Hymns, A Secondhand Emotion?
When you speak, I know when you are happy, or sad, or surprised, or angry, or any other host of emotions. It comes out in your facial expressions, your tone and your body language. You would be exceedingly boring without emotion. Singing is no different. In fact, singing with emotion is almost always better than singing without emotion. Good singers know how to convey the emotional power of a song. You will hear this comment time and time again on the various TV singing competition shows. The only precaution I will add is that emotions can go too far, like crying, that actually inhibits your singing. Adding emotions like joy, exuberance, passion, sadness, love and anger can turn good singers into great singers and great worshipers; because emotions come from the heart – where worship matters. More importantly, singing with emotion is the result of inwardly digesting the lyrics that are being sung. It is in fact making the song – your own. Which is what we all should be doing as lip service does not impress God.
One of the first things a singer needs to do when looking at a new piece of music is to identify the prevailing mood of the song.
Let’s look at some examples:
1. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” – What a brilliant work by Mr. Isaac Watts! This song only uses five notes and if you were to accompany it on the guitar, the song requires only one chord. There is beauty in simplicity here. The lyrics are so well crafted they’ll take your breath away. This song requires introspective thought as you sing your way through it. It will take you on an intellectual journey from sorrow to love to deep appreciation. When I sing this hymn it feels like Jesus has poured liquid love onto me from head to foot.
“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”. – Isaac Watts
“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.” – John Wesley
2. “I Can Only Imagine” by Bart Millard. Written for his father as he was dying. This song brings you into the mind of a person who is contemplating what it will be like in heaven. Uplifting, joy, hope and elation come to mind. A refreshing song to stretch your imagination heavenward. For some reason I can reach a high G note in this song, yet I sing base in the choir! It’s the emotion.
“A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” – C. S. Lewis
3. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” by Martin Luther. A bellwether of strength and confidence. Sing this one when you are tempted to sin, when you need reassurance of God’s word and his sovereign power or just as a faith builder. Courage, confidence, reassurance, and boldness all are involved in singing this masterpiece.
“Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy. Emotion without truth produces empty frenzy. What’s needed is a balance of the two crucial elements.” – John Piper
4. “Amazing Grace – My Chains Are Gone” by John Newton, John P. Rees, Edwin Otthelo Excell, Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio. A little bit of the best from both old and new writers. This hymn is over 200 years old and has been recorded by just about every popular singer you can imagine. It’s as popular now as it was 200 years ago; and it’s all because of Jesus and the incredible power of the Holy Spirit.
When I sing this song I cannot help but think about the slave trade history that was part of the background of the original hymn writer. John Newton was “the worst of sinners.” He personally ruined over 20,000 lives selling 20,000 young Africans; that’s 20,000 people created by God, in His image, and Newton sold them like cattle into a life of unending slavery. He never knew their names, never cared to know their names, in fact history tells us that Newton simply referred to them all as “grunts.” Newton was guilty for grievous crimes against humanity. But God used this huckster to change the course of History. John Newton was lost; but now He’s found, He was blind; but now He sees. Newton was writing about himself. Newton was the wretch. He came full circle. This is a story of one man coming to faith, renouncing the life that he once served. Newton actually died a blind man. Perhaps he sees now while in heaven.
Sing it with righteous outrage. Sing it with relief. Sing it knowing that you are no better than the slave trader himself. Sing it to feel the freedom that grace provides. Sing it to feel the freedom that your sins have been forgiven, regardless of their severity.
On Good Friday, some 2000 years ago, a Roman soldier plunged a sword into the side of a dying innocent man. In fact, this innocent man was God himself. Quite a sin you must be thinking, right? But guess what covered that sharp tipped sword when it was removed from Jesus’ side? It was literally covered by the blood of Jesus. I don’t know if that Roman soldier ever came to faith in Jesus; but if He did, that sin was covered and paid in full. That’s amazing grace!
“My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns, unending love, amazing grace.” – Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio
5. ”How Deep the Fathers Love for Us” – by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. Deep sorrow, anguish, toil, shame, undeserved love, release and relief all rolled into one bouncing rhythmic ball of emotion. “Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders. I hear my mocking voice call out among the suffers. It was my sin that held him there, until it was accomplished; His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished.” ( Verse 2) Simply incredible! It pains me just to know that most traditional hymn-based churches have never even heard of this.
