Over the last few years some of my friends have listened in as I have wrestled over the notion of Christian worship today. There have been some trends in the realm of worship song-writing recently that have left me with much to ponder.
No song provides a better case study for my concerns than the song “Holy Spirit.” Now, this song has really taken off in recent months, but I can remember the first time that I heard it. At the time, the group that produced this song had not quite reached the mainstream, but their music had certainly started to influence and increase in popularity with a generation younger than me. So the first time I actually heard the song was when I was running the sound board for my home church’s student ministry, and our high school worship team started playing this song.
I remember the first time I heard the lyrics, I thought, “Now, this is different. You don’t hear too many worship songs addressed specifically to the Holy Spirit.” While I found it unusual, I didn’t think too much of it because the Holy Spirit is, after all, a member of the Godhead. Perhaps, I thought, it was time that He received His due via songs of praise.
Then, I started to mull over what Scripture teaches about the Holy Spirit and started to wonder if the fact that Church history seems so devoid of praise songs directed at the third Person of the Trinity wasn’t by design. And when I say “by design,” I don’t mean by design of any denomination besides the Charismatic tradition (which tends to place greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit) but by the design of the Holy Spirit Himself.
The Holy Spirit’s Mission
Jesus, in preparing His disciples for the next stage of God’s ministry on earth, went into great detail about the Holy Spirit and what the apostles should expect this Advocate to do. One of the first things that Jesus said about Him was that “He will bear witness about me” (Jn. 15:26). As Jesus continued, He would define the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth who would lead God’s people into all truth and describe His work as stemming from an authority outside of the Spirit’s own (16:13). Then comes Christ’s major statement: “He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14).
Now, this description of the Holy Spirit does not sound like that of a person who would lead Christians to compose a song of praise to Himself. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that the Spirit is not worthy of praise or worship, but at this point in salvation history, I’m not sure that our worshipping Him through songs of praise is particularly wise since God’s Spirit seems perfectly content with being subservient to the proclamation and glorification of God’s Son.
Submission Within the Godhead
This language about the Godhead, about one being obedient and in service to another, might sound strange, but we need to remember that Jesus talked this way about the Father all throughout His earthly ministry. Starting at an early age, He stated that He must be “in My Father’s house” (Lk. 2:49). He said “Do not believe me if I am not doing the works of my Father” (Jn. 10:37). Then, in the ultimate act of subservience, He prayed to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane before going to the cross, “Not my will but Yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).
In discussing the purpose of His coming with His disciples, He stated that, “He did not come to be served but to serve.” He had a mission from God during His time on earth that did not involve seeking His own glory and namesake. I would suppose that the Holy Spirit has the same vision and mission when it comes to His season of ministry in the earth.
Jesus was Worshipped
At the same time, however, Jesus was worshipped at various moments in the Gospels, and the worshippers are not rebuked (Mt. 2:2-11; 14:3; 28:9, 17; Jn. 9:38). So it’s not as if Jesus was not worthy of worship during His earthly ministry. While that worship was not illegitimate, it also was not solicited from Jesus Himself. To the best of my recollection, I cannot remember a moment where Jesus commands His followers to worship Him as He walked the earth. Worship simply overflowed from the hearts of people because His nature evoked their worship. They couldn’t help it.
In that vein, there might be a manner in which we would be right in praising and worshipping God’s Holy Spirit, but upon making such a decision, we must tread lightly because the Holy Spirit’s business during this season of God’s movement is not a self-seeking enterprise, as John 15 and 16 demonstrate. Jesus chose subservience to the Father in order to illustrate and demonstrate God’s character and divine nature. The Holy Spirit currently serves in a similar fashion to point toward the truth about Jesus and the fact that the Son has now been glorified (cf. Php. 2:5-11).
Christ Came to Give
While the Holy Spirit deserves worship, I do believe there to be an illegitimate, even blasphemous way to go about doing so (should we feel the urge to give Him the praise He is not currently seeking).
Remember the moment when Jesus chastised Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan?” These were extreme words from the Messiah, but they reflected the extreme nature of Peter’s error. Upon declaring His purpose in coming to earth, that He would die on the cross and be raised, Peter corrected Jesus, basically instructing Him that He shouldn’t be talking that way (Mt. 16:21-23).
