The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Hymns That Lead Us Astray: Abide With Me

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The old Christian standard Abide With Me has been abiding in our hymnals since 1847 and has even found its way into movies in which a director must choose some hymn for his church congregation to be singing as the camera pans them.  And yet, as is the case with many of our hymnal classics, this song is really quite awful.  The more you think about the words, the worse it gets, for we’re basically declaring our total rejection of God’s Presence with us.  Remember this key discernment principle: humans don’t ask for what they believe they already have.  So as we work our way through five stanzas of pleading with God to abide with us, what are we saying about our faith in His claim to be always with us?  Clearly our faith is lacking. 

Now when it comes to God loving us, we’re talking about an attitude of God, and God makes it quite clear that His attitude towards us can change depending on our attitude towards Him.  God is not a boundaryless doormat who just keeps on smiling no matter how attitudinal we get with Him.  If we are embracing rebellious soul attitudes, then God says He will not be pleased with us.  In the Bible, God describes Himself as hating those who hate Him, so anytime we’re talking about God’s attitude towards us, we need to realize that He places conditions on all of His promises to view us a certain way.  If we’re failing to meet His conditions, then there is a good foundation for doubting His positive view of us.

Well, that logic works when we’re discussing God’s attitudes, but when we’re talking about God’s Presence with us, now we’re getting into a basic fact about His Divine Nature.  God says that He is an omnipresent Being.  This means that there is nowhere we can possibly go to get away from His Presence.  Our location has no impact on God’s nearness to us.  He is with us here in this world, and He’ll continue to be with us whether we end up in Heaven or Hell.  Our current attitude towards God also has no impact on His proximity to us.  God is abiding with the saved, the unsaved, the obedient and the rebellious at all times.  So you see, when Christians start pleading for God to be with them, they are rejecting one of His most basic Divine attributes.  God’s omnipresence reminds us of how non-human He is.  We humans can only be in one place at a time, yet God has an unfathomable ability to be everywhere at once without experiencing the slightest fatigue or confusion.

Now if we want to sing a song that anticipates our future joy in Heaven, that would be a strictly Christian idea.  It is only Christians who have any grounds for expecting to go to Heaven one day.  But when we’re talking about God abiding with us, that’s not a concept that is only relevant to Christians.  That’s a basic fact about God’s Nature.  He’s always present everywhere—it’s who He is.  Once we understand this, we can start to appreciate how annoying the lyrics of Abide With Me are to God.  It’s like we’re spending five stanzas rejecting one of His most basic God characteristics while declaring how much we don’t trust Him.  God claims to be a faithful, loving, involved Creator.  But according to the lyrics of Abide With Me, we think He’s aloof, fickle, and quite absent from our lives.  Such is the offensive rot that has been passing for God honoring worship in the Church for centuries.  For the sake of improving our treatment of Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, let’s now go through the lyrics of this song and practice our critical thinking skills.

[Verse 1] Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

This song does not specify which of our three Creators it is addressing. Instead, it uses the generic title of Lord, which could be applied to any of our Gods.  Usually in these cases, the author has Yahweh or Jesus in mind—rarely the Holy Spirit.  But regardless of Who we’re talking to, this song’s continuous rejection of God’s good Character makes it unsuitable for conveying a worshipful sentiment.

The lyrics of this song were penned by a preacher named Henry Francis Lyte. Henry wrote many other poems which display the same lack of faith that we find here, however the overall tone of Abide With Me is noticeably grim.  There’s a strong emphasis on negativity which starts right here in verse one as Henry describes the darkness of the day’s end or “eventide” rapidly closing in on him and his human helpers abandoning him in a comfortless state.  Talk about starting off on a low note, and we’re not going to get much cheerier in this dismal little ditty.  With its focus on pain, loss, and struggle, it’s no surprise that Abide With Me is a welcome choice at funerals when the congregation is feeling as depressed as Henry probably was when he wrote this downer.

