Matthew West’s latest single, “Do Something,” sounds a call for a revolution among Christians who are tired of mediocrity while turning a deaf ear to the suffering of the surrounding world. Christian radio has embraced this call, promoting the song’s message with great repetition. Now, understand, I am not against urging Christians to both awareness and service in the area of injustice. I am, however, super critical of the way West declares his message and defines the Christian mission. Allow me to offer a few points of contention, all dealing with the glaring absence of the gospel in West’s lyrics.
1. The song promotes a false savior & fails to recognize the true problem.
In one of the most troubling lines in the song’s lyrics (in bold below), West sings the following
I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now
Thought, how’d we ever get so far down
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you”
The problem with this assertion is that God never said that. Nor will he ever say that. This statement offers a humanistic perspective rather than a biblical one. That somehow God seeks to bring an end to human suffering through other humans includes flawed thought, theologically. Humanity is not the ultimate answer by God, or rescue, to human suffering. The wonderful news is that God has indeed done something, something definite and final. The final line there should instead read something like, “He said, ‘I did, I sent Jesus.'” The Father sent Jesus as the only solution to sin, which is the root of all human suffering. Jesus is the only Savior capable of the rescue all of humanity needs, yet West mentions him absolutely NOWHERE in his song. Instead he proposes a functional savior that can only offer a temporary ease for the physical needs of the poor and disenfranchised, which presents a poor and insufficient savior indeed.
2. I, and my capacity to ‘do something’ does not offer the hope that those suffering in our world so desperately need.
It follows, then, that any relief we can offer in light of human suffering within ourselves can only temporarily treat the symptoms of the greater disease. At best I can only ease someone’s suffering for a brief period of time. The point of being the hands and feet of Jesus, as West does mention (although he uses ‘God’ instead of ‘Jesus’), is found in our pointing those who are suffering to reconciliation with God through Christ, not in our ability to eradicate their suffering. In this way, West offers false hope to those who are suffering. If we simply do something, we offer no more than any ‘secular’ humanitarian entity in the world. What sets our mission apart from say, the Peace Corps, is that we ultimately offer what is eternal through the ministry and relief to temporal needs we provide.
I might be motivated by the fact that children are starving to go and feed a child. However, if all I do is feed a child, that child’s hunger will return. In order to provide true hope to that child, I must offer him spiritual, eternal, food. If that child embraces the gospel, though he may live the rest of his earthly life in abject poverty, his inheritance is secure in Christ and his eternal life sure. He then embraces the hope that one day his suffering will truly come to an end, being fully adopted into the family of God to live forever in the Kingdom of God.
In another one of West’s hit songs, “My Own Little World,” the same holds true. He sings,
Stopped at the red light, looked out my window
Outside the car, saw a sign, said “Help this homeless widow”
Just above this sign was the face of a human
I thought to myself, “God, what have I been doing?”
So I rolled down my window and I looked her in the eye
Oh how many times have I just passed her by
I gave her some money then I drove on through
in my own little world there’s
So, in order to meet the perceived need in his scenario, he “gave her some money and drove on through.” This proposed solution actually accomplishes two things. First, it offers a temporary relief to the homeless widow. Perhaps that money provided a meal or some clothing, which is nice for her. But, at best, the money only offers a temporary solution. Perhaps if he continues to do this each day, it will provide many temporary solutions, but all temporary nonetheless. The act of giving her some money and driving on through will never meet her greatest need. Second, the act of giving her some money brings personal validation for doing something good. For West, he can drive away with the personal satisfaction that in some little way his scope of perception has increased to now be ‘population two.’ That’s fine, but at the end of the day the widow remains hopeless, eternally speaking. We are not called by the Scriptures to increase the population in our little worlds for the sake of a greater perspective, but rather to advance the scope of the Kingdom, which can only be accomplished through the gospel!
