To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
What Do We Do When We Don’t Like a Song Used in Worship?
As a worship leader, I have gotten used to the “worship wars” debate over song selection for worship services. I understand that people have different musical preferences, and that it can be genuinely difficult to worship in an unfamiliar genre. I have come to appreciate the grace that our congregation shows here at Stevens Street as we seek to introduce unfamiliar hymns and songs of many different styles during our services. Musical style is never a primary factor in how we choose the songs for our worship services, though it is a necessary consideration. Far more important is the substance of the song; we must ensure that we are singing true things to and about our God (John 4:24).
Sometimes, though, I’m the one who has to try to look past my own preferences. This was the case with John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves.” Though this has become a wildly popular worship song in the last few years, I’d always sort of hated it. This is a bit unusual for me, because I have some really eclectic musical tastes, and generally only dislike songs if their lyrics are unbiblical or trite. This song’s lyrics are neither.
When I devoted some time to studying it and attempted to determine why it struck such a bad chord with me, a funny thing happened. The more time I spent with it, the more it grew on me. So let me share with you a few of the reasons why I believe I initially disliked this song, and how I was able to resolve those issues and finally worship freely and truly through this song.
But before we get going, here are two versions of this song. The first is McMillan’s own arrangement, and the second is David Crowder’s, which is by far the most popular of this song’s many covers:
Emotional Poetic Imagery
I tend to shy away from songs which use sweeping, flowing language, because many modern songs (as well as many “older” hymns) that use these sort of literary techniques tend to be trite, focusing on emotion at the expense of sound doctrine. But surely all poetic imagery can’t be bad! The book of Psalms (the only songbook which the New Testament church is explicitly exhorted to incorporate into our worship) is chock full of emotional imagery, as are several other biblical songs.
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” ~ Psalm 42:1
“The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” ~ Psalm 114:3-4
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” ~ Isaiah 55:12
I realized that I can’t rule out the validity of a worship song simply because it uses poetic language (no matter how uncomfortable it might make me) without also throwing out half of Psalms… not an option.
Sloppy Wet Kisses
So if imagery itself isn’t the problem, maybe it was some of the specific images? I’ll admit that “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss” seemed a bit over the top, but why might I have a problem with the lyric change made by David Crowder (to “like an unforeseen kiss”)? Once again, it turns out the problem is with me. In Psalm 85:10-11, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” It’s not much of a stretch to see this verse as Heaven “kissing” Earth, particularly given its context of a cry for God to send salvation and healing both to sinful people and to the land itself. In fact, the word translated in this verse as “kiss” literally means “like the affectionate greeting of relatives”… a sloppy wet kiss?
Furthermore, I realized my own inconsistency once I thought of a hymn which I deeply love, and which we’ve sung recently. Written in the 19th century and known as “the love song of the 1904 Welsh revival”, “Here Is Love Vast As the Ocean” has been re-popularized recently by Matt Redman. We’ve sung it several times here at Stevens Street. There are so many parallels in the imagery of this hymn with “How He Loves” (including Heaven kissing a guilty world in love) that I wonder whether McMillan had this hymn in mind when he wrote his song.
Any time a song uses the pronouns “I”, “me”, and “us” more than “You”, “He”, and “Him”, I begin to get suspicious that the song is more about the singer than about God. But something I read in D.A. Carson’s book, “Scandalous” challenged that way of thinking. He makes this observation concerning Mary and Martha’s reference of their brother Lazarus as “the one you love” (in John 11:3):
I think that it is one of the common features of those who become intimate with Jesus that they think of themselves not as those who love him particularly well but those who are particularly well loved by him… Those who draw really close to Jesus think of themselves, first and foremost, as those loved by him rather than as those who profess their love for him.
Carson backs this up by pointing out that the apostle John refers to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved”; Paul calls Jesus the one “who loved me and gave himself for me”, and encourages the Ephesians to “have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
Again, several of my favorite hymns focus on God’s love for us, and this too must be ruled out as a reason to dislike “How He Loves“!
Meaning Obscured By Language
In what may be the only objection that retains a possibility of merit, I wonder how many passionate, emotional young people really understand what they are singing as beautifully written phrases like “afflictions eclipsed by glory” roll off their tongues. But this objection could just as easily be applied to the theologically heavy hymns that I tend to prefer. Do all people really understand who “Lord Sabaoth” is, or do they merely follow the words on the page/screen whenever we sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God“? So the solution, I determined, was to treat the poetic imagery in “How He Loves” the same way I would teach the theology behind more traditional hymns: by examining the lyrics in light of the Scriptures to show what the song is really saying.
In so doing, I realized how truly wonderful were the Truths contained in this imagery! Allow me to share just a few brief examples:
“He is jealous for me”
A quick word study will reveal dozens of references to God’s divine jealousy for His people. For instance, check out Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; Psalm 79:5; Ezekiel 39:25; Joel 2:18; James 4:5.
“Loves like a hurricane; I am a tree, bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy”
In Romans 9 and throughout the Scriptures we see that God’s love and mercy is irresistible. He loves His children so relentlessly that we are as helpless before God’s will as a tree is in a hurricane.
“When all of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory, and I realize just how beautiful you are and how great your affections are for me”
Once we come face to face with God’s irresistible love, His glory outshines all of the momentary afflictions that distract us from our eternal hope. See 2 Corinthians 4, particularly verse 17.
“We are His portion and He is our prize”
This is straight out of Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:9; Philippians 3:14). We Christians are the portion given to Jesus Christ by the Father (John 6:37; 17:6). Christ Himself is the prize that awaits those who live for him.
“Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes”
It is God’s grace shown to us through Jesus Christ that draws us to Him… the only way that we may be redeemed (John 6:44).
“If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking”
Here are just a few examples of how Scripture refers to God’s grace:
- We have received “grace upon grace” (John 1:16)
- We receive an “abundance of grace” (Romans 5:17)
- When our trespasses increases, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20)
- Grace “extends to more and more people” so that it may increase thanksgiving to God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4:15)
- Grace makes use rich who were poor (2 Corinthians 8:9)
- Grace gives us “sufficiency in all things at all times” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
- God’s grace is “surpassing grace” (2 Corinthians 9:14)
- God shows us “the immeasurable riches of his grace” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7)
- God gives “more grace” (James 4:6)
- Grace is multiplied to us (1 Peter 1:2)
“My heart turns violently inside of my chest”
Any true believer knows how heartwrenching the experience of casting our anxieties on the Lord can be (1 Peter 5:7).
“And I don’t have time to maintain these regrets when I think about the way He loves us”
The New Testament conveys a real sense of urgency in its message. Once we fully realize what Christ has done for us, we must press on, forgetting the regrets from our past and straining toward our prize, Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:12-14).
Do I love this song? No, but I do love what it communicates, and I certainly do not dislike it anymore. I believe that it is okay to have preferences when it comes to worship music, and for whatever reason, this song is not one that I prefer. But I am thankful to have taken this journey and to have come to a better understanding of a song which is loved by a great many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, just as I would hope that other Christians might seek to understand (if not enjoy) some of the worship music that I love. God’s people reflect an incredible amount of diversity, and with that comes diverse ways of worshiping Him creatively, in spirit and in truth. I thank God for creative songwriters who bring their unique gifts to the Church.
In closing, here is one more video, revealing John Mark McMillan’s heart and purpose in writing this song. Be blessed!