Those of you who know me well are acquainted with two of the deepest passions in my life: music and Christianity. Because of this love, I am often hard on both—especially when they are found together. I want so much more for them than what they often are now, though I’ll be the first to claim I haven’t got it all together myself.
I’ll spare you all my thoughts on worship music at this time. Instead I invite you to ponder with me a problem I hadn’t thought of before: the problem of God’s love in our worship.
It would be nothing new to simply say our worship music is often too self-centered. I’ve always preferred songs that elevate God, that raise my mind and my heart to think about high and eternal things. Worship is, of course, about God’s worth, is it not? Yet I’ve always seen a healthy dose of God’s multifaceted and gracious dealings with us as part of that process; that God would love a sinner like me says a whole lot about who He is and why He is praiseworthy.
So imagine my surprise when Dr. Michael Frost, this year’s keynote speaker for DTS’s World Evangelization Conference, takes us to task more than once for singing too much about God’s love for us—not so much because of its self-centered nature but because of its distracting quality. He believes we’re so preoccupied with how God loves us that we’ve forgotten about what we’ve been called to do. “Of course God loves you,” Frost says, “can’t we just take that as a given and move on?”
Dr. Frost doesn’t mince words, and I appreciate that about him. Whether he really means what he is saying or is merely overstating to make a point, I don’t know. But he succeeded in making me think. Why do we sing so much about God’s love? Could it really be wrong?
To cut to the chase, I believe the real error here is not in reveling in God’s love, but forgetting that there are others who have not experienced this love. It is that we tend to see God’s love as an end rather than a means. We watch Christ go from birth to crucifixion, from resurrection to ascension, and we say, “Aha! Now there is nothing separating us from the love of God.” This is true. But it’s not the end. This knowledge should bring security, resolution, action. God’s love in all its manifestations is the power fueling our real mission, our real calling. Our calling is not to be loved; it’s to share this love with others.
To this end, I really don’t see a problem in singing about God’s love; it just needs the proper context and above all the proper response. But I am curious: why doesn’t this happen automatically? Why doesn’t God’s love propel us forward? Why do we never “take it as given and move on”? Why do we focus on it so much? Let’s look a little deeper at the idea of love in worship and see what we can find.
God of Wrath, God of Love
To some degree I see it as a reaction to the fundamentalist preaching of yore which focused on a righteous God angry at your sin. Just about 4 years ago I found myself a guest in a Sunday School class which was downright angry about this recent emphasis on God’s love. This was a perversion to them. In fairness, I completely agree with the dangers of ignoring God’s wrath for sin, but this does not mean you never preach on the love of Christ; you really cannot understand Christianity without understanding both His justice and His mercy.
So in this case, the emphasis on love is a historical counterbalance, seeking to restore order but perhaps going too far. Truth be told, nobody wants to believe we are born sinful and wicked. We want to believe we’re lovable in and of ourselves, when in reality we’re as unlovable as Raymond Shaw drunk on Christmas Eve. America is in greater danger of forgetting its sin than forgetting God’s love.
In case you somehow missed it, we as a culture are obsessed with love. Part of this is no doubt tied to an obsession with sex, but even more so we have these pervasive romantic ideals of what life should be like. I’m specifically referring back to the 18th century movement that emphasized feeling and emotion and nature. After the Enlightenment came to crown the human mind supreme, Romanticism rallied around the human heart instead. And what is the greatest of emotions, the supposed domain of the heart, the feeling above all feelings? Love. As a Beatles fan, two songs immediately come to mind:
“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done… it’s easy: all you need is love.” (All You Need is Love)
“Say the word and you’ll be free… the only word is love. It’s so fine, it’s sunshine.” (The Word)
The Beatles’ first few years of success were all built on love songs, though usually not extolling love itself as these do. The vast majority of pop music is devoted to romantic relationships; in fact, how much of art in general throughout Western history has been devoted to love? We want to be “in love” all the time, a state which C. S. Lewis rightly calls unnatural and impossible.
So when it comes to love songs, who could do better than the Christians? We have a loving relationship that will never end! This is a big deal for us. It fulfills our romantic ideals of what life should be like. There is much to be said about this topic, but I will save that for another day.
