No one, it seems, prays as frequently or as fervently as they would like. The Christians in my life, including the Christian writing this article, often consider their prayer lives disappointing and discouraging.
And so I was excited to find some encouragement for prayer from one whom many might think an unlikely person: John Calvin. Calvin may be more widely known for his dour (and biblical) assessment of humanity than for his pep-talk motivations, but given the discouragement we all feel about our prayers, we need all the encouragement we can get.
Many Congregational Songs Are Prayers
Here is his encouragement (taken from his Institutes 3.20.31): Calvin considers congregational songs to be sung prayers. Singing, in his sense, is a means to an end: not actually something that church attenders do as much as a way that they do something.
Consider this paradigm. Think of that song of adoration that you love to sing. That is a sung prayer of adoration. Think of a classic hymn that reminds you of God’s faithfulness. That is a sung prayer of thanksgiving. Think of that wonderful new chorus where you declare your intention to live for God. That is a sung prayer of dedication. Think of that upbeat song loved by the student ministry in your church. That is a sung prayer of celebratory delight.
Sure, not all songs can be sung prayers. Songs that are sung to other believers are best described as sung exhortations. Other songs can be sung statements of belief (creeds) or even narrative testimonial songs. But many of the songs you love to sing at church are sung prayers.
So, Calvin would say, if you love singing to God, you love to pray. Now that is encouraging.
How Singing Helps Praying
Calvin goes on to explain four ways that singing helps our prayers. First, singing our prayers helps us unite our gathered church. Calvin writes that sung public prayers are remarkable because “with one common voice, as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together.” When an entire congregation sings corporate prayers, it encourages the individual believer. Calvin writes, “We do this openly, that all men mutually, each one from his brother, may receive the confession of faith and be invited and prompted by his example.”
“Calvin would say, if you love singing to God, you love to pray.”
Second, singing our prayers helps focus our wandering thoughts. How kind of God to accommodate our wayward mental processes by giving us music! Words and song, Calvin writes, “help the human intention, which is fragile and easy to turn away if it is not confirmed in all ways, and they keep its thoughts focused on God.”
Third, singing helps inflame our withering affections. Calvin believed that sincere, hearty affections were essential for acceptable worship. He writes, “Unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring forth from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God.” Singing, both scientific and anecdotal evidence suggests, helps us engage our emotions. When melodies ascend, our hearts ascend with them. Repetition may sound unusual in our normal speech, but songs can repeat lyrics to allow our hearts to dwell on, and feel, a particular truth more deeply.
Fourth, singing our prayers helps us engage our entire bodies. Singing engages a church attender more than passive sitting and listening. Calvin argues, “The glory of God ought, in a measure, to shine in the several parts of our bodies . . . both through singing and through speaking.” Singing calls a congregation to engage vocal chords and tongues, diaphragms and lungs. And this points us toward the deep relationship between music and movement. Calvin writes that bodily expressions during prayer (including sung prayer) “are exercises whereby we try to rise to a greater reverence for God” (3.20.33).
So this weekend, as we gather for worship, let us remember that worship leaders are not simply leading a time of singing. They are leading our church in prayer. And as you adore your God and confess your faith in song, be encouraged to take those sung prayers home with you and use them in the fight of faith.