This Is My Father’s World?

There is one hymn that particularly bothers me when songleaders choose it in services, and it unfortunately happens to be a very common one chosen by the songleaders at Legacy, “This Is My Father’s World.” As we use the 1993 Maroon Hymnal of the Worldwide Church of God as our hymnal at Legacy, that hymn is in it and it is chosen often. For as long as I can remember there is something about this song that has really irked me and rubbed me the wrong way. The purpose of this post is to examine why this is the case, and to attempt to see the most charitable light possible for the meaning of the song.

Let us first examine the lyrics of this song to see what it is getting at. Verse one of the song goes as follows [1]:

This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings and ’round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas,
His hand the wonders wrought.

This first verse reminds one of a pleasant trip to the Lake District of England, perhaps, or to a National Park in the United States. It is a peaceful excursion to a beautiful part of nature, where one can stare up at the stars (undisturbed by smog) and imagine yourself hearing the music of the spheres, or look at beautiful rock formations, trees, wildflowers, and the other wonders of God’s creation. This is a poetic exercise in naval gazing, the kind of insipid rhyme that appears on a Hallmark card, or in third-rate nature poetry. The poetess Malbie Babcok may rest himself in the thought of the wonders of nature, but there are plenty of people on this earth who cannot—what of those in slums where corrupted nature is toxic and threatening, full of diseases and dangers, or what of those who live in rural poverty unmoved by the idyllic scenes of the poetess’ travels, without internal plumbing or running water? What of those who live crowded in refugee camps, their very lives and homes a reminder of our temporary sojourn in these tents? Is their world our Father’s also? The song does not say.

Verse two continues the naval gazing, idyllic vision as follows:

This is my Father’s world,
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In rustling grass I hear him pass;
He speaks to me ev’rywhere.

Again, this is more third-rate Arcadian rhymes. Certainly it is not hard at all to imagine God singing through the beautiful songbirds, the robins and the sparrows, or even the mockingbird (as long as it is not singing at 3AM and interrupting your peaceful slumber). It is easy to imagine the lilies and the soft glow of morning as being signs of God’s favor, but what of the ominous morning with a dark glow of a sun darkened by the haze of fires? What of the drought-parched fields where the grass has turned brown or died? Does God still sing there? God speaks to the poetess everywhere? Has he visited the toxic rivers near power plants or factories, or the slums and shantytowns of the world? Does God speak to Mr. Babcock [2] in those places, or has her shadow never darkened any such dreary and melancholy sights as those? The song does not say—it speaks of lily white, not of rivers of sludge, it speaks of glowing and soft morning light, not the harsh light of a desert day. It speaks of the singing carols of little birds, not the sound of pneumatic drills or the belching smoke of factories.

It is only the third verse that gives any hint of the realities of our world:

This is my Father’s world,
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
The battle is not done;
And Christ who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and heav’n be one.

This third verse has an alternate text in some versions [3]:

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

In either case, the general effect is the same. While two whole verses are given over to the music of the spheres and the sight of white lilies in the soft glow of the morning, all of the troubles of the world are brushed under the rug in the vague and nonspecific two lines: “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” What is strong about the wrong in the world is not specified, unlike the carols of the birds, or the rocks and trees and rustling grass. No, the wrong is quickly and reflexively kept at arm’s length, so as not to trouble either the third-rate poetess or the pious but not terribly aware people who sit in the pews and do not want to be reminded of this pleasant world’s evils and unpleasantries. They don’t want to be reminded of the child abuse that goes on in their midst, or of the corrupt business dealings that their fellow congregants involve themselves in. No, they just want the pat reminder that though the evil seems strong God is in charge, and He will take care of everything so they can go on blissfully ignorant and unaware.

And yet the differences in the two are instructive. In the 1993 WCG version, there is a reminder (however faint) that there will be a battle between the present evil world and its rightful authorities, the God of Heaven and the Prince of Peace, our elder brother Jesus Christ, against whom the rulers of this world are in rebellion, after which God will restore our world to its proper state once again. Though the song, even in the WCG version, does not explicitly state this in detail, at least it implies it, showing that the world is in rebellion and that explains why the wrong and evil appear so strong. The other version is far less satisfying—a self-pitying wonder at why one’s heart is sad when the evils of this world really are heart-wrenching, combined with a falsely cheery appeal for heaven and earth to be glad, even though there is often very little to be glad about in this present world for many people.

