Abide with Me, written by Henry Lyte, is a remarkably well known hymn. I say “remarkably” because it’s played and sung in many non-Christian contexts, similar to other remarkably popular hymns such as Amazing Grace.
Update/Edit: I have found that many, including myself, can easily re-interpret, even as we sing, words of songs to mean what the words/phrases may not actually mean. For example, the refrain of The Old Rugged Cross, if read, clearly state that we will exchange Christ’s cross for a crown. Most people I’ve actually talked to said they always thought (i.e., they interpreted it) to mean that we exchange our cross (i.e., “pick up your cross and follow me” sort of idea). So, when I critique songs, I am truly not critiquing your singing of them. I have sung many songs and later read them and went “huh?! I was singing that?” Sad, but true.
Here are the full lyrics:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
So, why is this stepping on toes? Basically, here’s what I think the problem is with this song: it places the emphasis (and, therefore, the doubt and burden) on Jesus abiding with us. Apparently, the song supposedly is referencing the “Emmaus road” disciples asking Jesus to “abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent.” Clearly, this is not a good biblical example as far as justifying it… I’m pretty sure the disciples simply meant “hey, it’s getting dark, come stay overnight with us.” Especially since they didn’t even know it was Jesus at that point (it wasn’t until Jesus was “breaking bread” with them that their “eyes were opened”).
Okay, so… my thoughts immediately when thinking about the phrase “abide with me” go to Jesus’ words in John 15. He says, in several verses:
Abide in me, and I in you.
As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
Whoever abides in me and I in him…
If anyone does not abide in me…
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
With this overview and snippets in mind, where is the potential for lack of abiding? With the exception of “Whoever abides in me and I in him” and “If you abide in me and my words abide in you” … the emphasis is on us abiding in him. In fact, the whole imagery of the vine is that the branch has to abide in the vine. The doubt, if you will, is not placed on the vine holding on and possibly losing hold of the branch; the doubt is whether or not the branch will abide in the vine.
With this in mind – that the emphasis Jesus places is not on His abiding in us (because, I think, He has already promised to do that; whether or not He will abide with us isn’t the question!) – what about this song, Abide with Me?
As I read through it, what is glaringly missing is the author resolving to abide in Christ, which is exactly what Christ commanded His disciples to do. To me, it’s as though the person singing is at point A, Christ at point B, and the singer is asking Christ to move from point B to point A (abide with me) when it’s really, if anything, the singer that has moved away from Christ… not vice versa.
Now, to his credit, Lyte does include several references to the faithfulness of God; “Thou who changest not” and “Thou hast not left me, [even though I have] oft as I left Thee.” There are also some nice word pictures such as having the cross before his eyes and the idea that ills and tears, though we still have them, are substantially different if we are in Christ.
But I have a very hard time getting past the main (in my opinion ) problem of the reversed emphasis. Do doubts come? Of course. But this song never seems to recall to mind that Christ has promised to abide and has declared that He has loved us and it is He that asks us to “abide [in/with] me.” We should be singing that Christ DOES abide in us and that we desire to abide in Him. Yes, we often (sadly) stray, but the solution to our straying is not to pray that Christ would abide in us (as though Him not doing that were the problem), but that we would abide in Him.
I realize it is entirely possible that many make this sort of substitution when singing it; the “draw near to God and He will draw near to you” sort of thing; yet even that verse places the emphasis and “burden” on us to draw near to Him. We don’t pray and wait for Him to draw near to us. Jesus seems to connect “abide in me” with “abide in my love” in John 15; we certainly would not pray, as though in doubt, for Jesus to love us, would we? Perhaps we doubt it at times, sure, but I hesitate to lead others in that doubt… and, perhaps even worse, lead others in that doubt without actually confirming that the doubt is incorrect and wrong.
Ok, so what about I Need Thee Every Hour? This is a strange one, because the chorus is actually pretty good. It expresses dependence and a need for Christ… and, in fact, after expressing that dependence, emphasizes the actual and correct response:
I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Savior,
I come to Thee.
The author of I Need Thee Every Hour is Annie S. Hawks. Her pastor was Robert Lowry, who is actually the one who wrote the refrain (and the tune). Here would be Hawks’ original, then. You probably will catch the similarities to Lyte’s:
I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.
I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby;
Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.
I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide, or life is in vain.
I need Thee every hour; teach me Thy will;
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill.
Verse one is fine and I think verse 4 is probably fine as well. Verses 2 and 3, though? Similar to Abide with Me, the author is asking Christ to stay near to me (also similar to Away in a Manger, by the way), and goes so far as to say that temptations lose their power when Christ is nearby. That may sound nice at first, but think about that for a moment. When temptations ARE powerful and, well, tempting … is the problem really that Christ isn’t nearby and that we need to petition Him to stay with us? Certainly not; the problem is that we have strayed from Christ’s side, not the other way around! Sure, we can say that temptations lose their power when Christ is near (or with) us, but if it doesn’t seem like He is, the fault is surely not His, it is ours. If we feel that we are apart or separated from Christ in some way, it’s not because He isn’t doing something.
Verse three has similar trouble; come quickly and abide or life is in vain. Again, it sounds nice, because the idea that life is vain apart from Christ is true! But unless this is from an unsaved person’s perspective (which it certainly does not appear to be), it makes it sound like unless Christ does something (and quickly!), my life is in vain. While I realize that it is Christ who calls us and Christ who draws us and Christ/the Holy Spirit who empowers us and gives us grace and everything, we ought to remember His promises rightly; He promised to be with us, to love us, and to abide with us if we abide in Him. So, if temptations are not losing their power, the problem is not that Christ needs to stay with us, but that WE need to stay with Him. If we feel life is in vain, it’s not Christ that needs to come to us, it’s we that need to go to Him.
For this song, the refrain somewhat softens it, since it ends with “I come to thee.” I like the refrain, actually, and from the couple people I have talked to, that’s mostly what people (including me!) think of when you say “I Need Thee Every Hour” (even though that phrase doesn’t occur in the refrain, hehe ).
Hopefully there’s at least one or two unbruised toes still out there. 😉