Using Music to Mature the Emotions
If churches want to establish mature believers, then they must aim at the whole of man, including his emotions. God has given man music as a tool to help him express his emotions. Any casual reader of Scripture will recognize the clear connection between music and emotional expression. Here are just a few examples:
How did Moses and the people of Israel express their joy in being delivered from Egypt? “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD : “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted” (Ex 15.1)
When the Israelites defeated the Canaanites in Judges 5, they sang a song: “ ‘Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I will sing to the LORD, I will sing; I will make music to the LORD, the God of Israel.
When David wanted to express a broken and contrite heart to the Lord, he did so through music in Psalm 51.
In Psalm 108, David specifically says that he will sing and make music with his soul, linking music and the expression of emotions.
Psalm 147 says that we should express our thanksgiving through song. And of course the Psalms are filled with commands to express our affection and praise to the Lord through music.
Ephesians 5.19 says that we are to sing and make melody with our hearts to the Lord.
In Acts 16 when Paul and Silas were in prison and probably fearful for their lives, what did they do? They sang hymns to God.
James 5.13 says: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.”
And the fact of the matter is that we will be singing as an expression of our affection for God for all eternity (Rev 5.13)!
Scarcely is there a mention of music in the Bible without some connection to emotion. If anything is clear from the Bible’s discussions of music, it is that God thinks that music is important. So should we. Music provides a language for a right expression of emotion, and good music actually educates our emotions so they develop to maturity. This is why those who say that the purpose of music in the church is simply to teach or affirm truth are completely missing the function of music. Certainly church music can do this to a certain extent, but if our only purpose is to teach truth, then there are many far better ways to do so. Preaching, teaching, reciting doctrinal statements, etc., are far better suited to expressing propositional truth than poetry and music. This confusion may be the reason music is viewed with so much indifference in churches. If our only goal is to teach and affirm truth through music, then to most people, music seems to fail–and they are probably right. But music is not incidental; music is not just something nice that we have to accompany truth. We should view music in the church as that which helps us express our affections and that which teaches us what are affections should be.
Music as Expression of Emotion
As Christians consider truth and righteousness, they should respond with their affections. This is the essence of worship–both in a general, everyday sense and in a congregational worship setting. It is often difficult for us, however, to know exactly how to express those affections. This is especially true if we limit ourselves to expressing our affections with only words. As we saw earlier, words are unable to adequately express what we feel. Church music–that is, poetry and music–provides us with the language we are lacking in the expression of our affections. So in a church service, as we contemplate truth and goodness, we use music to help us take the next step and respond with our affections.
Now, it is important again to acknowledge the interconnectedness of mind, will, and emotion. Emotion for its own sake is not what we’re after. Many contemporary churches have it right when they insist that expression of emotion is a critical part of the church’s work. However, they often have a misunderstanding of emotion and end up focusing on emotion for its own sake apart from the necessary connection to biblical truth. Our emotions must be connected to biblical truth.
Fundamental churches have historically erred in the opposite direction, viewing expression of emotion as somehow inferior to the intellect or morality. We must view emotion on the same level as truth and morality. Did not Christ say that the greatest commandment was expression of affection to God? But even here emotion is intricately connected to truth and goodness, for if we love God, we will keep His commandments. So while we must move toward a better focus on our emotional maturity, we must be careful that our emotions are connected to biblical truth and moral goodness.
Music as Teacher of Emotion
No passage better illustrates this point of music as a teacher of the emotions than Colossians 3.16:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Notice that it says that we should teach and admonish each other with music. Now I do not doubt that the teaching here involves using the words to teach truth and goodness as well. But I believe that the primary part of man that is being taught by music is his emotions. This is evidenced by the phrase, “with gratitude in your hearts,” and in the parallel passage, Ephesians 5, “sing and making music in your heart.” Music helps us obey the command in Ephesians 4 and mature believers’ emotions by actually teaching them.
We can see this kind of thing evidenced in Scripture. When Saul was in a terrible emotional state, David used music to change and mature his emotions (1 Sam 16:23). When Paul and Silas were in prison, they used hymns to lift their spirits (Acts 16:25).
So this is why we use music in church: First, we use music to help us express right affection to the Lord. When we respond to truth, music helps us respond with our affections when we might not otherwise have the right words to say. Second, good music educates our emotions and tells us what we should be feeling. When we don’t know what kind of affection we should have or when we actually have the wrong kinds of emotions, good music can teach us what kind of affection is right.
