A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: God’s Promises

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Every believer has seasons of doubt.  No matter how strong our faith or our relationship to Christ, hardship comes and discipleship wavers.  We wonder where God is, and we question the very possibility of salvation itself.  Perhaps that is why God is a God of promises.  From the earliest covenants that God made with Cain and Noah to the New Covenant in which Jesus’ sacrifice bridged the divide between God and us, God is unrelenting in pursuit of our hearts and souls.

Sacred music is a reassuring resource for a waning sense of faith.  Hymns can communicate God’s sure foundation as well as Jesus’ promise to never leave us nor forsake us.  It nurtures us in the church and surrounds us with songs both challenging and familiar to let us know that God is still with us even in the face of opposing evidence.

Many songs that communicate God’s promises come in the form of what many call the great “gospel hymns” of old.  These hymns, spanning the 18th to early-20th centuries are remarkable theological powerhouses that act as a balm to our deepest spiritual wounds.  They are not just for funerals, they also intend to play in our mind like earwigs when times get tough.

Fanny Crosby, author of thousands of hymns and poems, gifted us with one of the most meaningful of gospel hymns, Blessed Assurance.  It is a love song between Savior and saved, a promise that “Jesus is mine!”, a Jesus who whispers love and mercy in the midst of night.  Though times of distress, doubt, and hardship threaten to silence us, God’s promises give us a story to tell and a song to sing.  If nothing else, we can “praise our Savior all day long” even if it seems fanciful to those who have no belief at all.

A memorable hymn is Great is Thy Faithfulness, penned by pastor-turned-insurance salesman Thomas Chisholm.  For me, doubt does not exist throughout the year, but in waves and seasons.  At times, my faith crushes all doubt; at other times, my faith may exist as a mere flicker of light in a sea of darkness.  No matter, faith incorporates a seasonal rhythm of highs and lows, and Great is Thy Faithfulness affirms it as such: “Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest…join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love!”

There is another set of hymnody that reassures believers and expresses God’s promises. The great reformer Martin Luther penned A Mighty Fortress is Our God in times of trouble, arrest, and persecution.  His own bouts of depression and anxiety needed a poetic outlet, and “God’s truth abideth” seemed appropriate for a time of spiritual warfare.

Three similar songs include How Firm a Foundation, Rock of Ages, and The Solid RockHow Firm is an early hymn overshadowed by mystery.  The author is only known as “K” while the author of the tune FOUNDATION is also anonymous.  Perhaps that is intentional as it is God, not the author, who speaks to us in four of the five verses: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed.”

Rock of Ages has a livelier history, if not for content, then for author Augustus Toplady, who feuded with the Wesley brothers.  Several things catch my attention: (1) Augustus Toplady is, like, the coolest name ever, (2) who else would have the audacity to call John Wesley (founder of Methodism) the “most rancorous hater of the gospel”, and (3) there is a theory that Toplady plagiarized some of the lines of Rock of Ages from a poem that Charles Wesley wrote some three decades earlier. (All of this is recorded with no small drama in Kenneth Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories, pp. 215-217).  The dude had nerve.

And the last, The Solid Rock, is just a good song altogether.  Published in one of the only hymnals to be distributed during the Civil War, its clear and concise message summarizes everything these gospel hymns mean to me.  As a way to end, allow me to quote the first verse in full:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Thank God for God’s promises!

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“Rejoice always, again I say, rejoice!”

matchlightHave you ever confronted a scripture verse that makes you wonder how to live up to God’s Word?  Take this one for example penned by Paul in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”

Rejoice always?  I barely have enough energy to pay attention to my children whenever they are around much less try to “rejoice always” while going about my day.  And what about those difficult times in our life when bad things happen?  What about when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed?  Does God still expect us to rejoice?

I’m not 100% positive of what Paul means by asking Christians to rejoice always, but I’m fairly certain he does not expect us be happy all of the time.  The translation of this verse in the recently published Common English Bible, “Be glad always” is misleading.

To rejoice always is not the same as being “glad” or happy always.  Paul knew that the Christian life is not an easy one and that happiness comes and goes.  After all, he was in prison when he wrote his letter to the Philippians, and he understood that thorns in the side existed and made things difficult a time or two (2 Corinthians 12:5).

