Fanny Crosby, the queen of gospel songs (and a woman whose faithfulness to the Gospel one can merely aspire to) once said, “It is not enough to have a song on your lips. You must also have a song in your heart.”
Now, you and I can glance at that quote and think it’s cheesy. A quote like that belongs on a coffee mug sitting on the desk of a high school choir director, or cross-stitched somewhere at your grandmother’s house. But when you pause and think about it, you have to ask yourself: what does it mean to have a song in your heart? How many songs do you sing or hear that don’t resonate in your soul? Seriously, how much of the stuff you listen to on the radio, Spotify, or even sometimes sing at church, rolls through your mind and voice like a scrolling Facebook timeline, temporarily interesting and enjoyable, but forgotten the second it’s over?
I look at that Crosby quote, and it’s true. I’ve seen what songs look like when they’re in the heart, songs that people listen to or sing and think, “This is not only true of what I’ve seen in my life, but it moves my soul, and I’m thankful for it.”
In my lifetime, no type of song has so often portrayed a “song in our heart” like a Christian hymn. I’ve gotten a particularly good look at this through the lens of the band I play drums in, Citizens & Saints. We started about five years ago in a local Seattle church, both writing original music and rearranging old hymns, and we’ve had the opportunity to play in different churches, clubs, bars, and theaters all over the country. What’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed? It’s a whole new ballgame when hymns begin.
The main point I want to make in this article is that, whether sitting at home listening or in a pew singing, hymns are incredible gifts from God to us. In a day where our culture wants newer and more “relevant” content across the board, hymns are often overlooked and forgotten. One of the most frequent comments we get from people goes something like, “I really appreciate how many hymns you guys do. You don’t hear those very often these days.”
For the rest of this, I’d love to lay out some observations I’ve discovered while playing hymns and hearing people’s stories of listening to them. I’m no expert, and my aim is not to say that hymns are better than other songs or somehow superior to other music. My hope is instead that we would look at great hymns as the treasures they are and sing them, listen to them, meditate on them, and hold them in our hearts (and congregations) forever.
1. Good hymns come directly from Scripture.
There are thousands of people in the world right now trying to write worship songs that hit us in the heart. Many fall short, and some get close, but nothing speaks to our hearts as directly and as thoroughly as the word of God. Hymns are crucial because they’re rich in God’s truth, not our emotions. This is one of the main characteristics that give them such immense power—they are pulled from the words of the real life, real world circumstances of those who wrote books of the Bible. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” was written in 1923, and echoes this out of Lamentations 3:22-24:
“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”
Here’s the Scripture referenced:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘Therefore I will hope in Him.’”
The lyrics in “All Creatures Of Our God and King” were written in 1225 (year 1225!), and later put to music. The aim of this hymn is to reflect Psalm 148. Once again, the lyrics:
“All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
O praise Him! O Praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
And the scripture:
“Praise Him, sun and moon,
Praise Him, all you shining stars!
Praise Him, you highest heavens,
And you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For He commanded and they were created.
And He established them forever and ever;
He gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
You great sea creatures and all deeps,
Fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling His word!”
“How Great Thou Art” paraphrases Psalm 8. “Holy, Holy, Holy” draws from Revelation 4:1-11. “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less” comes right out of 1 Corinthians 10:4 and Isaiah 26. It’s no wonder we feel our hearts begin to fill when we sing hymns together. We’re singing the word of God!
2. They’re timeless.
All the hymns you know are older and more famous than the people who wrote them. I don’t think Fanny Crosby, John Newton, Robert Robinson, Thomas Chisholm, or Carl Gustav Boberg would have it any other way. (Bonus points to you if you know more than two of those names, because I didn’t until I wrote this.) It should take our breath away that these songs have spanned centuries. “Come Thou Fount,” for example, is older than The United States Of America. God gave us His gloriously mysterious ability to create, and these hymn writers birthed songs that would outlive their grandchildren’s grandchildren. And why are they still popular? Because the Spirit was at work in these songs then, and still is today.
3. They’re cross-generational.
When I think about my favorite parts of being in our band, one of the first things I think about is when we sing a hymn like “How Great Thou Art” or “Nothing But The Blood.” When I look out into whatever room we’re playing and see folks in their 70’s singing loudly and worshiping God along with kids in their 20’s, I’ll tell you what—it’s not our arrangement they’re worshiping. These songs are in their blood. They’ve lived, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand / all other ground is sinking sand.” They’ve lived, “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided / Great is Thy Faithfulness, Lord, unto me!” And they’re sharing that moment with those of us that are younger, who aren’t always sure that what we’re singing is true. The voices of older generations singing these hymns are a testament to younger generations just realizing what these lyrics even mean, and it proves the love and power and steadfastness of God. It is a glorious thing, and its ability to relate cuts across all music genres and preferences.
