I was delighted to find this email question in the inbox, because I don’t think anyone has asked it before. I may be wrong, I may have missed it, but today’s question comes from a podcast listener named Sue: “Hello Pastor John! What is your favorite hymn and why is it your favorite?”
I love to sing. And especially with God’s people on the Lord’s Day gathered for worship in an atmosphere of serious joy and carried along by the Holy Spirit with well-expressed truth about the greatness and the beauty and excellence of all that God is for us in Christ. I believe that when this comes from the heart of hundreds of people or dozens of people or thousands of people, when it comes from the heart of a united, humble, holiness-pursuing, justice-pursuing, love-pursuing people, God delights in this sound with all his heart.
“I love to sing with God’s people in the Spirit with well-expressed truth about the excellencies of Christ.”
During my 33 years of pastoring Bethlehem Baptist Church, many of the highest and the sweetest moments of my life were spent standing at the front pew singing with all my heart as the crescendo of the people’s praise broke over my head from behind like a wave of joy and hope. God ministered to me in those moments: ministered to my marriage in those moments, ministered to my relationships more deeply at those times, I believe, than any other time I am aware of. That is saying a lot, and I am saying it carefully. Things happened spiritually in my heart that kept me in the ministry, kept me in marriage, kept me fathering, kept me in friendships, things happened spiritually in my heart concerning my relation to God and to my wife and other people, the ripple effects of which I will never fully know until heaven. But they were profound and on many Sundays they were deeply needed.
So, I do not take corporate singing of hymns in worship to Christ lightly. And I do not take the words of songs lightly or the suitableness of the tunes to fit the words lightly or the blood-earnestness and the vertical radicalness of the atmosphere of the service as the people go hard after God or the spiritual demeanor of the leaders who can be wonderfully helpful or very distracting or the preciousness of the fellowship in song. Here is an element of the horizontal nature of vertical focus: I can remember moments when my heart was flat and next to me was a precious comrade in ministry. I am remembering, for example, Tom Steller in particular, who served with me all my ministry and is still serving.
Here he stands with his eyes closed and his hands lifted high in praise while I am feeling flat. And, oh, how this regularly profoundly ministered to me, stirred me, awakened me, rebuked me, drew me up to God. There is a dimension to the horizontal reality of radically vertical worship that is incomparable. And then there is nothing like the act of preaching, expository exultation, in other words, preaching as worship, preaching coming on the wings of such praises. Preaching to a people in that kind of God-saturated hour is a wonderful thing. There is just nothing like it.
“When singing comes from a united, love-pursuing people, God delights in it with all his heart.”
So, instead of my favorite hymn, since I don’t know what it is, I will mention one of my favorites. What qualifies a hymn to be in this group is the mingling of sorrow and joy. These are my criteria for what is my favorite group: the mingling of sorrow and joy, brokenness and hope, divine tenderness and sovereign majesty, exalted focus and intimidate personal expression, beautiful poetry, a tune that fits all those things in both seriousness of emotion and exaltation of hope. And I think I would put into that category: “It Is Well With My Soul,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “My Song Is Love Unknown,” “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “Be Thou My Vision” — and the list, frankly, would get very long if I kept going. There are many stunningly powerful and great hymns that accomplish all those things for me.
But the one that I want to mention is “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee,” which you probably never heard of. And here is the catch: This is a translation of the German hymn by Georg Neumark in 1641. It has seven verses in the original, and no modern English hymnal that I am aware of has all seven verses. Some have tried to modernize the song and give it — oh, it is awful! It is awful what they do to Catherine Winkworth’s translation and yet they think they can do better with the German than she did, whether they even know German.
Let me give you a flavor of Georg Neumark’s own tune, because he wrote the tune and he wrote the words. It is in a minor key, which is where I think songs of this content need to be. And when sung robustly, which minor songs can be sung by a congregation that sees and loves this truth, it has a bulwark-like effect of strength and hope.
[Singing in German.]
“My favorite hymns mingle sorrow and joy, beautiful poetry, and a tune that fits all those together.”
That is the way it sounds. And I love the hymn because of all the reasons given above and because I discovered it when I was living in Germany. This is why it is so near the top: it became along with God Moves in a Mysterious Way, the weapon of hope in those difficult years. I love it because the words express hope in the worst of times because of an absolutely sovereign and merciful God.
So, I am going to read it and then be done. I will just read the English so that you can get the flavor. And I could never find the translation of verse five. So, I translated verse five in this seven, because I have the seven German right here in front of me on page 298 of my German song book.
If thou but suffer God to guide thee
And hope in Him through all thy ways,
He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love
Builds on the Rock that naught can move.
What can these anxious cares avail thee,
These never-ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help if thou bewail thee
O’er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.
Be patient and await His leisure
In cheerful hope, with heart content
To take whate’er thy Father’s pleasure
And His discerning love hath sent,
Nor doubt our inmost wants are known
To Him who chose us for His own.
He knows the time for joy
And truly will send it when he sees it meet,
When he has tried and purged thee, duly
And finds thee free from all deceit.
He comes to thee all unaware
And makes thee own His loving care.
Think not that God has thee forsaken
When sorrow crowns your acts of care,
Nor that he sleeps and cannot waken
While evil prospers everywhere.
Each recompense will have its hour.
God sets the times with truth, with love and power.
All are alike before the Highest;
‘Tis easy to our God, we know,
To raise thee up, though low thou liest,
To make the rich man poor and low.
True wonders still by Him are wrought
Who setteth up and brings to naught.
Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
So do thine own part faithfully,
And trust His Word, though undeserving,
Thou yet shalt find it true for thee.
God never yet forsook in need
The soul that trusted Him indeed.