As The Deer: A Diatribe on How Evangelical Worship Music Gets the Wilderness Experience Completely and Totally Wrong

As the deer panteth for the water
So my soul longeth after thee
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship thee

You alone are my strength, my shield
To You alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship thee

You’re my friend and You are my brother
Even though you are a king
I love you more than any other
So much more than anything

I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy
You alone are the real joy Giver,
And the apple of my eye

This is a simple praise song from Maranatha (the 80’s predecessor to Vineyard, Hillsong, and Passion).  Some of you may actually remember singing it in church back in the day.  (Those of you who were born after 1981:  Ask your parents.  If you are really young, you may need to ask your grandparents.)

It is loosely based on Psalm 42.  The first line of the song is lifted almost word-for-word from verse 1, which is rendered in the New King James as follows:  “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God.”

From there, the song goes on to express a simple devotional sentiment.  “I love You Lord and need You more than water, air, even life itself” is the basic gist of the song.  Perfect for closing your eyes, lifting a hand up in the air, and just having a moment with God.

There is a time and place for that.  You have a fruitful and meaningful relationship with God and want to celebrate that; there are times and places where it is perfectly appropriate to do so.  And this song is perfectly appropriate for such a time and place.

But there is a slight problem here.  The actual text of Psalm 42 is about something completely and totally different from what this song is about.  Judge for yourself:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
Where can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul,
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng.

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon–from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me–
a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

Almost every picture you have ever seen of the deer in Psalm 42 shows him drinking water out of an abundantly flowing, fresh stream.  The reality is quite different:  The deer is panting for water CAUSE THERE AIN’T NO WATER!!!!!!!!!  The deer is in the middle of the wilderness, running around all over the place trying desperately to find water here, but there is none to be found.  None whatsoever.  And the poor deer is desperate and afraid–afraid for his very life.

And the psalmist’s soul pants for God–not because he has a rich and meaningful relationship with God that he wants to celebrate–but because God is absent from his life.  All he has left is the memory of a time when God’s presence and favor was real to him, sometime in the increasingly distant past.  He hangs on, even in the face of all his doubts and the mockers and scoffers, but he is hanging by a thread and it is all he can do to keep from plunging into the abyss.

I can relate to this.  For me, the wilderness has taken many forms over the previous decade, including but not limited to the following:  loss of relationship with friends whom I respected–and loved–very much, a prolonged season of unemployment, the loss of a promising future in the education profession, and nagging questions and doubts that just won’t go away.  But I still have the memory of a time when I once loved God and I think He actually loved me, and that is all I have to hold on to as I try to move forward.

Many of you have had similar experiences of having lost your way in the wilderness.  Some of you have stories of loss so great that it would sit me down and shut me up.  The upshot:  We all know about this.  We have all experienced this in some form or fashion, to some extent or another.

But evangelical worship music does not do justice to this experience.  Instead of representing the full range of human emotion and experience that we see in the Psalms, many of our worship songs just seize on a simple all-is-well-and-I-am-SO-in-love-with-Jesus sentiment and run with that.  We call this singing Scripture, but in reality something like two thirds of the Psalms are songs of lament and we don’t have a clue what to do with that.

The ongoing popularity of Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name”, which is not a lament by any stretch of the imagination but at least gives us a clue that the Christian life is not all light and spring and roses, testifies to the fact that it’s a wilderness out there and people are hungry for something–anything–that allows them to sing about this aspect of life.

It’s a wilderness out there, people.  If you haven’t yet experienced that, you will.  And you can’t Jesus-I-am-SO-in-love-with-you it away, no matter how hard you try.  Attempting to do so helps no one.