4. They help men sing.
This point differs depending on the state, culture, and denomination of a given church, but in a great many churches across the country, men do not sing. There are several reasons why, but one of them is this: the songs they’re being led to sing sound like they’re destined for a coffee shop’s open mic night. Now, I’m not begrudging softer, love song-ier worship music, for that music can speak to men and women alike. But let’s be honest, there’s a big difference between “Good Good Father” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” I’m not knocking our boy Tomlin, but I am saying that the majority of worship music today—the kind that stands in the “love song/feel good” territory—isn’t enough. But it’s positive and encouraging, right? The problem is that we’re at war with our sin, and when you’re fighting a war, you need more than love songs. Many hymns stand for us as fight songs. They give us honest words, not flowery ones. They proclaim the powerful might of a God who has gone to the depths of Hell and back for His people. They capture the size and scale and depth and breadth of God’s love for us, and the firmness and fierceness by which He keeps us in His hand.
“The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake!”
- How Firm A Foundation, 1787
Men and women open their hearts and open their voices for hymns that speak to the reality of the world. When something is that relatable, how can you not?
5. They help bandage our sorrows and proclaim God’s victories in our lives.
If you’ve stood at a funeral and sang “It Is Well With My Soul,” you’ve felt the power of a hymn’s ability to be a song in your heart. Hymns are some of the sweetest things the Lord uses to bind up the brokenhearted. They also help us amplify our gratitude for God’s constant and close work in our lives. A couple years ago my wife made a sign for our house that sits above an entryway in our kitchen. She painted, “Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side,” from the great hymn “Be Still My Soul.” It is amazing to me how that simple reminder, through a lyric, has daily gone to the core of my heart and calmed it often. At the church we used to play at in Seattle, we would often play “There Is A Fountain” during baptism Sundays. I have vivid memories of playing loudly, yet hearing the congregation bellow louder, “And sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains!” as those being baptized exemplified the lyrics before our eyes. Those are days you don’t forget, where new believers cry as they celebrate that God has bought them back to Himself. You don’t forget days where families weep for joy as they see God transform their loved ones. You don’t forget the sound of friends shouting praises to the Lord as they look on, unable to contain the thankfulness in their hearts. It makes me tear up just remembering it.
6. There are so many hymns worth singing, waiting to be rediscovered.
Old hymnals are gold mines. The historical words of our brothers and sisters ring true to our lives far more often than not. If you’ve given up on some of them because the melodies or song structures seem too dated, consider our story of “In Tenderness He Sought Me,” or as we simply call it, “In Tenderness.” W. Spencer Walton wrote this hymn in 1894, and for the most part this was a hymn rarely known, let alone sung. When our band was in its early stages we kept the words as they were, but tweaked the melody a bit.
Check this out, here’s my man Bill Gaither and his armchair squad singing the older version:
And here’s ours:
Now, the point is not that our version is better; many may prefer the older one. The point is that these words are stronger than the music that associates them. This has become one of our more popular songs over the years, and most people have no idea they’re singing words that were written in 1894. What a testament to the faithfulness and truth of Walton’s original words, that they stand just as true for men and women 120 years later! Across all of time, although our hearts may be different, they are much more the same. Walton’s circumstances were no doubt very different than ours in 2016, but at a heart level, the level that God cares about most, we are fighting the same battle and running the same race as Walton, Martin Luther, Augustine, the Apostle Paul, the woman at the well, and so on.
Lastly, and to again clarify, I don’t think having “a song in your heart” is simply a Christian privilege. Part of the power of creating and sharing music as human beings, regardless of what you believe, is that songs connect us in crazy and mysterious ways at a heart level. The difference for us as Christians is that, because of Jesus, the songs in our heart are everlasting. “Amazing Grace” will never get old because it will never not be true, and songs like that are worth being shared and sung often by the children of God.
Adam Skatula works as an A&R rep at Tooth & Nail/ Solid Sate Records in Seattle, Washington. He is the drummer for Seattle based band Citizens & Saints. He and his wife Amy recently moved to Littleton, Colorado where they attend Calvary Church in Englewood.