Our society lives for positive messages. We love to hear that we’re held in high esteem, that things are looking up, that the economy is improving, that others love us, that God has a plan for us. These types of messages are in high demand – just turn on TV or the radio or swing by Barnes and Noble and look at some of the best-sellers out there. We want to hear people say things that make us feel good. That’s just a part of our nature.
Christian song-writers have picked up on this, and some of the top hits on Christian radio today are feel-good messages. This in itself is not a bad thing since Scripture is filled with many promises and encouraging passages that are intended to make God’s people feel good about their faith and their lives. But there is a danger here – the danger is when a feel-good message violates the message of the gospel.
The way I see it, there are three kinds of feel-good messages/songs. The first one operates on the assumption that I should feel good because I am good. It could be a song that simply praises a person (e.g., You Raise Me Up) or that encourages them that, even though they don’t feel good right at that moment, it ultimately doesn’t matter because they are good on the inside. The second type of feel-good message operates on the assumption that my life is about to get much better. For example, “You may be down and out now, but things will be getting better soon; so keep your head up!” The final feel-good message is the only one of the three centered on the gospel. This one operates on the assumption that I have nothing in myself, but in Christ I have everything. Whereas the first two focus on the presence of good apart from Christ, this final one emphasizes that the good in a person’s life comes only through Christ, and through this truth it drives home the message of encouragement.
Practically speaking there is a lot of overlap between the different feel-good messages, but it’s the perspective that ultimately determines whether the message is gospel-centered or not. For instance, you might say to a believer who was recently laid off, “Don’t worry. Things will get better. Just fight through the difficulty now, and eventually you’ll see the silver lining on the storm clouds.” Or you might say, “Don’t worry. God is in control, and He has promised that in His saving work all things happen in perfect harmony with His plan to make you more like Christ, even though you may not currently see how that is possible.”
Both of these messages of encouragement at their core are saying the same thing – don’t worry about what you’re going through now because, although you can’t see it, something good will come out of it later – but where they differ is in perspective. The first one is inherently man-centered because all of the focus is on the subject who is experiencing difficulty. The second one is inherently Christ-centered because all of the focus is on His work of salvation. The first one is grounded on an assumption that things will improve. The second one is grounded on the truth of the gospel. The first one fails to encourage because it brings about more questions than answers – What kind of better circumstances will I experience? When will it happen? How will I know when it comes? The second one succeeds at encouraging because it challenges us to confront the questions we have with biblical doctrine – God’s sovereignty, His love for us, His plan for us in sanctification, His ultimate goal for us in glorification, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s very easy for us to blur the lines between gospel-centered and man-centered encouragement. A few months ago, I was listening to Christian radio and a new single by Mikeschair came on called Someone Worth Dying For. Here are the lyrics to the chorus of the song:
Am I more than flesh and bone?
Am I really something beautiful?
Yeah, I wanna believe, I wanna believe that
I’m not just some wandering soul
That you don’t see and you don’t know
Yeah I wanna believe, Jesus help me believe that I
Am someone worth dying for
The end of the song rounds out with repeating, “You’re someone worth dying for.”
Now, my goal is not to attack Mikeschair in this. I can’t be 100% sure what they were trying to communicate through this song. It is very possibly that, in an effort to make the lyrics fit a certain standard for rhyme or meter, the message they were trying to communicate was distorted. But unfortunately, not knowing their motives, I can only look at it and tell you that to me it communicates something that is very anti-gospel. The entire message of Scripture is that humans are sinners, not worthy of heaven or God, but that Christ in his great mercy, while we were dead in our sins, came to earth and paid the penalty of our sins and made us righteous so that we could be fellowship with Him. So, to echo Mikeschair, yeah, I wanna believe that I’m someone worth dying for, but Scripture doesn’t allow me to do that. The encouragement of the gospel isn’t that I’m worthy for salvation but that Christ saved me despite my unworthiness.
The sad thing is that currently this song is #12 on the Christian music chart and has been on the chart now for 23 weeks. Is this the kind of message that Christians need to encourage themselves with? Am I supposed to console myself with feel-good words of my own worthiness before the cross of Christ?
Allow me to present an alternative. Tenth Avenue North came out with a song last year called You Are More that is very similar but seeks to encourage a Christian from a gospel perspective. Here is the chorus and bridge of the song:
You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.
‘Cause this is not about what you’ve done,
But what’s been done for you.
This is not about where you’ve been,
But where your brokenness brings you to
This is not about what you feel,
But what He felt to forgive you,
And what He felt to make you loved.
What a refreshing change of perspective! It’s not about me but about Him. It reminds me of what John the Baptist said: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
In order to encourage one another from the gospel we must do a lot of decreasing. We are nothing. God is everything. We are temporal. He is eternal. We are sinful. He is gracious. We deserve death. He gives us life. If every good thing we have comes from the Father through Christ, then how could we possibly be encouraged by lesser things? Ultimately, the only true encouragement that we can have is when we look to Christ. It’s not about us but about Him.