Thoughts About the Song “Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)”

Zac HicksSongwriting2 Comments

If you follow my blog, and if you read my book, you will hear a lot about the Reformational distinction of Law and Gospel. For me, this paradigm is inescapable not only in the Bible but in all of life. It is the distinction that Paul makes in order to exegete the whole Bible in a Christological fashion. From his clear statement in Galatians 2:16, to his developed soteriology in Romans 3, to his exegesis of the Pentateuch in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul testifies that Law and Gospel are the two forms in which the Word of God breaks into creation.

I’m convinced that these two forms of God’s Word speak loud and clear (whether we recognize it or not) in every last one of our worship services, and the more we can discern their voices, the better equipped we will be to plan and lead gospel-shaped, Christ-mediated worship services.

This distinction is heavily at play in the liturgies which emerged during the time of the Reformation. In particular, I observe a strong Law-Gospel filter applied to the way reformer Thomas Cranmer constructed the English Prayer Book. When I first read his 1552 liturgy, I was a little surprised to find a litany with the Ten Commandments at the top of the service. Not only was this not a seeker-sensitive move; it was downright depressing! The 1552 service begins with this dramatic prayer, still a part (in various modifications) of many Anglican/Episcopal services today:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer immediately prefaces a responsorial reading of the Ten Commandments, where, after each commandment is read, the congregation responds, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Think about the impact of opening a service like this. Think about what you would feel as you would enter into God’s presence in this fashion.

Modern worship songs frequently address, either explicitly or implicitly, how in worship we “open our hearts” to God. Our temptation, then, in reading back into Cranmer’s opening prayer is to think that an “open heart” is a positive, feel-good image. But once we realize the context of the Law in which it’s placed, we need to understand this cardiological statement more like “open heart” surgery rather than the lovey-dovey stuff (for Cranmer, and for the Law-Gospel distinction, this comes later). “Our hearts are open” means, “O God, before Your Law, my heart is cut open, and I’m bleeding to death. In Your presence, I am undone.”

Needless to say, I found this move by Cranmer captivating. I began asking: What would it look like in a twenty-first century modern worship service to begin like this? What would it look like to open a worship service with the Law offering a sucker-punch straight to the gut of Old Adam? So we wrote a song. It is neither a full blown recitation of the Ten Commandments nor a verbatim recasting of Cranmer’s glorious “Collect for Purity.” It’s a modern take on capturing the feeling and reaction that Cranmer’s liturgy would have evoked. Perhaps most muted is the fifth commandment, universally applied beyond honoring father and mother as “let loving-kindness flow to all we know.”

The hope with the song is not so much provide a tool for people to recite the Ten Commandments in a worship service as it is to create a context where the Commandments’ weight is palpably felt, where the Law can do it’s appropriate killing and crushing work, and where we can cry out to God, “You’ve cut my heart open! Sew it back together!,” or, in the words of Toplady, “Wash me Savior, or I die.”

“Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)” is intended to be a song for use at the top of the service, or within the first few songs. It really doesn’t fit anywhere else, unless you’re intending to introduce another gospel-structured narrative cycle into the service. I hope it fills a gap in worship songwriting and provides something fresh for those of us with highly sung, song-set-oriented liturgies.

Resources for the Song

chord chart | lead sheet

Lyrics

1. You brought us safe across salvation’s sea
To know no other gods, nor idols seek
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word

Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues,
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones,
Incline our hearts,] to keep Your Word

Almighty God, our hearts are open
Our secret thoughts are bare before Your eyes
Your presence is the all-consuming fire
Purify our hearts, as we cry:
Lord have mercy

2. Let lovingkindness flow to all we know
Till anger, lust, and greed we cannot sow
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Your Truth shall silence every lying mouth
And quench the urge to take what is not ours
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Bridge:
Lord have mercy
Perfect glory
Now surrounds me
Overwhelms me

5. My meditation both the day and night
The Law that shows Your perfect will aright
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2015
©2015 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP); Julie Anne Vargas
CCLI #7056905

2 Comments on “Thoughts About the Song “Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)””

  1. I think this would work well in two places in a classic liturgical structure: (1) as an entry into a time of confession of sin toward the beginning of the service, or (2) as a congregational song sung as a corporate response to the scripture reading and sermon. In our Presbyterian church, we have the offering in its historic position after the sermon, and I could well imagine us singing this as a congregational song during that time. The refrain "incline our hearts to keep your Word" expresses the response of self-offering and submission to God's way perfectly.

  2. Enjoyed reading about this song and your thoughts Zac!

    From a liturgy perspective, wouldn't it also work well as a lead into the confessional prayers?

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