But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” (Luke 4:4)
Many of us have seen the 1965 musical The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews (Maria) and Christopher Plummer (Captain von Trapp).1 This year marks its 50th anniversary. Compared to the raucous musicals of today and the TV programs and movies that are ever-pushing the envelope toward open and gleeful wickedness, the classic is a pleasure to watch.
However, “poetic license” is often taken as the media’s authorization to distort truth, and the story promotes a worldview without a personal Creator God. The film certainly reflects the accepted view that nature is the ultimate source for truth and that our feelings are the way we can verify what is truth “for us.” Unfortunately, many of our churches have come into sync with Maria’s opening song:
The hills are alive with the sound of music,
With songs they have sung for a thousand years.
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music.
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.
With obvious delight swirling from her dancing and with her heart beating in time with the “hills” message of revelation, Maria continues to sing:
My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
That rise from the lake to the trees.
My heart wants to sigh like a chime
That flies from a church on a breeze.
To laugh like a brook when it trips
And falls over stones on its way.
To sing through the night
Like a lark who is learning to pray.
Enraptured with religious feeling and natural beauty, Maria later tells the Abbess, “I can’t seem to stop singing wherever I am. And what’s worse, I can’t seem to stop saying things—anything and everything I think and feel.” Throughout the film, the heart is featured as a trustworthy guide to life’s activities and decisions. During a discussion about Maria, Sister Margaretta suggests that rules often conflict with our heart because “after all, the wool from the black sheep is just as warm.”
The message? “Rules from any source should not govern your life. Your heart is the most trustworthy guide.”
Sadly, much of the evangelical world has shifted from attention to “every word of God” toward a “sound” of Christianity that feels good. For example, far too many churches are more centered on the performance of their worship team than on the words of the songs they sing. Often, the sound and volume of the music override whatever good words are in the song—so much so that many of the words cannot be understood. Yet, the audience will applaud the performance because it sounds and feels good.
It is still true that many churches are trying to strike the right balance between modern expectations and genuine worship. It is also true that most pastors are trying their best to teach and preach God’s Word. Some congregations, however, tend to reward non-controversy over a clear stand on God’s Word. Some are caught up in petty disputes that drive those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness back into the godless world—or worse yet, harden their hearts against the “living word” that could free them. Perhaps the sounds of the world are drowning out the message of God. Perhaps the “renewing of our mind” is held back from “transforming” our lives (Romans 12:1-2) because the heart is beating too loudly with the “lust of the flesh” (1 John 2:16).
This is not a new problem among the churches. Among the seven churches to whom the Lord Jesus addressed Himself in the early chapters of the book of Revelation, there were only two (Philadelphia and Smyrna) that were not reprimanded for some serious difficulty. Two (Ephesus and Laodicea) were warned that they were even in danger of losing their very “church-ness” (lose its authority as a church, have its lampstand removed). Those seven churches, representative of all churches since our Lord returned to His throne, set the stage—both good and bad—for what we should pay attention to.
Ezekiel faced a similar problem when God commissioned him to challenge the exiled Israelites to pay attention to the reason they were in exile and to God’s promises of their future restoration. God warned Ezekiel that the message would be difficult to hear and even more challenging to embrace. In several places, God insisted that Ezekiel was to preach the message “whether they hear or whether they refuse” (Ezekiel 2:5, 7; 3:11). Some were openly defiant, but more were generally accepting, encouraging others: “Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD” (Ezekiel 33:30). But they were merely listening to the pleasant “sound” of godly words.
So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them. (Ezekiel 33:31-32)
God’s observation to Ezekiel is surely applicable today. Poll after poll has noted a slippage in the religious fervor in America. Not only has the overall “Christian” percentage slipped a few points, but more and more younger people are moving from identity with a recognized denomination (Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.) to what has come to be called the “nones”—those who refuse to be identified with any religious movement. Some might consider themselves “Christian” and would not identify as Islamic or Hindu or another religion but consider themselves to be “spiritual.” One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.2
It has been clear for some time, however, that the “Christian” majority is Christian in name only. That is, they either have a family history of Christianity or they themselves attend some church from time to time. Their religion is mostly an intellectual awareness, a superficial affirmation, or a pleasant assurance about their lifestyle or their life after death. They feel good if and when they think about Christianity, but most of their lives do not reflect any kind of commitment to following Christ or His commandments.
