From time to time, somebody will critique my hymn critiques by saying that I spend too much time on the intellectual side of hymns and not enough on the emotional side. Certainly, when it comes to emotion in worship, there are things worth discussing, and I’ve discussed them extensively.
However, it is true that I don’t spend a lot of time arguing that we need to sing more emotional hymns in worship. Differently emotional hymns, yes, but not really that the emotional level of our repertoire is too low.
This is true for two reasons. First, I think that to the extent that we have emotional deficiencies in worship, those problems are much more likely to lie with the worshiper than the repertoire. God’s people have been struggling with going through the motions since Malachi 1, of not before, and the tradition of apathy in worship is alive and well.
However, the solution to the apathy problem doesn’t lie in the adoption of hymns that manufacture emotion. You can be a spectator at a rock concert and ride the emotional wave, but a-cappella congregational worship works differently. Only enthusiastic participants are likely to experience an emotional reaction. If brethren aren’t eager to participate enthusiastically, no hymn will move them. If, on the other hand, they arrive determined to rejoice, no hymn will prevent them. The cure for apathy must be found in the heart of the worshiper.
Second, overly intellectual hymns aren’t a problem in practice. I cannot think of a single hymn that has entered the repertoire in my lifetime that I would describe as emotionally deficient. Conversely, I have seen (and written!) dozens of hymns that sank without a trace because something about them didn’t work emotionally. In fact, this is the most common reason why my hymns (and the hymns of others in my circle) fail. A hymn that’s all content with no feeling is as dead as faith without works.
This is a problem that solves itself. No song leader selects uninspiring hymns because they have lots of sound Biblical teaching and are good for the congregation, like broccoli (a possible exception: singing “O Happy Day” when somebody’s about to get baptized). Instead, we sing the songs that move us. Not every hymn in the repertoire works for everybody, but all of them work for somebody. Brethren will sing the most vacuous lyrics imaginable if the music is emotionally powerful.
As a result, I don’t critique hymns for lack of emotion, any more than nutritionists critique diets for lack of potato chips and chocolate cake. Christians who have never thought about hymn content in their lives will still intuitively seek out hymns that they enjoy singing. Even people who don’t care about Bible authority and a-cappella worship will still look for an emotional experience in worship. This is the aspect of worship that human beings most naturally get right.
Other aspects, though, are more challenging. Unlike potato chips and chocolate cake, emotion in worship is good for us, but it doesn’t provide a balanced diet by itself. We’re called to sing not only with the spirit, but with the spirit and with the understanding.
However, because thinking about what we’re singing is effortful, brethren often don’t want to invest the effort. Emotional worship that is not also thoughtful is a problem, and it’s a problem that’s hard to avoid when we worship with content-light hymns. As a result, most of my commentary is focused on content. It’s not so much that I’m neglecting the role of emotion in hymns. It’s that I’m taking the presence of emotion for granted.
From an earthly perspective, many of the prophets of the Old Testament got a raw deal. On this list, we certainly must include Jeremiah. He was forbidden to marry and have a family, he couldn’t attend parties or funerals, and he prophesied in a time that was utterly hostile to his message. As a result, he was imprisoned, put in stocks, dumped in a cistern, and threatened with death. Even his own extended family plotted to kill him.
This makes for grim reading, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun for Jeremiah to live through, either. Frequently, he complains to God about his lot in life, but God’s replies are generally unsympathetic. In such circumstances, it would have been easy for Jeremiah to give up on God, but Jeremiah knew very well that he didn’t dare. At the very beginning of his work, God tells him in Jeremiah 1:17, “But you, dress yourself for work, arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.”
In other words, there was exactly one way that Jeremiah could hope to survive the dying convulsions of the kingdom of Judah. He had to stay 100 percent faithful to God. If he wasn’t, if he allowed fear to deter him from proclaiming God’s word, God would meet his silence with the very woes he hoped to avoid. Even though serving God looked like the riskiest choice, it was actually the safest.
Today, few of us have lives that can compare to Jeremiah’s for sheer wretchedness. We enjoy many of the blessings he was not allowed to experience, and we don’t have his surfeit of enemies. However, even in much less trying times, we still experience the temptation to disobey God because of fear.
We go get drunk with our friends because we’re afraid that they won’t be our friends any more if we don’t. We return evil for evil in our marriages because we’re afraid that if we don’t, we’ll get walked on. We’re as touchy as a fresh burn because we’re afraid that others won’t respect us if we aren’t.
And so on. The devil will attempt to use our fears against us in innumerable ways. However, as with Jeremiah, the only way forward is to defy our fears for God’s sake. If we allow ourselves to be dismayed before our spiritual enemies, He will dismay us before them.
This is generally not obvious in the moment. In the moment, it seems that only by giving in to our fears can we protect ourselves. We must remember, though that protecting ourselves isn’t our job. It’s God’s. If we are faithful to Him, He will be faithful to us.
Much of the time, we tend to understand the kings of Israel and Judah in a binary way. We read “X did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “Y did what was right in the sight of the Lord” not as summaries, but as blanket statements that accurately describe every aspect of a king’s life.
