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Music and God's Good Timing

Most often, we assume if something takes time, it is not as good. Even if we recognize in our minds that this is not true, our actions speak much differently (this is especially true for Americans). We love fast food. We love buying things online. Amazon Prime is the best thing to happen to us, right? We love songs only three minutes in length. We hate exercising. We say things like, “Get to the point!” Or we ask, “How long is this going to take?” I am being somewhat facetious here, but you get the idea. In general, we like things that do not take up our time. In America, instant gratification has convinced many of us that time is our enemy. This has even seeped into aspects of many church services on Sunday. We will sing only a couple of stanzas of a hymn because we do not have the patience to sing the entire six stanzas. The sermon better not be longer than twenty minutes and the service as a whole better not continue past noon or we might have to wait at the restaurant to get a table. However, is time really our enemy? What if time is a wonderful gift from our Creator that teaches, instructs, and sanctifies us? I want to suggest that music is a tool for training our hearts and minds to see time as a friend, not an enemy.

Music cannot be separated from time nor can the timing of music be thought of as something entirely constructed by man. Because of music’s physical and temporal character, music reminds us that time belongs to the very framework of God’s creation. To take it even further, music does not just appear in time, it also arranges something with the time;i meaning, music takes time and creates something with the time. There is definitely a human aspect to music and this mostly has to do with how man “arranges time.” Through the use of music’s elements, the tones we hear become woven into the very makeup of time by the use of the tones’ patterns and structures. German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz said, “Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” In any attempt of being silly, Leibniz is exactly right. The listener, willingly or unwillingly, becomes aware of these musical patterns and structures happening in time and is then able to clap or stomp to the rhythm of the music. The music also connects with our physical bodies instigating action from us. Music makes strong connections with our mental awareness as well as our physical bodies all within the context of time.

In one way, experiences in listening to music are practices in submission. We do not have any control over the happenings of the music when we listen to it. Listening to music requires a sacrifice of our effort, sometimes even our desires and, most importantly, our time. I guarantee that George Fredrick Handel did not intend for the listener to listen to the “Hallelujah Chorus” apart from his entire oratorio. How could one appreciate the magnitude of that chorus without first letting the music, written with such purpose, take you into its story, leading you where it intended to go? Handel would have no doubt responded, “How can you understand the ‘Hallelujah’ of the Christ’s resurrection if you know nothing of his birth, life, and death?” Theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie says, “Because music takes or demands our time and depends on carefully timed relations between notes, it cannot be rushed. It schools us in the art of patience.”ii God works in similar ways. His ways of working in our hearts depend on carefully placed relationships, human relationships, which often take time “schooling us in the art of patience,” so that we can understand, learn, and grow. Marriage is another obvious analogy for this kind of patience. Marriage takes time and patience. The marriage itself can often be draining and hard, but the difficult aspects are most definitely part of God’s design in order to teach us hard work and sacrifice for one another. A good piece of music will often require hard work as it takes us into its story and asks us to listen with patience to its many parts and sections.

God’s timing is one of the sweetest and yet hardest realities to trust in. And we are called to submit to God and His time (James 4:7). We have many examples of this hard reality in the Scriptures. Abram waited on God’s promise to give him a son until he was 100 years old. How long did Joseph wait until his dreams were fulfilled? Israel waited forty years in the wilderness to enter the Promised Land. The story of Hannah in I Samuel presents a wonderful example for what it means to trust in God’s timing. The story of Job is one of the best stories of trusting in God despite the trials and persecutions of evil. The Bible is full of the difficult necessity to trust in God and His promises. Still, we struggle with trusting God and His good time. We grumble. We are negative and cynical toward others and situations. We hate or mock authority or authority structures. And we even doubt to the point we forget God’s Word and His promises.

But, our God is gracious and He gives us a multitude of ways that help us trust and remember His good timing. Scripture is, of course, primary, but His physical world is most assuredly connected with the truth of Scripture. God’s created music contains wonderful truths about the character of God. More intentional practices within music will train our hearts and minds into becoming more and more like our Savior.

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
 they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
 and they shall walk and not faint.

                                                                                                                Isaiah 40:31 (KJV)


i Victor Zuckerkandl, The Sense of Music, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1959, pg. 99
ii Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth; Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007, pg. 222

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