Singing Different Words


Singing songs isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t really like the song. This wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to put so much time and effort into learning a song you don’t like because it’s not over once you sing it. The time you spent preparing for it seems to blaze that song forever into the hard disk of your brain.

I used to tease my friend and fellow worship leader Lisa about songs she was trying to learn by intentionally singing the wrong words while she was working on memorization. For some reason she didn’t see the humor.

Words Matter
Words really matter in songs, and especially in worship songs. The songs we sing in worship are essentially prayers that are sung to God, about God and for God. It’s not an “anything goes” exercise. There are words in worship that are right and others that are wrong, the same way it would be wrong of me to praise my wife for her beautiful blue eyes. Why? Because her eyes are brown. The words we sing are not only expressions of our affections and intentions toward God, they are statements of belief about his character and works that inform and reinforce our understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship to God.

I have probably developed the reputation of being a hyper-critical lyrical analyst among those who know me and work with me, but I don’t really care. I promise I don’t mean to be overly negative or needlessly obsess over semantic trivialities. But I can’t in good conscience turn a blind eye to something so important and dismiss it with “well, the writers probably meant this…” or “don’t sweat it, people will get the overall point.” Words matter, and they matter too much for us to be careless. If worship leading is a pastoral task (which it is), and we are teaching and discipling people as we lead them in song (which we are) then James 3:1 applies: we as worship pastors will be held accountable for the words we are putting in people’s mouths (and hearts) to sing to and about God. Theologian Gordon Fee has famously said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.”

Worship Shapes Us
One scriptural example of this importance can be found in Psalm 115:

Their [the unbelieving nations] idols are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
   noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
    feet, but do not walk;
   and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:5-8

In other words, whatever we bow down to (or put “before all things” in our lives) will shape who we are. If you worship an idol that can’t hear, you will lose your ability to hear. If you worship a blind idol, you will eventually become totally unable to see. We become like the thing we worship.

When we read statements like these about false gods, we can also infer that the Psalmist means to say the opposite is true of God: God does speak, he does feel, he is not the work of human hands but is the One who made human hands. Worship him and you can grow to become like him. Worship shapes who we are.

Two Examples
Because the words we sing in worship are so important, pastoral leaders want to be selective about the songs we choose. What is popular isn’t always what is best. When you listen to a song with a theological filter, you begin to recognize traits in songs that are helpful and others that are either overtly wrong or at least could be misleading. The last thing we want to do is contribute to a skewed view of the nature of God. We’re all doing just fine with that on our own! But what do when you come across a very well-written song that declares powerful truths in a beautiful and engaging way, but has one line that ruins it for you?

We only have two options: either we don’t sing the song or we change the lyric. If a song has a lot of personal pronouns (“I” or “my”) we might just change those to “we” or “our” to help stress the corporate nature of the Bride of Christ. More emphasis on We are the collective body of Christ instead of “it’s all about me and Jesus.” Probably the most well-known example of this is the song “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan:

        Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
        And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

As this song grew in popularity, many people wanted to sing it in church but were uncomfortable singing about a “sloppy wet kiss.” Thus the alternative lines “beautiful kiss” and “unforeseen kiss” were used to replace the undesirable lyric.

I personally don’t find this line offensive or distracting and certainly not theologically inaccurate. The lavish nature of the love of God expressed in sending Jesus to earth can rightly be compared to a passionate kiss. Because this love was (and is) radical, no holds barred, holding nothing back. But some find it distracting and want to change it. No problem.

A similar and more recent example (although I only know of one church so far who has made this change…ours) is the song “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong. I find this song to be incredibly powerful and full of rich truths about the person and work of Jesus. But there is one line in the song that throws a theological red flag:

        You didn’t want heaven without us
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

The issue here is the implication that the purpose for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was that he was lonely. And it all hinges on the little word “so.” So let’s think about it: Did (and does) God want us in heaven? Yes! Did Jesus bring heaven down to us because we could never get there on our own? Yes! Praise God for the gospel! But was the reason God sent Jesus to earth his desire for us? Nope. I hate to burst your bubble, but if we terminate the purpose of God in salvation on ourselves or even the world, we miss the mark. God did not create the world or send Jesus out of a want or a need or any lack whatsoever. His work in creation and salvation was and is out of an overflow of his goodness and love and for the display of his glory. The chief end of God is his own glory. Period. Isaiah prophesied of this purpose:

 “I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
  everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.”
Isaiah 43:6-7

Jesus spoke of this purpose as he prayed:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

John 12:27-28a

Paul preached of this purpose in the gospel going out to all the nations:

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Romans 15:8-9a

Because of the preciousness of this truth that God exists for his own glory, we chose to change the lyric of the song:

        You’re ever faithful to your promise
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

This song is a wonderful gift. We felt that making this change would allow us to enjoy the gift that God has given the church without risking confusion or misdirection as we celebrate and delight in God’s redemptive purpose (worship). Does it seem like a lot of trouble over one little word? Maybe. But I assure you it matters.

Motivation matters just as much as action. If someone gave you a new car, wouldn’t you want to know whether they were doing it to bless you or because they were trying to blackmail you? When we understand that God does all things for his own glory, it does not make us unimportant. When we take ourselves out of the center and put God there, it frees us to worship because we rightly see ourselves in light of who God is. It increases our awe and our joy that God would invite us to join him in the experience of his glory. God is for us because he loves us. He’s just not about us. He is, and will always be, all about his glory. And how do we see his glory?

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:6

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