Ok. I don’t know whether it’s really the worst. It’s the worst one that I know of.
This song has been around since I was a kid. Listen to it, and if you can get through it without throwing up, we will discuss.
“Thank You” by Ray Boltz. Here are the things I hate about the song:
It gives a false impression of heaven.
Heaven is not going to be about finding out how wonderful we are. It is going to be about finding out how wonderful He is.
We already spend way too much time trapped in the world of our own efforts, our own talents, our own flaws, our own accolades. Everyone knows that this self-focus is not in any way heavenly. It is hellish!
Gee whiz. We go to heaven to get away from this stuff. To finally be free to focus on something truly worthwhile. I can’t think of a more depressing lie than being told that heaven will consist of finding out that it’s all about “you.”
It gives a false impression of service.
This is a very minor point compared to the fact that the song makes “you,” instead of Christ, the hero of the story. So please, don’t take this second point as being nearly as important as the first. However, having once engaged in idolatry, the song then compounds the error by making it sound as if it’s easy to earn all this adulation.
What did the hero of the song do in order to create all these wonderful effects? He gave some money to missions when he didn’t have much wiggle room. (Sounds like it was just one time, after a presentation, perhaps – forgive my cynicism – to make himself feel better because the missionary’s “pictures made him cry.”)
And he taught Sunday School. This is admittedly hard, as it involves dealing with kids. But, in the song, the thing that made such a big impact was the simple act of praying an opening prayer. Something that takes less than a minute.
Both of these examples make it sound like you can do an act of service once, at relatively low cost to yourself, and – boom! – lives are changed.
Real service is very different. It consists of years of effort that often feels futile. For example, the act of getting up day after day, providing for your family, sticking with your spouse, staying in relationship with your children, is far more impactful than either of the examples in the song.
As for “giving to the Lord,” as someone who has actually tried it, let me tell you what it is more like. You start out trying to do something good. Then you find out that your motives were all wrong. You repent. Then you find out (maybe years later) that even with right motives, you were undertaking your labors in the wrong way, missing critical bits of information. In many cases, you discover that you have done more harm than good. (For more information about this experience, see the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett et al, and the novels No Graven Image by Elizabeth Elliot and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.)
In my personal version of the scene above, I arrive in heaven and eventually get an opportunity to ask forgiveness for my grievous mistakes from the people I once started out so confidently trying to serve. And I find out to my relief that despite my inadvertent efforts to keep them from entering, they are there anyway. And they are no longer ticked about my mistakes because Jesus got to them directly, without my “help,” and they are just so thrilled to be there.
But none of this would be the first thing that happens. It’s heaven. The Lord is there. I think we will have higher priorities right at first than sorting out who did what to whom.
It gives a false impression of the Christian life.
My worst nightmare would be that someone who does not believe in Christ would hear this song. (And they probably will, now that it’s on my blog.) It paints a repellent picture of what it means to be a Christian. It makes it sound like the life of faith is all about going around patting ourselves on the back, rather than about progressively recognizing and repenting of our faults, and coming to admire and depend on Christ more and more. If we are engaged in back-patting, then we have not yet embarked on the path of Christ. We are still stuck in Pharisaism, with all its attendant miseries. This is already the impression that many people have of Christianity. The last thing we need is a song like this to further obscure the Gospel.
The Grain of Truth in the Song
Having said all this, I have to be fair. There is a grain of truth in this song.
I mentioned that people who attempt a life of service usually find themselves engaged in years of work that seems fruitless and sometimes actually seems to do more harm than good. Human efforts are futile. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:1, 2:11, 2:15, 2:17, etc.) That’s in the Bible too.
It is one of the ironies of the universe that often a person can put in intense labor without achieving the desired result, only to have some small, random thing that they did turn out to make a huge impact. That may be the phenomenon that this song is trying to capture. (I think it does a really lousy job of it. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to capture years of wisdom and experience in a 5-minute song. But there is truth in this insight.)
Jesus said, “When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” There is humor in this statement (Jesus’ humor is under-appreciated). Dallas Willard has pointed out that when our hands do things automatically, without us having to think about it, it is because we are engaged in some routine process such as brushing our teeth. Our hands automatically coordinate themselves, and the whole thing runs on muscle memory. And this only takes place with things that we do often. Jesus was saying that our giving should not be the kind of thing for which we pat ourselves on the back, but rather a completely normal part of life that we hardly notice we are doing.
So perhaps what this odious song is trying so clumsily to capture is the truth that it will be small actions, ones we hardly notice we are doing, that will turn out to have blessed others the most. I could see that would be an encouraging message if it were better expressed. However, there has got to be a more nuanced and less idolatrous way to point this out, so let me go on record as saying that I still hate this song.