“About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God,
and the other prisoners were listening to them.
Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken.
At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose,”
(Acts 16:25-27, NIV).
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I studied at a small private school in North-West Iowa called Dordt College (emphasis on the ‘dt’, not a ‘k’—it’s not Dork College). And I remember walking across campus one morning as a sophomore and hearing something unexpected and strange coming up behind me.
I turned around, and there was a well-known senior student jogging along the path across the lawn from me. It was a glorious morning to do such an activity, but what caught me off-guard was that this friendly-albeit-intimidating older student was singing.
And I don’t just mean humming or murmuring a tune along with his mp3 player. His headphones were in, and he was singing along to his running mix at the top of his lungs—loud enough that I had heard him coming from at least fifty metres back.
I remember chuckling at the absurdity of his actions, yet a significant part of me admired him for his audacity. He evidently felt very free to express himself and behave in a way that gave him joy, even though he likely knew that it would make people’s heads turn and cause some bewilderment.
And yet, perhaps that may even be one of the reasons why he did it? To give others joy.
I was reminded of this event after reading Acts 16 this morning and being struck by the beautiful audacity of Paul and Silas to not just pray while in prison, but to sing hymns—seemingly loud enough that everyone else could hear them.
Considering all of their other spiritual gifts, I have no doubt that Paul and Silas did not possess the gift of song. And yet somehow all the prisoners in this passage are listening to them. It wasn’t the way they were singing or how well they sang it, but rather what it was they were singing about.
Or rather, who it was that they were singing about.
And in the stillness of the moment—when the only sounds in that prison were the voices of two men singing about the faithfulness of their Lord, and everyone else is tuning in to listen—then the foundations are shaken and the chains come off.
Something happens when we sing. For Paul and Silas, their actions were not only formative for their own hearts and minds, but they also impacted everyone else around them.
We sing to our Lord—not just for our own joy—but also for the joy of others. And the words that we sing can have a great impact both on ourselves and on those around us. We may not be in physical prisons, but we’d be daft to say that each of us doesn’t have our own ‘prisons’ in this world that chain us down, from which we need to be freed in order to truly live.
Singing words of truth to God has the capacity to shake our foundations and lift us out of those chains. We are shaped by the songs we sing.
In a way, we are what we sing.
There’s a reason why lyrics are so important. We human beings remember story and theology much easier when it’s put to song. When familiar tunes are ringing in our ears after a service, it’s doing something to us.
Because the songs we sing shape our disposition. For Paul and Silas, they had just been flogged by order of the magistrates, their wounds had not been cleaned, their robes were bloody—and yet here they are in prison, singing.
Similar to the old adage, “count your blessings,” singing enables gratitude. It shakes off the discontent, stress, fear, and indifference that chain us to this life and draws us into the transcendence of the next—where the multitudes of saints are singing with us.
Last week, before the inevitable spring rains had descended upon us, I was out for a walk and was simply bombarded by the glory of creation. I don’t have the gift of song, but immediately the tune, “All Creatures of our God and King” came into my mind, and I just started singing.
“I’m sure my neighbours can hear me right now,” I thought. But why not? I’m singing about my Lord. Isn’t that why I’m here?
Perhaps it will remind them of the songs they heard growing up. Perhaps it will put a smile on their faces in a darkened season of life. Perhaps it will speak to them of the Christian faith which urges praise to our Creator. Perhaps it will speak to them of Jesus and the joy He brings in all circumstances.
Perhaps our singing is a way that we can be a witness?
When we’re standing in the grocery line and humming, “Up from the grave He arose….” Or when we’re waiting with our kids for seventy-five minutes to get into Costco and one of them starts softly singing, “In Christ Alone.” Perhaps the rest of us join in? Or when we’re out for a walk and a song from Sunday’s service is still in our heads?
Imagine if every Christian made ‘singing hymns to God’ a regular activity? If it was a way of actually identifying one another out in public? If—rather than silver fish on our bumpers or crosses around our necks—we were known as the people who sing?
Because you never know who might be listening.