So what are we saying to God when we sing the first verse of this hymn?  First we plead with Him to be with us as the darkness of night swallows us up.  Then we plead with Him again to be with us when our human helpers fail us and we’re feeling helpless and desperate for comfort.  In just this one short verse, we’ve begged God to be with us three times, which is the same as rejecting His Presence with us three times.  And after starting this song off by stomping on whatever might be left of our crippled faith in God’s tender love and faithfulness, we’re ready to groan some more in Verse 2.

[Verse 2] Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Lord who changes not, abide with me.

Here Henry encourages us to view our entire lives as fleeting things, while he describes us living amid a sea of change and decay.  What a fun fellow he must have been to have coffee with.  He then has us begging God to abide with us while he tosses out a statement that God doesn’t change.

So what does it mean that God doesn’t change?  The dolt who wrote Hebrews once said:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb. 13:8)

Speaking of Yahweh, the apostle James said:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, with whom there is no change or shifting shadow. (Jam. 1:17)

But what does this mean exactly?  Our Gods are highly complex Beings who have demonstrated not only a personal ability to change, but also an obsessive delight with the whole concept of variation.  Look around this world that They have made and you’ll find that They are keeping everything in a constant state of flux.  Then read your Bible and notice how drastically They have changed the way that They interact with humans over time.  How can we possibly say that Yahweh doesn’t change after we’ve read about all of the wild things He has done in human history?  One minute He demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, then He says that the whole notion of child sacrifice never occurred to Him.  And after spending centuries declaring how loathsome He considers child sacrifice to be, He claims to be sacrificing His own Son on our behalf, and both He and Jesus say we should view that as a fabulous thing.  The same God who claims to be long-suffering also claimed to wash the whole world away in a flood because He was fed up with our rebellious shenanigans.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh adamantly insists that He is the only God in existence and He orders the immediate execution of any religious Jew who starts worshiping multiple gods.  But then when Jesus shows up in Israel claiming to be a second God, Yahweh backs Him up and orders everyone to go polytheistic.  One minute we see Yahweh calling Israel to repent and offering her a fresh start, the next minute He’s smashing her apart and declaring His Covenant with her to be broken.  Sometimes our Gods emphasize grace and mercy, other times They’re passing out visions in which They are stomping on human “grapes” in the winepress of Their great wrath.  Given all of this, what exactly does it mean to say that God doesn’t change?  Well, when we say this, we’re usually trying to pretend that the characteristics about our Gods which we heartily approve of are the ones that don’t change.  As the prophet Jeremiah wrote in his poem Lamentations:

The faithful love of Yahweh never ends! His mercies never cease. (Lam. 3:22)

Well, no, Jeremiah was delusional to make such a claim—especially considering that he wrote these words after prophesying for years about the reality of Yahweh’s wrath and seeing Yahweh totally level Jerusalem.  If Yahweh’s love and mercy never end, there would be no Hell and no concept of Divine wrath.  And yet our Gods do have wrath, and They delight in both Heaven and Hell.  They also make it clear that we humans only have a limited window of time in which to reverentially submit to Them as the Supreme Authorities that They are.

We Christians really lead ourselves astray with this business about God being unchanging.  Certainly Jesus will always be Jesus.  Jesus will never become, say, a pickle or a tree or a fish.  But while we can count on Jesus to keep being Jesus, we need to recognize what a wild and variable God Jesus is.  Sure, Yahweh will always be Yahweh.  Who Yahweh is will never change, but what does that really mean if the real Yahweh is a very unpredictable Being?  The Holy Spirit will always be His magnificent Self, but that doesn’t mean we can always count on Him to behave in a certain way.  In real life, when God claims to never change in the Bible, He’s merely using a figure of speech to emphasize a particular point to the specific audience He is addressing.  For example, In Malachi 3, Yahweh says:

“I am Yahweh, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned My decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to Me, and I will return to you,” says Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies. (Mal. 3:6-7)

In this context, Yahweh’s claim to not change is merely a way of emphasizing how patient He has been with the rebellious nation of Israel since her foundation.  Is He saying that He’ll never stop being patient with these twerps?  Not at all.  Read the context around this passage and you’ll find Yahweh promising to punish all those who are refusing to revere Him.  And even in this passage, notice how He says He will return to the Jews IF they return to Him.  So while Jeremiah, James, and modern day Christians want to pretend that God’s niceness is the only aspect of Him that doesn’t change, this is an absurd denial of who God really is.

