Do Bad Worship Lyrics Keep Us Wretchy?

I recently read a beautiful post by Addie Zierman over at her blog “How To Talk Evangelical” about hyperbole in worship. In it, Addie talks about our tendency to go over the top in the songs we sing, as if we really have had nothing but joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts all the time and every day, since we gave our lives to Jesus. As if the Christian life is all unicorns and grassy hills full of strawberries. Her main point: Let’s be real, friends. We need authenticity in our worship.

Addie is right about all of this, but I want to take one more step. Our lyric problems do not end when we embrace authenticity. In fact, if we stop there, we might end up in spiritual defeatism. It happens accidentally, but it happens often.

I offer this example with fear and trembling, because it is a sacred and gorgeous song:

“Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love!
Take my heart, Lord, Take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”

First of all, I get it. Robert Robinson, the hymn’s writer, was pouring out his soul in a torrent of honesty. He could smell his own weakness, and he was afraid of it, so he asked God to lock up his wandering heart to keep him from backsliding altogether. Whatever he was dealing with, it must have been rough.I applaud him for his heartfelt prayer, but I cannot bring myself to sing those words.

Let me demonstrate why:

A young father is crouching over his daughter’s bed with a closed storybook. She says she loves him and asks if he love her. He kisses her forehead and says,

“You know I love you, princess. But I am prone to wander.”

She asks, “What do you mean, dad?”

“I mean that I love you, yes, but I am prone to leave you.”

The poor girl would not be comforted by this blast of authenticity. She had thought her dad was strong.

Better yet, Imagine this man on a date with his wife”

“Happy anniversary, honey,” he says. “Twenty years… It’s been amazing, but you must know I am prone to wander after other women.”

“Excuse me?” she says.

He tries to reassure her that he does not want to leave her, that is only being honest, but she is not comforted so easily.

“What do you mean, you’re prone to wander?”

“I’m just so weak,” he tells her. “It’s only a matter of time before I walk out on you.”

She stops buttering the roll in her fingers and storms out of the restaurant, ignoring his frantic pleas for her to lock him in the garage so he can’t run out on her.

What would you say to such a man? Maybe he is sending out an honest cry for help. Maybe he is in a deep, personal crisis. But more likely, he’s just being a pathetic wuss who needs to be slapped.

So why do we think it’s okay say this very same thing to God?

This is perhaps less about authenticity and more about avoiding pride. We are afraid of becoming like Peter, who said “Even if everyone else leaves you, I never will!” But Peter’s problem was in his heart not his words. He was a scared little man that night, and Jesus knew it. God forbid this one man’s bad example would convince us that loyal intentions ought to be frowned upon. They shouldn’t. Marriage vows, business contracts, and even “You bet I’ll be home for Christmas” assurances are all noble aims. It is not a sin to aim high, but it might be a sin to aim low.

I want to sing honest songs, yes, but also ones that challenge my faith at least a little. Songs that call me to a higher ledge of spiritual determination and hope.

Please hear me: if you are struggling in guilt and sin, don’t pretend that you aren’t. Be honest about it. Ask God for help. Ask people who love you for help. And yes, sing the song, already! Just don’t make it your weekly anthem, because this spiritual frustration you feel is not supposed to be the norm. God wants to bring you out of your funk and make you strong. He wants to complete the good work He started so that one day, you can say things like Paul said: “Follow me… Do what I do… I have finished the race… I am dead to sin…”

If we were all really a half breath away from renouncing Christ, that would be one thing, but I don’t think we are. Our problem is that we think it is holy thing to tell ourselves we suck.

I’m not against this song in its proper context; I am against the self-fulfilling prophecy of spiritual defeatism. I fear the more we obsess over our own compulsive wretchedness, the more wretchy we will become. And then we really will be “prone to wander.”

12 replies
  1. nate e
    nate e says:

    As I read the passage from the song, I can appreciate the authors honesty. It seems to me that he is asking for the easy way out. Which follows life’s direction; the path of least resistance. How is it the easy way out? Because by asking God to limit his options to the correct option, it is no longer an option, but the Way. A person is on a diet, and padlocks their fridge. Do they lose weight because of their concrete will, or because they can’t find the key? If the end result is the same, need we worry about the mode? Should we be praying for God to bind our Will, or that He forgives us when He won’t?

    Anyway, not sure if you remember, but you taught me biology at SCCA in MN. Just noticed you were a pastor (congrats 🙂 and enjoy reading your posts. Feel free to respond/correct my rambling. Cheers.

    • Jason Hague
      Jason Hague says:

      Nate! Of course I remember you. In fact, when I saw “Nate E” I wondered if that might be you.

      This is a very well thought out response. I totally agree. And the thing is, God doesn’t limit our options. He gave us a will and we are stuck with it. Still, I understand what he’s feeling. I’ve been there before.

      Thanks for chiming in, man. I just sent you a FB friend request. Love to catch up.

