The devil covers the hook of sin with tempting bait coated in sugar. So how should we fight in the moment when our hearts are lunging toward sin? We grab for the spiritual weapons forged by God and strategies to meet temptation and make a way of escape.
But for too many of us, we ignore one of the single greatest weapons in the battle.
The Art of War
We lose against sin when we grow blind to the nature of the war. Holiness is not simply about minding the right prohibitions. The deeper reality is that sin is fought in the wrestling of our desires and wants. Our heart is a craving beast, clawing ceaselessly for something more, something new, to quench its voracious hunger pains.
Hungering for the infinite, we are creatures who have been designed to find solid joy in what endures forever, turning away from the flimsy, cheap, plastic delights offered to us by the world. All of this means that so much of the Christian life, then, boils down to the affections of our hearts.
Thomas Manton knew this well. Manton (1620–1677) remains one of the Puritan’s great thinkers and pastors. His sermon legacy — about 10,000 published pages long — is clear, powerful, and deep.
As Manton meticulously labored through Ephesians from the pulpit, he noted that the charge for Christians not to get drunk is followed by the command to worship and to take up the power of song.
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. (Ephesians 5:18–19)
The apostle Paul intentionally counters alcohol-filling with Spirit-filling and Manton labored to connect the passages in his sermon on Ephesians 5:19 (Works, 19:408–417).
The battle between the Spirit and drunkenness is a struggle of expelling the one by welcoming the other. In the war against sin, Manton discovered a mighty weapon called singing.
Expulsive Power of a New Song
In Christ, a heart not lured to the false promises of drunkenness is a heart filled with the Spirit — and a heart filled with the Spirit is a heart that sings. But you can come at it from the other side, as Manton shows. If you sing, you fill your soul with the Spirit, and by filling yourself with the presence of God, you push aside the alluring buzz of drunkenness.
Thus, not only singing together in church, but also personal singing, “subdues the lusts and passions of the flesh by diversion, or directing us to a purer and safer delight. Much of the strength of the sin lies in the sensual inclination, or the inordinate love of pleasure. Now if we can find sublime and chaste delight elsewhere, it takes us off from the unlawful pleasures of the flesh.”
That is the work of spiritual singing. Rather than getting filled with liquor, God calls us to be filled with spiritual joy, and that joy is found in musical worship. So when temptation catches our eye, and when we need a greater delight to capture our hearts, in order to reroute our heart’s attention we must tap into a great power. Singing is up for the task.
Private Singing and Unbelief
Not only in the face of lust, singing also works its power against unbelief, says Manton. Singing “inspires us with fortitude, courage, and constancy in wrestling for the truth; for singing of psalms is our exultation in God, or our making our boast of him in defiance of all worldly powers that can hurt us; as Paul and Silas when whipped and imprisoned, and many of the martyrs, raised their courage by singing of psalms” (see Acts 16:16–26).
Singing “fixes the heart upon the sweet and lively meditation of what we sing.” Singing can rivet our gaze on the preciousness of eternal glories.
Thus, “dead-hearted” singing and rote motions are really a grave loss in the Christian life. “They that joy in the Lord delight most in singing, because everything that brings God to remembrance is sweet and acceptable to them.” Singing matches the delight we know we should have in God and awakens the desires within us. Done correctly, singing is how we “keep up a holy delight in God,” says Manton, “for singing is the vent of our joy.”
Singing is the vent of our joy — I love that phrase. Singing gives vent to the affections of the heart, and like billows, the venting of affections leads to greater and greater affections, and stoking greater affections in the heart is our essential warfare against the threats of lust and unbelief.
Spiritual Life at Stake
Singing is a potent life skill. Even the world knows that singing — true, heart-engaged singing — releases oxytocin into the body, a hormone that helps to alleviate anxiety and stress, while boosting your immune system, your mood, and serving as an ally in the fight against cancer. But even more importantly, singing releases a spiritual affection that breaks apart the cancer of our most ingrained sinful habits.
Singing is one of the most immediate actions we can take to stoke our God-centered affections, and yet we grow careless of this neglected spiritual discipline.
“The song of our solitude should be full of living joy,” Charles Spurgeon told his congregation. And yet, “I am afraid there is very little private singing nowadays. We often hear talk concerning private prayer, but very seldom of private praise — and yet ought there not to be as much private praise as private prayer? I take it, from how seldom we talk about it, private thanksgiving has grown to be a sleepy affair.”
Is the same true of us? Has our drowsy neglect of private worship rusted the blade of one of our greatest weapons against our most potent sin struggles?
The negligence is easily remedied. Get an album of hymns and spiritual songs of robust truth, songs like those from Sovereign Grace Music, The Gettys, or Shane and Shane. Get to know the lyrics by heart. Weaponize your phone, make a playlist, name it “Battle Songs,” and load it with your favorite tracks.
And when the siren sounds for warfare against the sinful desires of your heart, when unbelief rears its ugliness, declare war and get in your car and drive. Or just get alone. Turn off all the other noise and talk radio and secular music and podcasts. Focus your mind on the truth of the lyrics. And sing! Fill your lungs with air and activate the billows of your affections in private worship as you fan the little spark of faith inside your heart into a great flame in the presence of the beauty and majesty of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Faced with the delight of what is really soul-deadening sinful pleasures, give your heart over to a greater delight and a sweeter affection.
Sing for your life.
Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is senior writer for Desiring God and author of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (2017), John Newton on the Christian Life (2015), and Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011). He hosts the Ask Pastor John podcast and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and three children. Link to article.