It is hard to sing some songs the way they were written. They just go against our grain. Few folk today want to sing John Newton’s Amazing Grace the way he wrote it: “that saved a wretch like me.” Or how about Isaac Watts’ hymn that includes the line, “for such a worm as I”? It isn’t nice to call people wretches or worms. It’s not good for their self esteem.
This is why we change the lyrics to make songs more palatable in our culture of self-esteem. We substitute“that saved and set me free” or “for such a one as I” for the outdated wretch and worm references. We have removed the wretches and worms from our theology. While we might agree that the whoring-raping-slaver John Newton was a wretch, none of us will volunteer for wretchedness ourselves, and we know for sure we’re better than worms. To be quite honest, we don’t believe we were ever wretches—even before getting saved. Basically we think of ourselves as fairly nice people who became Christians and added meaning to our lives. We were told “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” So we signed up for this wonderful plan. Sure we had sinned, but we had done no sins that God didn’t “understand” or that are not done by church folk now. Our sins were mostly sins of ignorance or immaturity—nothing that deserves the label wretch or worm.
We Christians believe we were basically good when we found God. And we’re even better now. Salvation is “all about me.” We like to say, “If I were the only person on earth, Christ would have come to die for just me.” This beefs up our self-esteem. To be quite frank, we actually think God needs us and is actually quite lucky to have us. That’s how we see our devotions, for instance. We imagine a lonely God who is hungry for our company. When we don’t show up for devotions some day God mournfully walks away singing Larnelle Harris’ song, I Miss My Time with You. If we were totally honest we’d change the lyrics of another song to, “He needs me every hour.”
This approach though makes confession reallyhard for us. Confess what? Why confess when we really don’t think of ourselves as that bad after all? This reminds me of the student who insisted, “I sin every day in thought, word and deed.” I asked, “OK, name some sins you committed in the last twenty-four hours.” She thought awhile and then responded, “Well, nothing I can think of, but I’m sure I have.” I didn’t give up. I followed with, “OK, name one sin you committed during this last whole semester.” She thought awhile then said, “I suppose I don’t read my Bible enough.” Enough! See? This gal might be confessing to daily sin but she did not think of herself as a wretch, but a good girl. Our rejection of wretch-and-worm theology and adoption of the doctrine of self-esteem has made it harder to confess.
But that’s not all. Self-esteem theology teaches us we’re deserving. Being basically good we expect basically good things to happen to us. We expect God to provide money for our new house, college tuition, and funds for our latest adventure in missionary tourism. We expect good health and a fulfilling life and good grades and pretty girlfriends and a husband that meets the criteria on the list we made at youth camp. We are entitled to these things. So why be grateful when we get them? We abhor sacrifice and suffering for ourselves and only love the idea when the stories are about people far in the past or far away on the planet. Being fairly good people we think we deserve a fairly good life. Even heaven is nothing to get excited about—after all, God has such a crush on us where else could he send us? This is why we tune in to preachers who will tell us how good we are and how much God is totally absorbed with blessing us with material possessions, fulfillment in our careers and really great sex lives. Is the reason Christ died—for cars and promotions and good sex?
Of course, there are occasional sour notes in the choir. They usually come from some reformed person reminding us of our total depravity. These guys take Romans 7:24 seriously—they believe that we all are wretched. They string verses like Job 25:4-6 and Psalm 22:6 with the Romans verse to make a necklace of wretchedness and wormlyhood. They claim that even our good deeds are besmirched by sin. You were bad before you were saved and you are still bad now. Nothing good lies within you. You are wretched and poor and blind and naked. You are a worm! It is only by God’s grace that you are set free—so be grateful!
The rest of us just sing louder and drown out these sour notes. There are far more choir members singing songs of self-esteem than Reformers singing songs of total depravity. Since we’ve already rejected their “worm theology” we just ignore their warnings. We continue to preach a happy face doctrine of self esteem. People like it, which is why so many last Sunday changed the lyrics of Amazing Grace. We might think John Newton was a wretch and a worm, but not us, thank you very much. We’re far better than that.
© 2007 Keith Drury
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.