I’ve heard it said that every Christian is a theologian. The question isn’t whether you are or aren’t one, but whether you are a good theologian or a poor one. Similarly, every believer is called to be disciple-maker. The question isn’t whether or not we’re called to make disciples, but whether we’re making strong, healthy disciples or weak, shaky ones. We recognize that discipleship is happening in small groups, Sunday School classes, and in one-on-one meetings over coffee. Certainly we would affirm that discipleship is happening as Christians soak up the Scriptures through hearing the word preached. We don’t often talk about the rest of a worship service in the same way, though.
Everything we do as the body gathered, whether following written liturgies or informal ones, hearing pastoral prayers or laundry lists of announcements, tells us something about who we are. This is especially true of the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs we sing together. Music, with an inherent power invested by its Creator, has a rare ability to shape our identity as disciples—as well as our vision of who we can become.
It is especially important, then, for worship pastors and planners to consider how they are making disciples as they prepare for Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. They must be in touch with their people, not just their principles, as they pray and plot. Leading a church through expressions of worship is an extension of that church’s shepherding ministry.
Many Christians will come into a corporate worship service struggling with clinical anxiety or depression. Others are wracked with guilt and shame from sins they’ve committed—or sins committed against them. These wounds may be from the previous six days; they might be from the distant past but feel as fresh as when they were first inflicted.
We want to always lead our fellow disciples to hope in Christ, and to truths that transcend our present realities. Yet we do our brothers and sisters a disservice when we skip steps, moving past grief, pardon, and assurance to triumph and celebration.
As you consider what your church needs to sing this Sunday, or over the course of an entire season of its life, here are four types of songs that can lift the spirits of anxious or hurting disciples.
#1 – SONGS OF LAMENT
Author and scholar Carl Trueman once wrote of the Western church’s failure to sing the entire Bible. He was especially surprised that, given their musical nature, we don’t do a great job of singing the Psalms. The Psalms give us a beautiful model for bringing our laments to God.
Lament is a necessary part of living as a Christian in a broken world, and we should regularly grieve together. The Christians in your church are lamenting individually, whether they call it that or not; our willingness—or lack thereof—to lament as a body communicates something powerful about the perceived rightness or wrongness of that discipline.
We might not preach the prosperity gospel within the walls of our churches, but when we only sing the shiniest, happiest parts of our faith, we run two serious risks.
First, we risk communicating to the hurting among us that they are wrong or defective in some way. They bring their lamentations with them into a worship service. If they are met only with songs that seem to say Christian living is all about joy and fulfillment, it can be devastating.
We also risk communicating something unhelpful to a second group of believers, the one that seems to be doing just fine. There is something good and right about naming our grief and yearning, and laying it at the feet of God. When we don’t make room for corporate lament, we reinforce the idea that it’s just not a necessary part of the Christian life.
That’s why we need songs like Brian Eichelberger’s “Raise Up Your Head.” It follows the path of the psalmist who regularly described his fears and failures, then—even in weak faith and through gritted teeth—just as often reaffirmed what he knew to be true about God.
Eichelberger’s lyrics call Christians to “straighten up” and raise up their heads, to acknowledge that the kingdom of God is imminent. But not before asking “Does your body feel broken? Like a soul stuck to skin? Have you sunken in sorrow from the affects of your sin?” And not before describing the sorry state of the world around us or acknowledging that “all creation is groaning in childbirth pains,” a direct reference to Romans 8:22.
We fear lament, in part, because we fear our people getting stuck there. We act like anyone who admits their depression, sadness, or hurt will be lost to it forever. That’s just not biblical. As the church, we live out our responsibility to one another by modeling what it looks—and sounds like—to lament, then raise up our heads to see our God.
#2 – SONGS OF SURRENDER
Saints suffering from depression and anxiety are, in a sense, more in touch than anyone with the truth that they are not enough to save themselves. They are confronted daily with their inadequacies.