Also, any belief that we can somehow bring an end to human suffering illustrates both a misunderstanding of suffering and of sin. Suffering will not end as a result of Christians meeting the physical needs of those who are suffering. Suffering (the symptoms) will only end when Jesus returns to once and for all bring an end to sin (the true disease). Jesus alludes to the fact that this fallen world will never right itself. In John 16:33 he says to his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation,” and then offers the solution by declaring, “I have overcome the world.” Earlier, as the story of Mary anointing Jesus with expensive oil unfolds, he rebukes his disciples who asked why that oil had not been sold and the money used to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Jesus states, “The poor you always have with you…” (John 12:8). Suffering, sadly, will always be the reality of our broken world. Once again, West asks a good question in his lyric, “If not now, then when will we see an end to all this pain,” only to completely fail to provide the appropriate answer for his listeners. Instead, he promotes an idea rooted in some ‘social gospel,’ suggesting that somehow Christians can accomplish this through enough acts of service.
3. The song offers believers the wrong motivation for pursuing justice.
Our hearts should break in light of suffering around the world; however, this brokenness should pale in comparison for our reaction to their eternal reality apart from Christ. Our motivation, ultimately, must be for God and his glory, not just for the satisfied feeling that we have ‘done something’ in light of what we deem to be unjust. God has commanded us to make disciples, not just to fill empty bellies and ease the pain of suffering. We must pursue work in light of injustice and suffering, but only through the vital lens of the infinitely more dire mission of the gospel. After all, we are ambassadors of God, but the Scriptures define our primary ministry as one of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Our acts of ministry, then, must serve as vehicles in meeting the greatest need of those who are suffering, which is reconciliation with the Father through the Son. If we only provide remission from the temporary suffering, in the end we have offered them nothing in light of eternity.
I am all for motivating believers to action. It saddens my heart, though, that a song completely devoid of the gospel seems to have motivated so many. But motivated to what? Believers should be motivated to action because God himself has given us a commission to pursue. We should be motivated because there are millions of people in the world that have never even heard the name of the only one, Jesus, who can truly rescue them from their greatest need, sin. We should be motivated by the God-breathed words of the Scriptures, not the driving beat of a song that completely neglects Scripture’s greatest focus. We should be motivated as we are “filled with the knowledge of his will,” as Paul prays in Colossians 1:9. Now, perhaps West intends for that to be the case in his call to action, but if that is the case, there exists one great problem: He does not say it. Anywhere.
Clarifying our Call
The Scriptures do call to us have beautiful feet, but those feet are beautiful only because they “preach the good news” (Romans 10:15), not because they come to eradicate temporary suffering. That is impossible because our world groans from the effects of sin. Only when Jesus returns will he do away with sin and its effects for good will that be the case. And when this happens, the only hope for people will not come from any temporary humanitarian work done for them prior, but rather in their having right standing before the Father through Jesus.
I agree that service and the pursuit of justice belong as a part of the mission God has given us. Jesus healed people and commanded his disciples to heal. But Jesus always pointed to the greater issue of sin and eternal life as he healed. Jesus met the physical needs of the the multitudes when they became hungry. However, just hours later, he refused to feed them again, instead pointing them to their greater need for the Bread of Life (John 6:25-35). We have an account that includes a man asking the apostles for temporary reprieve from his suffering in Acts 3. As he reached his hand out to receive some money, Peter responds, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (v6). Yes, Peter meets his immediate physical need through the power of God (his being lame); however, as the rest of the chapter unfolds, Peter and John use that opportunity as a platform to proclaim the gospel to him and many other people in Solomon’s Portico. The men exalt the gospel as the difference maker in the story, not themselves and their ability to heal.
We have been given the gospel to steward, and part of that responsibility includes clearly proclaiming its message. At the very least these two songs by West, both of which have gained huge popularity among Christians, present a call to a mission that completely lacks the power of the gospel itself. West proclaims, “we’re never gonna change the world by standing still.” While that may be true, we will never change the world by just getting ourselves busy ‘doing something’ either, without offering the only true change available. That’s the gospel of Jesus. After all, it is the gospel that “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).