I Me Mine
Yes, I did kind of brush this aside in the beginning but I can’t help but think that some of our focus on love is mere self-centeredness. Perhaps the greatest struggle in our lives is against the notion that our lives are about us. In contrast to Lewis’ statement about being “in love,” making yourself your top priority is about as natural as it gets. In short, I want to hear God loves me because I love me, too. We can blame our individualistic culture for this, and it sure does make things easier, but in the end it’s just the same old sin nature clouding our judgment.
I’ll Give Him My Heart
There are a number of hymns I grew up singing which focus on giving Jesus your heart. This idea isn’t as pure or simple as one might think, but generally speaking it is a response to those who believe their good works will save them. And in the end, since all God requires of us to be saved is our hearts, our hearts are all we often give. But one can rightly ask: how much can you claim to really love someone if your life doesn’t change?
Your Love Keeps Me Alive
History and culture aside, I think we can also tie this to two closely related personal issues: evil in the world and sin in our lives. Life is full of disappointment, loss, pain, frustration, sickness, and death. We Americans are perhaps the most comfortable people on earth, yet we’re miserable and unfulfilled. God’s love is a comfort for those who have none from the world itself. God’s love doesn’t just keep us alive from a theological point of view but from an experiential one. Some people hurt so much they really could not go on without constant reminders of God’s love.
And not all of this pain is from without. Our sins, the choices we make separate us experientially from God. When we come before Him knowing what we have willingly done, it’s easy to forget God’s love for us. The troubling implication here is that if our sin compels us to sing of God’s love, how much sin are we living in that we require so many reminders?
The Way I Was Made
Up until now I have neglected what should have been the most obvious reason to me, one that encompasses all the reasons above. It’s the songwriters! People sing about love because that’s what we write songs about, for all of the reasons mentioned above. There are many reasons I may write a given song, but what inspires me the most, what flows out most naturally is my love for God. You write about what matters to you and the things you’ve experienced. Are you really surprised that the kinds of people who write music tend to write about love?
I’ve tried to write deeper, more complex music, and—believe it or not—it’s a lot of work! It can be discouraging at times to labor over a song for months that doesn’t strike a deep emotional chord for me. I may rationally recognize its significance and be committed to what I am doing, but it’s an uphill battle for my heart.
I don’t claim this is an exhaustive list, but I hope I have at least hit on the most important reasons. Assuming these are all true, the question remains: what do we do about these?
- God of Wrath, God of Love: We must proclaim the whole character of God, and not just His character and attributes but His desires and activities as well. When we see why God loves, who God loves, and how God loves, we will be propelled to do the same for others.
- Bohemian Rhapsody: We must not ignore the role of emotions or exchange idealism for pessimism; instead we must bring both the mind and the body back into the equation. When we share in God’s wisdom and walk in His holiness, we are able to experience God’s love most fully.
- I Me Mine: This one is basic, folks. Jesus loves me = Jesus loves that person over there, too. And if you add up all the people Jesus loves, you start to look pretty dang small. Oh, and Jesus loves the Father, too.
- I’ll Give Him My Heart: We need to stop settling for mere salvation. God did not save us so we could be saved, and Jesus didn’t die for us so we could be happy. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV.) Don’t confuse your justification with your purpose.
- Your Love Keeps Me Alive: This may very well mean that we are allowing too much sin in our lives. Don’t succumb to perfectionism, but ask yourself if God’s love has become an excuse for your laziness. As far as our suffering is concerned, perhaps singing of God’s love is just what we need. But I would warn you not to become addicted to this medicine. There are many more ways of comforting and being comforted than singing of God’s love. There is great joy to be found in serving others, in living out your purpose. We seek God’s presence in corporate worship but forget that it is also found in using your unique gifts to serve Him.
- The Way I Was Made: We songwriters must make an effort to go out into the world and experience more than simply God’s love. We need to see God’s work in action, to teach our hearts to be stirred by the full spectrum of that which God values. And if we cannot do that we must at least stop writing the first thing that comes to mind and go deeper. You’re the one responsible, Mr. Worship Pastor. Make it happen.
If you take nothing else from this post, please remember: worship is more than singing, love is more than a feeling, and salvation is only the beginning.