Christian Songs Can Be Toxic

  • Toxic Songs

The word “toxic” gets a lot of use today. Literally used the word refers to what is poisonous, dangerous, harmful, potentially deadly. There are toxic dumps which are threat to the environment. There are toxic substances that must be handled carefully. There are toxic debts that have a high likelihood of default.

Like all trendy words, it gets used, misused, and over-used. There are toxic people we must avoid. There are  toxic relationships from which we must extricate ourselves. There toxic circumstances we must escape. Poisonous people and circumstances, we are told, are dangerous to our physical and psychological health. This kind of thinking is based on “me” and “taking care of me” and “doing what’s best for me” because “I am my first responsibility” and “I can’t help anyone else if I’m not in a ‘good place’ myself.”

But this got me wondering about spiritual toxicity. I grew up mostly fundamentalist in home, church, and school. I wonder if spiritual toxicity was conveyed through songs I grew up singing. Sometimes these records get loaded onto my mind’s turntable and play over and again. Sometimes I have to resort to singing something secular, like “I ain’t livin’ long like this, am I baby?” to make those old records stop playing.

I might be tormented  by doctrinal errors - “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart” - “Lord, we are able, our spirits are thine” - “In all life thou livest, thou true life divine” - “Father-love is reigning o’er us, brother-love binds man to man.” But those records were broken long ago, and they don’t bother me much. Or, I might point to that epitome of pietistic egotism against which Dr. Robert Rayburn so often railed against, “In the Garden”  - “And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” But that song is so hokey it lost hold on me long ago.

The songs I am thinking about are the songs about Christian experience I sang so often. These words were not true of my experience when I sang them, did not become true of my experience later, and could not express my experience now. And, because I think they are experiences not possible in this world, I will say they don't even express aspirations.

These songs I will call “toxic” focus on themes of surrender, peace, and joy. Do these songs express the experiential realities of a Christian life?

Who has experienced perfect submission?
          Perfect submission, perfect delight,
  • Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
  • Angels, descending, bring from above
  • Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

  • Perfect submission, all is at rest,
  • I in my Savior am happy and blest,
  • Watching and waiting, looking above,
  • Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

Who has laid all on the altar?

  • You have longed for sweet peace,
  • And for faith to increase,
  • And have earnestly, fervently prayed;
  • But you cannot have rest,
  • Or be perfectly blest,
  • Until all on the altar is laid.

Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?
Your heart does the Spirit control?
You can only be blest,
And have peace and sweet rest,
As you yield Him your body and soul.

Who has so leaned on the everlasting arms as to have this fellowship and joy divine?

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
  • Leaning on the everlasting arms;
  • What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
  • Leaning on the everlasting arms.

    • Refrain:
    • Leaning, leaning,
    • Safe and secure from all alarms;
    • Leaning, leaning,
    • Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Who’s salvation has introduced him/her to new life sublime?

Saved by His pow’r divine,
Saved to new life sublime!
Life now is sweet and my joy is complete,
For I’m saved, saved, saved!

Who is happy all the day? (And who thinks Isaac Watt’s good hymn was ruined by the addition of this refrain?)

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

Who lives this?

There’s within my heart a melody,
Jesus whispers sweet and low,
Fear not, I am with thee, peace, be still,
In all of life’s ebb and flow.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus--
Sweetest name I know,
Fills my every longing,
Keep me singing as I go.

Feasting on the riches of His grace,
Resting ’neath His sheltering wing,
Always looking on His smiling face,
That is why I shout and sing. (Refrain)

What harmless habit separates a Christian from the Savior? (I can remember the old question, “Would you want Jesus to come while you were...dancing...smoking...playing cards?)

Nothing between my soul and my Savior,
naught of this world's delusive dream;
I have renounced all sinful pleasure;
Jesus is mine, there's nothing between.

Nothing between my soul and my Savior,
so that his blessed face may be seen;
nothing preventing the least of his favor;
keep the way clear! let nothing between.

Nothing between, like worldly pleasure;
habits of life, though harmless they seem,
must not my heart from him ever sever;
he is my all, there's nothing between.

The repetition of P&W songs have nothing on this one:

I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
"Take thy cross and follow, follow Me.

"I'll go with Him thro' the garden,
I'll go with Him through the garden,
I'll go with Him thro' the garden,
I'll go with Him, with Him all the way.

I'll go with Him thro' the judgment,
I'll go with Him thro' the judgment,
I'll go with Him thro' the judgment,
I'll go with Him, with Him all the way.

He will give me grace and glory,
He will give me grace and glory,
He will give me grace and glory,
And go with me, with me all the way.

Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
I’ll go with him, with him all the way.

These are all songs that flow naturally from the preaching and techniques of Second Great Awakening. They reflect the theology of “the higher Christian life.” They are sentimental in the extreme. They promise what they cannot deliver.  

I think of Carl Trueman’s question, “What can miserable Christians sing?” and the answer must be, “Surely not these.” One of the things that Richard Allen Bodey said in the class on worship at Reformed Seminary more than 45 years ago has stuck with me: “What is sung from the hymnal is the man in the pew’s theology.” (Let me update this: What is sung from the screens on the wall is what the the man or woman standing in front of his/her chair believes.) If those songs taught me what Christian experience should be like, then they taught me wrong.

I remember in the first weeks of my ministry, I accompanied some ladies from my church on a visit to the asylum at Chattahoochee, Florida, and thinking what mockery this must have been to the depressed, though the third verse has something for those suffering with paranoia (a song I give thanks I had never before been subjected to):

Sing the clouds away,
Night will turn to day;
If you’ll sing and sing and sing
You’ll sing the clouds away.

Smile the clouds away,
Night will turn to day;
If you’ll smile and smile and smile
You’ll smile the clouds away.

Sing and smile and pray,
Pray and pray and pray;
Night will turn to day,
No matter what they say;

Sing and smile and pray,
That's the only way
If you’ll sing and smile and pray
You’ll drive the gloom away.

These songs were toxic for my expectations of Christian experience. I doubt they are sung much anymore, if for no other reason because the music is so bad and dated that churches which want there to be as seamless a transition as possible from what is heard on the radio to what is heard is church would never use them. But, then I think of the Praise and Worship genre and wonder about them:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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