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Songwriting and Mixed Motives

The moment had come. And I was nervous. I cleared my throat one last time, grabbed my pick, adjusted the strap on my guitar and began to play.

Was I recording in the studio? Nope. Playing in front of thousands of people? Nope. More pressure. It was a recent songwriters retreat during the “feedback” portion. This is where you get to play the songs you’ve written and subject them to the critique of other songwriters. And I was the first to go. Yay.

I’m aware these times are a source of valued feedback from people more gifted than I. But they are also times when how much I crave people’s praise is revealed.

As soon as I finished a song, I had a flurry of thoughts: Did they like it? Were they impressed? Will they say what an amazing song it was? Do they think I’m a good songwriter? Will they all spontaneously stand up and burst into applause?

It is humbling to consider how such a good desire to write songs that glorify God can also contain such a twisted desire to be impressive and attain glory for myself.

Ever faced this?

This isn’t anything new

If you’re a Christian and a songwriter like I am, you can probably give the right answers for why we write congregational songs (like I can). We want to write for God’s glory. We want people to sing our songs so they may know and love God better.

And yet, like the dirt on my sons’ hands which seems impervious to water, soap, or anything else, selfish ambition never seems to go away. Which can be incredibly frustrating.

So, how do we conquer this?

First, we have to acknowledge that we can’t. No, really. We will never be rid of mixed motives until we join Jesus in heaven and he completes the work he began in us. This is Scripture’s testimony. As Christians, we still have competing desires in our hearts (Gal. 5:17). Our hope is not in our ability to conquer sin. It is in the finished work of Jesus.

But while we will never completely conquer these desires this side of heaven, we can see real growth as God changes us from one degree of glory to the next into the image of his Son (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29).

So how do we grow?

Here are a few things I am learning to do:

1. Be quick to identify sin, confess it, and turn to Jesus.  Much of sin’s power comes from the shame and guilt associated with it. I know my outlook on life shouldn’t be dependent on people’s assessment of my songs, and yet at times it is. I know I shouldn’t want people to recognize me for being a great songwriter, but at times I do. But rather than being surprised every time I have these thoughts, I am learning to identify and own them and then ask God to free me from them. Being disappointed in myself is to have trusted in myself. Instead, I’m learning to turn to Christ for forgiveness and grace. I don’t have to hide my sins, and thus compound my shame. I can acknowledge them and live in the joy of forgiveness.

2. Find joy in seeking to be faithful, not impressive.  Let’s face it: God will never be impressed by any of the songs we write. As if he says, “Wow! No one has ever thought of that chord progression and melody! Amazing!” “Rhyming ‘Lord’ with ‘Behold’? Brilliant!” Eh, not so much. God is not impressed. But he IS pleased. He is pleased every time I go about the task of writing a song of worship for his glory. It might be simple or complex. Sung by millions of people or just you. It might use a dozen chords or just two. It might be a majestic hymn or a simple refrain. Through the perfection of Jesus, God receives each offering as though Jesus offered it himself. This is amazing grace! And this keeps our focus on him, not ourselves.

3. Keep writing songs! Constantly analyzing motives, assessing weaknesses, and fearing ambition, keeps me from developing the gift God has given me and maturing in my faith. We grow as we exercise. Don’t let your mixed motives keep you from continuing to write songs for the Lord. This is the very ground where he does the good work of sanctifying us.

Writing songs for congregational worship is hard. It is humbling. It will remind you that you aren’t the amazing songwriter that you think you are. It will show you the evil desires in your heart. But it is good. It is a privilege. As we labor to write words and melodies that exalt God, we are writing the very things that we need to be reminded of: God alone is worthy of praise, honor, and glory. Forever.

Jordan Kauflin (@jordankauflin) serves as a pastor at Redeemer Church of Arlington (redeemerarlington.com). He oversees the corporate singing and member care. He is married to Tali, and they have five children.