Why I Sometimes Don’t Sing in Church

I love worship time at church. Even when I’ve never heard the song before. Who cares? Just make it up. (Protip: If you sing harmony, it’s easier to get away with this, since you’re supposed to be singing different notes than everyone around you.)

"Wow, not only is she not raising her hands, but she's not even singing." (No actual person has probably thought this about me.)

“Wow, not only is she not raising her hands, but she’s not even singing.” (No actual person has probably thought this about me.)

So if I stop singing at some point, it’s probably for one of five reasons:

  • I want to stop and think about the words instead of just saying them.
  • I can’t honestly sing the words of the song at the moment. There was a month when I could not sing “It is Well With My Soul” and sincerely mean it. (And, in just five weeks, everyone decided to sing that song. It happened seven times. No joke. I felt like I was being stalked by a hymn.)
  • I’m starting to enjoy hearing my own voice so much that I’m not worshipping God anymore. I’m worshipping the sound of my own harmonies bouncing off the head of the person in front of me.
  • I can’t sing without laughing, because the song is just bad poetry. Mixed metaphors, phrases that don’t make any sense. Basically, this one is me being a snob, and I’m working on it, I promise.
  • I think the song has terrible theology.

The song, “Your Love Never Fails” falls into that last category. At least, I feel like part of it does. There is this kinda sorta not-great feeling that I get in the bridge, the part where we repeat, “You make all things work together for my good” over and over again.

In case you’ve been living in some sort of heathen cave for the past five years, here’s the song. Skip to 3:20 for the part I’m talking about.

“But Amy,” you say, “you can’t possibly call something bad theology when it’s ripped out of the pages of the Bible! That song is basically quoting Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’”

To which I say, “Wait, you mean there’s a verse that says that? I’ve never seen that anywhere! Not on calendars, thinking-of-you cards, coffee mugs, Pinterest memes, out-of-context Facebook discussions, and commemorative Bible verse paperweights shaped like the apostle Paul!”

Nope. Never seen it before.

Nope. Never seen it before.

Okay, fine. What I’d really say is, “Yes, Romans 8:28 says that God will work through all circumstances for the good of those who love him. Which, if I love God, includes me. But something about that line in the song still feels theologically…off.”

It took me a while to figure out what it was: the emphasis. Over and over in the song, I’m saying, “You make all things work together for my good.” The way the music is written, you can’t not stress that syllable. It even gets dragged out an extra beat.

The church I went to while in college did a quick edit to the line and just had us sing, “You make all things work together fo-or good.” So, stretching out “for” a bit to cover up the incriminating preposition. This was a little awkward both musically and for the people who sang with their arms raised and eyes closed and blurted out “my” anyway.

But I liked it better. Not because there’s anything wrong with the song “Your Love Never Fails.” What the songwriters meant by that line is very true.

At the same time, I am always due for a musical reminder that my individual good (the way I define good, meaning whatever happens to make me happy at the moment), is not at the center of God’s plan for structuring the entire universe.*

Because sometimes, I am just selfish enough to believe that. Sometimes, I have not graduated to Bernard of Clairvaux’s third degree of love.

Who was Bernard of Clairvaux, you ask?

Bernard2

Nope. Not this Bernard.

He was a monk from the turn of the last millennium who stayed at the same monastery from age 25 till his death.

Bernard

He also apparently felt very attached to small clumps of remaining hair. It’s a saint thing.

The first degree of love that Bernard talked about is love for self for self’s sake. This comes pretty easily to most of us (by which I mean all of us). The second is love of God for self’s sake. And the third is love of God for God’s sake.

Of this one, he says, “We have obtained this degree when we can say, ‘Give praise to the Lord for he is good, not because he is good to me, but because he is good.’ Thus we truly love God for God’s sake and not for our own.”

Now, to be fair, a ton of the Psalms are written with an emphasis on what God did for the psalmist or the people in general. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s very important for us to use those time in our lives as memorials to God’s faithfulness.

That said, I think it’s dangerous to repeat a mantra that puts too much emphasis on a potentially-misleading statement like “You make all things work together for my good.” It may be true, but only in a certain context and with certain clarifications.

Will some people find the bridge of this song encouraging as they picture circumstances in their lives where they feel defeated? Yes. And for that reason, I’m not saying we should burn this song at the stake.

But I’ll probably continue not to sing that part, just to remind myself that it’s not about me. It’s about him.

What’s a worship song that you feel does a good job of focusing on God?

It can't be proven, but I'm pretty sure this is an illustration of Bernard debating the word choice of hymns with his fellow monks.

It can’t be proven, but I’m pretty sure this is an illustration of Bernard debating the word choice of hymns with his fellow monks.

*Stuffy Theological Footnote For the Dedicated Reader: In a more technical sense, I believe God’s glory is at the center of his plan for structuring the entire universe. And that glory is ultimately our greatest good as well, since God is the source of all things true and good and beautiful. However, that is not typically the big-picture perspective I have when I insist that God instantly answer all of my requests the way I want and when I want.