Now let’s get back to Abide With Me.  How nonsensical is it for us to keep rejecting the fact that God is with us only to then declare Him to be the “Lord who changes not”?  Our pleading for God to be with us makes it clear that we’ve already decided that He’s the kind of God who isn’t with us.  Then we say that He never changes.  Well, if we think He’s never going to change His aloof Personality, then why are we even bothering with this song?  Are you seeing the problem with this song’s logic?  First we insist that God is not with us by pleading for Him to come and abide with us three times.  Then we say He’ll never change before asking Him once again to abide with us.  No wonder Henry has such a grim outlook on life.

[Verse 3] I need Your Presence every passing hour.
What but Your grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like Yourself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

It’s very common for Christians to pretend that God has nothing to do with their trials.  This comes down to a rejection of God’s sovereignty.  While Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit claim to be in absolute control of everything that They create, we like to talk as if demons are free agents who are attacking us against the will of our Creators.  Instead of recognizing that our Sovereign Creators are intentionally giving demons access to us for the purpose of helping us mature, we talk as if being attacked by demons is a pointless, terrible crisis which we can only hope to be rescued from.  In Verse 3 of this hymn, we remind God of how desperately we need Him to stick close because He’s the only One who can foil the power of “the tempter.” This is a reference to demons, of course, and we’re not about to acknowledge what an active role God is playing in our being tempted in the first place. No, because if we did that, we might start asking God to help us learn the positive lessons He wants to teach us, and then we’d actually mature.  Maturity results in strengthened faith, and strong faith is the only thing that’s going to save us from these dismal fears that God is constantly ditching us.

Now as humans, we are totally dependent on our Makers for all things.  Owning our dependency is a very good thing, but there are good and bad ways to go about this.  Saying something like, “God, You are such a loving and faithful Creator, and I depend on You for all things,” is a worshipful statement.  Or we might say, “I can’t even imagine life without You—You are everything to me.  I’m so in love with You.”  This would also be pleasing to our Gods.  But here in Abide With Me, what we’re saying is, “O God, where are You?!  I desperately need You!  Without You the demons will surely triumph over me and I’ll be left in utter ruin.  O how I wish You’d actually pay me some mind and stop being absent from my life!”  This is a very insulting way to talk to our Gods.  Sure, we’re acknowledging our total dependency on Them—but we’re also making Them out to be indifferent, uncaring Creators who have utterly abandoned us, thus we’re now pleading for Them to return.  Remember, as a human, you don’t ask for something which you already believe you have.  This is why simply listening to the way that you talk to God when you pray will reveal a lot about the limits of your trust and submission to Him.  If you truly believed that God was wiser than you are, would you be trying to instruct Him on how to run your life and the lives of those around you?  If you truly believed He was good, would you be constantly questioning His methods and accusing Him of not caring about you?  Of course not.

Now every Christian has limited faith.  God doesn’t have a problem with us not having perfect faith.  What He finds irritating is our stubborn refusal to apply the measure of faith that we have.  When you sing hymns like Abide With Me, you are rehearsing doubt.  By pleading for God to abide with you, you keep telling yourself and God that He isn’t with you. Keep repeating any lie long enough and it will start to sound true.  When we keep rehearsing doubts and lies, it’s like we’re attacking our faith with a hatchet.  Keep hacking away long enough, and there’s nothing left to try and trust in God with.  This is when we find ourselves paralyzed with fear and instinctively shoving away any good news that God tries to tell us.  Then we moan and groan that God never helps us, when the truth is that we’re refusing to receive His help.  It was this kind of bratty attitude that Jesus found so irritating in His disciples when He said:

