Honesty in worship

I was struck by this quote recently by A.W. Tozer: ‘Christians’, he writes, ‘do not tell lies, they just go to church and sing them’. On one hand it made me feel uneasy, yet on the other it provoked me to think more deeply about worship. It is not that Tozer doubted the truth of the gospel, the objective reality of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection or ascension. He believed, as I do, in Jesus’ virgin birth, sin bearing death, victory over the grave, and ascension into heaven. It wasn’t the objective reality of the gospel that he was questioning, but the subjective response.

Last week we were singing the song:

‘As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after You.
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.’

I found myself praying that God would make this true in my life. For it is no light thing to declare that God is our only desire. Sometimes our singing betrays the truth in our hearts. Please do not misread me here. I am not saying that we should never declare our longing or desire for God nor am I criticising Martin Nystrom’s song, but I do want us to acknowledge that an exclamation of devotion is often times more aspirational than an honest reflection of our own hearts.

Though I enjoy singing, ‘As the deer pants for the water’. I often find I am singing words that I believe, but long to experience deeper, the truth of:

‘I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy.
You alone are the real joy-giver
And the apple of my eye.’

God certainly is the only One who will truly satisfy the longing of my heart, He certainly is the real joy-giver, and I have experienced satisfaction and joy in Him, but sometimes these words of worship are sung with little appreciation of their meaning or emotional connection. I believe God is worthy of both our minds and our hearts in worship. We must be careful in the way we worship God for we do not want Him to say of us, ‘these people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Isaiah 29:13).

It is worth remembering here that the ‘chief end of man is to worship God and enjoy Him forever’. Worship is not a means to some other end, but end in itself. It is the Spirit-led response to the revelation of God’s truth.

For this reason I agree with Paul Robinson when he writes, ‘When we choose subjective lyrics it is important that we are singing these words in response to a message, word or working of the Spirit in worship and not just by themselves’. There should be an honesty and a depth to our expression of devotion.

Surely, as Phil Baiden has said, we see this supremely in the Psalms. Where ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for you, my God’ (Psalm 42) continues not with simple expression of love or devotion to God but with a heart felt cry:

‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long:
Where is your God?’

In this we see an earthy worship that connects with believers lived experience whilst at the same time appealing to God to meet with us, to do more in our lives, to deepen our experience of His grace. So let us pray:

Lord, may our worship be a true reflection of what You are doing in our hearts and our lives at this time. Guide those who lead worship in our churches so that they might choose words and music that connect with our hearts and minds. Forgive the times when our worship pays little more than lip service to You. Help us to worship You in Spirit and in truth. In the name of Jesus and to His glory we ask it. Amen


About James Church

I'm a Minister of the Gospel serving Radford Road Church and Lillington Free Church in Royal Leamington Spa. I grew up as a son of the manse, but I came to personal faith in my early teens. I am committed to the authority of Scripture and the truths found there that by grace through faith in Christ we are reconciled to God to His praise and glory.

Posted on August 31, 2012, in Friday Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You are assuming that the way the singing in church works is by being object statements of fact. The one thing that you are missing is the blatantly obvious one, worship songs, hymns and psalms are poetry, and straight fact is not what poetry ever is. Equally worship is a performance and is staged. Is an actor lying when they play a character on the stage?

    So how do they work. One the work as part of a performance.You want to learn how to praise God, well the best way to learn is not to sit around and wait until you feel like praising, it is to start trying, you words may fail, stutter and fall short, but until you start trying to do so, you are not going to learn how. So in singing hymns we practice in worship something that should become part of our daily lives.

    Secondly, I would guess that your congregation has a surprisingly large worship song, hymn and psalm repertoire. My estimates say over 400 and probably double that. Now consider how much of the Bible they could happily recite by heart. The Worship Songs, Hymns and Psalms have become the language many have for approaching God. This is what they have to draw on when they are on their own. Thus the way around is not so much that our thoughts select the words, but the words create our thoughts. John Calvin acknowledged this, it is his reason for wanting the metrical psalms produced so early and so quickly. Not just for public worship but so they may be used in personal devotion.

    Thirdly let me return to the performance part, in communal worship we participate as one among others, it is good for a community to do its core activities together, but this means it will almost certainly do some of them at time that do not suit an individual. Being part of the wider community means at times we allow the activity of the wider community to take precedence over our own immediated desires. We choose to share in communal acts and emotions rather than our own individual ones. This is at the core of public worship, a shared experience, a time when we respond to God not as individuals but as a group (it is what sociologist call transedance). Singing the same words together to a familliar tune is a strong way of envoking that experience.

    Fourthly you are assuming the meaning of the hymn comes primarily from the words sung. This is not clear. Often more powerful ones come from the circumstances an individual has previously used or sung that piece, or the cultural associations that surround it. These can be very much at odds with the actual words. If that is the case, is someone lying because they join in fervently with “What a friend we have in Jesus” as it was sung at Aunty May’s funeral even though they are feeling very far from God?

  2. This couldn’t have come at a better time – I’m preaching about this very ‘subject’ in my church on Sunday. It was really great to read your thoughts on our honesty in worship and see where some of the parallels with my own thoughts are.

