Sanctification Through Song

I am a poor singer. Like amusingly bad. I know it is amusing, because those […]

Ann Lowrey Forster / 3.13.18

I am a poor singer. Like amusingly bad. I know it is amusing, because those nearest and dearest often actually chuckle at me. No bucket is big enough for me to carry a tune in it. Though I read music well, that has never translated to making my voice do what it’s supposed to do. I’ve never had any vocal training, and my Creator did not endow me with much natural ability. I don’t even understand the vocabulary behind the use of one’s voice to make music. I am very fuzzy on the difference between finding the correct pitch and finding a right note. I’m positive that is supposed to embarrass me, but I’ve never been very good at being appropriately chagrined.

For most of my life, this meant that my participation in music at church was reluctant. In contrast, I have always loved listening to music — both in the church and out of it. My father prioritized teaching me the canon of American singer-songwriters, and he was always singing along. I know nearly every John Prine lyric written — and it has long been poetry for my soul. But, I was acutely aware of my paltry vocal contributions, and so I avoided singing audibly in any formal group setting, church services being the prime example. Pride is a powerful motivator.

When I had a gaggle of young children, I always chose hymns as my moment to leave a worship service to change a diaper. I thought I wasn’t adding value (and probably was making others’ experiences less holy or something) during that time, so it was likely a good time to scoot out.

Over the past ten years, this posture has radically changed. And a retrospective about this change provides a view into the paradigm in which I believe much of the work of sanctification happens.

Sanctification is one of those big theology words that carries a good bit of baggage. I’ll not attempt a scholarly parsing here. I’m not qualified, and as soon as I say any words, I will step on the toes of my theological betters. But, I will say sanctification happens, and it is the process of being made more like our Creator.


In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis tells the story of the creation of Narnia. Aslan the Lion, the great God-figure, sings the world into existence. Lewis is often accused of taking theological liberties in his stories (usually by people who need to be tickled). But, Aslan creating through song is not that far off a picture from the God of the Bible. God gave us a book of 150 Psalms — in which lament, praise, and thanksgiving reign — not through sermon, but through song. The minor prophet Zephaniah, often forgotten, bursts forth with a most beautiful picture of the Lord of Zion, having rescued His people:

The Lord your God is in your midst, 
a mighty one who will save; 
he will rejoice over you with gladness; 
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

We worship a God who sings over us. And to be more like Him — to be sanctified — we will sing as well. What an absurdly prodigal God — to make one of our marks of holiness the making of joyful noise. And that’s an important theological point — all sanctification is making us more joyful. The process may absolutely at times involve much pain (don’t pray for patience, someone once told me), but the actual differences wrought in us will only and always lead to more joy, peace, and contentment.  

So, how did I become a singer of the hymns of the faith in church and not just a singer of the Eagles in my Camry? Well, it wasn’t by pure miraculous imputation — I didn’t wake up Maria von Trapp one day. It also wasn’t by mustering a new year’s resolution and creating a step-by-step how-to plan. I didn’t even know of the need to change — and then I didn’t know I was falling in love with participating in sacred song. I was entirely unaware of the wooing that was happening. How does the Holy Spirit work His victories? It is dangerous to speculate about how things in the divine realm actually work. But, we can look at the human world and simply state what we see.

God has given me sacred, singing people. First of all, he gave me a saintly husband who absolutely is endowed with those natural abilities and has had a much fuller music education than I have. Paul finds pitches and hits notes and sings the tenor line of pop songs and sacred songs in the shower in the morning. He loves it and understands it. He’s far from a professionally trained vocalist, but both his competence and his enthusiasm are well above average. And, he looks so dear in his choir robe. I’ve been living with him for a while. And so, I am getting better — at both competence and enthusiasm. God has also given me music ministers who train from a place of rich knowledge, friends who love to sing God’s songs, artists who take their work seriously, and children who not only rejoice in singing, but also expect to look up and find their mother participating in worship. People help us along the way.

God has given me scripture that instructs me to sing. The psalms are full of exhortations to sing, but it’s not just our book of song which prods us on. The entirety of the Bible sends us to our voices. Most strikingly, my Lord and Savior sings a hymn on the night he is betrayed. God has given me the story of Saint Paul, who with Silas, chose to sing in jailJames likes to tell us what to do, but I only recently realized that one of his exhortations is that we should sing. Paul tells us in both Colossians and Ephesians to sing to one another — that by song, we will encourage each other. Coming to know that my singing is not only vertical but also horizontal has gradually worked on my heart for song.  God tells the truth in His Word.

God has given me things to make songs more beautiful and accessible to me. Kate Whitley over at Little Things Studio is doing the Lord’s work. At Christmas in 2014, a friend gave me one of her hymn calendars, and I haven’t gone a day since, I don’t think, without seeing beautifully inscribed hymnody hanging on my wall. Loveliness like that works its way into our sensibilities and desires. I don’t want only to look at the words — I want to sing them in my home, in my car, and in my pew.  Additionally, I became more and more exposed to great renditions of the hymns of the faith.  Artists like my dear friend Claire Holley, the saintly folks at Indelible Grace, bands like The Lower Lights, and even local church bodies like All-Saints Church have all contributed musically gorgeous versions of favorite and beautiful words. I have been drawn to those as my daily soundtrack more and more.  Beauty affects our passions.

God has given me evidence of the importance of singing His songs. I have seen singing knit together people who would otherwise have struggled to connect; I have watched my students and my children and my church all beam as they join their voices. Truths we cannot recall out of straight scripture can be recalled when that scripture is set to music. Luther rewrote Psalm 130, turning it into one of the great hymns of the faith, From the Depths of Woe. The lines to it will wrap in comfort the most downtrodden. Those lines come much more quickly to my mind when they float on a tune, and then those lines go on to encourage me or those around me. The music of poetry is important. Singing God’s songs does real, noticeable good.

And, of course, the songs themselves — as I have sung them — have gotten into my bones, and they have generated a longing to return to them over and over again. I have not only been sanctified to song, but sanctified through song. I still don’t sing well-  I won’t get tapped for choir membership in this life.  But that’s good – it wouldn’t work very well if we were all up there in the loft, would it?  However, I love to sing His songs— so much.  We have a gone to hosting quarterly hymn sings at our house, we sing from the hymnal many days as a family, singing is a big part of my devotional life, and, most importantly I’d argue, I’m committed to singing as a member of the congregation at our church. And that’s what the Holy Spirit was after in my heart.

None of this is of me. It is all of Him who promises to complete in us the good work He has begun.

We rightly talk a lot about the reality of inescapable, ever-present sin. It is a valuable voice crying in the wilderness of post-modern self-improvement. We have a sin problem and there is but one answer: resting in Christ Crucified. That sin problem isn’t going away; we are not trying to muster it away, nor are we expecting God to work an earthly fix right now. He doesn’t need us to be fixed before He can deal with us, because He deals with His people as we are, clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Sin will always be a real part of this life. But, God is sanctifying His people — He is making them more like Himself — in sweet and beautiful ways. It is important for us to recognize these changes — to see His redemptive work. He loves us where He finds us, but He doesn’t leave us there. He’s not trying to change us to make us more fit for salvation.  It is finished is the cry. But, He is changing us.

I am a wretched mess, but I am a wretched mess who has learned to sing to her God and to her fellow parishioners.   What joy that continually brings. I wonder what I’ll look back in ten years and see that He has changed? It is a sweet type of wondering — how will He work out His purposes in us? However He so chooses, He will continue to be faithful to keep his promises. Thanks be to God.