  2. Josh
    Josh says:

    I like it. In our modern “worship” music we have drifted into a false, poetic, and God-degrading authenticity that isn’t healthy for the church. We need to define what worship really is and the purpose for the church. When you’re in a counseling session, yes by all means, PLEASE be honest and authentic so that you can be helped and prayed for; deal with issues and don’t be pretentious. But when you’re in worship it is about GOD and GOD alone…praise doesn’t build up God, but builds up our confidence in Him. Healthy worship is found in a faith expression even in the midst of challenges. Saying “GOD YOU ARE GREAT” in the midst of difficulties and hardship has nothing to do with not being authentic, but it is actually what will bring us back to reality.

    • Jason Hague
      Jason Hague says:

      Beautifully put! Especially that last bit. I’ve struggled the past couple years with being able to sing praise in difficult times. I thought it was fake. But I was wrong. It was a choice to enter into a realm that was bigger than my own struggles. As CS Lewis points out, God’s realm is more solid than ours. Worship yanks us “back into reality.” I love this, Josh.

  3. Janae
    Janae says:

    Amen! I totally agree!! And my spirit is called forth and strengthened by your cry! Your thoughts honor our Father and honor the depth and purity of His creation. And I so identify with Jason’s comments too! Worship ought to align us with reality. Anywho, I just really appreciate you writing this. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Janae
    Janae says:

    I mean… I agree with josh and love and appreciate that you Mr Hague are speaking, sharing and overflowing! Man! Every time read a post I just have to speak out loud, “I know thats right!”

  5. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    I think unless you are a sinless person, you are “prone to wander”. I don’t think anyone is prone to holiness.

    • Jason Hague
      Jason Hague says:

      Good point, Jessica. My friend Philip touched on this very point last night in long Facebook discussion. I’ll quote him:

      “We all need to be aware of the constant need to guard against the sin that so easily besets us. In that sense, we are all prone to sin. But if ‘prone’ means a nagging desire to leave God for another lover…That needs to really be rooted out and dealt with.” I agree with Philip. And when I hear “prone to leave the God I love,” I don’t think he’s talking about besetting sin. Maybe that’s what the author intended, but it sounds to me like a break in relationship, and that’s what I’m opposed to. Spiritual defeatism.

      Hope that makes sense. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Addie Zierman
    Addie Zierman says:

    Thanks so much for the mention here Jason. So glad that you liked my post, and I love that you’re plunging deeper into the language of worship here and opening up the discussion.

    The “prone to wander” verse of this beautiful old hymn has, to me, been always very poignant. I can see how one might argue against it and call it spiritual defeatism, but to me, it speaks to the reality of my own heart. Even as I pray, I notice how easy it is for my thoughts to flit away from God; I am praising him with my lips, but my mind keeps drifting into worry or into lists or into the lesser gods of success and happiness and relationships.

    Moreover, I have seen my own weakness up close; I have been to the place where I’ve almost left the God I love, and as a lifelong Super Christian, I never ever thought I would get there.

    To me, this is a great love song. It is praise because it acknowledges that I cannot do the Christian life on my own. I need God to grab hold of me because I am not always strong enough to hold onto him.

    But here’s the great thing about worship: God doesn’t require specific songs, specific words. In him, there is freedom to sit down if a song feels dishonest or defeatist. I know that there are songs that bother me that breathe life deep into other people…and vice versa. We all get to be exactly where we’re at, and God is unchanged, his love for us unaffected. Just another reason he is worthy, worthy, worthy of our praise.

    • Jason Hague
      Jason Hague says:

      Thanks for responding, Addie. I appreciate your comment, and I’m glad you’re hearing something different in this song. I’ve had several responses from people who hear what you do. Thank God!

      For me, this isn’t about the hymn itself, but about the larger issue of spiritual defeatism. I, too, grew up “talking evangelical,” and the idea that the Christian life is a Thomas Kinkaid painting drives me insane as it does you. But in my years in ministry, I have also seen the other extreme, where Christians wallow in their own shame, as if there is no chance that they can ever win. So they get comfortable losing, and eventually embrace hopelessness instead of faith in His power to bring victory. Gosh, I’ve been so close to that place…

      I want to see a return to faith and determination, where, wen we fail, we can lean even more into His grace to help us win. I want our anthem to be, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.”

      • Peggy Smith
        Peggy Smith says:

        Wow, I am enjoying reading what you penned, Jason, along with the other responses. Especially by Addie of whom you shared her pennings and heart. There have been times when a “Christian” worship song has not borne witness to me and I have learned to be quiet and still in my spirit and cry out for engagement with Him irregardless. He is always faithful, lest I too get distracted. It happens!

        He knows the song of our hearts……whether in words sung, thoughts flitting around your mind or otherwise.There is victory always and Victory is a Man. His name is Jesus and that, I long more and more to be in that experiential knowledge of ALL He is and embodies. So limitless, so fathomless………Wisdom, Love, Righteousness and on and on………

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