Scene 1 6-7 Years Ago
It happened out of the blue, as I strolled through the den.
An unseen force suddenly penetrated my chest cavity, got a vise-grip on my heart, and squeezed forcibly until tears began flooding down my cheeks.
No, it wasn’t a heart attack. At least not the scary kind. It was the song my wife was playing on her piano in the formal living room. Just the tune had the effect I described.
I couldn’t name the song, nor remember the lyrics, yet God’s Spirit was already using it to soothe my downcast spirit. I knew without a doubt that I had previously heard the song, and that its message had thrown a lifeline to me at a time when sea waves billowed, and I was drowning in sorrow.
My eyes moist, my chin trembling, I walked to the piano and asked Dolly, “What is the title of that song? Please tell me.”
“The Anchor Holds,” she answered. “We’re singing it this Sunday. The choir sings it every year before taking a summer break.”
The following Sunday, this reserved, non-demonstrative, Presbyterian worshipper stood up, held his arms high, and wept uncontrollably as the choir sang the stanzas, and this chorus:
The anchor holds,
though the ship is battered.
The anchor holds,
though the sails are torn.
I have fallen on my knees,
as I faced the raging seas.
The anchor holds,
in spite of the storm.
Imagine….the Holy Spirit massaged my heart with a song, even when I didn’t recall the title or the lyrics!
Scene 2 July 16, 2019
After his four-day visit with us, I drove to Charleston, South Carolina and (reluctantly) handed off my eight-year-old grandson to his mom. As I began the 120-mile return trip, I turned on the car radio. Typically, I keep the dial on a Sports Talk station, but the signal wasn’t reaching that far from my home in Columbia.
What I heard, instead, was a choral rendition of the hymn, “Be Still My Soul.” For the next hour, the Christian station played one renowned hymn after another: solos, duets, some by choirs—all performed by excellent voices. Among the hymns that I heard were “How Great Thou Art,” “Like A River Glorious,” and “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Again, the Holy Spirit employed music to soothe my soul. Tears clouded my eyes. To drive safely, I had to keep my eyes glued to the road due to the heavy traffic flow coming out of Charleston at rush hour. Yet my spirit had been ushered into the presence of God.
During the hour that I could pick up the station’s signal, out-loud prayers erupted from me. One song spawned praise. Another inspired intercession for my grandson, and for my two grown sons. Yet another prompted me to confess.
Admittedly, my heart had been dry for weeks. Although I had been reading the Bible and praying regularly, my recent times with the Lord had been brief and perfunctory. Each morning, I had been in a hurry to resume a major writing project.
How gracious God’s Spirit was to me during the drive home, fueling my mind and heart with biblically-informed lyrics. The front seat of the car became holy ground, yet in this instance, I couldn’t stop to remove my shoes (see Exodus 3:1-5).
The Ministry of Music
The catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, knew the value of music in sustaining faith and helping people focus on the character of God. He wrote, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. Music is one of the most glorious gifts of God, to which Satan is a bitter enemy, for it removes from the heart the weight of sorrow, and the fascination of evil thoughts.”
God’s Word teems with an emphasis on music.
An emphasis on worshipping God through music stitches together many pages of the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. Typical of numerous verses is Psalm 104:33: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.” Tucked into a Psalm prompted by a plea for deliverance, the Psalmist nonetheless wrote, “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee” (Psalm 71:23).
During corporate worship services in the early church, songs offered not only praise to God, but mutual encouragement among the believers. Representative of several verses expressing this concept is Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
During a rough night in a Philippian jail, singing sustained Paul and Silas. They had been beaten with rods, and their feet were fastened in the stocks. Yet they buoyed their spirits by “singing hymns of praise to God” (Acts 16:25).
A Christian blogger, Martha Hays, testifies to the help of music during difficult times. She wrote, “Music that comes directly from the Word of God is medicine for the soul. God’s words can bring healing, comfort, and encouragement like no other, but pairing those words with beautiful melodies implants them in my mind as well as my heart. The words get ‘stuck’ in my mind, and throughout the day, in times of need, I sing the Scripture to myself.”
Dr. Michelle Bengtson, who wrote a highly-regarded Christian book on depression spurred by her own experience, adds, “Listening to praise and worship music helped me to hold on when my grip was failing.” At the end of each chapter of Hope Prevails (2016), she provides a playlist of songs that ministered to her during her despondency.
My purpose is not to offer a comprehensive treatment of what the Bible says about music; rather, I want to extol its value for hurting people, whether the pain is physical or emotional. Even when our inner turmoil makes formulating a prayer difficult, hearing a song, or our own singing, offers a way to express faith, and to sense God’s presence during difficulty.
Here is the point of this blog in two sentences: When God’s people are hurting, Christian music is a means of God’s sustaining grace. What we hear or sing reminds us of who God is, what He has done, and what He promises to do.
Worship through music is primarily for God’s benefit, for His enjoyment. Yet the music sustains us, too.
Listening to the Music
Psalm 98:1-6 implores us to sing, and offers reasons why.
For this Psalmist, one thing that inspired singing was remembering past deeds of the Lord in relation to Israel. He has “done wonderful things” (vs. 1). He has shown “faithfulness to the house of Israel” (vs. 3).
Right now, perhaps you are hurting due to physical discomfort, the loss of a loved one, or discouragement rooted in a circumstance you cannot control. To counter this pain, look over your shoulder and rekindle memories of God’s past faithfulness to you, to your family, to your church, to your school, or to your business. How has He acted on your behalf in recent years?
Find a song in your hymnbook, or online, that has buoyed your spirit at some point in the past, whenever you sang or heard it. Or to find a song that comforts God’s people during affliction, ask a music teacher or worship leader for titles. Then listen to the music, and sing along if you wish.
By praising Him in song for what He has already done, He will strengthen your faith for any current trial or stressor.
I realize that any list of songs that offer comfort to the hurting will omit someone’s favorite. Yet I’d be remiss if I did not give you some song titles I’m aware of that comfort during difficult times. Dr. Rod Lewis, who directs the Music program at Columbia International University, contributed to this list, as well as Hope Chenault, administrative assistant to the faculty in CIU’s Seminary and School of Ministry. I am limiting the list to five in each category.
*”God Moves In A Mysterious Way”
*”It Is Well With My Soul”
*”Like A River Glorious”
*”What A Friend We Have In Jesus”
*”How Firm A Foundation”
*”Through It All” (Andrae Crouch)
*”Humble King” (Vineyard Worship)
*”Blessings” (Laura Story)
*“Hold Me Jesus” (Rich Mullins)
*”Before the Throne of God Above” (Selah)
Lyrics Based on Biblical Texts
*”Oh God, You Are My God” (Psalm 63) Fernando Ortega
*”Hiding Place” (Psalm 32) John Michael Talbot
*”Lord, From Sorrows Deep I Call” (Psalm 42) Keith & Kristyn Getty
*”I’m Trading My Sorrows” Daryl Evans
*”Psalms” Shane & Shane Volumes 1 & 2 of songs based solely in the Psalms
I am glad that a person does not need to be musically-gifted to benefit spiritually from songs. Increasingly, music is a weapon I employ to help fight my despondency. Yet the only way I can carry a tune is to pick up a hymnal or a music CD!