Tucked away in this oft-sung hymn of Christmas is a perennial and everyday reality – life can be a crushing load. Indeed, each of us has experienced some form of the toil, pain, and weariness depicted in these verses. The world is fallen, and its effect on us is clear and total (Romans 8:18-25). To deny this reality is to deny scripture. To deny this reality puts oneself in a hopeless situation. And pastor – to deny this reality leads the sheep under your care into a dry and weary land without water (Psalm 63:1).
As shepherds of God’s flock, we must reckon that our sheep come to church tired and broken. They might not admit it or show it, but the world has left them beleaguered. Marriages are on the brink, parents feel helpless, work is joyless, finances are drying up, loneliness abounds, persecution is growing – and to top it all off, “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). That’s the reality (albeit veiled) when your church gathers for worship and fellowship.
Since that is the actual situation, how can we best battle this ongoing discouragement looming over God’s people? Indeed, the Gospel – the message of God’s love and grace to us through Jesus Christ – is the church’s good hope and eternal comfort (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). This message saves the lost and salves the wounded. Therefore, the Gospel should be even more present in our personal and corporate lives, where we can acknowledge our great need together in life-giving community.
Equip and edify the saints
Our responsibility as pastors is to equip and edify the saints (Ephesians 4:12). We accomplish this through preaching and teaching God’s word because God has spoken. His word is life (John 6:63). Beyond proclamation, we are responsible for showing our people how to pray God’s word, see God’s word in baptism and communion, and even sing God’s word.
According to scripture, singing is a corporate activity whereby God welcomes the whole church into this responsibility of mutual care. We are to teach, challenge, and build one another up through the medium of gospel-infused song (Colossians 3:16). Dare I say that singing the Gospel together may very well be the most effective way to battle discouragement in our churches? If our flock is a field invaded by swarms of doubt and discouragement, singing together is a spiritual remedy. The saints are under attack from within and without. Don’t we want to blanket them with the lasting cure?
Therefore, take into great consideration the songs you sing with your people. They come hungry. What are you feeding them? What words are you putting into their mouths? These words will either taste sweet and provide rich nourishment or taste sweet but turn sour in the stomach. These songs will either illuminate the true nature of things or merely mask the pain with a temporary shot of ‘feel-good.’ They will either set the discouraged on a path of hope or detour them down a road of self-deception. Don’t give your sheep songs for whistling past the graveyard. Give them songs that point past the grave to the One who conquered death so that they might have eternal hope and strength to persevere in this fallen world.
Man’s common struggle
Sing songs that reckon with ongoing sin and temptation in the life of every believer. It is man’s common struggle (1 Corinthians 10:13). Nothing perpetuates discouragement in your people more than asking them to sing songs about victory over sin only. They likely feel they’ve failed to live up to the call to personal holiness. They probably strive hard to overcome personal sin. Give them a song that says, “You are not alone” in their struggle against sin (Hebrews 12) or against any outward force that challenges them. Teach them through song that doubt, fear, sadness, and even anger have a place in our redeemed experience. Pastors, we have not reached the end of all tears (Revelation 21:4). Sing that with your people for their encouragement.
Songs that articulate holiness
Likewise, sing songs that clearly articulate what a life of holiness looks like – not one of perfection, but of faithful obedience to the One who perfectly obeyed His Father. Very often, we can fall into the habit of singing only songs about what we are doing in our worship and very little of what Christ does on our behalf before God. If we’ve successfully pulled our people out of the pit of despair over their sin, let’s give them solid ground to stand on. Give them assurance that Christ fully atoned for their sin and that they are secure and protected by Him (John 10:27-29).
This is the great paradox of the Christian life. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). Our songs should reflect this counter-intuitive reality, for this seemingly paradoxical truth is the power of the Gospel on display.
Pastor, discouragement in your people is not a sign of your failure as a shepherd, nor is it a sign of their failure. It is the natural result of living in a fallen world. But God has given you the words of life to give to your flock, even in song. The Good News is always the best news for the discouraged. Let the Gospel in song do the work God intended it to do. Like God’s messengers before you, bring heaven-sent encouragement and hope to your weary people by singing songs that point to Christ, where your flock can find true peace and hope.
Matching Spiritual Truths with the Gift of Music
The Value of Singing Old Hymns