I was at a Christian conference last night and sang two worship songs (new to me) that caught my attention. One of them, I couldn’t really sing along with. The other, I could. It was hard for me to sing the first song because I felt I could not sing it with my heart as I could not agree with the lyrics. The second song was simply wonderful and the lyrics resonated deeply with my soul.
Exactly what lyrics did the two songs contain? While I can’t remember most of the lines, one line of the first song went “I’m taking up the cross daily” and another “I choose to stand for this generation.” The second song was all about Jesus’ beauty and worthiness and had a line (in fact, a few of them) that went “You’re worthy to be praised”.
So what’s wrong with the first song? To put it simply, it’s man-centered. The focus is on what I’m going to do for God and others. The second is God-centered because the song is all about how wonderful and worthy God is and what God has done for, or is, to us.
Maybe others can sing “I’m taking up the cross daily” with a clear conscience, but for me, I know that I’m not taking up the cross daily! I know that what I do is imperfect. I know that many times I do not take up the cross daily. So how can I sing that? Saying “I choose to stand for this generation” is slightly better. At least it’s not saying that I am currently and always doing so. It’s a choice. So I don’t have that great a problem with that line, but it’s still man-centered because it’s still about what man does or hopes to do for God. It’s almost like boasting and saying, “God I’m going to do this and that for you.” If we’re to come close to boasting in anything, if we’re to come close to constantly talking about something, should it be of what we do for God or what God has done for us? I definitely don’t want to go singing about what I do for God because what I do for God is so imperfect. I’m perfect and righteous and confident because of what Christ has done for me and I want to sing about that all the time! I want to sing about God, not me!
I don’t want to be too critical and say that those who sing such “man-centered” songs are in sin or whatever. Of course they are not. I just think that it’s better for our worship songs to focus on what God has done in the past, is doing, and will do for us, rather than what we did, do or will do for God. Why? Because when we talk about what God did, do or will do, He gets the glory. When we focus on what we did, do or will do, we’re mainly focusing on our works and we get the glory!
For example, say I want to tell you about my friend David. In the first scenario, I say:
David is so good. I was in debt but he loved me so much that he sold his house and helped me repay my debt. He is such a wonderful and kind person!
In the second scenario, I say (without telling you what David did for me):
I’m going to give David a treat tomorrow. I want to make him happy. I’ll book two seats at his favorite restaurant and treat him to a surprise dinner tomorrow! Oh, and on Saturday I’m going to help him wash his car…
In both scenarios, you’ll see David as someone who did something good. But in which scenario would David evoke greater praise from you? Most likely the first because you knew what David did. In the second scenario, you don’t really have a clue as to why I’m treating David.
I believe that songs (and sermons too) which focus on what God did, does and will do for us evokes greater emotions and praise from our hearts. Being reminded what Jesus did for us moves us greatly.
In a sermon on “The Inner Essence of Worship“, John Piper defines the essence of worship as satisfaction in God. He said:
Another implication of saying that the essence of worship is satisfaction in God is that worship becomes radically God-centered… If the focus shifts onto our giving to God, one result I have seen again and again is that subtly it is not God that remains at the center but the quality of our giving.
In worship, we should focus on God, not on our giving to God, because God is the object of our worship. If you’re a big fan of Tiger Woods, when you talk to your friends do you tell them what you’re going to do for him (e.g. “I’m going to mail a present to him tomorrow!”) or would you be more likely to tell them all about him and what he’s done? Even if you talk about both things, which would you spend more time talking about? Most likely, you’ll talk about him and what he’s done, rather than what you’re going to do for him. Doing that brings more “glory” to Tiger Woods and evokes awe of him in the those you’re talking to.
In an article entitled “Geoff Bullock changes his mind on worship” (from the magazine The Briefing), Bullock (writer of the popular song “Power Of Your Love”) is quoted as saying:
Worship is based on what God has done, not on what we do. Worship has nothing at all to do with what we have done and everything to do with what God has done… Part of our problem is that we assume Old Testament models of worship still stand beside the cross – which is the most absurd theology.”
Now, I understand why many lyrics have “I will (do something)” in them. Isn’t worship after all what we do for God in response to what God in Christ did for us? I think that’s true. There’s nothing wrong per se with singing “I will praise you”. There are many instances of that in the Psalms. However, as we look in the Psalms, we see how often what we do in response (“I will praise…”, “I will lift up…”) normally comes at the end of the Psalm. In the beginning, the focus is on God and what He has done, is doing, or will do. The greater emphasis seems to be on Him and what He’s done for us. What we do does come into view, but only in response to how wonderful God is. Therefore, I think the focus of our songs should be really on God and what He’s done for us, what he’s doing and what he’s going to do. This inspires heartfelt worship.
I don’t know about you, but everytime I sing about what God has done for me, I just want to praise and worship Him! Jesus died for my sins and yours. What can I give to Him but sing of his goodness!
To end, let me say that in the same way that I think it’s important to focus on God and His work in our songs, it’s important that we do the same in our sermons. It’s not wrong to exhort Christians to do things for God. However, the pattern in the Psalms for our songs (i.e. first on God and His work and then on what we do for Him in response) is the same pattern in the Epistles – which our sermons should model after. For example, in Ephesians 1-3, Paul talks firstly about what God has done for us in Christ. From chapters 4-6, he then exhorts us to live godly lives in response. First we need to hear God’s work for us. That not only glorifies Him but inspires faith and love in us. That gives us power to live for God. Without hearing about how good God is to us in Christ, we won’t have the power to live for Him.