The need for hope beyond wishful thinking
Over the last few years, hope seems to have become an increasingly precious and sought-after commodity as our globe seems to be teetering on the brink of multifaceted, accumulative crises. From the dissonant backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gruelling war in Ukraine, the concerning rise of populist ‘post-truth’ politics, many nations facing long-forgotten levels of division and polarisation, the deeply unsettling middle eastern conflict and violence, all in the looming shadow of the threats of climate change…
It seems clear: we live in a time of uncertainty, instability, and overwhelming concerns.
It's in these moments of uncertainty and chaos that the human soul longs for a glimmer of light, a reason to believe that amidst the cacophony of crises, there is still good news to be heard.
Hope, for the follower of Jesus, is not a mere wishful thought, a naive optimism divorced from reality. Hope doesn’t ignore the present realities, but rather looks ‘through’ them, trusting that a new world is possible, and indeed is on its way.
How should we think about hope? And more to the point of this post, how should we sing about it?
Moltmann's theology of hope: Shaping our present
Enter Jürgen Moltmann, a renowned theologian whose seminal work on hope explores its transformative power. Moltmann doesn't view hope as a passive longing for personal relief; instead, he sees it as an active engagement in God's redemptive actions in the world. For Moltmann, hope in the future new creation serves as a motivating force, compelling believers to actively participate in God's ongoing pursuit of justice, love, and reconciliation in the present. [See note 1].
However, I've been grappling with a growing unease, sensing distortions in the underlying narratives embedded in much of the worship music within contemporary evangelicalism. Frequently, the worldview conveyed by our worship songs appears to be more aligned with the individualism and consumerism prevalent in our culture, rather than truly reflecting the biblical narrative.
For heaven’s sake… How our worship has changed
I recently came across some interesting research which analysed Contemporary Worship Music across time and revealed a concerning trend:
“Our churches used to sing about heaven. Now they don’t.”
[see note 2]
Historically, our songs tended to incorporate a theme of waiting, of journeying towards the day of our coming redemption. Our songs used to shape and form us into the biblical story, cultivating a sense of transformative hope.
You might be familiar with the line "May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s sun" from the classic hymn "Be Thou My Vision," or perhaps you've come across William Williams' 1745 composition, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," in which the singer takes on the role of a pilgrim, earnestly seeking divine guidance for their journey. Another hymn from the 18th century echoes a similar sentiment with the recurring refrain, "I’m on my journey home to the new Jerusalem." [see note 3]
Westerholm’s analysis shows that since 2000, Contemporary Worship Music tends to focus purely and reductively on the presence of God in the immediate context, tending to be void of any sense of waiting for Jesus’ return and the culmination and completion of the new creation.
Curiously, often when old hymns are redone by contemporary artists, they adapt the lyrics to feature our modern penchant for immediacy. Notably, with the famous ‘Amazing Grace’, Newton’s ‘you will be forever mine’ becomes Chris Tomlin’s ‘you are forever mine’. [see note 4]
Are God’s promises always ‘yes and amen’?
I’m sure some thoughtful readers might have some questions at this point…
Am I saying that the only thing we have to hope for is Jesus' return and new creation? Isn’t there more to the promises of Jesus? What about all God’s promises being ‘yes and amen’? What about all our songs declaring God as the 'faithful one'?
The answers to these questions hinge on the nature of the promises we have in mind: To what promises, specifically, are we trusting God to be faithful?
As I’ve grappled with how to articulate my answer to this, let me be as clear as I can:
God has not promised to make your life better or easier.
The assertion that 'God is faithful' doesn't guarantee that God will alleviate your burdens, answer your prayers as you hope, or ensure you overcome your challenges.
Despite the subtle implications of many of our lyrics, God being faithful does not equate to God intervening in our lives to bring ‘victory’ over our challenges, or ‘breakthrough’ for our personal problems.
What does Jesus promise us?
Jesus actually assures us our lives will be full of troubles (John 16:33). The biblical hope is that Jesus has overcome the world, that Jesus is Lord, and is committed to renewing the world in his image and likeness—marked by love, justice, and peace.