Today’s churches and the Christians who are among them—like the church in Pergamos who dwelt in the middle of “Satan’s throne” and yet remained faithful (Revelation 2:12-14)—are given the grave responsibility to emulate the good characteristics identified among those seven churches in Revelation.
- Detest evil and test for truth while taking the “long view.”
- Remain faithful in the face of tribulation and bold in the face of suffering.
- Maintain a faithful testimony even during the darkest time of error.
- Declare the name of Jesus Christ under all circumstances.
- Be generous in service and in charity and grow more effective over time.
- Be aware of strengths from the Lord and continue guarding the Word of God.
The Lord Jesus also identified several bad characteristics that churches must avoid. They are not to let their love grow cold or permit false teaching to remain. Churches are warned against compromise (the doctrine of Balaam), those who are “Nicolaitans” (people conquerors), or those who are false prophets (Jezebels). Nor should churches become indifferent to growing deadness or confuse worldly success with spiritual success. It is possible for a church to become “unchurched” by Christ and possible for a church to incur His anger, causing Christ Himself to actually “fight against” that church! Woe to the church and its members who become specifically troubled by Christ for their disobedience or are plundered suddenly while unaware of their disarray. They’ve lost their “ear” for the truth of God’s Word.
The sounds of music can motivate as well as dull. Godly music sets the stage and prepares the heart for the clear instruction of the Word of God. Music has always played a strong role in the assembly of God’s people, and it is as much a part of worship in eternity as is the activity around the throne (Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:3).
The widely variant sounds of music can be used either appropriately or inappropriately in many settings. One would never use the somber laments of respect for the dead to call an army to alert. In fact, “if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). Would Miriam have used a dirge of sadness to praise the works of God in delivering Israel from Pharaoh (Exodus 15)? Can one imagine David strumming sedately on his harp as he sang Psalm 149 and instructed the nation to “rejoice” and “dance” and “be joyful in glory”?
Yet these “sounds” are only the carrier for the message! Musical sounds do not save anyone. In our church assemblies, music can be an effective means by which we give the message of truth, but that truth needs to be clarified by the words of truth. As wonderful as are the unwritten “speech” and “knowledge” of the creation (Psalm 19:1-2)—and even though the “invisible” nature and power of God are “clearly seen” by the creation (Romans 1:20)—it is by the “word of God” that faith is transmitted to the mind and heart of all humanity (Romans 10:17). The sounds of music are very important! They can uplift us and give expression to our feelings of joy and praise. But if the sounds outweigh or overshadow the words of God’s Word, then the sounds get in the way of the message. Opposing the truth of God’s Word and the sounds of godly music are the unfettered sounds and words of an ungodly world. The cacophony of the “sound and fury” of the Devil as he “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” is horribly powerful (1 Peter 5:8).
Every instrument has a sound, a “breath,” that can praise the Lord (Psalm 150). Those sounds can be orchestrated together in a majestic hymn or carol or chorus. They can bring the walls down around Jericho or call the builders of the Jerusalem wall to war! Those sounds can bring tears of joy or sadness. They can thrill our hearts or chill our souls. The sounds of music, rightly played, sync our hearts, our minds, our souls, and our bodies in a single purpose. In the assembly of the saints, the sounds of music should draw all of who and what we are to listen to the words of God.
And herein lies the challenge for us. The “sounds” of the world are everywhere. The “noise” of evil is a strident screech that threatens to engulf any effort to sing the song of truth. But sing we must!
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1-3)
- The Sound of Music. 1965. Directed by Robert Wise. 20th Century Fox. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
- “Nones” on the Rise: New Report Finds One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center. Posted on pewforum October 9, 2012, accessed June 22, 2015.
* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.