‘Spiritual songs’ — God is listening for honest lyrics

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

I have long admired hit-singer Bono’s principled stand for justice in our unjust world. But I didn’t realise that he had committed himself to moral principles that demand “honest song-lyrics”.

This aligns with true Christianity. “Honest Lyrics” are to be found in the Psalm-songs of Scripture. Such “honest lyrics” are what God wants to hear us sing when we meet congregationally on Sundays.

I thank Gateway News for drawing this to my attention. On 29th April 2016 Gateway published an article which read, in part,“U2 musician Bono has criticised modern Christian music for its ‘lack of honesty’.

The comments came out of a conversation with Eugene Peterson, a pastor and theologian best known for the Message translation of Bible. They discussed the poetry of the scriptures and in particular the book of Psalms which Bono described as “brutally honest.”

In a documentary entitled The Psalms, the star said: “I often think, ‘God, why isn’t church music more like that?’”

Yes, yes, yes.  Why aren’t church song-lyrics more “honest”, more true to real life?  God knows us inside-out. Why should we pretend all is hunky-dory when we come into the presence of God?  Are we deceiving God?  Doesn’t He see us as we really are?

No, we can’t deceive the all-knowing God when we sing “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy every day” and “Now I’m so happy no sorrow in sight, Praise the Lord, I saw the light”.

In real life we experience financial stress, disappointment, hostility from our enemies, depression, loneliness, betrayal. The Psalmist was not shy to write lyrics expressing these honest realities. He laid them before the LORD in all honesty, no pretence, no hypocrisy.

Actually, the last thing God wants to hear from our lips is hypocrisy. Pretending to be what we are not. The most severe condemnations Jesus ever spoke were His woes against hypocrites — See Matthew 23.

God’s own Song-book, the Psalms, are full of such realistic honesty about life.  See Psalms 3,5,10,12,22,31,35,38,39,42,43,51,54,57,60,64,69,70,71,74,77,79,80,83,85,88,90,94,102,119,120,123,129,130,137,139,140,142,143.

This cursory sampling of these psalms all contain elements of sadness, fear, complaint, confession of sin, vulnerability. The lyrics of these songs inspired by the Holy Spirit demonstrate the brutal honesty of the human song-writers. They describe their situations in realistic terms. Such honest descriptions give credibility when these lyrics go on to praise God for His real-life deliverance. 

Such honesty impressed Bono.

So when he listened to the usual songs we sing in church, he missed the Honesty of the Psalms. He criticised the Church for “a lot of dishonesty in Christian art.”  “In the Psalms you have people who are vulnerable to God in a good way. They are porous and open,” said Bono.

He continued: “I would love (to) inspire people who are writing these beautiful … gospel songs, (to) write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pi**ed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you. … I am suspicious of Christians because of this lack of realism.”

So why do contemporary worship Songs avoid such honest, real-life lyrics?  A while back, in conversation with a worship-song leader, I asked why he does not include songs of confession, songs about injustice, loneliness and depression in his Sunday song-lists.

He explained that “people come to church to be uplifted in their spirits, and such songs would not be uplifting”. He was more interested in what he wanted, rather than what GOD wanted His people to sing.

One well-known worship leader and song-writer gave his reason for avoiding real-life lyrics: “Our tongues are powerful, our words form us. If we sing negative lyrics we will form negative reality. We must sing a positive confession to form a positive reality. I never sing Wesley’s song ‘Love Divine all loves excelling’ because it has a negative line: ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the Lord I love’.” 

Yet this is reality – we ARE tempted  wander from Jesus’ narrow road. We MUST call out to God in desperate commitment: ‘Take my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above’.  We must take a page out of the psalmist’s song-book and honestly confess our vulnerability.

That is the honesty Bono is pleading for. But more than Bono’s plea, this is the plea from God Himself as He listens to the songs we sing.

Will you join me in writing and singing songs that are honest, reflecting the reality of life which the Psalms reflect? Jesus came to deal with this reality when He left Heaven to enter our human condition, and to deliver us from evil. Let’s sing about this!

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