like preparing new songs for community group or morning prayer.
What I’m trying to say is that for those of us who are always surrounded in praise settings or whose music library is composed mostly of praise songs or whose Google search cache is a long list of lyrics to that one song we sang on Sunday but can’t quite figure out what song it is, it’s very easy to forget that what we’re trying to accomplish by singing praise is to sing praise to Him. How it makes us feel, though definitely an important side-effect, should not be the main reason we sing. “Sing to him, sing praises to him, tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice […] Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come before him” (1 Chronicles 16: 9-10, 29). Our primary concern when we sing and memorize praise songs should not be to entertain ourselves, but to lift high the name of Jesus, who is deserving of our praise and so much more. Singing praise is SO easy because there is SO much goodness to sing about.
One exercise I’ve been doing to help me reconfigure my understanding of praise is looking to Scripture first. Earlier in this post, I wrote about how praise amps me up so much that the Scriptures become so much more alive to me. What I tend to forget is that the foundation for all the praise music I love is the Bible. Music doesn’t bring Scripture to life. Scripture gives meaning to the songs we sing. It has been an awesome blessing to find the same exact phrases found in my favorite praise songs in unexpected places in the Bible (“though your sins are like scarlet they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool,” (Isaiah 1:18) … ring any bells?). It appears some of my favorite musicians are also guilty of artistic plagiarism.
But the great thing is that that’s the very best way to sing praise – to glorify God using the same words He equips us with. Once I started actively listening to praise, I began to learn that these talented artists never do something just because it sounds cool or poetic. I began to notice that every word and chorus is deeply rooted in Scripture, and that if I want praise to really resonate with me and if I really want to praise with the spirit and with the mind, I’m going to have to search deeper into where God reveals Himself to us – into the Bible.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s ~Psalm 103:1-5
“… but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly posion. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth came blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10)
For Lent, I am trying to stop using profanity. As of today, twelve days of Lent have passed, and for twelve days I have failed to adhere to my promise. Almost every morning starts with some form of cursing: “*bleep* my alarm clock didn’t go off. I’m late for class again. Aww *bleep*…..… *bleep*.” All my roommates can attest: I’m not fond of mornings, even Sundays. I rather loudly and publicly express my distaste of the start of each day.
And then I proceed throughout the day. I go to class and I keep to myself. I listen to my iPod and skip to the beat (not really). But as I listen, I look around me and silently judge everyone: “What the *bleep* is going on with that guy’s hair? Who the *bleep* told you wearing that would be a good idea this morning?” I even use profanity to express my satisfaction: “*bleep* yeah! I caught the shuttle on time. Wow this is *bleeping* great!” No wonder my mornings start off so belligerently. My thoughts and vocabulary are riddled with profanity. It’s like my mind resorts to using profanity no matter what state I’m in – happy, sad, bitter, confused – because I’ve been doing it for so long.
But then I go to Sunday service. I go to Funday Mondays. I go to community group. I go to large group. I go to morning prayer. And in each of these settings, I sing praise (sometimes I even lead praise). In each of these settings, I lift a prayer for a brother or sister. Somehow, my tongue flips inside out and I utter encouragement rather than condemnation, blessings rather than profanity. “From the same mouth came blessing and cursing.”
But if I’m real with myself, it is not both blessing and cursing that exits my mouth. It’s just cursing cleverly disguised in holy terms and more cursing. For if the natural state of my heart – if the first thoughts that enters my mind each morning – if the silent musings throughout the day – are dominated by hateful thoughts and words, then it can’t be that I truly engage in a time of worship that is pleasing to God. My inability to stop cursing proves so.
To be clear, I’m not trying to say I’m not genuine when I worship and pray. It’s just that there is something fundamentally and morally wrong when I’m able (or think I’m able) to do both with such ease and a clear conscience.
But what can I do to finally stop? I’ve come to the realization that I can’t simply stop cursing. The absence and lack of cursing would consume my mind to such an extent that I inevitably just keep thinking about cursing and not cursing all day. Instead, I think the Good Book prompts me to look to the goodness of Christ to redeem the brokenness of my tongue and mind. In Colossians, Paul calls us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 3:16). The only way to remove the vocabulary of sin is to replace it with the vocabulary of Christ, of righteousness.
My new Lenten “sacrifice” is not to stop using profanity, but to find the beauty and goodness of Christ in every morning, person, and season, so that He may transform me into a new creation whose every thought and word can be offered up to the High King of Heaven as a form of worship and praise. And in doing so, I pray that the glory of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection would be the first and last thought that enters my mind and satisfies my soul each day.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer ~Psalm 19:14