English-speaking Christians, we have a vast array of hymns available to us, and we each have our list of favorites. In my assessment, the best hymns are those that are universal and timeless, speaking to all Christians in all times, places, and situations. They are firmly grounded in Scripture and drawn out of, or toward, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are inevitably coupled to a great melody.
Here are my picks for the ten greatest hymns of all-time. Apart from the first, they are in no particular order.
And Can It Be? by Charles Wesley. I begin with what I consider the greatest hymn by the greatest hymn-writer. Wesley’s “And Can It Be?” simply delights in the goodness of God while marveling at his saving grace. It captures every Christian’s experience of wandering, of beholding Christ, of rejoicing in his salvation, and of the great hope of entering his presence at last. “No condemnation now I dread; / Jesus, and all in Him, is mine; / Alive in Him, my living Head, / And clothed in righteousness divine, / Bold I approach th’eternal throne, / And claim the crown, through Christ my own.”
A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther. It is bold, it is triumphant, it expresses great faith in God and great defiance toward sin and Satan. I think Satan hates it when we sing this: “The prince of darkness grim — We tremble not for him; / His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, / One little word shall fell him.”
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name by Edward Perronet. There are few hymns more triumphant than this one, and especially so when sung to the “Diadem” melody. It calls upon each of us, and everything else in all of creation, to pay homage to our great God. It anticipates the day when that will happen. “All hail the power of Jesu’s name! / Let Angels prostrate fall; / Bring forth the royal diadem, / To crown Him Lord of All.”
Oh, For a Thousand Tongues by Charles Wesley. In this hymn Wesley proclaims that one tongue simply is not enough to express his praise and his adoration before God. If he had a thousand tongues, he would use them all to proclaim who God is and what he has done. “He breaks the power of canceled sin, / He sets the prisoner free; / His blood can make the foulest clean, / His blood availed for me.”
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts. Watts penned this hymn—a meditation on the cross of Christ—as a means of preparation for the Lord’s Supper. Having reflected on the cross, he can only marvel at God’s wondrous grace and pledge his life to God’s service. “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.”
How Firm a Foundation by an unknown author. This hymn is unique in the way it speaks in God’s voice, so that God himself assures us of his goodness, his care, and his mercy. Few hymns are sweeter in times of suffering or despair. “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, / I will not, I will not desert to its foes; / That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, / I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Holy, Holy, Holy by Reginald Heber. Heber powerfully draws us to marvel at the majestic holiness of God. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! / All Thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea; / Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty! / God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!”
It Is Well With My Soul by Horatio Spafford. A hymn for those suffering or for those who have suffered, it proclaims that through every trial, “it is well with my soul.” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, / The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; / The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, / Even so, it is well with my soul.”
Abide With Me by Henry Francis Lyte. This has always been a favorite and, though it’s considered a funeral hymn, we sang it at our wedding. I love the way it calls upon God to be present with us in all of life. “Hold Thou Thy cross 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.”
Amazing Grace by John Newton. The list wouldn’t be complete with “Amazing Grace,” would it? It is considered by many to be the greatest hymn ever written and has been recorded more than any other song. It proclaims such sweet and simple truths: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind but now I see.”
There are so many more that could easily have been on this list: “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “For All the Saints,” “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “Rock of Ages,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “Take My Life and Let It Be,” “In Christ Alone,” and on and on.
What hymns did I neglect? Which would make your top-ten?
Habits are the subject of the bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. It is a fascinating book, and especially so when it focuses in on the habits that make our lives what they are.
We are creatures of habit, and I have to assume that God designed us this way. He designed us so we form neurological pathways that condition us to do certain things in a kind of routine. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”
Here we see both the beauty and the horror of habits, the beauty of habits as they would exist in a perfect world and the horror of habits as they exist in a sin-stained world. Habits allow behavior to unfold automatically and without thinking, so that once we set them in motion, they unfold along established pathways. “The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” Both virtue and vice can be packaged within habits so that, to some degree, both positive and negative actions can be done on a near-subconscious level.
This is why we teach ourselves to form habits like reading the Bible at the very beginning of the day or to have family worship immediately after dinner—once the habit is established, we will obey its summons to do those things that are so important to our lives. And this is why we have such trouble battling those long-established habits of sin—once the habit is established, we will battle to disobey its summons to do those things that are so destructive. It seems like it should be so easy to stop looking at pornography, to stop drinking to excess, or to stop gorging ourselves on food, but our habits drive and cajole us into old patterns.
