I remember first playing a piano at age 6, some 58 years ago now. Throughout high school I was involved with choirs and earned a piano performance degree in college. Following that, I spent eight years traveling full-time with a Christian band.
Since leaving the band in 1984, I’ve served as a worship pastor and have continued to write and arrange songs for the past forty years. iTunes tells me I have over 100 days of music in my library that includes pop, classical, jazz, rock, gospel, rap, folk, country, indie, choral, orchestral, and more.
You might say music is a significant part of my life. And you’d be right.
God’s Gift of Music
Music is a gift from God that can lift our spirits, comfort us, join us in a common mission, serve as a place of refuge during difficult times, encourage us, express what’s in our hearts, and touch us deeply, sometimes more than words can say.
I’m especially grateful for music in the church. Allowing for the fact that it’s not always sublime, I can’t count the times I’ve been singing with a congregation and been deeply affected, even moved to tears. The Spirit has a way of making his presence known when we’re singing together (Ephesians 5:18–19).
Our Common Struggle
But as much as I love music, I’ve realized it’s possible to confuse feelings produced by music with feelings produced by truth. Some sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine was brutally honest about that struggle in his Confessions. He acknowledged the benefits of singing and listening to others sing, and said it might even inspire feelings of devotion in weaker spirits. But then he admitted, “When I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.”
“It’s possible to confuse feelings produced by music with feelings produced by truth.”
If a spiritual giant like Augustine struggled with valuing musically-induced feelings over spiritual ones, we probably will too. But I don’t think many of us would see that as a “grievous sin.” Maybe we should.
In addressing how to sing, Paul said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). We aren’t to let musical experiences dwell in us richly. Not technological creativity, volume, skill, excellence, or an “atmosphere.” We’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.
The “word of Christ” is the message about him we often call “the gospel.” It’s the good news that Jesus Christ took on flesh so he could bear our sins and punishment to justify us before God and bring us into his family. Those truths are meant to dwell in us richly as we sing.
Why Jesus Is Better
If we’re honest, though, musical sounds can easily push the word of Christ to the outer edges of our hearts. And when they do, a gift becomes an idol. How do we know that’s happening? From my experience, here are some indicators:
- We tend to respond emotionally more to arrangements and instruments than content.
- Singing on Sundays often feels boring.
- We care more about how songs make us feel than what they say.
- We actually don’t think much about what we’re singing.
- We have a hard time connecting with God apart from music. Especially music we like.
If one or more of those statements is true of you, I have good news: music is great, but Jesus is greater. Consider five reasons why.
1. The Giver is better than any gift.
One Christmas, I surprised my wife with a large dining room table. When she saw it — I’ll never forget her response — she ran over to the table and started hugging it, caressing it, kissing it, saying over and over, “Oh, table, I love you. I love you.”
Just kidding. But she did do that to me! It’s foolish to treasure music so much we lose sight of Jesus. Paul says we’re to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). We’re to view the music as rubbish (or worse) compared to Jesus.
Even greater than the gift is knowing and loving the Giver.
2. Eternal comfort is better than temporary.
Who hasn’t turned to their favorite playlist, artist, or song to find encouragement in a time of difficulty, sorrow, or loss?
But music isn’t Jesus. Only he can give lasting, profound, life-transforming comfort. In 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17, Paul prays, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”
Who comforts us? Jesus Christ. By what means? The eternal comfort and good hope of grace. If singing or listening to worship music doesn’t lead us into a clearer, deeper, truer relationship with Jesus, it’s misleading us.
3. The Truth is better than the pointer.
The harmonies, rhythms, melodies, arrangements, dynamics, textures, and sounds of music can inspire us and move us. They can motivate us to greater effort or calm us during turbulent times.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good — better even than his best of gifts.”
But music itself can’t articulate the amazing news that “Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free.” Nor can mere melodies lead us to understand that “He’ll not let my soul be lost; his promises shall last.” On its own, music will never replace the granite facts and eternal realities in which we place our faith. Those can only be found in Jesus, the living Word.
4. Actual unity is better than feelings of unity.
It’s a powerful experience to sing at the top of your lungs in the midst of a crowd. Everyone knows the lyrics, no one is distracted, and the feeling of oneness is overwhelming. But unlike music, Jesus actually makes us one. And our singing expresses that unity Jesus decisively made possible through the cross (Ephesians 2:14–15).
And by the way, singing together with other believers is massively different from singing at a rock concert, sporting event, or karaoke party. And if we don’t know the difference, we’re probably valuing music over Jesus.
5. Only Jesus can save.
Music can’t pay for our sins and reconcile us to God. Jesus can.
Music can’t raise us from the dead. Jesus can.
Music can’t defeat Satan. Jesus can.
Music can’t bring us into God’s presence. Jesus can.
Music can’t transform our hearts. Jesus can.
Music can’t restore our losses. Jesus can.
Music can’t ensure we will enjoy pleasures at God’s right hand forever. Jesus can — and has.
We’re only tempted to see music as greater than Jesus because we haven’t realized how great Jesus really is.
Take a Full Swing
So, what steps can we take to cultivate a love for Jesus that is greater than our love for music?
We might more intentionally focus on the lyrics that we’re singing, rather than the accompaniment. When we’re feeling discouraged or anxious, we can dig into the words of a biblical psalm before putting on our headphones. We can try not listening to music when we’re driving and simply pray or recite Scripture.
Whatever we do, it’s worth the fight. Jonathan Edwards encourages us with these words:
If we choose Christ for our friend and portion, we shall hereafter be so received to him, that there shall be nothing to hinder the fullest enjoyment of him, to the satisfying the utmost cravings of our souls. We may take our full swing at gratifying our spiritual appetite after these holy pleasures. Christ will then say, as in [Song of Songs] 5:1, “Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.” And this shall be our entertainment to all eternity! There shall never be any end of this happiness, or any thing to interrupt our enjoyment of it.
We cannot fill ourselves too full with the glory of Christ, even in eternity. Are you ready to take your “full swing” at being satisfied in Jesus? Then I encourage you to let music take its rightful place as the gift from God it was meant to be. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8) — better even than the best of his gifts.