Finding Music at the Edge of Words

Sometimes the Voice of God Sings a Melody

Margaret Pope / 7.2.21

There are times in life when we simply run out of words (or energy, for that matter) to pray. “Help” or “Lord have mercy” seem to be all one can mutter. When life becomes too much, the words of others are often the best that can be mustered. Being creative, original, or “authentic” with prayer adds another burden on the already heavy-laden, and words simply fail.

In those moments, I often turn to worship music to fill in the gaps, to give me fresh words to offer up, to minister to and comfort me when scripture feels lifeless. Recently I’ve been running to the song “Take My Heart with Altar Fire,” a song of confession that asks for forgiveness for sins committed in thought, word, and deed. The lyrics profess that God is all-seeing, all-hearing, and all-knowing. More than the kind of confession said in church, the unique perspective of this song provides new words for an old practice.

The chorus and bridge of this song get me every time. First, the chorus, which says,

Take away my love of sinning
Straighten every bent desire
Fix my soul upon your promise
Take my heart with altar fire

We probably don’t consciously think about having a love for sin — it’s certainly an unpleasant thought. But we do not naturally “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”; we seek to build our own kingdoms. So we cry out, desperately needing his intervention to heal us of those broken affections and the pain they so often cause. And what a mercy to know God hears those cries and forgives (again and again).

After that uncomfortable request, I turn boldly in prayer to the next part: “Straighten every bent desire / Fix my soul upon your promise.”

Alongside our desire to sin, there is a different, God-given desire, unique to each of us. My default, though, is to take those desires to extremes, warp and twist them to the point that they’re almost unrecognizable, looking more like idols than gifts. What might once have been a good gift is twisted into yet another self-serving endeavor.

Not only can “righteous” desires be bent, but our posture can be, too, making us so curved in on ourselves that, eventually, we’re totally closed off from the good God has for us. We look to ourselves to set the course for our lives and absentmindedly invite God along for the ride, sending us on a fast track to the pit of despair. Where else could I wind up, after spending all of that time wallowing in my own darkness and weakness?

But God is the one who straightens our postures, turning our faces up long enough to refocus our eyes on him. Joy and peace would abound in fixing our eyes, our very soul, on his promises that he will never leave or forsake us, that our future and salvation are secure in him. Such freedom and relief would come from releasing my white-knuckled grip on my desires and plans so that he can straighten them out and use them according to his will.

The bridge of the song continues:

Fire of God, consume my heart
Burn it down to only faith
Til all that’s left of me is only you
Christ my glory, Christ my praise

This is where things get a little more uncomfortable. Being consumed by fire causes not only pain and suffering but ultimately death: the letting go of any illusions of control to walk one step at a time with the only guide worth following through this life. As Paul writes in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” A hard pill to swallow … I’m dead, and a dead person can’t do a whole lot to help herself. But I’m also loved, redeemed, and brought back to life by my heavenly Father whose steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting, as the psalmist says.

God reminds us daily of our deaths and continues to burn away all other desires and parts of ourselves that go astray from him. But at the same time, his love is so captivating — liberating, even — that the losses, despairs, and even sin are of no value. Through the ups and downs that inevitably come, there is Someone whose love doesn’t change.

Sometimes, the words of a song can unexpectedly lift our faces and our weary souls back up to the One who can revive and satisfy. We find more than just lyrics but words of prayer when we have none. God, in his grace, gives us an offering and a word of praise to present to him when we have nothing left.

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