There are two directions to go with that. One leads to despair, defeat, and further spiraling; the other to a glorious surrender. One turns its gaze inward at our broken parts. The other turns our eyes to Jesus, leads us to throw our hands up in the air, put our knees on the floor, and ask God to be everything we lack.
There is arguably no better song of surrender than the classic hymn “Rock of Ages.” Consider these beautiful admissions, these glorious confessions that cast all a soul’s cares on Christ:
- “Not the labor of my hands can fulfill Thy law’s demands.”
- “Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
- “Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to Thy cross I cling / Naked, come to Thee for dress / Helpless, look to Thee for grace.”
- “Wash me Savior, or I die.”
And of course, the words we sing over and again, “Let me hide myself in Thee.” To the hurting and anxious, few images are more comforting than that of hiding ourselves in God. There we hear the Father say “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
#3 – “NO CONDEMNATION” SONGS
One of the most beautiful judgments in Scripture is no judgment at all. Romans 8:1 declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” While sin is a clear and present danger to our souls, and must be dealt with as such, we do well to agree with God and acknowledge that Christ has removed our sins from our record. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
As someone who lives with anxiety, I am quick to rehearse my past mistakes. Some spring from legitimate sins Jesus dealt with on the cross. Others don’t rise to that level, but still loom large in my heart. I think over and over about things I didn’t say, wish I hadn’t said, or things I wish I’d said differently. I stew, sometimes to the point of obsession, about my perceived failures. I need to sing—and hear sung around me—songs that saturate me in the truths of Romans 8:1.
One song that has made a felt difference is John Mark McMillan’s popular “How He Loves.” Near its end, we find this beautiful verse:
“When heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss / And my heart turns violently inside of my chest / I don’t have time to maintain these regrets / When I think about the way that He loves us.”
My anxiety and guilt, real as they are, get crowded out when confronted by the deep, deep love of Jesus. What a beautiful reminder that there is little time to sit around steeped in regret when the God of the universe loves me so well and with such genuine passion.
#4 – SONGS THAT POINT TO THE END OF THE STORY
When reading a novel or watching a movie, it’s not a great idea to turn immediately to the last page or fast forward to the last five minutes. Talk about spoiling it.
The Christian life is a wholly different thing. We have to know the end of the story to live faithfully in the present. We need to meditate on the truth of Christ’s victory. We need to run our fingers over the passages of Scripture that serve as a “save the date” for the wedding supper of the Lamb. When we do, we are stirred to embrace our place in the story even as it unfolds around us.
Christians struggling with depression or plagued by guilt need to hear what awaits them. They need to be reminded of who God says they are, not just who they feel like today. They need to understand that, while they are works in progress, the end result is promised.
A great song toward these ends is “Completely Done” by Jonathan Baird, Ryan Baird, and Rich Gunderlock. The words are a beautiful marriage of Philippians 1:6—“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”—and the 24th verse of Jude, which reminds us that God is able to keep us in his love and hold us in his secure grip.
My favorite passage in the song says “What you complete is completely done.” Amen and amen. If it were up to me, I would stay an unfinished man, perpetually in process. But God has completed his work in me, yet is simultaneously bringing it to completion. That truth bucks against—and ultimately triumphs over—any self-talk that tells me I’ll never make it to the finish line or ever experience victory in my struggle with sin.
Of course, these songs aren’t the only ones to fit these categories. The Christian canon is overflowing with examples of songs that are good for the souls of the anxious, depressed, hurting, grief- and guilt-stricken. I am thankful beyond measure that my church sings each of the songs mentioned above—and then some.
A significant part of our corporate worship services is to prepare disciples to be disciples the other six days of the week. Singing songs like these communicates that they are not left alone, that both God and their fellow Christians are with and for them. And these songs equip them with truths they need to fight back against the lies they can easily swallow whole—all set to melodies they can hum in their hearts all week long.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri, where he also serves Karis Church as a lay pastor. Find his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites and follow him on Twitter: @aarikdanielsen.