singing praise with your spirit as well as your mind

Something jumped out a me at church yesterday as we read the first half of 1 Corinthians 14 together.

I’d always read this passage as simply asserting the primacy of the ‘horizontal’ or corporate dimension (relative to the ‘vertical’ or individual aspect) of any activity done in the context of the church gathering.

As I understood Paul’s train of thought, instruction is the main game when we gather together.

But I’m starting to have second thoughts about this.

My rethink has been triggered by the perennially controversial issue of congregational singing.

Obviously enough, speaking in tongues is the presenting issue in the passage. But Paul moves towards generalisation as the argument progresses — explicitly mentioning singing in verse 15.

Understood the way I always have, the principle Paul elaborates here would seem to suggest that congregational singing must prioitise intelligible lyrics that maximise the potential to instruct one another so the body is built up.

And since instructive content is such an outright priority, being personally stirred or lifted up as we sing comes in a very distant second.

Yet when Paul turns explicitly to the issue of singing, he doesn’t come across as anywhere near so black and white (verses 14-17):

[I]f I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up.

Singing God’s praise in the company of his people is meant to move us and lift our hearts even as it speaks to the mind — whether it’s instructing, reminding, giving voice to gratitude, or expressing our deepest longings and aspirations.

Maybe this is old news to you. But it’s kind of a breakthrough for me…



  1. Amen. But I think I was more of the old news camp here — mainly because of a reassessment of the psalms as ’emotion-language’ for us to express the ups and downs of life under God. … Which brings me to my own breakthrough recently when I learned that our church has a list of 25 songs that the band knows and they cycle through over a three month period. They argue that having too many songs makes it hard going for the congregation to remember. However, it made me think, if singing corporately should match in some way our emotional and mindful response to the spoken or preached word of God then is a list of 25 songs diverse enough for all the possible modes of expression we might need corporately in song? … If you consider that not every song is entirely mutual exclusive of all other songs on either the propositional or emotional dimensions (permit that for a moment, I think perhaps the Bible never wants such a sharp distinction of terms) then the subset of modes you end up is surely far short of what’s needed. If God gave us 150 Psalms to do the job, and we know from history (or perhaps just other churches around the city) that man is capable of remembering the tune of perhaps 100 church songs, then what of our lists?

    Seen in this way, the method for building up a church repertoire will probably try and balance these two goals … Diversity of mode/emotion and limitedness of human capabilities.

    Ps — I think the song list should be dynamic too … Giving your creative types the remit to write new songs, or rediscover old ones and bring into the fold seems to me a great way to build leadership and maturity in the creative ministries..

    1. Hi Simon. Fascinating thoughts!

      I wonder if your mention of the Psalms holds something of a key. The diversity of the Psalter not only reflects the breadth of responses we may be called to make to God’s word. It also seems to have a definite ‘shape’.

      This shape is partly dictated by its overarching theology — drawing together the strands of Israel’s faith and hope and focusing initially on the Davidic dynasty/Messiah, then (after the disillusionment of Psalm 89) more explicitly on God himself stepping in to do the Messiah’s anticipated job. But it’s also (more obviously, say, in the case of the ‘Psalms of Ascent’) tied to the rhythms of Israelite worship — their particular Sabbaths, festivals, pilgrimages, etc.

      So maybe one way of balancing the two goals you speak of could be to follow some sort of liturgical calendar (as many hymnbooks of used to do)?

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