    Jean, here’s my thoughts on your comments. Before you read on, just a little disclaimer: I’m not having a go or anything, I’m purely expressing my thoughts/opinions on what has been said (just as you were free to), so please don’t take any offence :)…

    I don’t think worship is (well, I don’t think it should be) a performance. I know some people make it out to be a performance, and I don’t agree with that. In order to ‘learn’ how to praise God we don’t need to sing things we don’t mean, but we also don’t need to sit around waiting until we feel like praising. We just need to bring to God whatever is on our hearts at that moment – whether grief or joy, anger or love, annoyance or satisfaction – we need to lay that out before God and just say ‘This is where I’m at, God, work in this.’

    Praising God is a soul response. And we don’t have to be perfect. I mean, look at King David: he made a pretty massive mistake wouldn’t you say (involving lust, adultery, murder, deceit)? He messed up big-time, but was still the only person described in the Bible as ‘A man after God’s own heart’. But how? Well even though he made a big mess of things, he still worshipped God. What he offered to God was a completely open and vulnerable heart. He brought to God whatever was on his heart at the time – just read through the Psalms and you’ll see his joys, his heartaches, his victories and his pains. That is ‘valid’ worship; you don’t NEED to be happy and jumping and clapping and raising your hands, you could be just completely crying out to God because you don’t know what to do.

    You said “We choose to share in communal acts and emotions rather than our own individual ones” but this by no means means that we have to neglect where we are at in ourselves at that point. I know that when there’s a corporate response or song, for me personally if I’m not in a place to commit to what I’m singing/saying then I opt out of that and instead pray for those around me to mean what they’re declaring, and that God would bring me to a place where I can also declare it for myself. I’m not saying everyone has to do this, it’s just something I choose to do. I’d rather bring my heart to God in honesty and in a different way than everyone else, than doing something BECAUSE everyone else is and we’ve been asked to and it not comping from a place where I actually mean it.

    And as you said about the song ‘What A Friend We Have in Jesus’ – I do partially agree with this. Our very circumstance can change the meaning of a song for us personally. BUT if you look at the lyrics of this song, it’s acknowledging that we go through trials, griefs, temptations, weakness and that we need to bring these to God in prayer. It’s not necessarily saying “I’m so close to God right now all I can do is sing”, more like “I’m finding/I’ve found things really tough in my life and I know that I need to bring it to God because that’s the only true place I can find shelter”. I don’t think singing that at a funeral would be a lie, more a statement/reminder of this truth and finding peace within that. Does that make sense?

  3. Somebody leading worship has to think hard about the way their own responses and feelings relate to those of the others participating. The worship leader has a responsibility to act and speak with integrity from their own experience and faith and also has a responsibility to the congregation (gathered people of God), to each individual within it and above all a responsibility to God.

    This means that while we can’t ignore the question of personal honesty (can I as the person I am affirm the content of what is said and sung?) but we shouldn’t allow it to exclude other questions (what does this congregation need to build it up? what are the rules or expectations set by the tradition or traditions within which we are operating? what does God expect from us?).

    If on a particular day my subjective faith is weak or troubled do I have to express this in my worship leading? If I’m full of anger against God is that what a service should say? Sometimes these questions might be answered in the affirmative but sometimes not.

    James is right to point out that the words of hymns can sometimes be dissonant with what some or all those singing them actually feel or believe and that this is something we ought to acknowledge and be aware of but I think Jean is right, too, to say that this might matter in more than one way.

    Similarly on performance, we’re too quick, it seems to me, to dismiss worship as performance, as I tried to explain in this post on my blog


  4. I am not assuming anything Jean in fact I stated that I am focusing particularly on our subjective response in worship. Tozer’s quote is not a criticism of the singing of objective Christian truth, really its a plea for us to be more reflective about what we are singing and to acknowledge that sometimes we’re not there emotionally or devotionally but we can still declare our longing to be there. ‘You alone are my hearts desire’ is a massive statement of devotion and it may be a genuine and passionate response to a revelation of God’s grace, but sometimes it is sung lightly and without a genuine awareness of what that means (my article – or the Tozer quote – does shock but mostly it invites us to examine our worship and our hearts). I accept that worship is communal and it doesn’t always suit the individual and sometimes we sing for others. Certainly Nick’s point about the role of a worship leader is important. There are pastoral implications to this and sometimes a worship leader may be in a place where it is better for them to just sit and receive. There is also a tension between whether a worship leader is a lead worshipper or a or a worship leader. I also think we need to be really wary of saying that ‘worship is performance’ and then going on to suggest that examining, questioning, reflecting on the role of personal emotion in worship is in some way off limits. If worship is performance I tend towards viewing it as a performance for the audience of One and I believe that One looks on our hearts. At the moment that I experienced the saving power of the Holy Spirit in my life, I remember Matt Redman’s song ‘I’m coming back to the heart of worship’ was playing and I want to close with a few of the words from that song:

    I’ll bring You more than just a song
    For a song in itself
    Is not what You have required
    You search much deeper within
    Through the way things appear
    You’re looking into my heart

    I’m coming back to the heart of worship
    And it’s all about You
    All about You, Jesus
    I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it
    When it’s all about You
    It’s all about You Jesus

    May God bless your worship this coming Lord’s Day and may you rejoice with people of God knowing the power of God’s grace in your hearts. Amen.

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