Here is a hymn we sing that really brings home not only true songwriting but also a true attitude toward Christ that I think is sorely lacking in Christian music today:
Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
“Come to Me,” saith One, “and coming,
Be at rest.”
Hath He marks to lead me to Him,
If He be my Guide?
In His feet and hands are wound prints
And His side.
Hath He diadem, as monarch,
That His brow adorns?
Yes, a crown in very surety,
But of thorns.
If I find Him, if I follow,
What His guerdon here?
Many a sorrow, many a labor,
Many a tear.
If I still hold closely to Him,
What hath He at last?
Sorrow vanquished, labor ended,
If I ask Him to receive me,
Will He say me nay?
Not till earth and not till Heaven
Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is He sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
John Mason Neale, 1862
There seem to be three kinds of religious lyrics. The first are lyrics that are so general that any religion can own them. "God, you are worthy to be praised!" Any religion, even ones that believe the universe is god, even polytheistic religions can sing this. Second, we have the lyrics that are specifically Christ-centered, because they have details about his life, teaching, and even death, but they lack the correct attitude about ourselves. They are the "Jesus is awesome!" songs. Jesus did something incredible for me. He can do the same for you. Just realize how amazing he is.
Finally, we hymns like that above. They are Christ-centered. They have details about Jesus, AND they have details about ourselves. They contain the problem of sin. They contain trials and tribulations. They focus on Jesus as savior, Lord, and comforter. They are complete, and they are specifically Christian with proper Christian theology. More specifically, they draw the curiosity of the unbeliever, because he is not used to hearing the struggles and trials of being a Christian. Jesus' salvation is made clear and is given depth.
Are you weary? Are you sickly and faint? Is life a struggle? These aren't lyrics to your typical praise tune. Are you sore distressed? Come to Christ and you will find rest, but you will know him by wounds and a crown of thorns. Will following him be awesome? No, actually. Your earthly rewards for following Jesus are sorrow, labor, and tears. But if you hold him close to the very end, all the sorrows and labors go away forever. He will not reject you, and throughout all your struggles he will bless you. Can you hear a more comforting and inspiring praise song than that?
I think it all boils down to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who do you see yourself as in the parable?
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ " (Luke 10:30-35)
Religious and non-religious people alike see themselves as the Good Samaritan. They at least set themselves the goal of becoming like the Samaritan. Even Jesus tells us to go and do likewise. Actually, we are all more like the priest and Levite because of sin. We try to creep into the Samaritan realm, but mostly we are firmly in that priest and Levite category. Until we put a true, penitent faith in Christ. And then we become the beaten man. We are suddenly aware of our true state and we cry out for someone to help us. We await the Samaritan. But the Samaritan is not another sinful man. The Samaritan is Christ.
The Christian walk is that of a man beaten by robbers. We are weary, laden, sore distressed. We are left half-dead. The world rises against us. If we hide that fact from our praise music, we are hiding the most important part of Christianity: the need for Christ. We need him to deliver us from this life of sin that is killing us. Sin is the robbers. The Levite and priest are those who believe they have no sin. They are lost. The New Christianity believes it has no sin either. It is lost. Jesus can't help those who have no sin.
But Christ goes out of his way to help the needy and the downtrodden. The Christian is the one who has been beaten down by the world, the devil, and his own flesh. Christ picks us up, binds our wounds, brings us to the Church and bids it--fellow beaten men and women--to care for us until he returns, and return he will. He shall return to save all the weary and distressed children and separate out the wicked for all eternity. He will lead us to eternal life by his wounds and his crown of thorns. He will not deny us. He will bless us.
Isn't that worth singing about?