Besides, have you ever met someone who is happy all the time?  That constant energy can get really annoying, and eventually the facade of sustained enthusiasm crumbles under the weight of life’s hardships.  If God expected us to always be happy or always be glad or always have a smile on our face, then we all might as well skip church and stay home on Sunday mornings.  It would be an impossible expectation to fulfill.

I think that when Paul told the Philippians to rejoice always, he meant that we Christians should exhibit exuberant confidence in the midst of the roller coaster of life.  We are to trust in the purpose, plans, and mission that God has for us.  We may waver in our faith, but our diligence in seeking God and making God a priority in our life–to make Him the object of our rejoicing–should be sustainable and constant.

Paul was in prison at the time he wrote his letter to the Philippians–not a lovely place to be during the first century–but he still knew that God had a purpose for his life.  He was confident in a God whom Paul insisted makes “all things work together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

Rejoicing is what happens when we rely on the joy that God puts in our hearts when we believe in him.  Difficulty and hardship may come, but joy is like a flickering flame that persists even in the face of overwhelming darkness.  It is not something that is easily extinguished, and it is something that lingers even if only a spark.

I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to meet people in hospital, rehab, or hospice situations who continue to rejoice in God even when the odds are stacked against them.  When I visit, I find that these folks hold such a confidence in the Lord that they end up ministering to me.

I don’t expect people to put on a show, and it is tiring for some to smile and make visitors feel welcome.  I don’t expect them to show enthusiasm for the Lord; in fact, many a people who suffer get angry or resentful at times.  That’s natural.

Yet, even in the harshest of situations, believers in God have a joy that not even cancer can kill.  There is a resilience that is inexplicable and transcendent, a resilience that attests, “Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

That kind of joy produces rejoicing that sings hymns when hardship comes, proclaims Gospel news in a bad-news world, and prays for the Spirit’s guidance when the voices are too overwhelming.

Trusting in the Lord is like learning to ride a bike

learningProverbs states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding” (3:5).  My son learned that the hard way when I tried to teach him how to ride a bike without training wheels last week.

It was a great day at the time.  My family and I were going along our merry way when I came up with the idea that it might be time for my son, 5 years old, to learn how to ride that big two-wheeler of his.  When I recommended it, he jumped at the chance.

At first, my wife suggested we simply raise the training wheels higher to keep him from falling over.  We tried that, and my son simply bounced from one side to the other down the road.  It didn’t require any balance.

I suggested taking the training wheels off altogether like the big boys do.  I grabbed my tools, took off the training wheels, and stood the bike up.

“Alright, son,” I said confidently, “It’s time to learn how to ride.”   He looked at the bike, now modified, and had to make a decision.   It took a little convincing that he would be safe, that I would not let the bike go, and that we would teach him every step of the way.  We assured him that we would not let him fall.

My son didn’t learn how to ride his bike that day.  It was a start.  What he did learn, however, was that he can trust my wife and me with the harder things in life, that he can trust us not to put him on a bike just to watch him fall.

That night, I reflected on just how much my son’s trust in us is like our trust in God.  God gives us a bicycle now and then–something He calls us to do, be it a task, a mission, or simply someone to befriend–and tells us to get on.   Like my son, we often have a decision to make.  Are we going to trust God with the plans God gives us?

Some of us jump on the bike with gleeful abandon; faith comes easier to some more than others.  Then there are people who take their time to decide whether they can trust God.

We know God has a future for us, but we are just not sure if we want to follow through on it.  We’d rather play where its familiar and safe.

Then there are folks who simply don’t trust God and live with training-wheels religion.  We get by and say the right things, but we don’t trust that God has the best intentions for us.  We don’t trust God with the details, and we take matters into our own hands more often than not.

Trust is a hard thing to do in our day and age.  We are cynical about others and whether they deserve our trust.  We can’t help but remember all of the times people have let us down.  Sometimes, we find it hard to trust God because we feel that God let us down a time or two also.

Yet, there is another scripture in Proverbs that applies to those who find it hard to trust: “In all your ways acknowledge God and God will make your paths straight” (3:6).

Only when we get on the bicycle without the training wheels and put our trust in God can we experience the straight path that God has in store for us.  After all, God has “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).