We can draw several very important implications from these truths about the purpose of music in the Christian’s life, and more specifically, in the life of our church:
- Just as we should be striving to increase in our intellectual understanding of truth and our moral capacity for goodness, so should we be seeking to improve our emotional expressions to God. We rightly make much of striving to grow doctrinally and in holiness, but we also need to make emotional development a priority as well. We should make this a priority for our children. It is a tragedy that music education has been largely removed from the schools. Music education used to be mandatory, because people realized that music helped develop the whole person–mind, will, and emotions. But our society has lost that vision. Therefore, it remains for the church to take up this responsibility and educate our families in music.
- Just as church leadership has the responsibility to teach the congregation in areas of truth and goodness, so it has the responsibility to teach them concerning their emotions. The pastoral leadership of a church makes decisions regarding what kind of truth and what kind of holiness they will teach. But they also must make decisions concerning what kinds of emotions they will teach, and this primarily has to do with what music they choose. The congregation, then, should submit to the leadership’s decisions regarding truth, goodness, and emotion; and strive to grow in these areas. Another great tragedy that has occurred in our society is that we do not insist that pastors be musically trained. This has not always been the case. In fact, the great reformer Martin Luther said, “Neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have been well exercised in music.” Luther was scornful of those who “want to be theologians when they cannot even sing.” One of the biggest reasons church music in our society is shallow and debauched is that most, if not all, pastors are completely ignorant when it comes to music. We need to mandate music training in Bible college and seminary because pastors are just as responsible for the emotional maturity of their people as they are their people’s doctrinal and moral maturity.
- Just as not all emotion is appropriate for expression to God, so not all music is appropriate. Not all forms of emotion are appropriate for expression to God. Our affections should be connected to truth, and they should be right and wholesome. We would never express love for our spouse in the same way that we would express love for our dog. Likewise, we should never express love to God in the same way that we would express love for our spouse. The same is true for many emotions, and each of us is responsible to think through what kinds of emotions are appropriate for God. And it is especially the responsibility of church leaders to make decisions about what emotions are appropriate for worship. Since music serves as an expression and teaches of emotion, it is therefore true as well that not all music is appropriate. We should use only that music which helps us express right emotions and teaches us to have better affection for God.
- Singing in church is not optional. Listening to preaching is not optional. Reciting doctrinal statements or reading Scripture is not optional. Being holy is not optional. Loving God is not optional. Neither is singing optional for believers. We should be concerned about our minds, wills, and emotions. Therefore, we should listen attentively to preaching and teaching, we should participate with eagerness when we read Scripture or recite doctrinal statements, and we should strive to educate our emotions through the music in church services. Our churches are filled with people who do not know how to rightly express affection to God because they refuse to participate in the music of the church. Someone who has doctrinal and moral maturity but no emotional maturity is an immature Christian. This is a great need in our churches.
- The music we consume outside the church is also important–it, too, shapes our emotions. We’ve talked much about music in the church, but all music shapes our emotions. This is why we must be concerned about what kind of music we listen to and perform at any time. If you have as your musical diet music that debases your affections, then you are disobeying God’s commands to mature your emotions. You must be very critical of the music you listen to. You should only perform and listen to music that actually helps your spiritual walk and matures your emotions. You should choose the best music that teaches you what kinds of emotions you should have as a mature believer. This is the main reason many people have difficulty with good music in churches today. If all people listen to six days out of the week is debasing music, then it’s no wonder they cannot appreciate good music that expresses right emotion. Rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and country western music contain debased emotional expression that Christians should avoid. On the other hand, legitimate folk music and classical music can educate a person’s affections and make them more mature.
God commands the church to establish mature believers. This means that the church must aim at the whole of man–mind, will, and emotions. Therefore, our doctrine must be right, our teaching of holiness must be right, and our music must be right. Music is important to God; it should be important to His church as well.
Scott Aniol is an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL. He received a bachelor’s degree in church music at Bob Jones University. He did graduate work in choral conducting and church music history at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois. He earned a master’s degree in Musicology at Northern Illinois University and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota. He maintains a website to encourage the development and expression of ordinate affection to the Lord: www.ReligiousAffections.org.