Unhelpful Songs

4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying,nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”     Revelation 21:4, ESV

Today’s Q & A with John MacArthur over at his Bible commentary website dealt with a pervasive idea that we often see in secular and even Christian songwriting.  The question was, “Will Earthly Memories Exist in Heaven?”  MacArthur makes several very interesting, and I believe accurate quotes.  If you are thinking culturally, it may ruffle your feathers a little.  If you are thinking from a biblical perspective (as we should), He’s right on.  Here are a couple quotes from the two-minute audio clip.  The clip and his Revelation 21 commentary can be found here.

“Nobody in heaven knows about anything going on, on earth.  Nobody in heaven cares about what’s going on, on earth.”

Here’s another…

“There is no preoccupation in heaven with anything other than the joy of being in the presence of the Trinity.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people say things like “Uncle Johnny’s looking down on us”  or “Grandpa helped us win the game today.”  Where does that line of thinking come from?  Here’s a song I sang as a teenager at a talent contest…

One day shy of eight years old Grandma passed away
I was a broken-hearted little boy, blowing out that birthday cake
How I cried when the sky let go with a cold and lonesome rain
Momma smiled said don’t be sad child Grandma’s watchin you today

‘Cause there’s holes in the floor of Heaven and her tears are pourin’ down
That’s how you know she’s watchin’, wishin’ she could be here now
And sometimes if you’re lonely just remember she can see
There’s holes in the floor of Heaven and she’s watchin’ over you and me

Clearly society and culture seek to develop their own comforting mechanisms for times of grief.  I had no idea that “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” was unhelpful or unbiblical when I sang it.  It was just part of the accepted cultural landscape.  At the time, I didn’t know any better.  We must help our people to have discernment when it comes to song lyrics.  As worship leaders, we want them to know better.

Some of the most unhelpful songs I have ever heard have been played or sung at funerals.  Obviously, I won’t get into that but I know several ministry friends who’ve had similar experiences.  We must teach / educate our people on what the BIBLE has to say about such issues.  True comfort comes from knowing, trusting, and resting in /on Christ alone!  When someone is grieving over a “lost” loved one, the most loving thing we can do is to give them the Gospel.  We can’t sing or preach their loved one into heaven.  In a gentle way, we must warn the hearers so that they may not experience the same fate.  When someone is grieving over a “saved” loved one, we must remind them of the hope that the Gospel brings to each of us that have trusted in its saving power!

I don’t think MacArthur is saying we won’t remember anything at all in heaven, he is just reminding us that none of those things will matter when we see Jesus!

I’d love to hear your feedback about unbiblical song lyrics you’ve heard and why they are considered “culturally” acceptable.


6 thoughts on “Unhelpful Songs

  1. I find John MacArthur immensely helpful. He along with R. C. Sproul are the two gentlemen doing radio today that do much to influence my thinking, and it is only with trepidation that I would disagree with either one. But I do have a perhaps minor quibble with the Rev. MacArthur here. For what (little) it may be worth, professionally I am a funeral director, and my faith background is Episcopalian, particularly looking towards the early Anglican reformers, and thus look much to the Reformed and German streams of the Protestant Reformation.

    I would completely agree that the worship at the Throne is of such rapturous significance that all else is insignificant in comparison. But do the Saints in Glory care about the things the Father cares about? It would be hard to say that they do not. I would think that, when we “know as we are known” we will praise God, in part, for His deeds. The Passover will not become irrelevant. And if not, the smaller scale acts of God in my life (smaller in “the Grand Scheme.” Of course, they are larger to me!) will be likewise material with which to praise God.

    That, in fact, may be the point at which the Rev. MacArthur and I again converge; all of my knowledge, past or present, becomes irrelevant except as a medium of praise. And I think that, when we walk fully in that light, we shall see many (most?, all?) things redeemed so that they do show His Glory.

    To say that we “forget” them means that we would, in some respects, be less than we are now. I see no justification for that. Instead, we will see them more clearly; either as an example of God’s glory, or as an example of that from which He rescued me, and thus proclaiming His glory. As to “…the former things have passed away…” I think it is the death, and morning, tears, crying and pain associated with all sorts of death which has passed. The reality itself, and how it served/serves the glory of God, is thus redeemed and remains.

    There may not be a dimes worth of difference between this and Rev. MacArthur. If there is, I am likely wrong. I do think he is spot on in rejecting the idea that “Uncle Melvin” is some sort of “personal emissary” between me and God, or that there is a connection between me and Uncle Mel that ignores God. Melvin would find that idea both ridiculous and detestable, if he were willing to spare the time to think of it at all.

