Scripture commends a variety of attitudes and emotions in worship. Joy and love are prominent, of course, and we love to sing songs on those themes. Beyond that, in the Psalms, for example, we see saints trusting God through tears (e.g., Pss. 22; 42; 88). Job and the prophets likewise display sadness while falling on grace. And it’s certain that, on any given week, some in our churches are grieving. No wonder Scripture teaches it’s good to sing songs that voice both joy and sadness.
But there’s another emotion Scripture commends to us and our churches that can get neglected: reverence.
Running from Reverence
I should confess: for years I resisted songs in minor keys. They felt antiquated, even a little inappropriate, for Christians to sing—to the point I found them funny. To be sure, some lyrics are comically mismatched with melodies. But the nub of my distaste for minor-key songs wasn’t the lyrics and melody not matching; it was my desires and Scripture not matching. I don’t think I’m alone.
Western culture tends to run from reverence—afraid of anything not lighthearted, comfortable, or fun. I remember leading a Bible study with some high school guys in which I referenced the Holocaust to illustrate a point. To my shock, I heard suppressed laughter. Certainly, lack of life experience and perspective contributed to their discomfort. But it’s also indicative of our culture’s attitude toward reverance. So many of us want God to be our friend but not our sovereign. We accept his transcendence, but we love his immanence.
So many of us want God to be our friend but not our sovereign. We accept his transcendence, but we love his immanence.
The Bible summons us to “be sober-minded” (1 Pet. 5:8), but many of us struggle with this. John Piper explains,
Sober-mindedness is the demeanor that corresponds to the weight of the things of life, the great things of life. It is possible to be sober-minded and have elements of humor in our life. But it’s hard to be sober-minded and at the same time be the kind of person that we’ve all met, who is obsessed with being funny, so obsessed that he’s incapable of serious moments. He is actually allergic to them. If a serious moment starts to happen, they’re the first to break the mood with some pun or something. They’re just emotionally incapable of relaxing and enjoying seriousness.
Silliness can impede our ability to show healthy reverence for God—to appreciate the weight of his glory, holiness, and love. But reverence is a healthy and deeply biblical emotion.
Songs for Every Occasion
In Isaiah 6, when Isaiah saw God’s glory fill the temple and felt the ground shake as cherubim sang “Holy, holy, holy,” I doubt an upbeat melody came to mind. When Peter fell at Jesus’s feet saying, “Depart from me” (Luke 5:8), or when the disciples hid their faces at his dazzling appearance atop the mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–6), my hunch is any notes coming out of their mouths would be in a minor key.
The sound of a major key chord gives a sense of comfort and rest; it’s what we expect to hear. But because of the melodic dissonance that make up minor keys, they evoke gravity, tension or sadness. This musical dissonance helps instill in Christians a healthy reverence because of the great dissonance there is between God and us. It’s a “he’s not safe, but he’s good” kind of feeling. Or to quote C. S. Lewis:
An impersonal God—well and good. A subjective god of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—that’s fine. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing cops and robbers hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he had found us?
Does your worship reflect the reassuring yet alarming truth that the one and only living God has found us? Does your church sing anything that would’ve been appropriate to sing in the boat after Jesus calmed the storm and the disciples were dumbstruck by his power? Would any of your church’s songs have fit in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus sweated drops of blood?
Silliness can impede our ability to show healthy reverence for God—to appreciate the weight of his glory, holiness, and love.
I could picture Isaiah in the temple fumbling through “A Sovereign Protector I Have.” The shepherds, peering breathlessly at God incarnate lying in a manger, could have sung “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.” Had we been present at the harrowing scene of Jesus staggering under the weight of our sin in Gethsemane, we could have sung “O Christ, What Burdens Bowed Thy Head.” When Peter was restored by Christ after betraying him three times, he could have lifted up his voice with “What Wondrous Love Is This.”
My point isn’t that those hymns alone are fitting for meditating on the majesty, redemption, and love of God. I’m also not advocating for minor-key songs exclusively, or even mostly. But I do fear that completely neglecting weightier melodies and lyrics will leave us deficient in spiritual maturity.
Let’s not be emotionally two-dimensional Christians. Let’s not neglect the minor key when we gather to sing God’s praise.
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