Sugary Hymns

Your God Is Too Small Check out this section of J. B. Phillips’ Your God Is Too SmallThough the language is slightly dated and the quote is rather long, it is well worth reading.

“It is a thousand pities that the word ‘child’ has so few words that rhyme with it appropriate for a hymn.  But for this paucity [scarcity] of language we might have been spared the couplet that hundreds of thousands must have learned in their childhood: ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child.'”

“But perhaps it was not the stringencies of versemaking that led the writer to apply the word ‘mild’ to Jesus Christ, for here it is in another children’s hymn and this time at the beginning of the line: ‘Christian children all must be, Mild, obedient, good as he.'”

“Why ‘mild?’  Of all the epithets [characterizations] that could be applied to Christ this seems one of the least appropriate.  For what does ‘mild,’ as applied to a person, conjure up to our minds?  Surely a picture of someone who wouldn’t so ‘bo’ to the proverbial goose [that is, scare a goose]; someone who would let sleeping dogs lie and avoid trouble wherever possible; someone of a placid [tranquil] temperament who is almost a stranger to the passions of red-blooded humanity; someone who is a bit of a nonentity, both uninspired and uninspiring.”

“This word ‘mild’ is apparently deliberately used to describe a man who did not hesitate to challenge and expose the hypocrisies of the religious people of His day: a man who had such ‘personality’ that He walked unscathed through a murderous crowd; a man so far from being nonentity that He was regarded by the authorities as a public danger; a man who could be moved to violent anger by shameless exploitation or by smug complacent orthodoxy; a man of such courage that He deliberately walked to what He knew would mean death, despite the earnest pleas of well-meaning friends!  Mild!  What a word to use for a personality whose challenge and strange attractiveness nineteen centuries have by no means exhausted.  Jesus Christ might well be called ‘meek,’ in the sense of being selfless and humble and utterly devoted to what He considered right, whatever the personal cost; but ‘mild,’ never!”

“Yet it is this fatal combination of ‘meek and mild’ which has been so often, and is even now, applied to Him.  We can hardly be surprised if children feel fairly soon that they have outgrown the ‘tender Shepherd’ and find their heroes elsewhere.”

“But if the impression of a soft and sentimental Jesus has  been made (supported, alas, all too often by sugary hymns and pretty religious pictures), the harm is not over when the adolescent rejects the soft and childish conception.  There will probably linger at the back of his mind an idea that Christ and the Christian religion is a soft and sentimental thing which has nothing to do with the workaday world.  For there is no doubt that this particular ‘inadequate god,’ the mild and soft and sentimental, still exists in many adult minds.  Indeed the very word ‘Jesus’ conjures up to many people a certain sweet tenderness (which incidentally could easily be put in its proper place by an intelligent adult reading of the Gospels).”

“The appeal of this sickly-sweet figure, or of those whose methods are founded on such a concept, is rightly regarded by normal people as ‘below the belt.’  But in fact there is no connexion between what has been rudely called the ‘creeping Jesus’ method and the life and character of the real Christ.  The real beauty, love, and tenderness of Christ’s character are not, of course, being denied or minimized, but when one characteristic is caricatured at the expense of all the others we get a grotesque distortion which can only appeal to the morbidly sentimental.”

Phillips wrote these words over 60 years ago (from England, if I’m not mistaken), but they are just as relevant today.  Again, the book is Your God is Too Small (pages 23-26); it is a short but excellent little book.

shane lems

2 thoughts on “Sugary Hymns”

  1. Your points about modern perception are good, but there is room for mildness in the description of the perfect Law Keeper. Though men will be judged by the words which He uttered, yet He was the friend of sinners, and the very desperate and open sinners of His day wanted to be in His presence. Does that not evidence mildness?
    Though we are strict and maintain high standards of holy living, still we should be desirable acquaintances of those under conviction of sin who are truly seeking our Lord. Our holiness is sharp and disagreeable enough without our adding offense. How else can we accomplish this without mildness toward sinners?

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