At heart, habits are quite simple. “This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.” The craving is the key: The things we crave are the things that power our habits. If we are to form good habits, we need to crave the right things, and if we are to break bad habits, we need to learn to control the bad cravings. Duhigg says, “Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.”
Duhigg looks at habits from a decidedly non-Christian and evolutionary perspective, but still offers a great deal of wisdom that will be of great interest to Christians. I was especially interested to see Duhigg enforce the importance of community in overcoming negative habits. “The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.” This sounds completely consistent with a Christian ethic which calls upon Christians to confess their sin to one another, to pray for one another, and to bear one another’s burdens. This is never more important than when trying to overcome old and sinful patterns of behavior.
When Paul told us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12:2), I am sure he was referring not only to thoughts, but also to habits because habits, too, emerge from the mind. Duhigg shows us the power of habits, but also the importance of overcoming and replacing bad habits. After all, “once you know a [bad] habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it.” As Christians acknowledging the existence of God, we have a heightened responsibility to use the power of habit with the greatest care and the greatest wisdom.
You can buy The Power of Habit at Amazon.
Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled over the weekend as people have discussed the latest news in the ongoing saga of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church: both he and his church have been removed from Acts 29, the church-planting network he helped establish. This is only the latest incident in a long, steep, and very public decline. The news has been reported in Christian outlets, all over the local Seattle media, and as far afield as Huffington Post, TIME, and theWashington Post.
As the situation comes into focus through scandal after scandal, it becomes increasingly clear that there are, and always have been, systemic issues at Mars Hill. Many of those issues are directly related to the sins and weaknesses of the church’s founder and leader.
I am much too far outside the situation to comment on the particulars; there are many places you can go to get caught up and to learn details, with Wikipedia as good a place as any to begin. One area that I haven’t seen anyone explore yet is what the news means to the wider movement that has come to be known as New Calvinism. I want to think about how it pertains to the majority of us who know Driscoll only by association as a prominent voice in a movement we share. What should we learn from it?
The first I heard of Driscoll, at least to my recollection, was after the publication of his first book, The Radical Reformission. This—late 2004 or early 2005—was the time when most of us first heard his name, and when we began to read his books, to listen to his sermons, and to look him up on YouTube, even if only for sake of curiosity.
As I read his book in 2005, and followed it with Confessions of a Reformission Rev in 2006, I felt both admiration for what Driscoll taught and concern for how he taught it. I loved most of his theology, but was concerned about his coarseness.
In 2006 Driscoll was more formally introduced to the New Calvinism with his inclusion in the Desiring God National Conference and even then he was a controversial figure. When Piper invited him again in 2008 he recorded a short video to explain why he had extended the invitation. These words stand out: “I love Mark Driscoll’s theology.” While Piper did not deny the concerns, he loved Driscoll’s theology and loved what the Lord was doing through him.
Many of us felt the same way. We didn’t quite know what to think about the man, but we loved his theology. We loved what he believed because we believed most of the same things.
Bear with me as I artificially divide Driscoll’s ministry into three parts: theology (what he said), practice (how he said it) and results (what happened). So many of us had genuine concerns over the second part, but were willing to excuse or downplay them on the basis of the first and third. Yes, he was crude and yes, he sometimes said or did outrageous things, but he never wavered in publicly proclaiming the gospel and both his church and his church-planting movement continued to grow. We were confused. We did not have a clear category for this. We had concerns, but the Lord seemed to be using him. So we recommended his podcasts, or bought his books, even if we had to provide a small caveat each time.
In retrospect, I see this as a mark of immaturity in the New Calvinism, in what in that day was called the Young, Restless, Reformed. It was the young and the restlessthat allowed us to be so easily impressed. To large degree, we propelled Driscoll to fame through our admiration—even if it was hesitant admiration. (You can read an article I wrote in 2008, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mark Driscoll?, to see how I did this; reading it today, it seems awfully naive and immature, doesn’t it?)
In those early years I traveled to quite a few conferences and had the opportunity to hear from several of the church’s elder statesmen—men who have had long and faithful ministries within the church. At every conference Q&A someone would inevitably ask, “What am I supposed to think about Mark Driscoll?” I heard many answers, but time and again I heard mature leaders express concern. Many of them were convinced he did not meet the biblical qualifications to be a pastor and, therefore, should not be in ministry. Some of them said, with regret, that they were convinced his ministry would eventually and inevitably explode into scandal at some point.