This understanding is an oversimplification in both directions. Even a rotter like Ahab believed in God, feared God, and spoke with His prophets. On the other hand, even the most righteous kings of Judah weren’t perfect.
Consider, for instance, the career of the righteous king Hezekiah. In 1 Kings 18:5, he receives the encomium, “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.” As impressive as this sounds, we must recognize that it’s where Hezekiah ended up, not where he started. Despite his opposition to idolatry, there were times in his life when he failed to trust.
This is most evident in the prophecies of Isaiah that concern the events of Hezekiah’s reign. In Isaiah 22:8-11, Isaiah says of Hezekiah, “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to Him who did it, or see Him who planned it long ago.” For all of his righteousness, Hezekiah found himself in a place where he still relied on what he could do rather than on the salvation of the Lord.
However, everything that Hezekiah could accomplish was overwhelmed in the massive Assyrian invasion of 701 BC. The Assyrians came from the north like a tidal wave, destroying everything in sight. They conquered all of Judah, including the citadel of Lachish, except for Jerusalem itself.
Jerusalem is clearly next on the hit list. Assyrian officials inform the inhabitants that they must surrender instead of being destroyed. Now, in Isaiah 37:3-4, Hezekiah says, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has send to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”
There’s no more talk about armories and reservoirs and walls. Now, Hezekiah has put his trust completely in God, a trust not shared by any king before or after him. He hopes for his redemption not for his own glory, but for God’s.
Today, it’s easy for us to be early-Hezekiah-style Christians. We do the right things, but we continue to trust in ourselves. Sooner or later, that selfish trust will betray us. We will learn, like Hezekiah, that security can only be found in God. The only question is whether we will learn from his calamity or our own.
The Internet is one of the most powerful inventions in human history. If we use it to seek the Lord, it can accomplish great things for Him. Without the Internet, I certainly wouldn’t be able to blog, and I probably wouldn’t be able to write hymns. This is to say nothing, of course, of the many opportunities the online world gives us to encourage one another.
However, anything so powerful is also dangerous. Fire can warm us, but it can also consume us. So too with the Internet. Used wisely, it can be powerfully edifying. Used foolishly, it can be powerfully destructive. Let’s consider, then, the subject of spiritual wisdom and the Internet.
First, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SEE. Consider our Lord’s wise words on the subject in Matthew 6:22-23. If we look at good things, they will elevate and ennoble us. On the other hand, if we look at evil things, they will degrade and corrupt us.
This starts, of course, with pornography. I’m sure all of you have heard multiple sermons about porn, and yet I’m equally sure that it continues to be a problem in this congregation and in congregations all across the country. There are so many ill effects from porn use that I hardly know where to begin. Like most sins, it tends to be addictive. The more we use it, the less we enjoy it. It enslaves us so that we seek out viler and viler things for less and less reward. Thus, passing pleasures of porn lead us to lasting misery. Porn is also destructive of our relationships, relationships with present and future spouses, but especially our relationship with God. We may think that we have concealed our habit from others, but we have not hidden it from Him.
Porn, however, is not the only thing on the Internet that is sinful and tempts us to sin. Lying is a sin, outbursts of wrath are a sin, contentiousness is a sin, divisiveness is a sin, and there are millions of websites that promote falsehood, anger, contention, and division. Sad to say, brethren are often very open about their patronage of these sites, especially in the political realm, because their prejudices blind them to the dangers. As a rule, friends, any time we read something that confirms the best that we want to believe about our political side or confirms the worst that we want to believe about the other side, the site is probably lying! If we uncritically swallow this dangerous brew of falsehood and bitterness, it will poison us. Like porn, it will corrupt us in ways that we never would have imagined. We need to be careful what we put our eyes on.
Finally, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SAY. Look here at Ephesians 4:29-30. Today, our speech is not limited to what comes out of our mouths, and our keyboards, apps, and cameras have every bit as much power to corrupt. Let’s start by considering communication that is sexually provocative. Over the past couple years, one of the big movements online has been the appearance of “Stories” apps: Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, and their predecessor, Snapchat. The big draw for all of these things is that they allow temporary posts on the Internet. 24 hours go by, and it’s gone, so that that way the dirty picture you sent your boyfriend or the video of your drunken party won’t show up when your grandmother or a prospective employer does an Internet search on you.
I have a couple of thoughts about that. First of all, I have a nasty suspicion that all that stuff won’t stay as private as its users hope. Numbers 32:23 is still true, and sooner or later, our sin will find us out. Even if that’s not true, all the dirty photos and dirty texts are still corrupting. Even if you’re sending them to your spouse, I still worry about privacy concerns, and if you’re sending them to somebody else, you’re trying to tempt them to sin. This is not a good idea!
Speech that is lying, angry, or contentious is equally corrupting. Our society idealizes self-expression, but if our best reason for putting something online is to express ourselves, that’s a sign that we’re not behaving wisely. We’re not thinking about the effect of our words on others. We’re just looking to “tell it like it is”. Friends, that’s about like throwing hand grenades while blindfolded. The results are unpredictable, but they’re likely to be bad. The next time we’re about to click share on that inflammatory meme or pound out an angry status update, let’s reconsider. If we use our online speech instead to persuade, edify, amuse, and enlighten, we’ll all be better off.