Bobby Gilles reminded me of this truth recently: Worship songs should say far more about God’s love for us and far less about our love for God. Certain strains of modern worship are prone to what some call “triumphalism”…the “I can do it,” “I give it all,” “I will live my whole life for You,” “I’ll love You forever,” “I’m running after You,” etc. This language is not all bad. In fact, it’s reflected somewhat in the Psalms:
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You;
I thirst fo You; my whole being longs for You,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water.
In more sophisticated liturgical terms, such statements are the language of consecration— setting ourselves apart for God’s work in us. Frances Ridley Havergal’s famous hymn typifies this sentiment:
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee
Take my moments and my days
Let them flow in ceaseless praise
However, we as worship leaders and worshipers must think about the content we sing in terms of “spiritual diet and nutrition.” Just like too much of a generally healthy food can lead to certain problems, so it is with triumphal and consecrating language. We can end up thinking too highly of ourselves. We can end up believing the lie that, within us, we have what it takes to please God. We can let the beauty of the good news of Christ’s finished work on our behalf float away from the center of our affection. In short, we can slowly walk away from the gospel. Let’s not forget that just before God gave the Ten Commandments (a summary of how we live love unto God), He expressed his redeeming love first:
I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt,
Out of the land of slavery.
(Exodus 20:2; Deut 5:6)
When I ask my little boys what this verse means, they now give me the spoon-fed answer, “Grace comes before the law.” I’m pretty confident that they don’t know what they’re saying (yet), but the seed is planted for understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between God’s love for us (cause) and our love for God (effect). “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
If we’re thinking of diet, then, we’ll limit isolated expression of how much we love God. When we do express love, which pleases the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:5), it is best done in the context of God’s love for us.
What does this mean for worship planners and leaders? Does it mean that every worship song about our love for God must contain statements of and reflections on God’s love for us? No, not necessarily. But it does mean that, in a worship service, we want to balance that song with other songs or elements (Scripture readings, Confession-Assurance progressions) that clearly reveal where the Source from which that love comes.
Amen! Amen!! Amen!!!
You make a good point about a certain balance in worship, especially where it becomes the "lie that … we have what it takes to please God." I've seen a lot of this kind of de facto doctrine (especially in the pass-the-mic portions that are poisoning (poisoning!) worship services (as in "we're going on a mission to China and without your prayer support, we will be slammed!") (yes, those are actual words spoken by a missions leader during the pass-the-mic in my church. Worse, she's an HBA grad)). However, the song part of worship is the expressive part, not the receptive part. Of course there is a lot of reception, which is why so many people seem to be spurred to step into the aisle and approach the altar during the music part of the service. But it seems to me that looking for some kind of doctrinal balance in the only part of the service where congregants get to vocalize their love (except for the occasional "amen" or the responsive readings in places that still do that) is well-intentioned but perhaps misguided.
Is it not okay for the balance to come in the rest of the service, though the message, the scripture-reading, and other portions that are more receptive in nature? In fact, I'd go the other way and say that in this expressive portion of worship, the lack of balance is really in not enough "oh woe is me!" lyrics. But I suppose I can't expect everyone to be as miserable on Sundays as I am, so I guess I get that.
This is exactly right; thanks for writing it. R. A. Torrey once said that if you really want to increase your love for Jesus, don't try to love Him more, just spend some time thinking about how much Jesus loves you. "We love because He first loved us."
Well put, MItchell (Mr. Dwyer!). You're right. Congregational song is the place in the service where, in many evangelical contexts, people's response back to God happens. If you're in more "high liturgical" contexts, this isn't necessarily the case. In such places, people have a lot more than an "Amen" to offer. I still would challenge your thoughts a bit by surveying the Psalms–the inspired, biblical songbook of God's people–to see what kind of balance is in there. That book is exclusively filled with "worship songs" and yet one struggles to find anywhere close to the amount of I-to-You, consecrative language we hear in today's worship sets. We need balance, and I think we need it not only in the whole liturgical package, but also in the songs themselves. I'm still convinced that we're, on average, a bit too weighted on a side which overdoses us and blurs the gospel's power.
I appreciate this post very much. While our response is certainly a necessary part of worship, we have to begin with that to which we are responding. For me in my planning, that means choosing hymns that give a healthy dose of God's self-revelation. Response can be a part of the texts, but, ideally, response would be carried out in our hearts.
Reminds me of Lewis in Weight of Glory, when he takes Tozer to task:
"I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall
“stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God."
This is why the Lord expresses his deep and abiding love for his people at the outset of Malachi 1. Without a proper and robust understanding of God's love for them, the people of Israel wouldn't have a context for his rebuke of their worship later in the prophecy. Their perception of God's love was weak, thus their worship was weak.
Thanks for this, Zac. I'm looking forward to working alongside you on Thursday!
I agree. Worship songs should be more about God's love for us and not the other way around. With this, spreading His words will be more effective.