A Latin Phrase Worth Knowing
I’m a sucker for cool Latin phrases. Incurvatus in se, or “curved in on itself,” is one such phrase, possibly coined by Augustine and definitely expounded upon by Martin Luther. The Reformer wrote:
Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.*
Me, Me, Me
It’s such a vivid picture. Incurvatus in se is that self-obsessed tendency in all of us to naval gaze. Every human being is bent inward, even taking the good things of God and making them “all about me.” For Christians, incurvatus in se manifests itself in unhealthy levels of attention on our own Christian growth and spiritual formation. (Yes, this really is possible, and it may very well be at fever pitch in American evangelicalism.) We become expert self-analysts, tracking every notch of progress and regress, victory and loss, growth and atrophy. We engage in formal and informal scorekeeping of the hopefully upward mobility of our spiritual maturity. Did I spend time in the Word today? How many lustful thoughts did I have? Was my tongue controlled? Was my temper checked? Did I practice the presence of God? Did I exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Was my prayer intentional and purposeful? Diagnostic questions like these aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they become destructive and antithetical to the Gospel when they are our dominant pattern. If “Christian living,” for you, is defined by your constant asking and answering of such questions, you are probably suffering from a severe case of incurvatus in se, because Christian living at its core has nothing to do with these things.
Unfortunately, because this incurvature is such a fundamental reality for all of us, it has crept into our worship, preeminently in the songs that we sing and in the way that we sing them. Elsewhere, I and others have called such songs, phrases, and lyrics elements of “triumphalism”—that obsession with how we’re living for God, loving God, giving it all for God, etc. It’s in the “surrender” language we often employ, and it’s in the “I’m doing it all for you” and “I’m giving it all away” lines that we gush. It’s painfully ironic that as we sing such lines, though we’re singing to God, we may be actually reveling in ourselves.
Desperate, In What Way?
Incurvatus in se also draws the line of demarcation between two different kinds of “desperate” worship. I’m a fan of desperation. Desperation is the right posture for a law-breaking sinner like me toward a God whose law is unattainably perfect. But there’s an incurvatus in se kind of desperation in worship, too. It’s the kind that is trying so unbelievably hard to show God just how passionate I am, just how committed I am, just how in love with Him I am, just how engaged I am. This kind of worship is desperate not because it’s needy. It’s desperate because it actually thinks it has what it takes to make God happy with its effort, if it just tries hard enough. This desperate worship is obsessed with trying to prove that it’s good enough, passionate enough, sincere enough. This desperate worship, deep down, is filled with anxiety, trying so very hard to make God happy with its display of fervor. It is hopelessly curved in on itself, because it says, “See God? I’m doing it!” And it is deeply delusional, because it is living under the lie that it’s actually possible for us, on our own, to give God pure worship that truly glorifies Him, unscathed by mixed motives and idolatry. It actually cheapens God’s holy standards for worship, which can be summarized: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-4, ESV). This kind of worship really has very little to do with God and quite a lot to do with the self.
No Power Within Me
The irony in all of this is that singing about my feelings for God doesn’t actually have the power to engender feelings for God, even if it’s backed by the most mesmerizing key pad, the most worshipful electric guitar reverb swell, or the most fervent BGVs. If we look inward, we’ll never find the kind of power we need to look upward. Singing, “I’m not ashamed of You” over and over again has zero power to make us actually unashamed of Christ. Pounding crescendos under repeated lines of “take it all, God,” no matter how loud, how repeated, and how supposedly sincere, lack all ability to actually cause the kind of giveaway we’re attempting to muster. It’s as foolish as a car on empty looking for more gas in its own tank. I cannot make myself worship with more sincerity and passion by simply singing about how much or how hard I’m worshiping. I cannot make myself feel more truly worshipful by singing about my worshipful feelings.
To All Who are Curved In, Look Up
The fuel for all successful worship flows from one source, outside ourselves, in God’s gracious Word of pardon to us in Christ’s death and in God’s gracious gift of the perfect worship of Christ’s life. So what should the Christian hear and sing if he or she wants to give it all away, feel worshipful feelings, and actually grow in adoration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Christ and Christ alone. In Latin, then, the cure for incurvatus in se worship is solus Christus worship.
So it’s not that singing about our feelings for God or consecrating ourselves to Him is bad. In fact, such actions are rightful elements of worship, and they are all over the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 57:7; 45:1). But such actions must be done in the context of the Gospel, just as the book of Psalms is set in the context of the Christ-centered redemption of Scripture. They must flow from our singing, hearing, tasting, and seeing the finished work of Christ in all His glory. The problem with some of our worship sets and liturgies is that they’re filled with a lot of our emotive response and very little with the Gospel. They’re lop-sided, and therefore barren of fuel. As worship leaders and worship planners, then, we must be very aware of what we’re saying to God, the order in which we’re saying it, and the weight of its emphasis. The Gospel must be clear (to energize our response). The Gospel must be first (to fuel our response). And the Gospel must be overwhelmingly dominant (to contextualize our response). Anything less is hopelessly curved in on itself. So, if you find your worship lifeless, lacking power, or running on empty, it’s time to stop looking in and start looking up.
(Speaking of all of this, if you want to see how incurvatus in se gets exegeted throughout culture–in movies, sports, and media–there’s no better place than Mockingbird, which is where I learned the power of the phrase.)
Great reminders! My favorite way to convey (and remember) this condition is through the phrase "spiritual navel-gazing". And unless you're using a mirror, you will indeed be curved in on yourself when you do it.
I found this post very interesting – and I wanted to like it quite a lot – but I'm wondering if it quite gets at the heart of what worship is. At it's heart, worship is our response to the actions of God. Romans 11/12 shows us this: at the end of Romans 11 we get this incredible hymn to God, followed by specific instructions on how we are to respond to this God in Romans 12 and following. You're right that a sole focus on "me" or "my response" leads only to navel-gazing and not to growth in Christ – but I suspect the danger of this comes more from a lack of theology of worship than from certain worship songs (i.e. songs are used incorrectly because placement/use is determined by issues of preference and style rather than theological soundness). I think I run into difficulties in two places. 1. You seem to be suggesting that if the Gospel isn't first presented in fullness in a given service, the rest of our gathered worship is empty and vain. I find that I cannot present the fullness of the Gospel in any one service – but only a piece. It's too huge. So the order changes depending on what aspect of the Gospel we are responding to that day. I also wonder if it is really the congregation's job to present the Gospel to itself. Maybe part of our problem is we front-load response (have the congregation do most of their work) before we hear the word of God. And then there is just a brief response before we all go home. Would love your thoughts on this. 2. Your solution to our navel-gazing – that we must look up – neglects an essential facet of worship: that our response up to God always turns us sideways, toward others. The instructions in Romans 12 quickly turn to how we treat each other, how we live in society, how we treat those who have wronged us, etc.
I suspect we will land on the same page in the end – but I would be interested to hear what you have to say. Last year I wrote a blog post about those who complain that we use the first person singular too often in worship. It touches on some of the same issues you raise here (although we are addressing slightly different problems). I'd be interested in your thoughts on that as well: http://thinkingworship.com/2012/05/29/rant-3-worship-songs-these-days-are-so-self-centered/