    On a related note; as I mentioned, I am a funeral director. (I also have been involved some way in Church music since the 1970s). As such I hear all sorts of things at funerals, from ridiculous to wonderful.
    There are some that make you go “Hmmn…”

    A while back, I wrote a reflection on one, relating to heaven, and marriage, and you may find it of some interest (if only humorous). If you do choose to look at it, please know that the images involved are very symbolic, and that many of the images are only to provide an understandable context for the main point, which I hope is plain. They are not intended to provide an accurate picture of the full life of the saints in glory! The item is titled “Meditation at a Funeral” and is found here.

    R. Eric Sawyer

    • Eric,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just wanted to challenge worship leaders (myself included) to be more discerning and to teach our people to do the same.

      Zach Rice

  2. Agree with that! but it is often a tough issue, as when a family is grieving, not exactly the “teachable moment” for looking at what our music expresses.

    I think it is sort of liek learning Scripture: if you wait until you need it, it won’t work well. You must build it into your life, then the Holy Spirit can apply it when and where appropriate. Wait until the crisis is upon, and it just fells like “Bible-bashing”

    When I got married back in 1979, at a church that was on the cutting-edge of music in the Episcopal Church, our choir master was very sensitive to both issues. Among other things, a friend of ours had written a very nice “Lord’s Prayer” which we wished him to sing. That got nixed. Prelude or postlude, perhaps, but not it the point where “The Lord’s Prayer” goes in our liturgy. The reason, which I accept, is that this prayer, in the context of communal worship, must be communal, sung congregationally. A solo just won’t do.

    What saved us from thoughts ranging from resentment to rebellion was that we were accustomed to George taking a strong stand musicaly, saying WHY this piece was imprortant, or the history behind the writing of this hymn. We were often instructed about the ability of Music to teach, and sometimes, what the obvious lessons were. (“I love this because… it joins us with those singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,… Who was, and is, and is to come…,” the words sung continualy around the Throne”) He even occasionally rehersed the congregation for 10-15 minutes before the service started -usually so that we actually could sing communally when we came to this new piece later in worship.

    But I certainly appreciate your words that the music matters. If it doesn’t call us into the Truth, help us understand the Truth, or apply the grace of the Truth to our wounds, we are better of without it. But the funeral, or the wedding, is too late to start.

    • I was simply bringing up the issue not necessarily explaining all of the facets of it. This is something worship leaders need to think about. I may do a follow up post at some point describing how to lead our people to discernment on these issues. I agree that it needs to be taught prior to moments of crisis. Thanks!

  3. As far as Heaven goes, I’m inclined to agree with Eric. When we’re in Heaven, we will see things through a very different, glorified lens. For all we know, MacArthur may be right, but the Bible itself doesn’t say that we’ll forget our earthly life or that we will be completely oblivious of what’s happening on earth; it only says that we won’t grieve the way we grieve now.

    I also see wisdom in Eric’s point that if a grieving widow says, “I want cousin Bill to sing ‘[marginally biblical song],'” that isn’t the best time to be doctrine police, although the pastor might be able to lovingly clarify some things in his message, or a diplomatic leader might find a nice way to say, “Hey, Bill would be great at singing ‘[more biblical song].’ How ’bout that one?'” or a music leader might deftly select another song later in the service that expresses a more biblical viewpoint. I once heard a pastor, after “Freebird” had been presented at a funeral, very skillfully offer a biblical sense of what it means to say, “O Lord, I can’t change.”

    Zach, thank you for bringing up the important issue of filtering our song selections. You are definitely right that the musical pastor has to have a discerning eye (or ear) for lyrics. I can be grateful that early in my career a pastor caught an error in a song I had started to teach, which said, “God you made the heavens, God you made the earth, God you made my friends and me; God you MADE your Son, then you gave him away . . . ” The next time we presented the song, we changed it to “God you SENT your Son.”

    These days I’m a lot more particular about song language, including grammar and archaisms. This past week I decided to skip over the verse “Who wert and art and evermore shall be,” but I haven’t yet had the courage to ask people to sing, “Who was and is . . .” Maybe I’m a little TOO particular now, but I guess that’s a slightly different issue for another post.

    • Chris,

      I’ll point you to the next to last line of the post…

      “I don’t think MacArthur is saying we won’t remember anything “at all” in heaven, he is just reminding us that none of those things will matter when we see Jesus!”

      I totally agree that we should use pastoral wisdom and not “bash” people when they are down. As worship leaders, our job is to try to educate “prior to the fact.” I’m not going to a funeral or other sensitive situation and try to correct everyone else. I am however responsible for myself and my actions. If I was asked to sing and I felt the song was unbiblical, I would not sing it. I would ask gently if there was another song that they had in mind and if necessary explain my hesitation. At that point, the ball is in their court. I have tried to be respectful of the individual without compromising my beliefs.

      Thanks, Zach

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