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (Matt. 17:19-21)

Today we foolishly try to turn this statement into some kind of cheery promise, when Jesus really said it in anger (see Know Your Bible Lesson 57: The Messiah Can’t Come from Galilee).  It was because His disciples were being so spiritually rebellious that Jesus refused to let them be His instruments in casting a demon out of a boy.  Why should Jesus reward their rotten attitudes with shows of sensuality?  The more miracles God does through us and the more warm fuzzies He gives us, the lazier we get, and this is why He withholds these things.  It’s not that He doesn’t want us to enjoy them.  He does, but not until we have developed a foundation of strong faith.  Until then, we’re going to be like Henry and keep whining for God to be with us while we refuse to acknowledge that He already is. What Henry’s really asking for in this hymn is for sensual evidence of God’s Presence with him.  And he’s such a brat about having things his way, that he’s refusing to acknowledge the reality of God’s Presence with him until God turns on the warm fuzzies.

[Verse 4] I fear no foe with You at hand to bless,
though ills have weight, and tears their bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, your victory?
I triumph still, if You abide with me.

Notice how Henry says he’ll triumph over ills and tears only IF God abides with him.  And of course he is trying to measure the reality of God’s Presence by how well his circumstances are going.  “I fear no foe with You at hand to bless”—what is this supposed to mean?  God certainly does not promise to shelter us from all trials in this world.  Henry needs to wake up to the fact that God is already with him in the midst of the darkness, foes, tears and troubles.  The absence of trials has nothing to do with God being with us.  And if Henry would get around to acknowledging that God is the Source of his trials, he could break out of this despairing view of his life.  But instead, he’s resigning himself to defeat if God doesn’t show up in some way, because he says that he can only triumph IF God will abide with him.

[Verse 5] Hold now Your Word before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

This song ends as faithlessly as it began—with Henry pleading for God to abide with him.  It’s pretty ironic how he asks God to “hold now Your Word” before his eyes when he’s been so adamantly rejecting God’s words all throughout this song.  God says that He is always with every human soul, because He is an omnipresent Being.  If Henry won’t believe this word from God, why would he believe any other?

When we refuse to do the work of faith, we end up in a miserable paradox of pleading for God to “prove” that He cares about us while we simultaneously reject any evidence He provides.  At some point we really must get around to respecting the wisdom of God and understand that more sensuality is not the solution to the problem of collapsing faith.  We must exercise faith for faith to grow stronger, and the soul peace that we so long for is a product of faith.  So how do we get there?  How do we not follow Henry’s miserable example and instead choose a better path?  We need to start by recognizing that asking God for things is the same as telling ourselves that we don’t already have them.  Faith can only grow by rehearsing truth, not lies, but the truths we rehearse need to be chosen by God.  This garbage about naming and claiming any carnal goody we set our sights on won’t get us anywhere.  If we really want to grow, we need to stop trying to go for the perfect life on earth and focus instead on strengthening our personal relationships with God.  We need to focus on truths about His Character which He has revealed to us.  We need to start talking to Him as if we believe He really is listening to us, and as if we really think He is a whole lot wiser than we are.  We need to start talking to Him like He is our loving Father, not some aloof Stranger or some brooding Nitpicker. When we feel like He is distant, we will want to pray, “God please come to me.”  But this is when we need to practice faith by praying, “God help me to believe that You are already here and that You will  never leave.”  Faith grows strong by embracing truth; it becomes weak by embracing lies.  Ask God to show you how you can do a better job of embracing His truths and He will.

FURTHER READING:
Faith Development: Basic Mechanics
Soul Attitudes That Please God: What They Are & How We Develop Them
It’s Personal: Understanding the Divine Perspective of Trials
Hymns That Lead Us Astray: Showers of Blessing
Worship Songs from Satan: Fall Afresh
Worship Songs from Satan: Lord Reign in Me

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