See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Modern worship sings things like...
The fullness of Your grace is here with me, The richness of Your beauty’s all I see, The brightness of Your glory has arrived, In Your presence God, I’m completely satisfiedThere is an important difference here that I think causes a significant amount of spiritual anguish for many who participate in modern worship. The modern worship song is describing a state of mind that the worshipper is claiming for him/herself, one in which God's beauty is all they see so that they are completely satisfied. How does one sing that if what they actually see is the ugliness engulfing their lives leaving them anything but satisfied? A spiritual pressure is put on the worshipper to feel that way, to manipulate their own psychology to conform to that feeling. Some do. Some are somehow able to play that part with relative ease. I won't speak to their own spiritual situation because I simply can't relate to it, but I usually suspect that they are forcefully hiding something from themselves - I realize, however, that it really isn't my place to judge. Others are faced with a crisis. They are led to the conclusion that this kind of elevated feeling is what faith looks like, and they either need to drum up some good vibrations or deal with the fact that they might just not be capable of faith.
Notice how the hymn doesn't demand that kind of psychological conformity. It calls the worshipper to think about the gospel, not to feel a certain way but simply to recognize it. It is speaks of the grace, beauty and glory of God's presence in the creaturely realm and even elicits an emotional subjective response, at least from me, but the hymn isn't about that subjective response, it occasions it. The modern worship song is actually about the subjective response; one gets the sense that the feeling is the actual intent or object of the song.
There is a theological ambiguity at play here that I want to address. As biblical as it is to speak of the faithfulness of God and the satisfaction that comes in receiving it, we must pay constant attention to the lingering effects of sin. That we worship God as sinners means that his beauty will never be all we see until our redemption is made complete when Christ returns. We will never be completely satisfied in God's presence this side of Christ's return because we are not yet in his presence free of the entanglements of sin. We are in his presence in Christ and his presence is in us by the Spirit, but that reality is hidden with Christ in God for the present, the Spirit being present in us as the promise that we will one day be satisfied.
These thoughts have been brought to mind for me as I have been reading Karl Barth's commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, a troubling book in many ways but nonetheless filled with theological insight. Speaking to my frustration over modern worship, Barth has this to say about people's assumption of experiencing God:
Whenever men suppose themselves conscious of the emotion of nearness to God, whenever they speak and write of divine things, whenever sermon-making and temple-building are thought of as an ultimate human occupation, whenever men are aware of divine appointment and of being entrusted with a divine mission, sin veritably abounds - unless the miracle of forgiveness accompanies such activity; unless, that is to say, the fear of the Lord maintains the distance by which God is separated from men.Later, he quotes Calvin:
Everything by which we are surrounded conflicts with the promise of God. He promises us immortality, but we are encompassed with mortality and corruption. He pronounces that we are righteous in His sight, but we are engulfed in sin. He declares His favour and goodwill towards us, but we are threatened by the tokens of his wrath. What can we do? It is His will that we should shut our eyes to what we are and have, in order that nothing may impede or even check our faith in Him.Calvin's call to place our faith in what we hear in the gospel rather than what we see in our experience brilliantly captures the heart of the gospel. If we are consciously aware that we are intentionally negating our experience of seeing ugliness and being unsatisfied in faith, then I think we can joyfully sing the modern worship song (though we'd still probably favor the hymn). I can sing it not as a description of how I feel, but as a statement of faith, faith in the reality of the new creation I am in Christ, the one that really does only see God's beauty and really is satisfied in God's presence. The problem is that I don't see modern worship services making this contradiction clear; I see them feeding the confusion, making the worshipper think that it is their job to drum up the feelings rather than having faith in the promise despite their feelings and perception.
The answer? I don't know, but I think getting more people in leadership in modern worship churches to read Barth couldn't hurt. Keeping the dialectic of God's faithfulness and our faithlessness as a more explicit theme in modern worship would be helpful as well. Your thoughts?