It was almost forty years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
At the end of an evening church meeting, we flowed seamlessly into an “afterglow service.” For the first time in my life I heard and sang these words, penned by Laurie Klein:
I love you, Lord
And I lift my voice
To worship you. O my soul, rejoice.
Take joy, my King, in what you hear.
May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.
I was moved to tears, not simply by the beautiful melody, but by the realization that my ultimate desire in life really was to love the Lord. To be pleasing to him, to bring him delight. In the seemingly constant swirl of worldly temptations, sensual distractions, and seasons of apathy, I had a moment of clarity. I loved the Lord.
Importance of the Heart
Telling the Lord how we feel about him is a healthy and natural part of our relationship with him.
To proclaim true things about God without actually loving him can have disastrous consequences. As Puritan John Owen warns us, “Where light leaves the affections behind, it ends in formality or atheism.”
We see that emphasis in the pages of Scripture. Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses reminded them of their highest priority: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
The Psalms are filled with expressions of passion for God: singing for joy to God, seeking him, thirsting for him, rejoicing in him, desiring him, and more (Psalm 84:2; Psalm 63:1; Psalm 64:10; Psalm 73:25). Quoting Isaiah, Jesus rebuked a people who “honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). Peter reminds us that though we have not seen Jesus, we love him, and we rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).
So it’s only right that phrases of affection for God should find their way into the lyrics of the songs the church sings. And they do: Jesus, we love you. . . . I give my all to you. . . . I worship you. . . . I want to praise you. . . . I’m lost without you. . . . My Jesus, I love thee.
How Not to Worship
And yet, it’s possible to become imbalanced. When our songs and prayers are dominated by what we think and feel about God and focus less on who he is and what he thinks and feels about us, we run the risk of fueling our emotions with more emotion. We can end up worshiping our worship.
What thoughts can bring balance when we’re expressing our affections for God in song? I can think of at least four.
1. The scriptural evidence for praise as an expression of our love for God is thin.
Oddly enough, there are only two verses in the Psalms where the writer says explicitly that he loves the Lord. The first is Psalm 18:1: “I love you, O Lord, my strength.” The second is Psalm 116:1: “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” In contrast, the psalmists reference the Lord’s steadfast, loyal, covenant love for his people well more than a hundred times.
2. Our feelings are fickle.
It’s encouraging to get caught up in a moment of passion for the Lord, as I was so many years ago. But what happens when your love for God wanes? When the words, “I love you, Lord,” sound hypocritical on your lips? It’s in those seasons especially that I need to be reminded that my relationship with God isn’t fueled or sustained by my devotion to him, but his to me. And that devotion was demonstrated most clearly and completely when he gave his only Son as he hung on the cross, enduring the punishment I deserved for my sins.
3. Worship in song is more than simply responding.
Contrary to what many think, singing to God is more than expressing our feelings for him. Colossians 3:16 says we’re “teaching and admonishing” each other. Ephesians 5:19 says we’re “addressing one another.” Singing is an educational experience! We’re reminding each other of what God has said, what he’s like, what he’s done, and why all those truths make him so worthy of our praise, affection, and obedience.
4. We show our love for God through obeying his commands, not simply by singing about our feelings for him.
My wife and I are committed to telling each other, “I love you.” In texts, emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations. But if our words aren’t backed up by acts of joyful service, sacrifice, and generosity, they sound empty, even self-serving. Pouring out our hearts to God in song can be edifying. But it can too easily substitute for the more important worship of our lives that’s revealed through obeying God’s commands and loving those around us.
In This Is Love
It’s good to be amazed that I love the Lord. But if I’m viewing things clearly, the more wondrous, more foundational reality is that he loves me — in my sin, my failings, my apathy, my distractedness, my inadequacy, my pride, my self-centeredness, my hypocrisy, and my self-pity.
It’s a life-transforming truth that we need to be reminded of again and again. So yes, let us sing, “I love you, Lord,” with gratefulness. And let’s spend even more time dwelling on the infinitely greater love that fuels and enables ours: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).