How the Wesleys Describe the Goodness of God

If you had to choose a set of hymns or worship songs to describe the goodness of God, what would be at the top of your list?

I would initially think of something to do with creation, maybe dealing with how God provides good things for his creatures.   Maybe “Great is thy faithfulness.”   Possibly a setting of Psalm 23.  Or something about God’s love.

A few years ago I ordered a copy of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, from the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works.   It is an amazing piece of literature, and everyone who is interested in Wesleyan history and theology should spring for it.  The Wesleys put out numerous hymn collections throughout their lifetime, but this is the one that really stuck and became the standard of Wesleyan hymnody.

Near the start of the hymnal, there is a section of introductory hymns categorized as “Describing the Goodness of God”.  The first hymn in this section, no. 22, written by Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John), reads as follows:

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

“’Tis done!” The precious ransom’s paid,
“Receive My soul,” He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

It seems strange at first, because our inclination is to think that “describing the goodness of God” should mean dwelling on his eternal attributes, his care of creation, or his care of us amidst the trials of life.   But Wesley launches right into a description of the cross.

Hymn 23 begins with an even more concrete description of Calvary:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God

In hymn 24 we find the opening lines, “Ye that pass by, behold the Man / The Man of griefs, condemned for you!” and in verse two: “See how his back the scourges tear / While to the bloody pillar bound!”

I was moved when I read through this section and realized what John Wesley had done in organizing the collection in this way.  All seventeen hymns in this section are focused on the cross and the atonement.  There’s not one that speaks in general terms of God’s goodness.  Wesley’s christocentrism is on full display in his ordering of these hymns.

How do we describe God’s goodness?  Rather than beginning with an abstract conception of a good God, and then theorizing about what that might mean, we begin at the cross, the climax and centre of God’s self-revelation.  We begin, strangely, with Jesus at his most human – suffering, bleeding, and dying for us and for our salvation – even though this is the point in the gospel narrative that most clearly underlines the inadequacies of our preconceived understandings of God and his goodness.

It is sad that many churches today shy away from a focus on the cross, even on Good Friday!   People seem concerned that it the crucifixion story is too gruesome, or too depressing.   One time I remember someone saying to me that we needed to end the Good Friday service on an “upbeat” note – as if we somehow need to “spin” the Good Friday story into a “positive” message.   The cross doesn’t need spin doctors.  It doesn’t need to be turned into something “positive,” and it doesn’t need to somehow be reconciled with a preconceived notion of “goodness.”  The cross is God’s demonstration of his goodness.  To describe the cross is to describe the goodness of God.  The story just needs to be told.

As we move through the remaining weeks of Lent, looking towards Good Friday, let’s not rush through our contemplation of the cross.

I give the last word to Charles. This is hymn 27 in the Collection.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from His side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold and love, ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like His?”
Come, feel with me His blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Then let us sit beneath His cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream:
All things for Him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to Him:
Of nothing think or speak beside,
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

[revised and re-blogged  from a post on March 31, 2010]

Last meal for a condemned man: I’m giving up meat for Lent

Yes, Samantha and I have decided to give up meat for Lent.   I don’t know what came over me, but for some reason I suggested it, and once it was in our heads we figured we had to go for it.  We’ve tried a few things in the past, but nothing this significant.   Once we gave up pizza, but we usually only eat pizza once a week, so it wasn’t a big deal.   Another time we gave up fast food, which seemed inconceivable  at the time, though by the end of Lent we realized that we were better off without it!

I’m not really sure what going without meat will be like.  If you don’t know, Samantha is a professional cook, and we normally eat pretty well.   We like good food, and we definitely like meat.   All the pictures on this post are of meals that we have made for ourselves at home.   I’m a barbeque guy, and I normally keep my grill going all winter long.  But the grill is going to have a break until April.    No need for steak knives, burger buns, or barbeque sauce.

From my perspective, the value of participating in some sort of fast for lent is that it keeps you mindful of Christ’s sufferings on the cross.  Not that I think my pathetic attempt at self-imposed suffering in any way participates in Christ’s sufferings; there’s no correspondence between my voluntary self denial and Christ’s suffering.   I also wouldn’t want to identify my self-punishment as connected in any way with the punishment for my sins.   Some Christians have viewed fasting and other spiritual disciplines this way, and that is part of the reason why many people are wary of fasting.  The debt for our sins has been sufficiently paid by Christ, and our self-discipline has nothing to add to his work on the cross.  But my simple lenten discipline acts as a reminder of Christ in the midst of my usual daily routine.  Every time I go to eat supper I’ll be reminded that I’m not eating meat, and I’ll be reminded that I’m doing this as a form of spiritual discipline, in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.  That kind of constant reminder can’t be anything but helpful. 

The key is that we don’t think of our fasting as a kind of “achievement,”  or become confident in the rigour of our self-discipline.  If fasting reminds me of the cross (as I think it should), then it reminds me of my sin, and pushes me to place my hope in Christ’s victory, not my own religiosity, feeble as it is.

Let us beware…of fancying we merit anything of God by our fasting. We cannot be too often warned of this; inasmuch as a desire to “establish our own righteousness,” to procure salvation of debt and not of grace, is so deeply rooted in all our hearts. Fasting is only a way which God hath ordained, wherein we wait for his unmerited mercy; and wherein, without any desert of ours, he hath promised freely to give us his blessing.

-John Wesley, Sermon 27, “Sermon on the Mount, VII,” §IV.2 (on Matthew 6:16-18)

I guess I am in danger of falling under the condemnation of Christ for announcing my fast so publicly!    Maybe posting on my blog about fasting is the contemporary equivalent of the pious, disfigured faces that Jesus rebuked in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:16-18).   Hopefully what I have written guards against that interpretation of my motives!