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Worship: From the Frying Pan Into the Fire

Until yesterday it had been quite a while since I had written about worship. I had forgotten what a difficult and even contentious issue it is within the church. I guess, at least to some extent, it has always been this way. The issue of music brings out both the best and the worst in Christians. While I had another article ready for posting today, I thought I would put it off for a day and dedicate one more article to worship while my mind and the minds of those reading this site are tuned in to this topic. This is a topic I have written about before in an article I originally titled “Songs of Procrastination.”

I had recently read (and enjoyed) a book edited by Carson entitled, Worship by the Book. Carson suggested that some Christians have come to worship worship instead of worshipping God through worship. He says, “This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like ‘Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.’ The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three of four times, you are no farther ahead. The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God—not by singing about doing it, but by doing it.”

Since I read that, these words have often played in my mind, causing me to examine many of the worship songs I have encountered. I listened to some of the worship albums I have accumulated over the past years and was struck by how true Carson’s words are. Carson also writes, “Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.” It is all too easy for us to engage in “worship” which does not worship God.

This morning I thought of Sonicflood’s self-titled debut album. This one rocked the Christian music scene when it arrived a few years ago and immediately many of these songs went from nearly-unknown to exceedingly popular. Take a look at the lyrics for “I Want to Know You” (In the Secret):

In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness You are there
In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait only for You
‘Cause I want to know You more

I want to know You
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more
I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more

I am reaching for the highest goal
That I might receive the prize
Pressing ownward, pushing every hindrance aside, out of my way
‘Cause I want to know You more

I was led to conclude that song really says nothing of great substance about God. As the Christian sings this song he pleads to know God more, to hear His voice and to see His face, yet all this time he probably has the Bible sitting on the pew beside him! As Carson says, after you have sung this song through a few times you are no farther ahead. This song will not help you know Him, hear Him, touch Him or see Him. Consider another favorite from the same album:

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see you, I want to see you

To see you high and lifted up,
Shining in the light of your glory.
Pour out your power and love,
as we sing holy, holy, holy.

Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy
I want to see you

I want to see you
I want to see you

For sake of brevity I removed the portions of the lyric that are repetitive. This song is similar to the last in that it pleads what the songwriter wants to do (he wants to see God), yet it brings him no closer to doing so. Granted this song has at least somewhat more depth of theology to it than the first example, but it still does not bring the person any closer to what he desires. We can tell God that we want to see Him, but that does not make it happen!

Despite the risk of belaboring this point, allow me to provide one final example. Here are the lyrics for “You Are Worthy of My Praise” by David Ruis.

I will worship (I will worship)
With all of my heart (with all of my heart)
I will praise You (I will praise You)
With all of my strength (all my strength)
I will seek You (I will seek You)
All of my days (all of my days)
And I will follow (I will follow)
All of Your ways (all Your ways)

I will give You all my worship
I will give You all my praise
You alone I long to worship
You alone are worthy of my praise

I will bow down (I will bow down)
Hail You as king (hail You as king)
And I will serve You (I will serve You)
Give You everything (give You everything)
I will lift up (I will lift up)
My eyes to Your throne (my eyes to Your throne)
And I will trust You (I will trust You)
I will trust You alone (trust You alone)

Once more, the lyrics of the song do not express any substantial worship to God. The words talk about all the things the songwriter (and thus the person singing the song) intends to do, but does not actually do it. We do not worship God by telling Him that we will, at some point in the future, worship Him. It is akin to a husband heading to work and instead of telling his wife that he loves her, telling her that he will express his love for her at some other time. That is not an expression of love!

I do not wish to denigrate any and all songs that are written in a future tense or that anticipate future actions, blessings or rewards. There are some songs that anticipate the future and are built around passionate, biblical, soul-stirring truths. But too many songs really do not do this. They speak about worship without actually allowing us or encouraging us to engage in worship. A song that is merely about worship is no more worthwhile in corporate worship than a song about making a peanut butter sandwich. I wonder if we shouldn’t term these “songs of procrastination.” After all, by singing them we are procrastinating the very thing we claim to desire. Why not forget “In the Secret” and instead sing a song that will tell us about God and how we may know Him? If we want to know Him so badly, perhaps we should just end the song and open the Scriptures. Instead of telling God “I will worship you” and “I will bow down,” why don’t we just do it! Worship Him and bow before Him instead of just expressing the desire.

Thankfully, there are many songs that do this. One hymn, a favorite of mine, came to mind—“God, Be Merciful to Me” which was penned by Jo­seph P. Hol­brook. It is an adaptation of Psalm 51. I can hardly imagine a better song to lead an album or a worship service. Please, do not skip casually over the words, but read them, consciously looking for expressions of true worship.

God, be merciful to me,
On Thy grace I rest my plea;
Plenteous in compassion Thou,
Blot out my transgressions now;
Wash me, make me pure within,
Cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin.

My transgressions I confess,
Grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against Thy grace
And provoked Thee to Thy face;
I confess Thy judgment just,
Speechless, I Thy mercy trust.

I am evil, born in sin;
Thou desirest truth within.
Thou alone my Savior art,
Teach Thy wisdom to my heart;
Make me pure, Thy grace bestow,
Wash me whiter than the snow.

Broken, humbled to the dust
By Thy wrath and judgment just,
Let my contrite heart rejoice
And in gladness hear Thy voice;
From my sins O hide Thy face,
Blot them out in boundless grace.

Gracious God, my heart renew,
Make my spirit right and true;
Cast me not away from Thee,
Let Thy Spirit dwell in me;
Thy salvation’s joy impart,
Steadfast make my willing heart.

Now this songwriter accomplishes what he sets out to do. He does not merely tell God that he is sorry for his sin, but he asks God to cleanse and forgive him. He admits his sinfulness and his brokenness and acknowledges that God’s judgment is just. He expresses confidence in God’s grace and forgiveness. It is a powerful and moving song. It is a fitting song to begin a worship service so the believer can acknowledge his unworthiness, plead God’s mercy, and rest in the acknowledgement of God’s pardon. Do not think that I am denigrating contemporary music in favor of hymns. There are many contemporary songs that likewise express depth and go far beyond mere suggestions. Here is a modern worship song which wonderfully expresses heartfelt worship, and not just the intention to engage in worship. This is “The Glory of the Cross” by Bob Kauflin.

What wisdom once devised the plan
Where all our sin and pride
Was placed upon the perfect Lamb
Who suffered, bled, and died?
The wisdom of a Sovereign God
Whose greatness will be shown
When those who crucified Your Son
Rejoice around Your throne

And, oh, the glory of the cross
That You would send Your Son for us
I gladly count my life as loss
That I might come to know
The glory of, the glory of the cross

What righteousness was there revealed
That sets the guilty free
That justifies ungodly men
And calls the filthy clean?
A righteousness that proved to all
Your justice has been met
And holy wrath is satisfied
Through one atoning death

Returning to Worship by the Book, Carson makes an analogy between a person who watches a sunset and another person who stands before the same sunset but becomes fixated on watching himself watch the sunset. The first person delights in the beauty of Creation, while the second person can see no further than the act of watching it. In this way he misses the sunset altogether. What folly it is to miss the beauty of the sunset by fixating on ourselves. And what a tragedy it is if we go no further than asking God to touch us or speak to us, but do not use what He has given us to accomplish that end. We would be better off not singing at all than engaging in “worship” that unintentionally focuses on us and commends us for our act of worship.