Singing the Unbearable Weight of Holiness

I seem to have gotten stuck in a pattern of writing about worship music. Someday I will write about something else. “But,” as Aragorn said, “it is not this day.”

prayer-bowed-headAs I noted recently, worship music helps us meditate on truth, and that is one of the ways we learn through worship singing. But music can also cause us to gloss over the profound without thinking much. This danger is not attached to any particular musical style or form for the simple reason that it’s primarily a problem with the singer not the song. If you’re a lover of traditional hymns (as I am), you’ll have to admit you can sing an entire hymn while admiring the orchestral accompaniment and barely noticing the words. I confess this happened to me at times when I was attending a large church with a large choir and orchestra—especially with their wonderful arrangement of “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” And most of us could sing several verses of “Amazing Grace” while thinking of something else altogether. Likewise, if you’re a lover of great contemporary worship music (as I am), it can be easy to dwell on the music and miss at least some of the lyrics. No matter the style or profundity of the lyric, we are all guilty of singing with hearts disengaged and minds distracted.

This warning intersects uncomfortably with another observation about corporate worship, a concern which is the main reason for this post: I’m not sure how often we sing of God’s holiness appropriately.

In Scripture, God’s holiness speaks of his “otherness.” God is holy in that he is completely different from all that is created. Correspondingly, when he calls his people to “be holy as I am holy,” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15, etc.), he is calling them to be separate from the world in terms of their behavior patterns, which is why “holy and blameless” go together often (e.g., Ephesians 1:4; 5:27). Holy conduct is an imitation of a holy God.

But the holiness of God isn’t just a behavioral standard we look up to. It’s an objective, divine reality that crushes us. When we begin to behold the absolute holiness of God, our rightful response is to crumple under its weight with Isaiah’s desperation:

“Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:5)

When we begin to rightly understand divine holiness, we can see why God destroyed Nadab and Abihu for their irreverence at his altar, offering incense in a manner contrary to God’s instructions (Leviticus 10:1-2). Even as New Testament worshipers we need to hear God’s message to their father, Aaron, after he witnesses the death of his sons:

‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored’ (Leviticus 10:3 NASBU).

When we sing of God’s holiness, we must honor the magnitude of his otherness and the infinite gap that stands between us and him. We must feel the depth of our smallness and embrace the helplessness of being entirely subject to the will of our sovereign Creator. We must see ourselves—as Isaiah did and as Aaron’s sons failed to do—desperately in need of the angel’s sacrificial coal that touched Isaiah’s lips and restored him, properly humbled, to offer himself in service to the Lord.

That’s a lot to expect from a song that happens to speak of divine holiness. How should the church take this to heart and put it to practice? I have a few suggestions for song writers, song leaders, and song singers (i.e., the rest of us).

Songwriters: It’s gotta make sense.

Theological sense, that is. I’ve heard songs that throw the holiness of God in there as filler. If you’re going to refer to God as holy, then make sure the actual, biblical concept of holiness is somehow conveyed or alluded to. I don’t want to overburden the already difficult task of writing a worship song, but we can’t just toss around the word “holy.” I don’t want to get into critiques of individual artists and songs here, but here’s an extreme example of what I mean: a song that speaks repeatedly of God as holy, but it’s just a cliche semi-coherently bundled together with other cliches in a fairly standard contemporary worship song formula (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-tag). The result is fun and singable, but worlds removed from Isaiah’s experience of God’s holiness. (Note that my critique is not of the style or form but the lyrical composition and performance.)

Song leaders: You gotta take us there.

This goes for pastors and anyone who helps lead a worship gathering. When the holiness of God is the topic, our church family needs us to draw their attention to the Lord, seated on his throne, high and lifted up, so that we can respond fittingly in our humbling smallness. Also, don’t speak of the holiness of God in a way that promotes familiarity or intimacy—holiness speaks of distance. The good news is that God himself has descended through the chasm that separates us and has dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And he has blazed a trail back into the heavenlies by giving himself in our place so that we may escape the fate of Nadab and Abihu and live on as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. That’s where the celebration is. But divine holiness sobers us up and casts us down so we can grasp the extremity and the extravagance of it all. As leaders we have to help people grasp this so it shapes their worship experience.

Song singers: We gotta go there.

As worshipers we have to do the heart work of engaging with divine holiness when we sing about it. And the proclamation of it should impact us deeply, humbling us and causing us to fear God anew. To be sure, God’s holiness should not be abhorrent to us—unless we are outside of Christ. The goal is not to be horrified but humbled. To be struck down in reverence and submission—at least inwardly, if not in actual posture.

I think I can illustrate from my own experience. Unlike in years past, I no longer stand still when I sing. Just as I talk with my hands, I sing with them as well, raising and/or gesturing in ways that for me flow naturally from the music and the moment. But as I’ve thought about worship and holiness this year, I’ve found that when I encounter lines about God’s holiness, I look down not up. My hands grip the chair in front of me or clasp together, almost like I’m holding on while the “foundations of the thresholds shake” like they did in Isaiah 6. While I don’t want to imply that everyone should respond physically in just the same way, I do want to call attention to the way the words shape the worship experience for me. Maybe that will help illustrate what I’m after in this article.

One last, balancing point, from my favorite verse about God’s holiness: our consideration of the holiness of God should never be far separated from our exultation in the mercy of God. For the One whose holiness crushes and humbles us is also the One who condescends to lift us up:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15).

Maybe we could strike a heavy blow against distracted worship singing if we would just learn to notice and respond well to the holiness of God when we encounter it in our songs.