When we sing hymns or praise and worship songs today, we rarely bat an eye if the song is written in the first person. Whether it is the famous line from John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” that says, “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” or a more modern lyric such as “I stand in awe of you,” we are very comfortable singing songs that are personal in their themes. At this point, I doubt we would have it any other way. There have been a few contemporary complaints about this, generally along the vein that some songs might be a little too personal…of those I’ve read, their real complaint is not that the songs are personal, but just plain sappy. I get that. I don’t like sappy songs either. However, there was a time in Christian history where this was not an issue at all. You see, for centuries the only songs allowed in some churches were those of the Book of Psalms set to music. The song featured today changed all that.
In 1707 Isaac Watts changed the world of Christian hymns forever with one beautiful, short hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Not only does the song break with the tradition of his day by containing original poetry (a no, no then), but it also sparked great controversy by being a song written in the first person. Let’s see if we can see what’s so earth-shattering, shall we?
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Ah, I think I see it, now. Rarely does a song so quickly take us from our world of comfort and comfortable ideas than this, and far too often the religious prefer to keep such “emotion” at an arms length. Isn’t that really part of what got Jesus in so much trouble, too? The Sermon on the Mount is full of Jesus transforming the impersonal to the personal (that’s the force behind all those “you have heard it said/but I say unto you” statements). From the the very first line, Watts takes us by the hand and leads us to a terrible scene—one that can’t be really be sung about as stale doctrine or stain-glassed platitudes. No, this scene, this sacrifice, this ultimate act of love must be seen as personal, as an act that has profound effects on me—not just “us”, not just on “them.” No one can look this deeply at the cross of Jesus and not be profoundly changed. Just as the centurion proclaimed, we are brought to the confession, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
It would be very difficult to give you a single line that is my favorite, or the most moving, or the most challenging. From the first to the last, I’m cut to the heart and convicted every time. The last stanza could possibly be it for me. “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Yes, it does; yes, it does.
Twenty-nine years ago this past September, I was baptized into Christ, and I have been singing this song longer than that. Lord willing, that’s just the beginning, because this is truly one song you’ll have to pry from my cold, dead hands, because this song—well—it’s personal.