“My God, I Love Thee:” Why Are We Praising God?

I told myself I was going to spare you the perfunctory “these are all the reasons I haven’t blogged in a while” paragraph. I’ll keep it short: I’ve been not very busy–just been watering blueberries and writing letters, mainly. Watching stuff grow. It’s been a great time:)

Today at my church we sang a praise song that had as a bridge the following line:

I’ll praise You, not that I have to, not that I ought to, but that I may.

We must have sung this 8-9 times, and I still didn’t know how I felt about it by the song’s end. What does that mean? I am having a hard time figuring out what exactly the distinction is that the authors are trying to make.

My sister says what the intent must have been is something more like this: We praise God not only because we ought to, and we praise Him not because He forces us to, but because He lets us praise Him.

Okay, yes. That seems like a distinction I can get behind. But seriously? I have a hard time believing that any children in the congregation are going to make that connection from the way the bridge of the song was worded. In the distinction the authors made between reasons for praising God, it sure sounds like the emphasis is on the person offering praise.

It’s also just really unclear phrasing: I’m pretty sure the intention is not to say that we ought not praise God, but I would definitely understand someone younger or new to the faith hearing that as the song’s meaning.

Finally, when do we actually praise God in these songs? A big problem in some of the standard worship songs these days is that we do a lot of build-up with phrases like “we pour out our praise,” but never actually get to the praise part.

Is it a wonderful thing that God has drawn us to a place where we may praise Him? Yes.

Is it marvelous that God alone is worthy of worship? Yes, absolutely. Let’s rejoice that we get to worship our Creator.

But is there a way to then sing together of God’s character and attributes and actually ascribe Him that praise we say we’ve come to offer? Please?

Inner me: Jo, Jo, Jo. You are being too picky and critical and unhelpfully divisive. Don’t rag on your fellow brothers and sisters who are serving the Lord by writing today’s worship and praise anthems. They are doing the best they can and appealing to how people worship nowadays, rather than sticking to old language no one understands.

Well, dang it–they can do better. We need to be better, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of being as clear as we can about why we worship God, and how we worship God, and for goodness’ sake, would it hurt us to look in a hymnal sometime?

As Christians, we don’t have to be afraid of old-fashioned phrases or difficult concepts–and goodness, wouldn’t it be better to tackle them head-on and early, so that our kids aren’t uninformed about their faith and blind-sided later on?

I get that it’s important to make the language we use as accessible as we can, but I also think that our worship is a key time to remind ourselves of what we know of God from Scripture. It’s a time to take the focus completely off ourselves, and confess together what we believe about our Savior.

It’s a time to instruct our children in the fundamentals of theology, so that hopefully later in the life they don’t think that theology and studying the Bible is only for pastors and teachers. Song in worship can serve all these purposes, and it seems insufficient to settle for an emotional, feel-good moment that may be due more to the repetition of words than to our true understanding of their meaning.

I’m going to end this post with a hymn from 1849 by Francis Xavier, which seems to be making a distinction about our motivation for loving God that’s similar to that of the modern song I quoted earlier.

I think it does the job better because the author takes the time and effort to develop his reasoning for claiming what he does. A child listening to this hymn would never have to sing the same line over and over, not understanding the full meaning.

And then just consider the emphasis of the hymn: where do we end? Who do we end up talking to, and about? Here is “My God, I Love Thee:”

My God, I love thee, not because I hope for heav’n thereby,
Nor yet for fear that loving not I might forever die;
But for that thou didst all mankind upon the cross embrace;
For us didst bear the nails and spear, and manifold disgrace.

And griefs and torments numberless, and sweat of agony;
E’en death itself, and all for man, who was thine enemy.
Then why, most loving Jesus Christ, should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heav’n, nor any fear of hell.

Not with the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward,
But as thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord!
E’en so I love thee, and will love, and in thy praise will sing,
Solely because thou art my God and my eternal King!

Thank you for reading:) What I’d like to do is foster a conversation about what sorts of praise songs are helpful, rather than just getting mad about songs I don’t like so well. Not sure if I did so hot on that second goal.

So let me know your thoughts–is there a song or hymn that you find particularly helpful? I’d love to hear about it!

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