When Words Are Not Enough

Today’s post is a little different in that although I’m presenting yet another worship track, this time there’s an extra little something in the worship which we call ‘Singing in the Spirit’.

As my regular readers will know, I am a worship leader. I’m just one of many, many worship leaders all over the world who have God’s anointing to lead people into the Presence of God. Part of our anointing is to bring understanding to our congregations as to what worship can be like, and what sorts of worship are ‘out there’ that maybe people haven’t experienced yet. So, in this piece, I go into the way in which ‘singing in the Spirit’ is used in worship, and tell you a little of what it’s all about.

In the Bible, in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul wrote that part of his letter to the Corinthian church because he was trying to introduce more intelligibility in worship. People had, in common with Christians all over the ancient world, received the spiritual gift (amongst other gifts) of ‘speaking in tongues’ (Acts 2:4; 1Cor 12:10) – actually I don’t like that term; I prefer to call it our ‘Spirit language’ – and they were using that gift in public worship – but that gift was getting out of control and wasn’t being used to build others up in their faith, which is really the whole point of meeting together in God’s Presence.

In 1Cor 14:15, St. Paul says this:

“So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding”.

Here, Paul describes two ways of praying and singing: ‘with [his] spirit’, and ‘with [his] understanding’. This means that sometimes it’s our spirits that pray/sing, and sometimes it’s with our minds or ‘understanding’. It means that sometimes we say or sing things that are understandable, but sometimes our spirit says or sings things that are very deep down and therefore are hard to put into words. This, I believe, is where the Spirit gives us the words to say, using our ‘Spirit language’.

So if praying and singing (in this context, I’m assuming worship singing) with the understanding means that we understand what we are praying or singing, it will  therefore probably be songs in your native language, like hymns or simple worship songs. Paul is saying that, as well as singing or praying in our Spirit language – which is not intelligible to others – we should also pray and sing with our understanding – using words which are intelligible to others. But – and here’s the key – it’s not one or the other; it’s both.

And please be aware that it is perfectly possible to sing or pray ‘in the Spirit’ in your native language. In fact, ideally, all prayer and singing should be done in the Spirit, that is, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t have to be ‘in tongues’ to be in the Spirit! I’m not going to say that the gift of ‘tongues’ gives ‘deeper’ prayer or worship, because the two are complementary; you can have worship or prayer that is no less deep because it’s in your native language as well as prayer and worship that are in your Spirit language. The two work together. Singing or praying with the mind does not exclude the Holy Spirit; He inspires both.

So, I agree with Paul’s guidelines to the Corinthians, and they also provide a good framework for orderly, and yet still Spirit-led – worship in our time too.

But sometimes simply praying or singing in English, or whatever one’s native language is, is simply not enough. Sometimes there are thoughts and feelings we need to express that English simply can’t cope with. And so we use our Spirit language, in freedom, but also in consideration for others. Having said that, if everyone is singing in their Spirit language, then this is in keeping with the Scriptural guidelines* in 1 Cor 14 because everyone is doing it, and, most importantly, everyone is being edified – built up in their faith. In fact, I can think of no other worship experience that brings the people together so much as does a session of singing ‘in the Spirit’. It is beautiful, uplifting and upbuilding; people even get healed during these times, and who knows what amazing things we’re singing to God? The enemy certainly doesn’t!  Singing in Spirit language is a potent tool for both worship and spiritual warfare. It kicks the enemy’s butt even if that’s not your intention. And, most importantly, it blesses not only those singing, but also (and especially) the Lord Himself.

I’ll let you into a little secret here: when I’m in church, during the singing, if there’s a song I don’t like for any particular reason – maybe I don’t like the trite lyrics or for whatever other reason – I simply sing using my Spirit language. Nobody else can hear me because everyone else is singing too; it’s not important what I sing, the main point is I am lifting my heart to God in worship, and using the language He has given me in order to do this is a valid way to use the gift.

