The original sin of autonomy is alive and well in the Western Cultural ideal of individualism. We live our lives with the presupposition of the cult of self. Our lives are centered around the
I. Now, in a certain sense, this seems natural. Who else would be at the center of our own lives? But the voice of God in Scripture cuts across these very lines with a prophetic voice, clearly stating,
You should have no other gods before Me. Unhealthy individualism places this phrase on our own lips,
I have no other gods before me.
As I’ve grown in my understanding of Christianity there’s been a tremendous, though incomplete, shift in who the major character is in my story. Let me be honest—this truth is stored more in my head than my heart, but God has been graciously stubborn in slowly editing out the places in my story where I believe that I am the hero rather than a bit player. He refuses to let me be my own god.
But, like some of the Pharisees, there are times I’ve taken the letter of the law over the spirit.
“Cage Stage” Worshippers
When people come to an understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation, they tend to enter a stage called the “cage stage.” This stage is so called because once someone becomes gripped by the beauty of God’s sovereignty they tend to have more zeal than maturity, and need to (to quote the late, great Michael Spencer) shut-up. Similarly, and usually linked to this “cage stage,” when people (re-)discover the centrality of God over self, there’s a profound change in the type of “worship music” that they prefer. They throw out the “K-Love” type of Contemporary Christian Music self-focused sludge, and awake to the beauty of old and new hymns and songs that again confront us with the centrality of God.
This is not a bad thing, of course. As I’ve written about elsewhere, God is our first audience in worship. He is the center. But then, with all the zeal of a “cage stage” Calvinist and with the accuracy of the slash-and-burn method of foresting, these people (myself included) begin to eviscerate every sentence and stanza that dares to address the dreaded “I”, “me,” and “we.”
And let’s be honest. There are a lot of songs used in worship today that break the first commandment and deserve a red-ink pen treatment that would make leaders in the self-esteem movement have a heart-attack.
What Saith the Scripture?
The problem with the Pharisees as portrayed in the gospels is not their zealousness for the Law, but they way that they constructed barriers in order to keep from breaking the Law and then those barriers the law itself. They went beyond what the Scriptures actually require.
I see this same tendency in those, like myself, who want to see God as central to all things. We erect fences, such as the eradication of every “I,” “me,” and “we” in worship—or at least view them with suspicion—just to make sure we aren’t failing at making Jesus and the gospel the point.
The problem is, at least superficially, that without “me,” there is no gospel. At least, there’s no need for a gospel because it is my sin, and our sin collectively, that nailed God to a tree. You can’t have “incarnation” without the “I,” and the role of “I” is the murder of the Son of God.
Beyond that, however, is the reality that such a slash-and-burn mentality is foreign to the Bible. Consider Paul in a confession that rivals some of our own liturgical assurances in terms of viscerality:
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! Galatians 2:19-21
If anyone was about the glory of God, it would be Paul. But, as I’ve written about elsewhere regarding these verses, Paul had no problem appropriating the “me” of the gospel.
But even more-so than Paul, consider the hymn book of the Bible: The Psalms. The Psalms are filled with I, me, and we language. In fact, the most common genre of Psalms are the laments—psalms that reflect the suffering of the psalmists and their cry to God for deliverance. Consider Psalm 3, and make note of the use of I and me:
1 Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”
3 But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
5 I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.
7 Arise, Lord!
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.
8 From the Lord comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people.
And this, along with the other Psalms, would be sung as a worship song!
So what’s the take home? Simply this: that in our zeal for promoting God-centered worship music, we should not critique ourselves beyond the bounds of Scripture itself. It is right and good that we promote the glory and centrality of God and the gospel, but we mustn’t forget the place we play and celebrate the benefits of the gospel for us—we bring our sin and rebellion, but God in his mercy forgives us, loves us, adopts us, and joins us together as one body. As Martyn Lloyd Jones once said, we will not know how much praise we should lavish on the one who frees us from our debt until we know just how much debt we have been forgiven.