Recently a friend of mine was talking about the worship song, “Open Up the Heavens”. It’s quite popular (the #27 song in the land this week, according to CCLI). I made a flippant remark about its troublesome theology, which saddened my friend. You see, he likes the song. He finds it encouraging, fun to sing, etc.
So, I feel like I have some explaining to do. Mostly to myself, and for my own sake. I would encourage anyone reading this to provide some pushback if you think my critique is out of line. On the other hand, if this exercise causes you to think that maybe, just maybe, we should be more discriminating when it comes to our song selections, I encourage you to join me in these kinds of considerations.
“Open Up The Heavens”
We’ve waited for this day (1).
We’re gathered in your name, calling out to you (2).
Your glory like a fire (3a), awakening desire (3b), will burn our hearts (3c) with truth.
1. We’ve waited for this day. I’m not sure we’ve waited for “this day” if what is meant is the worship service these people are attending. Our eschatological waiting is far grander than that! Not a deal breaker.
2. Calling out to you. Often, I believe we think that worship is something we inaugurate with God through our calls to Him. Worship is a receiving of the grace of God through the means He has prescribed. He calls out to us, not the other way around. Again, not a deal breaker.
3. Fire…desire…burn our hearts.This is SO emblematic of our contemporary worship pursuits. Rather than receiving God through His prescribed means (one another, His Word, His sacraments), we seek some sort of inner “burning”, some sort of elevated emotion, or passion, or desire. In fact, most of our services are measured by whether or not we attain to this kind of “burn”. Funny…I don’t see anything like this in the pages of scripture. In fact, key Reformation leaders saw (and still see) this kind of approach to God as extremely problematic: We center His manifestation within us, rather than embrace His incarnational reality outside of our selves. This is a deal breaker. We cannot and should not be fostering this kind of expectation among our people, as though it is normal or normative.
You’re the reason we’re here. You’re the reason we’re singing.
(True enough, though a bit obvious, and not really a Psalm-like expression. It feels more to me like some Christianese used to sing over a chordal bridge into the chorus.)
Open up the heavens (4). We want to see you (5). Open up the floodgates — a mighty river flowing from your heart (6) filling every part of our praise (7).
Yikes. What in the world does this mean?
4. When we sing “Open up the heavens”, what are we asking? Really? Something more than God has already done in His Son? Are the heavens closed? I thought He has descended upon us in the form of the Holy Spirit … has gives us His Word … is present in His sacraments … is powerful by His Spirit toward us in the mutual gifting of the people around us … what more are we seeking? And should we be seeking more than what He has already given us? Are we hoping for the opening of the heavens as described at His second coming? I don’t think so, because that would be literal, and the rest of the chorus surely isn’t literal (I hope)
5. We want to see you. This sentiment confuses and saddens me. It’s a very popular one. Yes, it is a very Biblical concept to “seek the face” of God. It’s also a Biblical maxim that no one can see the face of God and live. My question again: What are we really saying when we sing this? If God did what we’re singing, what would happen? I’m sure 99+% of worshipers have zero expectation of a literal “seeing” of God. So what is it? Some sort of inner vision of God?
As someone who embraces the classical, incarnational understanding of the sacraments, I’m thrilled that God has given us material manifestations of His presence. We see Him in water, the wine, the bread. We see Him in the face of one another. I sense that the contemporary Evangelical community, without a robust understanding of how God has already promised to be present with us, is seeking after something else – something neither realistic to obtain, nor promised in the Word.
6. Flowing from Your heart… I could use a chapter and verse for this one. I’m not sure what the river is (the Holy Spirit, like in Ezekiel 37 perhaps?). I don’t want to get hung up on poetic imagery, but I just don’t know what “flowing from God’s heart” means.
7. Filling every part of our praise. Okay, this is where CCM idolatry truly takes hold, and I just don’t think we’re aware of it. We’re asking that the “heavens” will “open”, and that a “river” will flow from God into … our praise?!? Like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, running around the altar, cutting themselves, crying out to God … it seems to me that our contemporary worship practitioners rehearse up their weekly incantations, lay them out on Sundays, and ask God to come and ignite them – the songs – with some sort of divine additive.
Worship is receiving God. Why are we so hell-bent on asking God to magically enhance our music sets? Didn’t Jesus say the most answerable worship is beating our breasts in the back row, and saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?” I may be wrong, but I’m pretty convinced that we collectively want a Holy Spirit buzz in our worship not because we believe that will be most pleasing to God, but because that is the coolest thing for us … and we want to feel good about our worship services. (We especially want our buzz to be stronger than the one at the other big church down the street.)
Your presence in this place. (How? Buzz? Word and sacraments?)
Your glory on our face. (Seriously? What do you mean? Like Moses and the veil? If so, that isn’t our reality. I’m in church every Sunday, and I have never seen the glory of God on the faces of those around me.)
We’re looking to the skies. (If awaiting His return, yes. Otherwise, this is Psalm 121 all over again – “the skies” is not how He promises to be present with us today.)
Descending like a cloud, You’re standing with us now. No. First, clouds don’t descend. Jesus will descend from the clouds, but He doesn’t descend like a cloud. Second, He doesn’t arrive with us like this weekly, so He can “stand” with us “now”. Again, what are we saying when we say He is “standing with us now”.
Lord, unveil our eyes. I’m all for this. The great lifting of the veil comes through His Word, as offered in the pages of scripture, in the proclamation of the gospel, and the celebration of His Word-enlivened sacraments. No mystical “unveiling” is going to take place apart for these means. To seek such an extra-Biblical experience, especially when ignoring the means He has already given us …
CONCLUSION: My biggest fear in saying these things is not that people will thoughtfully counter me theologically. Instead, it’s that people will express something like this: “Just relax. It’s not that big a deal, it’s just a song. People like it, and it helps them focus on God. Just let it go.” I’m sure I’ll be the bad guy for wanting to call this out.
But our worship is a BIG deal. To God. Spirit and truth. No ear-tickling. The keepers of the deep truths of the faith need to speak up, not dumb down. Souls are being shaped around these worship expressions. The shape is not true. Let’s keep it true.