This is what God thinks of emotionally constipated, stone faced and comatose singing:
“Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” – Amos 5:23
6. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – by Monks of the Middle Ages??? Perhaps one of the oldest songs in our hymnal, yet fresh sounding enough to be on modern radio. Every time I sing this I am brought back to the 400 years of silence; the anticipation of the promised Messiah. It is with unabandoned joy that I sing the refrain “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, Shall come to Thee O Israel!” And yet, it is set in a haunting minor key. Expectation and anticipation! I am grateful to our ancestors for this piece.
7. “Now Thank We All Our God” – by Martin Rinkart. Oh, the strife this man went through! Martin Rinkart served as Pastor during the 30 years war and during a great plague. It is reported that he was presiding over fifty funerals a day, including that of his wife. Yet in the midst of this, Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer, writing 66 hymns. The exact date of “Now Thank We All Our God” is in question, but it is known that it was widely sung by the time the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. It was commonly sung as a grace following meals. Since then it has become a “Te Deum” for Germany, sung on occasions of national thanksgiving.
If you need to feel blessed and thankful, this is the song for you. You can even use this song on Mother’s Day as Rinkart voices thanks for mothers in the song.
“It is doubtful that God can use a man greatly until he has been broken deeply.” – CS Lewis
8. “How Can I Keep From Singing?” – by Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman and Ed Cash. This is my anthem. This song always puts me in the mood to praise God. Doesn’t matter how blue I am, what’s going on in my world, nothing seems to matter when I sing this piece. It’s joy, happiness, praise, worship, in good times, in bad times, in sickness and in health. This song just picks me up.
“To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable.” – Beethoven
9. “Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded” – by Bernard of Clairvaux and Hans Leo Hassler. Oh my! What weight. What grief. What pain. What sorrow. Singing this hymn is like walking the road with a bloodied, beaten, Jesus carrying the cross. Honestly it is difficult to make it through this song if you are plugged into the lyrics and what is going on. Good Friday just does not seem like Good Friday without this piece.
10. “The First Song of Isaiah” – Jack Noble White. Sing this song once, and you will be singing it for the rest of the day. Joy and praise Old Testament style. Foot tapping; you might even find yourself swaying to the music even if you are a Lutheran. It reminds me of a driving contemporary praise song.
A Few Words on Hymns vs Contemporary Songs
We should sing these above mentioned songs as if it were our last day on earth! We should live them out.
In my experience, the deepest emotions come out with hymns, not as much with the newer music, although the Spirit certainly can make us feel these in our heart as well. And the strange thing is that the traditional hymn churches tend to shun emotions, even though their music is drenched in it.
I believe that hymns stirred our emotions and continue to do so. When I sing a hymn like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, I just want to say “I love you lord with all my heart for doing this”, but the hymn doesn’t give me that opportunity. I am left with the emotion, which is fine. The newer songs build on this, and use the feelings in the lyrics and melodies to unlock something fresh within us. In fact, most redone hymns have been updated with the addition of a chorus that expresses our reaction to those incredible verses. Newer songs do use lyrics like “I love you Lord”, “I long for you”, “I need you Lord”. This is the reason that many in the traditional churches claim the newer songs to just be love songs. The contemporary artists are building on the one thing that the hymns were lacking. Hymns were written in a time when it was considered to be a sign of weakness to show one’s emotions. This is no longer true.
A few Biblical precedence for doing this:
Psalm 18:1 I love you, Lord, my strength.
Psalm 116:1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.
Isaiah 5:1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyardon a fertile hillside. (From “the song of the vineyard”)
Psalm 73:25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
Psalm 61:4 I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
Psalm 119:174 I long for your salvation, Lord, and your law gives me delight.
A secondhand emotion is an emotion that has gotten worn out over the years and is no longer felt. Hymns, should not be a secondhand emotion. We should be saving our most profound emotions for our Lord and these hymns of faith are one of the best ways to express it!!! And, the newer songs are the best way to put it into words!!! You should sing both!!! Your Lord deserves it!!!