I once visited a Coptic Orthodox parish for a weekday meeting. Before the meeting began, a “praise and worship team” came into the church with their instruments and began singing a couple of Protestant songs.
As odd and surreal as it was to hear these songs in a holy place in which mystical and spiritual hymns are chanted, this is not our present focus. 1
Rather, it is the song that was chosen, a song entitled “Amazing Love” or “You are My King.” One of the verses of the song contains the following words:
I’m forgiven because you were forsaken
I’m accepted, You were condemned
I’m alive and well
Your spirit is within me
Because you died and rose again
These words are not merely reminding us that we are healthy and happy, but rather, they speak to us about salvation itself (especially in the context of also speaking about forgiveness and acceptance). As such, they remind us why Protestant songs should not be used in Orthodox Christian services and meetings without careful scrutiny.
At first glance, the words seem innocent. They express the reality that, because our Savior was forsaken, we are forgiven and accepted. So far, so good. But then we hear, “I’m alive and well. Your Spirit is within me because you died and rose again.”
Is that right? Let’s think about it for a moment.
We Orthodox Christians don’t go around proclaiming that we are “alive and well,” but rather, the opposite. The Holy Fathers teach us that the first step of the spiritual life is coming to the realization that everything is not well. Our Christian lives begin with the realization and understanding that something has been lost. God created us to exist in glory and ultimately perfection, but because we disobeyed God, we now find ourselves in a completely different state. Our spiritual lives begin with this realization… something is wrong in the world today. This is not the way God intended us to live. Man disobeyed God and lost communion with Him.
For this reason, we don’t proclaim we’re “alive and well” in our prayers and liturgical services. In fact, all of our Orthodox prayers and liturgies can be summed up in one phrase: “Lord have mercy.” If we are “alive and well,” why do we ask for mercy? Why do we ask for the intercessions and prayers of the saints towards God so “that He may forgive us our sins?” Why do we continually pray the Jesus Prayer, “My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner?” If I am “alive and well” as the song tells me, perhaps I don’t need any of these things. Perhaps I don’t need the Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance and Holy Confession. If I sing this song enough, perhaps I don’t even need to go to Church, because “I’m forgiven because You were forsaken. I’m accepted, [because] You were condemned. I’m alive and well.”
The words of “Amazing Love” beautifully reflect a concept of salvation and spirituality, but sadly, not an Orthodox concept. The song reflects the common view in Protestant society that people are saved instantly by our Savior’s sacrifice on the Cross when they “accept Jesus” as “their personal Savior.” In light of this view of salvation, the song makes sense. In contrast, for an Orthodox Christian used to crying out, “Lord have mercy” and seeking union with Christ through the Mysteria (Sacraments) of the Church, the words “I’m alive and well” are confusing and perhaps even counterintuitive.
This is one of the reasons why it’s not a good idea to blindly welcome popular Protestant songs in Orthodox churches: the spirit of many of these Protestant songs (many, but perhaps not all) doesn’t match the spirit of Orthodox worship and oftentimes conflicts with dogma, as well.
The spirit of Orthodox worship has been handed down to us in an unbroken line from the time of the Holy Apostles until the present day on the basis of the Holy Scripture, the Holy Fathers of the Church, the Divine Liturgy, the sanctified lives of the holy saints, etc. In contrast, the spirit of many of these Protestant songs come from contemporary men and women who were never exposed to these things.
The tragic reality is that they inherited an ever-changing type of Christianity in which it’s perfectly acceptable to think one is “alive and well,” even while living a sinful life, because Christ paid the price once and for all, and everything is going to be okay in the end, no matter what. This is the sad result of not being exposed to (or perhaps rejecting) Apostolic Christianity, and sadly, we Orthodox make such people our spiritual guides whenever we repeat these songs. Our spiritual guides should be those who have mastered communing with God in the ways He has appointed, not those who were never exposed to these things.
So, does all of this mean that we Orthodox Christians are depressing people who don’t want to be “alive and well?” Are we “downers” who just can’t enjoy such an uplifting message?
Of course not! We fervently hope and pray that we will be “alive and well” in the Kingdom, but we know that this can happen only if we struggle in this world to be united with Christ by imitating Him and His saints, obeying His Commandments, entreating His mercy, and communing with Him through the Mysteria of the Church.
We need more songs focusing on this reality and helping us along this difficult path in the Church. Consider the words of a contemporary Orthodox saint, Mother Maria of Paris (1891-1945):
It would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. The Church tells those who are at peace and asleep (i.e., the “alive and well”): ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real anguish for your sins, for your perdition, for the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of become lukewarm, you will be set on fire; instead of pacified, you will become alarmed; instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become fools for Christ.
This is what it means to be “alive and well.”