At the time I was tempted to take this for pessimism or a curmudgeon’s spirit. But then Driscoll’s ministry exploded into scandal. Now I have to see it as wisdom—wisdom that comes from many years of observation and many years of searching the Scriptures. These men knew what we overlooked: Character is king.
When the Bible lays out qualifications to ministry, it is character that rules every time. The Bible says little about skill and less still about results. It heralds character. And from the early days, Mark Driscoll showed outstanding natural abilities which led to amazing results. He knew and proclaimed sound theology. But he also showed an absence of so many of the marks of godly character. A hundred testimonies from a hundred hurt friends and former church members shows that what we saw from the outside was only a dim reflection of what was happening on the inside. The signposts were there, but we ignored them.
The young and the restless are, I hope, growing up and settling down. A young movement responds eagerly to things a mature movement does not. I doubt we will see another Mark Driscoll anytime soon—someone known equally for crudeness and for gospel preaching. We get it now, I think. The two are incompatible.
It is my hope that an enduring lesson for the New Calvinism is that character matters. As Christians and as a movement, we need to allow this example to put to death any lingering pragmatism that judges the means by the results. Numerical growth and shared theology are wonderful, but insufficient. It is character that qualifies a man to ministry. God’s Word could hardly be clearer in this regard. Let’s allow this tragic situation to cause us to look with fresh eyes at the biblical qualifications for a man who would be a leader within the church. That would be the healthiest outcome for a movement that prides itself on health.
I love a church that prays. I love being a part of a church that prays. Every Wednesday night we gather—often a packed-out room full of us—to bring all our petitions and all our praise before the Lord. Far more often than not it is a sweet time of seeking the Lord together. I usually lead these meetings and along the way I’ve learned a few things. Here are some ways you increase the likelihood that your prayer meeting will miss the mark.
Go Unprepared. The best prayer meetings are the ones that have been prepared. Sometimes that preparation involves putting together a list of items you will pray for at the meeting. Sometimes that preparation involves a brief devotional or another means of getting people to think about the Lord before they begin to pray. Sometimes that preparation simply involves praying—praying for the prayer meeting. Either way, I’ve learned that prayer meetings are at their best when the leader has prepared himself and when he is able to bring direction.
Dominate. Sometimes a leader fears silence during prayer meetings, so immediately fills any silence with yet another one of his own prayers. Or he is so sure of his ability to pray that he will go on and on. And on. But there are some people who thrive in silence, who need it for their own private prayers, or who need a few minutes to work up the nerve to open their mouths and pray out loud. (A shout-out to my fellow introverts!) Lead the meeting, but don’t dominate it. And learn to embrace the silence. That silence isn’t wasted.
Only Ask. Without a deliberate effort to be thankful—to consider all the good things God has done and to thank him for them—a prayer meeting will always be dominated by requests. Of course God wants us to bring him our requests. He commands it! But when we focus equally on thanksgiving for answered prayer, we set a tone of expectation that God will hear our requests and respond to them. (This is probably one of the most difficult things to do, at least in my experience!)
Don’t Address Your “Tics.” Some people have prayer tics, little quirks that no one has ever told them about. I have heard people use the phrase, “Father God” a hundred times in a single three-minute prayer, without the smallest inkling that they have done so. Some people preface every prayer request with “just.” “I just pray that you will just grant us…” The thing is that even if you aren’t aware of your tics, everyone else is; you may be oblivious to them, but they are a distraction to others. So, as the leader of a meeting, be sure to ask someone if there is anything you are doing that you ought to stop.
Forget to Pray. We have all been to those prayer meetings that are 90% requests and 10% prayer, or 20 minutes of teaching, 20 minutes of requests and 5 minutes of prayer. Too often prayer meetings are dominated not by prayer, but by talking about prayer. Lead the meeting in such a way that you get to prayer, and get to it quickly. Adequate preparation will help a lot in this regard.
Keep it the Same. While there is comfort in familiarity, there is also joy in freshness. After months or years of doing the same thing in the same way, even the best things can begin to feel boring. Try varying the meeting a little bit—break into small groups, separate the men and women, have someone else lead—whatever it takes. Sometimes deliberate change can bring unexpected blessings.
Be bored. Sometimes prayer meetings are drab because the person leading the meeting seems like he would rather be somewhere—anywhere—else. No one will believe in the prayer meeting more than the leader does. If you aren’t interested, it is unlikely that anyone else will interested. If you don’t believe in the meeting or aren’t interested in it, pray about it until you are. And then lead it willingly and joyfully.