Yes, Jesus has shown us the forgiveness and graciousness of God - and it surely impacts our days as we walk not under thunderous skies, but under the gaze of a God who knows only love and grace.
And yes, Jesus has promised to be with us by his Spirit. His presence undeniably brings about a profound change in the way we subjectively experience life, especially during the challenging trials and dark nights of the soul we encounter.
While God may intervene in ways that improve or ease our lives, there is no guaranteed formula for the timing or manner of such divine intervention. It's perhaps best to view God’s interventions in the world as miraculous—unpredictable by definition.
Living in the 'now and not yet' involves holding onto the expectation and hope that God will act in our present world, offering glimpses of the new creation. Simultaneously, it requires accepting the reality of injustice, suffering, tears, wars, conflict, violence, and personal challenges until we reach the final horizon.
So, yes, I believe God’s promises are always 'yes and amen.' However, I am often concerned that when singing songs with such language, our focus might stray from the biblical promises we should anticipate, veering towards a more individualised, consumeristic vision of God making our lives better or easier.
The 'Now and Not Yet' Lens for worship
At the risk of appearing unduly critical, I want to invite you to read these lyrics for a popular worship song and read them with the lens of the ‘now and not yet’ and our hope being grounded in the future new creation breaking into our present reality:
So I won't be going under
I'm not held by my own strength
'Cause I've built my life on Jesus
He's never let me down
He's faithful in every season
So why would He fail now.
[see note 5]
What is the underlying embedded narrative here? What is it we’re believing that Jesus won’t fail to do?
If you showed these lyrics to an alien who didn’t know anything about the Christian faith, and asked them what this song is about, which of these would they say is true of our faith?
1) Jesus will one day return to heal and restore all things.
2) Jesus is a magic genie who offers strength to individuals and victory over their challenges and trials.
[see note 6 for ChatGPT's verdict here]
This might sound facetious, but hopefully it draws out the point I’m trying to make: When our songs and overall theology not only proclaim God's ongoing work of renewal and healing in the world but also imply that this process will inevitably and predictably lead to an improved and more comfortable life for us, we’re leaning away from biblical hope, and erring into an 'over-realised eschatology’ [see note 7 for an explanation] - and resembling what I would call ‘soft’ prosperity gospel theology.
Some worship songs, with their language centred around God's immediate and personalised faithfulness, risk co-opting God's promises from their contexts of the biblical narrative and distorting them within a culturally conditioned, individualised, consumeristic, hollowed out narrative of hope.
Hope on the Horizon: A great example
I want to offer a positive exemplar of a worship song that, in my view, engages wisely and biblically with the themes of hope, facing challenges, and leaning into God’s faithfulness. "Hope on the Horizon" by KXC (feat. Rich & Lydia Dicas) stands out to me as a brilliant example, skillfully navigating between the 'now and not yet'.
[see note 8 for another great example]
This song grapples with the challenges common to human experience, where your heart teeters on the edge of breakpoint, where you feel like you have nothing more to offer and when prayers seem to hang in the air unanswered.
But in the midst of these experiences, the song invites the singer to turn their gaze to the horizon where we see Jesus and his kingdom is arriving. We’re invited, at the end of the chorus, to worship God as we wait for that coming kingdom (in that future time horizon), and to actively hold on to that hope now.
This song is both honest about challenging circumstances but also evokes a deep and genuine hopefulness. This hope is anchored not in a belief that God’s faithfulness means God will necessarily intervene to fix the singer’s current struggles. Rather than the hope being anchored in the here and now, the eyes of hope are cast on the horizon for the arriving kingdom of Jesus and allowing that future hope to be an agent of transformation and empowerment in the present.
What am I proposing? Hopeful discernment
As we navigate the melodies of our worship, it's so important that we learn to examine the contours of our hope. The hymns of old carried us on a journey towards redemption, instilling a transformative hope that echoed through the ages. Today, however, immediacy often trumps expectancy.
