One aspect to emotions that makes them tricky is that the emotions we feel and express as a result of what we value, desire, and believe are instinctual. When life happens, we feel emotions in the blink of an eye. Emotions are generated from within in response to life in fractions of a second. Emotions are instinctual.
Therefore, in order to cultivate godly emotions, we need to train our emotional instincts. One such way to train our emotional instincts is by actively participating in worship.
An African pastor once said of his congregation, “When we are happy, we sing and when we aren’t happy, we sing until we get happy.”
The 18th century pastor and thinker Jonathan Edwards would agree. He writes:
“The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only that such is our nature and frame that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”
I really believe that one of the reasons God created humans with the ability to make music and sing is that these have the power to impact us emotionally. We weren’t created to express only cognitive responses to God. We were made emotional creatures. And God wants our emotions to respond appropriately to him. Music and singing help excite and express, to use Edwards’ terms, emotional responses to truth.
Yip Harburgh wrote all the lyrics for the songs in “The Wizard of Oz” including the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Harburgh famously once said, “Words make you think a thought; music makes you feel a feeling; a song makes you feel a thought.”
Singing helps us process the emotional dimensions of cognitive thought. This is why this African pastor’s quote has merit: "When we are happy, we sing and when we aren’t happy, we sing until we get happy.” Music and singing possess the ability to help us feel the truth. And is there any better truth to feel than the good news of the gospel?
In the Bible, there is a profound link between experiencing God’s salvation and expressing the joy of that through music and singing. When God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt, Miriam take a tambourine in hand and as all the women follow with tambourines and dancing (dancing! heaven forbid!), she sings to them saying:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea (Ex. 15:21).
Exodus 15 describes an epic time of worship for the people of Israel. They were given salvation and experienced joy as a result of it. The culmination of that joy is singing. Psalm 98 and Isaiah 12 are other places where this occurs. The message is consistent: where there is salvation there is joy and where there is joy there is singing.
The word ‘sing’ or some version of it occurs more than 200 times in the Bible. That’s more than the word ‘grace.’ It’s no wonder Christianity has been called the "singingest" religion in the world. This is one reason I have a vision for Alliance Bible Church to become the “singingest” congregation in the Milwaukee-metro area.
Might it be, God created us with the capacity to make music and sing and made music and singing a recurring theme in the Bible so that we will learn to feel the emotional depths of the truth of the gospel? So that we would feel the emotional depths of joy in the salvation he has given us by grace?
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to actively participate in worship.