15 comments

  1. i don’t know if this song would strictly qualify as a worship song, but “you’re not guilty anymore” by aaron keyes is one of my favorites. It speaks truth to the listener, using “my” in the sense that it speaks to the listener and all of humanity at the same time.

    1. Kelly, I think this one is a great example of talking about yourself in a Biblical way in a song. It’s not about exalting yourself, but about seeing yourself the way God does. And that’s really important too.

  2. That line of “Your Love Never Fails” never felt right to me either, and I could never figure out what it was that made me uncomfortable with singing it. This post helped to begin to explain that feeling to me.

    The song that I would choose to answer your question (although like Kelly, I’m not sure if it qualifies as a worship song, or at least not the typical worship song), is “Clear the Stage” by Jimmy Needham. Well, I don’t think it’s originally by him, but he’s who I first heard sing it. It’s actually been very convicting to me. It points out the idolatry in our lives and really just places the focus of everything back on God where it belongs. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it, but I’m kinda in a hurry, so I can’t really go any more in depth. But I would definitely encourage people to listen to it.

    1. I just listened to it, and loved it. It’s kind of like a musical blog post on this topic. Very counter-cultural, and I love that. It’s funny that sometimes our idols can be very nice spiritual things like worship music.

  3. Good post, Amy. I’ve had similar issues recently since certain evangelical churches/para-churches have taken to singing “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” by Casting Crowns. There is, in my opinion, some major theological issues with that particular song.

    On a similar note, this reminds me of a time in college when the worship team in chapel changed one the lyrics of In Christ Alone (my all-time favorite hymn) from “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “God’s wrath and love was satisfied.” I still suffer involuntary twitching over that. XD

    Jake DV

    1. In Christ Alone is so great! And, wow, that edit is totally unnecessary. A friend once told me that he was singing “Come Thou Fount” and the worship leader rewrote a verse to say, “Prone to worship, prone to praise” instead of “prone to leave the God I love.” WHAT? Seriously, now.

  4. Ah, bravo! Like Jehu’s judgement arrow, straight and true.

    Contemporary evangelical “worship” – or at least what passes for worship in many of our churches – is anthropocentric, even egocentric and overtly narcissistic. Is this because too much is being written (preached, sung, broadcast, marketed) in the name of “Christianity?” Are those with a “voice,” a ministry, a position inadequately schooled? Is this a result of our collective discontent with listening to God himself?

    The orthodox faith (in the broadest, best, classical sense) “once for all delivered” is intrinsically, organically and unalterably Christocentric. The “gospel” is less than salvific if the person and work of Jesus Christ occupies any but the preeminent place in one’s soteriology.

    “Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and granted him a name, that which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of heavenly and earthly and infernal beings, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to God the Father’s glory.” — Phil 2:9-11 (JND)

    Great read: “Christus Victor” by Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustafson Aulen

    Great Song: “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    1. Great thoughts, Uncle Dave. I recently had a friend ask me why I thought the gospel in America ends up sounding so much like the American dream. I think maybe it’s all of the things you mentioned, plus the fact that we know we’re missing something in our faith: suffering. So instead of filling it with things like spiritual disciplines (which I think is the best response, because they have the effect of forcing humility), we make things into a show. Amen to your thoughts on keeping Christ at the center. I need to be reminded of that all the time.

  5. Ever notice how spell correction fails miserably with names and theological terms? The author of “Christus Victor” is Gustaf Aulen. (Although I’m sure he really was somebody’s son.)

  6. There are times I can’t bring myself to sing in church. With some songs, I don’t proclaim what seems like shallow theology or poetic nonsense; with other songs, my literary snobbishness asserts itself and keeps my mouth shut.

    I’ve heard great arguments on both sides. On the first, worship isn’t about me. Who am I to decide what lyrics are or are not worthy? That is God’s call, and it’s awfully arrogant of me to judge lyrics when I ought to be praising the Lord God Almighty! On the other side, some lyrics are just… nonsense. Emotion and good intentions do not proper worship make.

    Quoth the Apostle Paul, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” It seems shallow to sing with my spirit — or my passions, or my emotions, or my good intentions — and leave out my mind altogether. It seems to me that worship without sincerity is useless. How can I be sincere about awful lyrics?

    1. Well done, Adam. I never would have articulated it that clearly, but I agree. For me, what’s most important is not forcing myself to sing lyrics that don’t make sense, but not making fun of a song around other who find it very meaningful. I have to realize that even bad poetry might become precious to someone because of the circumstance or attitude it speaks to, and for them, singing it can be worship. If I make my refusal to sing a snobbish thing where after the service I critique the artistic quality of each song, that’s bad.

      Also, I never thought about that verse in that way, but it fits very well. Thanks for making me think about this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s