There is a song--I’m not sure if it’s a modern hymn or something from the Bill and Gloria Gaither era--of which the refrain is “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.” If I’m trying to sing some kind of made-up harmony, I do sing that line. But if I’m actually thinking about the words, I never sing it. Yes, I have a beef with that line.
Before I start lambasting it, let me just point out that I don’t mean offense people who find the line meaningful. I understand that not everyone feels the need to pick apart the logic of every line of every hymn or song. I’m sure it is possible for some people to just take the line as a statement of devotion--a statement that one is moved by reflection on Jesus’ sacrificial death and abundant love for us. But me, I’m just so analytical and nit-picky I can’t get over what the line implies.
“If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now,” says the song. And what am I doing right now? Singing a song. Thinking about Jesus’ love for me and feeling pious, devoted feelings. This is what bothers me--the implication that a feeling of love is love itself--and not just that it is love, but that it is the highest and best form of love, or at least the form that we can most confidently point to and say “yes, that is surely love.” That’s what the sentence structure “if ever I loved thee, ‘tis now” implies.
And that’s certainly not true. It’s good to have fine feelings--but that is certainly not how Jesus talked about love. According to Jesus, love means doing as he commanded us. Love means taking care of the wounded Samaritan. Love means getting down on our knees and serving. There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend.
I wish that I could change the words of the song to be something more like “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, it was when I donated more than I can afford to give to the local rehab center.” Or “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, it was in babysitting for a single mother.” Or “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, it was when I hired a former gang banger to give him a second chance.” If ever I have loved Jesus, it did not happen while I was singing in church and working up in myself lots of fervor and holy feelings. It happened when I actually did something that helped another human being.
It seems like sometimes people put too much emphasis on saying that God is glorified in people singing songs in church. In many contemporary churches, singing spiritual songs and getting worked up into this emotional state is the only meaning of the word “worship.” I suppose part of the reason this bothers me is just that I was raised Presbyterian and a good old fashioned orderly Presbyterian service, is referred to in its entirety as “worship.” Worship includes the reading of scripture. Worship includes passing the peace. Worship includes the offering. And of course it includes communion.
More than that, though, we worship God when we devote ourselves to him. Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to God is our spiritual worship. And that doesn’t just happen at church--or it shouldn’t be just happening at church, anyway! God is not just glorified when we sing his praises. He is much more glorified in our lives when we give up our own pleasures and comforts for our neighbors. God is glorified in our love for fellow Christians and our compassion for the poor.
At Whitworth College, my alma mater, there is a student led and organized service of song and scripture readings held one night every week. It was a thrilling experience to be part of a throng of impassioned young Christian women and men, singing our hearts out in devotion to God. There was one night when the mood was truly electric. I don’t even remember what song we were singing, but, the musicians cut out so it was voices only, thundering, resounding, filling the room. The sheer volume was impressive, and the air charged with emotion. And of course it was glorious, it was beautiful, and I rejoiced, but … not with my whole heart. Because I knew that many of these young people, as soon as they left Whitworth--even just to go home for the summer--would slide back into old patterns of sin, and unbelief and forget completely the ardor with which they said, and felt they would pursue God’s kingdom.
It’s not that I don’t value heartfelt proclamations of devotion--it’s just that I take them with a grain of salt. And above all it’s that I don’t want people to confuse a feeling of love with actual love. Partly because I don’t want people to think too highly of themselves because of their pious feelings. But also because I want to encourage those who are lacking in such fine feelings--I want to reassure people who have “lost that loving feeling,” so to speak, that it doesn’t mean they are incapable of love.
It is my hope that we can be freed up from focusing on feelings of devotion as the sign that we are right with God, that we will not waste energy trying to produce those feelings in ourselves or worrying about our lack of emotion, and that instead we will be focused on what Jesus told us to do: on loving our neighbor through self-sacrifice, through service, and compassion.