Seeing that the balance of the song is unsatisfactory, and that its lyrics seem to whitewash the present evil state of the world for an illusory and fragile beauty, let us seek to see what wisdom can be gleaned from this song to view it in a more charitable light, as my own visceral reaction to the song is far from charitable. Let us first examine what is meant by the world being our Father’s world. Remember, it is our world, not “my” world—the selfishness of the viewpoint of the song is one of the ways in which it increases the emotional distance between the self-absorbed and pampered poetess and the realities of the world she blithely ignores.

How is this world God’s world? Did He create it? Yes. Is this world governed by His laws, both moral and physical? Yes. Is he ultimately in control? Yes. Therefore the song accurately states, in one sense, that this world is God’s world. Does this mean that this world is the way that God would want it to be? No, but a God who gives free will to a rebellious and wicked creation (namely, we human beings) and who lets humanity reap the consequences of what we sow, is a God who must permit a great many evils to happen simply because of the gift of freedom that He has given to an unworthy race. Nor does the poetess make the mistake of viewing the way things are as the way things should be—she recognizes that wrong appears strong, and so her moral sense is not so corrupted that she collapses the distinction between the is and the ought. Therefore she recognizes the tension between God’s control and the freedom that God has given us, which allows us to commit the many and varied evils we see around us.

Therefore, even though the song is itself unsatisfactory in its moral questioning, it does recognize that all Christians are bound to the unpleasant but necessary task of engaging in theodicy, justifying God’s ways in this world, and in our own lives. We may know, intellectually, that all things work together for good, but to work out how that is the case, when we have to deal with exceedingly evil events within our own lives and the lives of those close to us, is a vastly more difficult task. This song does not even remotely begin that task, but at least (to its credit) it does recognize, even if only implicitly, that this task is necessary.

Though in my less charitable moments in thinking about this song I have been tempted to set its cheery tune to the sight of pollution, starvation, concentration camps, slave forts, the brutality of mankind against mankind in war, the horrors of rape and abuse, and the corruption of our wicked world. But, in a sense, God does speak to us everywhere. In fields of singing birds and white lilies, He sings of the beauty that still remains, however fragile, in this corrupted and fallen world. But in other places He speaks of vengeance, of justice, and of condemnation against the wicked oppressors who have troubled this earth for thousands of years, bringing pain and misery into so many lives. For God is a just God, and His justice will not sleep forever. May we be counted worthy to escape His judgment, if not altogether, than as a righteous remnant. For this world will once again be our Father’s world, and we will either stand with Him as righteous saints or stand against Him as doomed rebels. I for one, am on the Lord’s side. Are you?

[1] “This Is My Father’s World,” text by Malbie D. Babcock; music Terra Beata (an English melody) adapted by Franlkin L. Shepherd. Hymnal: Worldwide Church of God (Pasadena, CA: Worldwide Church of God, 1993), 44.

[2] When this blog was originally written and posted, I was under the (mistaken) impression that Malbie Babcock was a female. I have since been informed in an ironic fashion that Maltbie Babcock was a man. More information can be found about him here. Despite finding fault with his poetry, it at least presents him as a more well-rounded and less naval-gazing sort of minister:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltbie_Davenport_Babcock

[3] http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh144.sht

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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14 Responses to This Is My Father’s World?

  1. Cathy Martin says:

    I remember in my more rebellious moments during the final weeks in WCG not singing this hymn when it was played. I did sing it, though, when it played during the FOT in the early-min 1990’s because of the millenial setting and I mentally placed it in that context. Sometimes I would add the word “yet” under my breath…

    In a nutshell, the inclusion of this song in the church hymnal for general singing purposes really got under my skin because the god of this world is NOT my Father.

    • Exactly, and that’s the same problem I have with it. I can understand its purpose if one clarifies the meaning–if you are singing about the ultimate power and authority of God, or of his credit for creating what is beautiful in the world, that is fine. If one is singing the song as a millennial hope of what will be in the future when the whole world will be under the direct rule of our Lord and Savior, I have no objection to the song being sung. But it really offends me personally when this song is sung as if it reflects the way things are now–especially given the unbalanced nature of the lyrics.

  2. Ann says:

    Mr. Armstrong did not want that hymn used and in a sermon or talk long ago said that this world is not under the Father’s control right now, but that satan is the god of this world and therefore the hymn was one we did not sing.

  3. Brian says:

    My father would not sing this song either, for the same reasons.- Brian

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