What sort of language can describe a God who exists beyond the realm of not only language, but comprehension?
I have no idea how many worship songs I’ve sung in my life—hundreds? Thousands?
And some I like more than others.
Some seem more worshipful—more directly aimed at this God we aim to worship—than others. But the more I think about it, every single song that sings about God, directly or indirectly; worshipful or merely descriptive, is just a metaphor held against the reality of describing a deity.
Take a favorite of mine, from (surprisingly) Hillsong, “From the Inside Out”:
Your light will shine when all else fades
Your glory goes beyond all fame
I had always thought of this as a powerful chorus of worship, aimed directly at God. How could it not be? We are singing directly to God, praising Him and His glory and eternality.
But look at the actual words: They are metaphors about light shining (a scientific phenomenon), and measures of time. Then more measures of time (never ending) and then a line about glory and fame. The same could be said about any insanely famous celebrity, could it not?
So, in one of my most worshipful songs, we have lines that boil down to describing time, fame, and light. Others may anthropomorphize God and sing about Him in human terms. Others sing about the worshipper and their posture toward God.
Try to think of a worship song that speaks literally about God. No metaphors, just actual, worshipful description…are there any? Or can we only address the Divine through the medium of metaphor? Look at several other classics:
“Come Thou Fount” — God as a fountain?
“Amazing Grace” — Not even directly about God, but about His grace…which has a sound?
“Nothing but the Blood” — Using the metaphor of washing sin away, as if it were dirt or grime on our souls. Unless any of you have literally gotten your hands on some Jesus blood and used it in a bath…
I’m not saying any of these are bad, or worse than other songs (after all…what other songs are there?). It’s making the use of all we have and aiming our intentions at worshiping this infinite and amorphous deity.
At the end of the day, all we have is metaphor.
The best our worship can hope to be is metaphor.
Really good metaphor.
Perhaps this is why, after giving it some thought, one of my favorite hymns has long been “Be Thou My Vision.” This is one that sings about both God and the singer—how the singer wants to make God the central focus of their life.
After listening to countless lectures from psychologists, as well as one TED talk by a pickpocket, I’ve realized more and more the value of attention. In fact, the pickpocket dropped a simple but fascinating line about how we humans have no shortage of information, and therefore, knowledge. This means that information is less valuable than attention which directs a person toward certain information and away from other.
Attention is more valuable today than data.
And really, this isn’t new to humanity. At least, not since the hymn was written. The hymnist is asking God to become the central focus of their life, to draw their attention such that all else fades to a blurry bokeh in the background. Look at the first three lines about how the writer wants to see God:
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best thought, by day or by night
One of, if not the most worshipful thing a human can utter to God is for God to consume the Christian’s attention above all else. For the Christian to not pay as much attention to anything on or above this earth. If attention and affection are two of the most valuable resources on earth, then offering these to God is one of the most worshipful acts one can offer. Perhaps this is one point in a hymn where the metaphor actually becomes less metaphorical and more tangible. Will we offer God our attention and affection above all else?
We could sing about His justification (a legal metaphor) and His grace (profound yet still intangible), and we are still trading in the realm of metaphor. Perhaps our language will always hover just above the reality of our faith until, as a different hymn proclaims, our “faith becomes sight.”
Until then, we just keep “singing new songs to the Lord” in an attempt to fully capture the divine in a few bars of poetic metaphor.