In this symphony of faith, let's cultivate discernment. Not every song that declares immediate victory resonates with the biblical narrative. Our worship should be a tapestry woven with threads of collective hope, anchored in the future new creation, rather than a solo pursuit of comfort and prosperity.
My proposal, quite simply, is to:
Reshape our worship playlists, leaning more towards songs that see us as 'en route' towards the new creation—songs that capture the essence of waiting, longing, participating, and hoping.
Seek God's intervention amid life's challenges, while anchoring our hope in God's actual promises: forgiveness, God's unwavering presence in the midst of life's darkness, and the new creation of which beckons before us.
Are our worship songs too hopeful?
So a final verdict...
It's not that our songs are too hopeful; in fact, they could do with a bit more hope!
What's crucial is anchoring them in the promises of scripture, steering clear of being swayed by our culture's inclination towards immediacy, individualism, and consumerism.
I’m not looking to dampen the fervour of worship but refine it. Let's echo 'Hope on the Horizon,' embracing honesty about struggles while fixing our gaze on transformative hope beyond the present moment. In this recalibration, we invite harmonious worship where hope is a profound declaration anchored in the enduring promises of our faithful God.
My intention isn't to be a 'worship theology' enforcer. Instead, I genuinely yearn for sung worship to connect people to authentic, life-changing good news in our crisis-laden world.
Our sung worship moments need not serve as distractions from problems; our churches deserve better.
As we hold onto hope, anchored in God’s promises, may we become beacons of hope in the darkest corners of our world, confident that the promised day is drawing near.
“In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”
2 Peter 3:13
Notes (for the deep divers out there!):
In other words, we could say our worldview - our storied understanding of reality - should be so shaped by the biblical storyline, culminating in the new creation, that we practically ‘inhabit’ and instinctively ‘live into’ such a narrative - living as part of that future new creation in our present world (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). I wrote about worldviews here: What storied worldview are you living into? Part 1: Gnosticism - a subtle infection
See dissertation “The hour is coming and is now here”: the doctrine of inaugurated eschatology in contemporary evangelical worship music”, Author: Westerholm, Matthew David. Read it here.
It might be worth noting that I don’t celebrate the ethereal, pure ‘other worldly’ nature of most of these historic lyrics. I believe God is going to renew and restore this creation - not ship us off to some other-worldly heaven. The ideal would be to incorporate into our music lyrics that hope for that future reality of renewal and restoration but located within this created world.
As a further interesting observation, the in the history of the church is has been common to pray and sing 'Come Lord Jesus, come,' in anticipation of Jesus' return, however nowadays, there's a growing tendency to sing rather 'Come Holy Spirit,' emphasising the church's current emphasis on immediate, personal encounters.
To be fair to this song, there are other aspects of the song which speak of building our life on Jesus and putting some trust in that. I think this is a valid and helpful idea - the sense that we might put trust in building our lives around Jesus as well as practices that connect us to the life and lifestyle of Jesus - trusting that this will produce meaningful, godly fruit in our lives. I think this is something worth dwelling on and singing about and drawing hope from. However, what might not be so helpful, I’d suggest, is trusting that ‘building our life on Jesus’ means Jesus will in some way relieve us from burdens, satisfy desires motivated by comfort or convenience, or grant us ‘success’ or ‘victory’ in some way over the challenges we face or dreams we pursue.
I asked ChatGPT this question and it gave me a resounding verdict of 2. It was clear to the ‘large language model’ that these lyrics spoke more of a problem solving genie than a world healing Jesus.
Over-realised eschatology is the belief that certain aspects of God's promises for the future have already come to pass in the current age. For example, the Bible speaks of a future time of complete peace and prosperity, and an over-realised eschatology might suggest that this peace and prosperity should be fully experienced in the present moment, rather than being a future, yet-to-be-fulfilled reality. This perspective can sometimes lead to an expectation that believers should enjoy uninterrupted success, health, and prosperity in this current life.
For another great example of a song that helps us look ahead to “ a day / When death will be no more / Standing face to face / With He who died and rose again”, see Phil Wickham’s ‘Hymn Of Heaven’.
Photo by Cason Asher on Unsplash