By Greg Jones
“Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Ephesians 5: 18-20
There’s no shortage of challenges in our world these days. We’re all facing unbelievable struggles—in our personal lives, in our industries and in the world around us. At times it can feel almost unbearable, like there’s very little we can cling to as we navigate yet another crisis.
When life feels this way, I take refuge in music—hymns and psalms and spiritual songs—to get outside of my mind. These spiritual songs call us out of ourselves, taking us beyond our own reason and into the praise of God. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians, music stirs us.
A few years ago, my wife Susan and I were visiting Christians in Estonia, listening as they shared about the persecution of the KGB in the Soviet era and how they would send infiltrators to their worship services. The agents were driven to their ends by hearing children sing throughout their services. In fact, some agents blew their cover when the music got to be too much—exclaiming, “Why are they singing? Tell them to stop singing!”
In the praise of God, these children were challenging the rationality, the preoccupation with bureaucracy, the destructiveness of the Soviet regime. And their opponents noticed. The praise of God can call us out of our suffering and into an entirely new realm. I’m continually struck by the beauty of the psalms and the power they hold to touch each of our emotions—sometimes in lament or desperate plea.
I’m reminded of my time serving at Duke Divinity School as Dean, and the day I was attempting to piece together how to care for and speak with students as we prepared for a noon prayer service on September 11, 2001. It was again music—hymn lyrics and psalms—that came to mind. As we struggled with what we were watching and questioned what was happening around us, these words led us.
We sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” a hymn whose lyrics come from Lamentations 3. We also recited Psalm 44: “Wake up, Lord. Why are you sleeping? Wake up! Where is your justice?” Again, the words did what I could never do on my own—soothed weary souls and lifted us beyond our own reason as we mourned and questioned together.
Music can give voice to our suffering when we are hopeless, beaten down. Music has a way of calling us out of ourselves and giving voice to our struggles.
It’s still music that soothes my soul today.
My favorite playlist holds songs of all genres—tunes that I choose based on how I’m feeling and what I need. Cece Winans’ “Goodness of God” is one of my go-to songs—I play it after a hard meeting or when I’m facing a challenge that has me flustered as well as when I am just joyful with thanksgiving for God’s love. Cece’s words—and her voice—call me out of myself and re-center me.
Music does that for so many of us. It re-centers us—in both struggle and in celebration. There is a sense of joy that comes through music as you become filled with the spirit as you sing – giving praise and thanks to God in all things. Just think of your favorite Christmas carol.
Despite the gift of music and the role it plays in softening our troubles, we must face the stark reality that challenges are all around us, and life is hard. It can feel impossible to approach what we’re facing with optimism, but Paul tells us that no matter the circumstance, we can find hope and joy. Not because of who we are or what we can do, but because of who God is and what God can do.
Last year, Garth Brooks hosted a night of singing and conversation with our students on Belmont’s campus. The Fisher Center of Performing Arts was packed with young people for the event, just a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, and the anxiety was palpable.
Garth took to the stage with just his guitar, ready to take requests and answer questions. After many questions were asked and answered, and many songs were song, one young woman raised her hand with a question I’ll never forget. “It feels like the world is falling apart,” she said. “In the midst of that, it feels self-indulgent to want to become a professional songwriter. Can you help me?”
With a deep breath—and a beautiful sense of pastoral sensitivity—Garth said he heard her concern. He told this student, and the rest of the audience, that there will be lots of times in life when it feels like the world is falling apart. But in all those times, the world will still need beauty. So rather than thinking of it as self-indulgent, Garth said to think of it as a gift she could give herself and to others. To write songs is to help us all lift our eyes to see beauty.
Instantaneously—and almost in beautiful unison—the whole hall relaxed. Garth’s words reminded us to accept the call to go beyond ourselves and into beauty through music.
I believe music is a gift from God, and with that, I know we are called to bear witness to God’s goodness, truth and beauty. God invites all of us—in our highs and lows, in all we are and all we do—to make melodies in our hearts and lean into the power of the Psalms as praise in our joys and as refuge in our struggles.