Modern Worship Trends and The Impassibility of God
As I exegete the hymns, I am noticing a trend in a lot of modern worship music that is troubling. Worship music should be about God, His attributes, and His works. When we give a confusing or outright false view of who God is, it isn’t worship. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" John 4:24.
The doctrine of impassibility/passibility refers to whether God does or does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being. It describes the “emotions” of God. The Westminster Confession of faith says, “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable.” The idea is that God’s passions are linked to His immutability, the fact that He does not change. God’s happiness or sadness cannot be increased or decreased because He is never changing. Even instances in scripture where it tells of God “Changing His mind”, it must be understood as anthropomorphic language. God was not wrong, then became right. God was not right, then chose better. There is no “better” with God. God is the superlative.
So, if God is immutable, if God does not change, then it also must be understood that God does not react. How can an omniscient God be caught off guard? How can a God who knows and plans all things realize a bump in the road and adjust? God’s plan is not a GPS that reroutes every time a creature exercises their will. If God adapts, then God is not immutable. Malachi 3:6 says, “For I, the LORD, do not change”. Isaiah 46:10 makes it clear, “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, 'My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'"
Therefore, if God is immutable in His attributes, works, and plans, then His mind, will, and emotions, or passions, must be different than ours. God has a mind; we have a mind. However, it would be unfair, and theologically dangerous to describe the mind of God by superimposing the fallenness of our minds onto Him. For instance, we cringe when we hear someone use the phrase, “The man upstairs is too busy to notice”. We are associating our limits to an unlimited God. Yes, sometimes we get too busy to notice things, but God is omniscient. Similarly, some can’t imagine a God that would willingly send people to hell. They make the false dichotomy that God “couldn’t be all powerful AND all loving” if He chooses to pour out His wrath on them. This is taking a flawed sense of fairness from our human perspective, and ascribing it to a God who has a perfect will, a God who creates and determines what is right and wrong.
If imposing human versions of the mind and will to God is wrong, then imposing human emotions to God is equally wrong. I have a dog. Her name is Taters. She loves to see me, or anyone for that matter, when we come through the gate. She jumps up in elation because there is a hope that she will be able to come into the house and be with the family. If I scold her for doing something naughty, her tail goes between her legs. She is an animal who shows emotions. Animals also have minds. She can learn tricks, she can stay when told to stay, and even sit one out of every four tries. However, I would be wrong to side with PETA and say that the mind and emotions of my dog make her on par with humans. We both have minds and feelings, but we are not identical. To relegate my human level of “soul” to an animal would be an injustice. To do the same between humans and Almighty God would be the same.
The problem that often arises with this doctrine is that of extremes. One can take the doctrine of impassibility too far and make God just a detached, impersonal force, much like the false god of deism. However, if we take passibility too far, we make God in our image, tossed about by His emotions. God has emotions, but God is not “emotional”. J.I Packer once said, “It means simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.”
Psalm 103 is a good example of God the Father’s love for His people, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him.” The Holy Spirit can be grieved, but not surprised by circumstances that cause grief. God the Father will exercise wrath, but not in a way that a child has a temper tantrum. Jesus loves His sheep, but not mere infatuation, not in a way that is thoughtless or careless, or uncontrolled by passion.
This brings me to the issue I have with much of modern worship music. Anthropomorphism's (describing God using human characteristics) are used throughout the Bible, but they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. God is permitted to properly describe Himself, but we haven’t been granted that freedom when making up anthropomorphic analogies on our own. Granted, songwriting often uses analogies. It is the very nature of telling a story and describing, in an artistic way, the subject of our music, but we should, and have been warned when we begin to make up our own anthropomorphism's to describe the transcendent God (Revelation 22:18).
There is a need in much of modern worship music to “come up with something new” each year. Hymn writers of the past were indeed creative, but did not have the pressure of Wall Street, record companies, charts, and investors to whip up 10-15 potential radio hits on a steady basis. Couple this with the fact that a good number of the ancient hymn writers were theologians, and, in contrast, many of the writers of modern worship are lacking in theological depth and some, given their theology, questions are raised as to the authenticity of their salvation. The New Apostolic Reformation, with artists like Bethel Music and Jesus Culture, put out a lot of worship music each year, but their view of several key doctrines are skewed. They often are in the top charts and are usually nominated for worship song and CCM worship album of the year. Many churches seek to emulate their “worship experience” and in doing so often inadvertently give consent to their doctrines as well.
Some of the doctrines in the NAR that are infused into their worship music are “Dominion Theology” (Dominion theology states that biblical Christianity will rule all areas of society, personal and corporate, and we as the church should bring about a political and religious domination of the world through the implementation of the moral laws, and subsequent punishments, of the Old Testament), “Words of Knowledge” (That the canon of scripture is not complete or sufficient and new revelation is being given to those who seek to “hear a word from God”), and a “Low View of God”. This low view can be seen in the belief that “We are gods… because God reproduces after His own kind” (Creflo Dollar). Miles Monroe and Benny Hinn define prayer as “Man giving God permission or license to interfere in earth’s affairs. God can do nothing on earth without a human giving him permission.” This low view of God is also expressed a “passable” view of God.
The Bible often uses anthropopathic language (describing God with human words for emotion) when speaking of God’s emotions. Rather than being shown as the Sovereign God of the universe who has a plan for this world from beginning to end, He is shown as a God who is reactive, reckless, emotional, and needy. God does not need people. Rev. Voddie Baucham says, “By definition, God is self-sustaining, self-existent, and self-sufficient. Therefore by definition, he needs nothing.” Remember, God has emotions, but is not emotional. He is not swayed by events, He is above them. God is passionate in the way He loves us, but not the same as the way we love. It is even popular to refer to the love of God to His children as “Romantic.” Our passions are responsive, they sway us, they can even dominate us to the point of irrationality. That can never be said of God, but this is often the view of God that is created in these songs for the purpose of being “relatable”. "God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19).
Conclusion: Let’s be cautious when creating or using songs or analogies that are extra-Biblical. God has given us many details about Himself. He has shown us that He has a mind, will, and emotions, but they are not like ours. His mind is omniscient and perfect, His will is Holy and righteous, and His emotions are chosen and immutable. When we attribute human emotions, with all it’s flaws and imperfections to God, we bring God down to our level. Some may say that makes God easier to relate to, but should we sacrifice a Biblical God for a relatable one?
Bill Itzel has been a worship leader and singer/songwriter for over 30 years and is based in Westminster, MD. His family tours and leads worship around the country. Bill and his family attend Belcroft Bible Church in Bowie, MD. This is a blog about congregational worship and the latest news in the The Itzel's ministry.