(Part One can be found here. Yes, I’m writing a sequel to a blog post I wrote three months ago.)
A few Sundays back my church sang, “Cornerstone,” a lovely remixed version of the classic hymn, “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less.” (That’s the official title. Titles kind of defaulted to first lines when hymnists weren’t feeling particularly creative.)
As I sang, I thought back to my childhood hymn-singing nights (yes, actual hymnals, and yes, Sunday night services populated mostly by elderly folks) and realized that hey, one of the lines was changed.
Original Version: When darkness veils his lovely face / I rest on his unchanging grace.
New Version: When darkness seems to hide his face / I rest on his unchanging grace.
The way I figured it, there were only a few reasons why this line might have been changed.
- Calling God’s face “lovely” calls to mind Facebook comments on a teenage girl’s prom pictures, and feels a bit strange. (Also, isn’t there a Biblical concept about God’s face being so overwhelming holy so humans can’t look directly at it? I think that’s a thing.)
- The last line of the stanza says, “My anchor holds within the veil.” Having “veil” in the first and last line seems repetitive and confusing. (Come to think of it, what does that last line mean? Is there a nautical use of veil that I’m unaware of, or is there some serious metaphor-mixing going on here?)
- The writers wanted to overemphasize the fact that God’s distance is not because he is actually distant, but because we perceive him to be because of our sin or our fallen world. (“Don’t worry; he’s not really hiding his face, guys! It’s a metaphor! A metaphor!”)
As I looked at this list, I became less and less confident that the third answer was the actual reason the lyrics were changed. Because A and B are strong contenders, people. (To those who, like me, sometimes complain about nonsensical lyrics in modern worship songs, let’s realize that the hymns had problems too.)
But regardless of whether it’s the actual reason in this case, the modified lyrics made me wonder: do we tend to downplay the distance of God?
Historically, this has not been a problem for the Christian church. We are the faith of Job, of the dark night of the soul, of persecution and famine and sickness and sword and all kind of other cheery things involving death and suffering.
But in recent years, I think the American church at least is having a harder time with concepts like sorrow and doubt. We try to focus on the upbeat, the cheerful, the inspirational and safe for the whole family! (Sidenote: the Bible is not safe for the whole family. To prove this, make a list of Bible stories you would not want realistically portrayed in a children’s coloring book. Yeah. That’s what I thought.)
Even those of us not on the prosperity gospel bus don’t like to do a day at VBS where the theme is “Follow Jesus and Suffer.” We talk about our blessings on Facebook and Twitter and write only the happiest verses on calendars and coffee mugs. We take the dark night of the soul and string up icicle lights and disco balls and glow-in-the-dark smiley face decals. “What? Nothing wrong here. Can’t you see how great my life is? It’s just a party! All the time!”
Let me emphasize that I think the phrase “when darkness seems to hide his face” is totally theologically accurate. No problems there. God is not actually hiding from us during hard times.
What I want to think about is whether we’re a little too afraid of laments.
It reminds me of something said by one of my favorite vinegar-tongued literary heroes, Marilla Cuthbert (what, you don’t have a list of those?). When Anne asked her is she’d ever been in the depths of despair, Marilla curtly informed her, “No, I have not. To despair is to turn your back on God.”
That is theologically accurate. That is orthodoxy.
Except Psalm 130:1. “Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none.”
Thank you, David, man after God’s own heart, for clearing that up for us.
Well, that’s the Old Testament, you might say. Fine, how about 2 Corinthians 1:8, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself”? Although just a few chapters later, Paul goes on to say that, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
So which is it? Despair or not? God as absent or God as present? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” or “Persecuted, but not forsaken”?
How should we talk about those low times in our lives when darkness veils—or seems to veil—God’s face? When we try to smile enthusiastically after the testimony of someone who was healed but inside are choking on the response of “but he doesn’t always”…with a particular prayer request in mind. When joy, if it exists at all, is a choice and not an emotion. When we hear a sacred silence instead of a divine monologue explaining all of the whys.
What do we do then?
We read the lamenting Psalms. We read Job and ask whether he was whining, venting, or just being honest. We read Ecclesiastes and take note of what’s meaningless and what isn’t. We use bottled praise. We cry out to God, and sometimes it devolves into just crying, and that’s okay.
We affirm the theological truth that God is unchanging and always present, but don’t back down from the experiential reality that sometimes we don’t feel that way.
Because, after all, the chorus to both versions of the old hymn is the same: “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.” And that is what matters most.