Theology in a New Key: ‘There Was Jesus’

I don’t remember anything about the first time I really listened to Zach Williams’ Grammy Award-winning song “There Was Jesus.”  What I do remember is the way my soul was stirred by Dolly Parton’s guest vocals—and the way my heart broke open as I reflected upon the message these two musicians were sharing with the world.

Last time, we talked about how disorienting it can be to find yourself in Psalm 23’s “deep, dark valley” when you weren’t expecting to be there. Now imagine you find yourself in that dreadful place—alone.

That is how I felt. I was so angry with God about the path on which He had led me. I was so angry with myself about the sinful and dysfunctional ways I had dealt with my pain. Why would God want to be anywhere near me when I was in such a state?

Holiness and the Heart of God

Part of the problem was in how I viewed God. Like many Baptists from the rural South, I grew up in a religious context which emphasized God’s holiness. This attribute of God was interpreted in terms of an absolute intolerance of sin, and, although no one ever put it in these words, the implicit messages sent by church leaders was that God was intolerant of sinners, too.

No differentiations were made between transgressions which flowed out of weakness and those which were acts of intentional rebellion (perhaps because such differentiations would have undermined the efforts of leaders and parents to control their wayward children). 

No serious accounting was taken of God’s overwhelming mercy. If anything, such mercy was assumed to be a grudging gift exhausted on the cross. No one ever asked why a God who was so angry would ever want to doom himself to an eternity with the creatures who caused Him so much grief.

It is not that the churches I grew up around were entirely wrong about God. Holiness is a vital aspect of God’s nature, and it is under-appreciated in some quarters of American Christianity. And as long as I was a faithful soldier in the culture war, and a spiritual overcomer, it fit quite well with how I understood myself.

But what happened when I fell off my horse, so to speak? What happened when I found myself in a dark place where I never wanted to be? And what happened when I realized at least some of the darkness was my own doing?

“Near to the Broken-Hearted”

The point is I felt abandoned by God, and, in my more honest moments, I didn’t blame Him for it. I would abandon me, too, if I were the all-powerful potentate of the universe, being questioned by some grubby little peon who thinks he knows more than me.

God, however, doesn’t work like that. It took me a long time to realize that. I had to encounter a more balanced articulation of the gospel (in the work of people like Marcus Warner) before I could see it, and I had to experience God’s grace for myself before I could believe that it was for me. But I finally realized God “is near to the broken-hearted,” even when those “broken-hearted” people aren’t perfect.

That’s why my heart broke open when I really listened to “There Was Jesus.” So many people in this world are just like me. They feel cut off from their Creator. They feel hated by the only One who can save them. And to discover that it isn’t true, that Jesus comes to find us no matter how dark the valley or how filthy the alley, leaves this poor, broken sinner speechless. It is why the gospel really is “good news.”

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