Let’s look at an example. Here’s a lovely worship video featuring the gifted worship leader, Terry MacAlmon**, as he leads a very receptive congregation in one of my favourite worship songs, ‘When I look into Your Holiness‘. Watch what happens from 4 minutes onwards:

The spontaneous singing from about 5 minutes in the video is a glorious example of ‘singing in the Spirit’, where the people are using their individual Spirit languages. That’s what it sounds like; it’s always different each time but this gives you the basic idea. It doesn’t always happen like it does in the video, sometimes it follows straight on from a song in English, sometimes is just rises up out of nowhere. The thing with learning to sing in your Spirit language is simply to not be embarrassed and just let go and trust God to give you the words to sing by the Spirit. The tune and the timing are also given by the Spirit. Sure, you could be forgiven for thinking that people are simply making it up, but I have seen this kind of worship countless times and in all cases it produces good fruit – joy, peace, love – and this is entirely Scriptural. This is of the Spirit.

You can also sing ‘in the Spirit’ in English too, once again trusting the Lord to provide the words, tune etc. An example of the public use of this gift is shown here.

In order to round off the subject today, I would say that the gift of ‘tongues’ is closely related to concepts in Romans 8:26-27 where Paul, writing on the subject of intercessory prayer (that is, praying for people, situations or things), says this:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s
people in accordance with the will of God”.

This means that that when we run out of words to say; when we can’t find the words; when sometimes mere words are not enough, then the Holy Spirit Himself steps in to pray for us – both actually praying for us and praying on our behalf – using inarticulate sounds, like groans and moans. Kind of as if even ‘tongues’ is not enough. I’ve found myself doing that quite a lot lately! We should not be surprised when, while we are trying to express the inexpressible either to or about an inexpressible God, we run out of words. And so the gift of ‘speaking in tongues’, in whatever role it is used, comes into its own; in fact, this is the main reason the gift is given – to express the inexpressible. Or even going beyond this into ‘groans’; both of these are valid forms of prayer, worship and intercession – in short, speaking with God.

You may be wondering how you too can receive the gift of your Spirit language – your own private prayer and worship language? It’s really quite simple. As a believer you have been ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit. He lives in you and gives you the life of God in your body (Rom 8:11; Jn 14:17). The gifts of the Spirit come as part of the package, as it were; they are already there, lying dormant inside you. So all you need to do is to ask God to awaken that gift in you and off you go. Find a quiet place by yourself, or maybe get someone to pray with you for the gift. For each of us, the experience is usually different from that of others; this comes as no surprise, for God is simply treating us all as individuals. There is no ‘normal’; no ‘stereotype’. Maybe begin by praising Him in English, and then just let yourself go. It’s really quite simple; to be honest the main hurdle most have to overcome is embarrassment. But don’t worry about that; just do it. And see what happens – and use the gift! The more you use the gift, the more comfortable you will become with it; practice, as with most things, does make perfect.

So, when words are not enough, use your gift!


*Note that here I am not advocating legalism in following ‘rules’, I am simply saying that, in certain cases such as this, consideration for others and the desire to build them up is in itself part of our worship. Worship that causes others to stumble is detrimental to those others. See my article on how not to cause others to stumble for more on this.

**This video is also a brilliant object-lesson in how to lead a congregation in worship under the leading of Holy Spirit. At about 4 minutes into the video, Terry doesn’t jump in with the next song; he doesn’t rush things or panic – you can see that he’s completely relaxed and focused on Jesus. And after about a minute of an ‘awesome silence’ (one where the people are simply looking to God in awe and wonder), the people spontaneously break out into singing in their Spirit languages. Terry’s just letting Holy Spirit have His way in the worship; he’s led the people to a position of awe and wonder and then he obviously feels the Spirit saying to him, ‘No more music just now, son, I’ll take it from here’. Notice how the people in the congregation are free to express themselves in their own way: some just sitting and listening, some sitting and singing or just raising hands, some standing up and giving it all they’ve got. And the way the dynamics work too – the volume changes, the ‘applause’, the harmonies, and then finally (interestingly, just as someone starts to go just a little outside the Spirit’s leading and starts to ‘squeal’ a little; this does happen sometimes!) Terry draws it to a close with a few gentle piano chords. Thoroughly relaxed, unpressurised, no ‘religious spirit’, pure worship. A lovely illustration of humans and God working together to produce lovely praise and worship to Jesus. This is worship leading at its best. Watch and learn, folks!

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