The deep, dark secret of the church is that the beliefs and convictions of Christians are often shaped far more by the hymns we sing than the theological tomes gathering dust on our bookshelves. Songs are avenues for praising God, but they are also tools for imparting knowledge. Singing is a theological exercise, so the words printed in hymnbooks or flashed on screens deserve attention and reflection.
“How Great Thou Art” has been sung in churches, automobiles, and probably the occasional shower since the late 19th century. Long used in traditional worship services, many contemporary artists are offering their own renditions of this classic and adapting it for more contemporary settings. Even Carrie Underwood (no relation) is getting into the act.
This is an ode to God’s majesty and power. It testifies to the beauty created by God’s hand and witnesses to the connection between the love behind God’s creative acts and the love poured out by Christ on the cross.
The famous opening line, “O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made” sets the stage. They also easily get stuck in your head playing on endless loop.
Creation – stars, thunder, forest, birds, majestic mountains, gentle breezes, and everything else – indicates the greatness of God. It provokes wonder among us humans, forcing us to acknowledge the subordinate relationship between creature and Creator. We cannot do what God has done; our accomplishments will always pale in comparison.
The natural response to this grandeur is soul singing. We offer a doxology; we proclaim the glory of God!
But the hymn refuses to engage in the worship of nature, for that would be missing the point. This is the world God has made, but it has been stained by human sin. So the song moves from expressions of awe at natural beauty to humbled surprise that despite our sins we can still be reconciled to God:
And when I think of God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Considering this magnanimous act of Divine Love evokes the same response as our admiration of the Earth’s beauty, our singing “How Great Thou Art.” This second act of creative love by God warrants the same response as the first.
The temptation here is to downplay the effects of sin on Creation. If God has taken away our sins – if “Christ shall come” to “take me home” – then why worry about the degradation of Creation? But this misses the point. It distorts the relationships between Creator and creature. It mocks God.
Sin may be a reality, but beauty is what God intends. By acting in ways that inflict harm on the world our sin blemishes that beauty in ways that distract from God’s majesty. We draw attention to ourselves and away from God.
By singing “How Great Thou Art” we force ourselves to admit our place in the world. We acknowledge the One who is sovereign over Creation. We witness to the beauty of God’s creative acts, both in shaping this beautiful world and saving us from the sin that has wreaked destruction upon it. This is a theology we need to sing.
Beau Underwood is Senior Director of Advocacy and Communications.
Image: Choir illustration, Ron and Joe/ Shutterstock.com