It seems almost too cold-hearted to evaluate the song “Though You Slay Me” by Shane & Shane, given the tragic events, pure intentions, and honest faith that produced it. I do not doubt these Christians’ faith and was moved by their story and their trust in the Lord. However, this does not preclude sober reflection on the possible theology songs can convey. Believe me, I understand that songs are not theological or philosophical treatises, and there is a certain poetic license that should be allowed for the medium. I do not think songs need to try to be overly precise nor do I think that every song needs to be “deep.” That said, whether we like it or not, songs still carry meaning, Christian or secular, and those meanings can be internalized by listeners and singers. Song lyrics are still therefore fair game for critical evaluation, though I want this to be clear: I am questioning nobody’s faith. Shane & Shane have made some great songs over the years, and I know God will continue to use them. This does not, however, make their songs immune from critique.
I had not heard the song before until a couple of weeks ago, and when I heard the first verse and chorus, I immediately became concerned. I recognized the allusion to a famous verse in Job, which made alarm bells go off in my head, though I kept it to myself. Here is the verse and chorus:
I come, God, I come
Return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You strike down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering
Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the One who’s all I need
God is Doing What Now?
It is important to glean these claims from the song: God is the one who has broken, the one who has torn apart, the one who strikes down, the one who slays, the one who takes, and the one who ruins. This is all done in love that people may know God in his suffering, and the lyrics proclaim that the singer will still bless and worship his name. Now, if all this song is trying to say is that A) God disciplines his children due to their continued sin and need for direction towards holiness (Heb. 12:7), B) God allows (key word) evil for greater goods and C) God works good out of evil, then there is no problem. The song, however, seems to say much more than that: There is no sense of discipline or sense of “allowance.” God is doing. He is the active agent of breaking, striking, and slaying. This is further supported by the fact that John Piper and Desiring God Ministries have put their stamp of approval on the song. It is part of Piper’s theology that God is the active of cause of everything, including when bridges collapse and kill a bunch of people.
It is not just Piper’s either; it is an important aspect of Reformed theology, though few Calvinists have the stomach to say what Paul Helseth says, that ” “evil must be regarded as something that is not contrary to, but an essential component of, God’s will” (emphasis mine). Piper sometimes uses the language of allowance, but as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, he has claimed that to say “God allows” and “God does” is the same thing, which is, well, confused; they clearly mean something different for anyone with remote familiarity with the English language. It is, of course, far more preferable to say that God allows evil rather than actively causes it, but when Calvinists use this language, they are simply being inconsistent with their own conception of God’s sovereignty as all-causing.
Job: Not a Book That’s Easy to Cherry Pick From
In addition, the allusion to Job is telling. Job 13:15 is a famous verse, and most of the major translations render it along the lines of, “Though he slay me, still I will hope/trust in him.” How people remember the verse goes well with how Job is popularly understood: As a man who endured great suffering but remained utterly and perfectly faithful to God. It is not, however, as clean cut as this.
First, as I wrote when I reflected on the book after my surgery, Job is a difficult book to understand and to teach from. It is a book that needs to read in its entirety in order to be understood. God does not come at the end and commend Job for his awesome theology, but instead he comes in fierce rebuke in perhaps one of the most brutal verbal beatdowns delivered by God in the Bible:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man,
I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job 38:2-3)
Up to that point, Job actually spends quite a bit of breath complaining and basically challenging God to come face him, and when God comes at him from the whirlwind, his mistake probably became apparent after he crapped his pants. Job’s friends, who also displease God, actually say some things that we know are true about God. Their error is greater than Job’s, no doubt, because they speak presumptuously about God’s intentions, but Job is in no way held up as being absolutely correct in all that he said. Throw in interpretive difficulties regarding the genre of the book and the involvement of Satan, and you have a book that has rich theology but does not lend itself to easy quotations like, say, the book of Proverbs.
Focusing more on the verse and chapter itself, there is quite a bit of debate on the translation of that verse, though I think major translations are hesitant to change it due to its popularity (stemming from how it was translated by the KJV). A lot of modern translators and commentators are abandoning this rendering because it does not fit the context. The best choice is probably not going the opposite direction and rendering it in a very pessimistic manner such as the NRSV, “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face,” though it’s worth pointing out that that’s a live option. The main issue has to do with the verb yachal in that phrase, which can be translated “hope” or “trust” but can also mean simply “wait.” Let’s look some of the context from the NIV, which keeps the popular rendering:
13 “Keep silent and let me speak;
then let come to me what may.
14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy
and take my life in my hands?
15 Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;
I will surely defend my ways to his face.
16 Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance,
for no godless person would dare come before him!
17 Listen carefully to what I say;
let my words ring in your ears.
18 Now that I have prepared my case,
I know I will be vindicated.
19 Can anyone bring charges against me?
If so, I will be silent and die.
20 “Only grant me these two things, God,
and then I will not hide from you:
21 Withdraw your hand far from me,
and stop frightening me with your terrors.
22 Then summon me and I will answer,
or let me speak, and you reply to me.
23 How many wrongs and sins have I committed?
Show me my offense and my sin.
There is a reason why many modern scholars are arguing that the best translation of the Hebrew in verse 15 is something more like, “Even if he slays me, I will wait for him.” What is Job waiting for? His chance to face God and defend his own righteousness. He is confident that he had done nothing to deserve what he has suffered, so he has put his life into his own hands. In verse 19, he says that if indeed someone can bring charges against him, he’ll grow silent and die. Now, Job is absolutely right that no particular sin brought all of this disaster on him, which is something his friends are wrong about. However, the sheer confidence to stand before God and defend himself in God’s face will strike many readers as borderline arrogance. Ironically, Job’s confidence in his own blamelessness would make Reformed people as much as anyone grimace. Why not a song about how we’ll defend ourselves in God’s face and will be vindicated? Any takers?
It is dubious that the book of Job teaches anything like a theology that God is the primary cause for all disaster but we should praise him regardless. The book is complex on many levels. If some Christians actually believe this, one may wonder why they do not change a famous doxology and instead sing “Praise God from Whom All Evil Flows.”
On the one hand, nobody should deny that God can break, can tear apart, can slay, and can take; after all, God is not to be trifled with, and he can and will punish people for their sins as well as discipline and refine his own children. However, though it is obviously difficult to ascertain all of God’s reasons (he is, after all, God and we are not), it is one thing to say that God punishes and disciplines while allowing evil, and it is quite another to say that he causes all evil and does so in an utterly mysterious and seemingly arbitrary manner. I agree with Calvinists that the glory of God is important; I just do not find any logical or scriptural warrant to the idea that God is glorified if we view him as the cause for all evil and suffering in the world. And this is why a song like this makes me raise my eyebrows, however honestly it was conceived.
edit: I do not think the song is heretical, so I’m not saying churches should stop singing it. Just like I will listen to a sermon that I disagree with on points, I will be fine with a song that I do not totally agree with. Still, it’s a good exercise to think through songs that we sing at church and what ideas we might be conveying.