In Christ’s rebuke of Peter, He tells him that his mind is not on the things of God but the things of man. Most interpret this to mean that Peter had in mind an earthly sort of reign for the Messiah where Jesus would overthrow the shackles of Rome. Peter missed the fact that this Messiah was to suffer at the hands of Rome in order to overthrow the shackles of sin.
Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was self-seeking. Ironically, Jesus’ understanding of Himself was others-seeking. He came to offer a gift–the gift of salvation–to the world, but that gift would not be received via the channels of how we, as humans, typically understand such salvation. We think, far too often in material terms. While God did come, in Christ, to give us something, He did not come in order to give as the world gives (cf. Jn. 14:27). When He promises peace and joy, He’s not talking about merely eliminating the threat of war or filling His people with happiness.
Jesus would, however, rebuke those who followed Him as a means of having their material needs met in a way similar to His rebuke of Peter (Jn. 6:26-27). Numerous people would follow and worship Jesus from this self-seeking perspective. God and Jesus had become a means to an end for many of His followers, rather than the means behind every valuable end. The Messiah was, in their hearts and minds, to be nothing more than the fulfillment of a wish-list.
So, while worship of Christ was legitimate, whenever it manifested in this illegitimate, self-seeking manner, Jesus would condemn it.
The Holy Spirit as a Code Word
Jesus the Nazarene easily became a code word that, translated, meant “meeter of my needs.” Rather than serve and value the Son, His “followers” valued and served only themselves. They may have paid Him lip-service, but His provision motivated their worship, not His Person.
I fear that the praise and worship of many Christians has drifted into this blasphemous sort of cathartic, self-seeking song and dance. Consider once again the song “Holy Spirit.” I made a case earlier why the song may represent a theological confusion about the Holy Spirit’s purpose but can still be a legitimate form of praise.
But I also said that granting the Spirit such praise would be unwise, primarily because a confused, unclear understanding typically leads to error. In particular, “Holy Spirit” seems to have fallen into this danger.
The song does not paint a clear picture of the Holy Spirit’s function as a revealer of truth, namely the truth that Christ has set us free from the power of sin and death. Instead, the song seems to point more toward a vaguely described experience of God’s presence. In fact, the song calls explicitly for an experience of an ill-defined goodness that appears to be based more on positive feelings as opposed to rejoicing in the truth. The Holy Spirit, particularly in this case, appears to have become a code word for “my source of emotional stability and happiness.”
“Where My Shame is Underscored”
Now, a mature believer, one who understands the role and function of the Spirit, may be able to sing this song without falling into the error of believing that the Holy Spirit is all about providing a warm, fuzzy experience during a worship service. I struggle every time I try to sing along to this song during a worship set because I feel as though I can’t sing the words without falling for that lie.
If I believe every time I “enter the Lord’s presence” or “welcome the Holy Spirit here” that I’m in for a pleasant, edifying experience, then I’ll be in for a rude awakening the moment the Spirit convicts me of sin. In fact, should I start to sense such conviction approaching, I may attempt to ward it off rather than embrace it if I only expect an encouraging touch upon meeting the Lord.
What if I realize that my feelings of shame, rather than needing to be “undone” in a fit of emotional exuberance, are actually totally legitimate because the Holy Spirit hopes to point me toward habitual sin in my life for which I am unrepentant? Upon finding myself in such a state, I need to repent before the holy God who died to save me from the sin I so regularly give in to. Many times, my spirit must be rankled by the Spirit unto a revelation of my sinfulness before He can enlighten my soul to the beauty and glory of God’s forgiving, saving grace.
Concerning the Attitude of the Heart
While I have thrown the song “Holy Spirit” under the bus in this post, this is certainly not the only song that elicits such consternation in me. Far too many worship songs in recent years seem to overlook the role of conviction both in the realm of worship and as a part of God’s work in our lives through His Holy Spirit.
While I think “Holy Spirit” is a prime example, there are several songs out there that seem to have “setting the mood” as their main goal rather than “proclaiming the truth.” So much of our worship song-writing seems to be about generating an experience, tugging at the heart strings, instead of serving as a means of declaring God’s true, Gospel message.
To be sure, a good worship song should move the human spirit, but we need to have a better view of where the human spirit is to be moved to. If that movement is toward some emotional “mountain-top” experience, then we have fallen into the trap of worshipping ourselves.
But, if that move is toward a revelation of and a reveling in the truth of God’s Word, then we have genuinely started to worship our Holy God.