I was reminded recently of several old hymns the church has sung over the years. As a worship pastor, I’ve sung and led songs from many generations and traditions, but I admit there really is something special about the simplicity of an old hymn – the uncomplicated melody, the story it tells, and the theological truth it often reveals. I believe a church that never looks back to its musical roots is missing – no, neglecting – a treasure trove of timeless truths revealed in its many hymns.
Several of these hymns stood out to me, however, in the unique way they viewed earth, heaven, and this life. This got me thinking. I often criticize a lot of modern praise music for being “dance club party music” with Jesus’s name thrown in for good measure. We see this in a lot of modern church settings where the experience takes precedence over substance. This is not every church that has loud, celebratory music, mind you, but there is a growing trend of attending worship as an event, rather than living worship a lifestyle. Already critical of much of our modern praise, I contrasted it with the lyrics to many of these old hymns, and the difference was…stark.
The verses of many of these hymns seemed to lament over the troubles of this world. Words like weight, burden, and weary were coupled with actions like, longing, waiting, and suffering. The choruses spoke of the bright days ahead in heaven when we will finally see Jesus face to face. It brought to my mind a hymn I’d heard and sung many times before. You may be familiar with it too:
Oft times the day seems long, our trials hard to bear,
We’re tempted to complain, to murmur and despair;
But Christ will soon appear to catch His Bride away,
All tears forever over in God’s eternal day.
It will be worth it all when we see Jesus,
Life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ;
One glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase,
So bravely run the race till we see Christ.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, or any of these hymns for that matter. Indeed, the world presents us with many trials – some of which can seem impossible to withstand. Heaven, in all of its splendor, will be more glorious than you or I could ever possibly imagine. These things are true, and hymns like this are a precious reminder of the eternity that awaits us, but I wonder now how much these heavily heaven-focused hymns (say that 5 times fast!) have influenced and shaped the theological worldview of entire generations of the church. How often has the church presented the Gospel – the good news of the salvation available through Jesus Christ – as much more than punching your ticket to an eternity away from the flames of hell? I don’t have any hard facts or figures to answer that question, but I’ve seen many churches die over the years because their congregations became satisfied with waiting for heaven, rather than living out the joy of salvation.
The salvation paid for by Jesus is undeniably wonderful. I look forward to the day I will gather around with other saints and praise God for eternity. I also believe there is an incredible purpose in this life that God has given me for today. There is joy today to be found amid the trials and the hardship this world may afford. If we live as if heaven is the only prize we receive as Christians, our churches will die because we’ve stopped living to share the joy of God with others. It’s no surprise there are so many experience-driven churches that a pushing so hard in the other direction – making each gathering the equivalent of high-energy, high-volume dance party.
My hope is that as we – the body of Christ continue to find our identity, we will be keenly aware that there is a glorious eternity that awaits us, but there is also full, abundant life awaiting us now – at this very moment. I don’t believe we can worship appropriately without living as if both of them are equally important. Life’s not all a dance party, but there is joy in a Christ-filled life. Life’s not all a dreary, pain-filled mess, but there is much hard work yet to be done.
If we live as if this life and next are beautiful parts of the same story, we will begin to see the church doing more of what it was made to do. Those who call on the Lord will not only be saved, but will live for telling others of what Jesus has done for them. There will be days of high-energy celebration. There will be some days when we mourn and cry with those who have experienced hardship and loss. There will be work to be done, but it will be a joy to labor for the purposes of God. He makes the trials of this life bearable and gives us purpose in the here and now.
And yes – when we see Him face to face, it will be worth it all.