Song Story: “Holy”

“Holy” is a song I wanted to write for a long time, but I could never quite get it right.

The idea came from how beyond description God is, how little our praises can describe his majesty. It was easy to know that I wanted to write about that, not just because I like a challenge but because that’s a strong feeling to have. Matter of fact, it’s because I feel that so strongly that I felt like I needed to speak it.

Writing songs of worship is not my strong suit. I’ve had a lot of starts but not a lot of finishes. This one was different. This was the first time in a long time I co-wrote a song. There’s vulnerability in that, especially when you’re trying to express something that feels inexpressible.

We wrote this song from this idea at a songwriters’ retreat barely over a mile from my house. I remember struggling to write words for God and feeling so frustrated that nothing seemed to work or sound right or come close to what I wanted to say. Things got so bad that I had to leave the retreat and go home to decompress and let myself feel my feelings. There was a hopelessness that I could never say what I felt.

God is holy, and that is probably the best word we have to describe him. His goodness, his love, his justice, his beauty — it is all so much greater than any other, so much different than what we know, that “holy” is the only thing that comes close. We try so hard to express the dimensions of that, but no matter how good we make it sound, it’s still not enough. It reminds me that anything “good” I do is nothing compared to his goodness and that my sins are even less.

When I was co-writing this with Shaun Cummings and Jordan Evans, with Nicki Bishop joining the orchestration later on, I think it was Shaun that pointed out how appropriate Isaiah 6 was. When God revealed himself to the soon-to-be-prophet, he was “undone.” The Hebrew word that often translates as “undone” means something more like “cut off” or “silenced.” Isaiah was so in awe of God’s presence in the temple that he had nothing to say. What’s more is that the only beings that could dwell in God’s very presence, the seraphim, could only describe him as “holy.”

Isaiah knew exactly how I felt. He knew how it felt to be insignificant before God, yet to be so dearly valued that his sins were pardoned and that he was chosen to speak God’s very words to his kinsmen.

Suddenly, everything made sense. And what did we do? We decided to sing the scriptures. Say what has already been said, accept that it was as close as we could say it, and let that be enough. That’s the tension. How do we express what is inexpressible? You don’t. You just let whatever you have be enough. God doesn’t ask us to do impossible things. That’s his job, right? So we let go. Holy. That’s it. When we get through our stories and struggles, that is what’s left, and that is enough. “Holy” is enough because holy is what he is, and that is what he has given us. He has given us access to himself through Christ by the Holy Spirit. What more could we ask for?

It’s okay to run out of words. It’s very appropriate. When there is nothing left to say in God’s presence, “holy” says it all.

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