Song Story: How He Loves
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about, the way… he loves us
The heart of a song is more than the story of its inspiration or inception; it’s also the story it becomes in the listener and the singer. “How He Loves” became the anthem of a youth movement as John Mark McMillan recounted the story of his friend Stephen at a conference with 70,000 young people. John Mark told how one fateful night his friend prayed something on the order of: “I would give my life, for these people that I love.” And that very night, Stephen’s earthly existence was ended in a terrible accident. McMillan says, “I was in complete shock of my friend dying. And I sat down and had a conversation with God about it. And that song, basically, popped out.” For those who heard John Mark tell the story and the half million who viewed it on YouTube the legend emerged: “Stephen offered his life. God took him up on it. And out of his sacrifice, a youth movement of others like him—willing to lay down their lives—would be birthed and this song would be the fuse that would ignite it.” And so although the story had some truth, the songs real heart and meaning were partially hijacked.
Bending the Truth
“I think, what happens is that a story travels—and it’s an exciting story. One thing I really regret is that I didn’t put more thought into what I said. I really didn’t know it was going to be broadcast to the universe. None of it was untrue in any way shape or form. But I wish I’d been clearer about things so that people better understood what I was saying. It’s like [the game of] telephone, it’s a legend that gets crazier every time someone tells it. To the point where, someone said Stephen was raised from the dead and came back and gave me that thought [song]. But I was like, ‘that’s a great story, but it’s not true at all.’”
The song became about Stephen and a movement when it was really about God. “What the song means to me—this is why it comes from the death of my friend—is we have these places that we would like for things to sort of exist, this sort of plane, where we have the love of God and God loves. We have church; I have every hair in place, the perfect suit and you dress up… But God, isn’t confined to the hour or the rituals, you know. The Bible says ‘the whole earth is full of his glory (Is 6:3).’ God exists and you can find him in every situation. I think that’s the point: that I found God in the worst situation. My friend, a young healthy guy died in a very, very terrible car accident, and God was able to show me who he is even in that situation.
The “Who” of God
“In church we like to pretend everything’s okay a lot. And most of the songs we sing in church are sort of the happy songs, but only 15 to 20 percent of the songs found in the Bible are happy. The other 75 to 80 percent are the angry ones, the sad ones, or the brutally honest ones. For me, the song was not about ‘how much’ he loves us: ‘he loves us so much that he died.’ It was ‘how’ he loves us, ‘the way’ he loves us. He loves us in ways that are not like we think; they’re better than we think. The idea that Jesus is acquainted with our situation: we don’t serve a God who doesn’t understand our suffering and our pain or joy. He’s not this sort of mechanical brain in the sky who does things for us when we pray. He’s actually a person, and he has experienced life on earth.
“I was super angry. And I didn’t know who to be angry at. And I came to realize if you’re angry at nobody then you’re really angry with God, because he’s the only one who can change the situation. So, I sat down. I didn’t have a bad attitude. I wasn’t shaking my fist at God. I was just, I guess, hurt. I was really young. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I thought Stephen was the only one who understood me in certain ways, probably the only guy at the time I could be completely honest about any area of my life. And he was the same with me; there was no sort of pretension. When he was gone, it was, ‘I have nobody to call, nobody to talk to. How am I going to process and deal with life without him there?’ And so I sat down and that song just sort of materialized. And as I was singing the song I saw the story of my friend in the song. In my heart I was questioning the love of God, really. I was trying to have a conversation with God, but I think he was speaking to me in the song even though it’s written from my perspective.”
For John Mark, the song gives people permission to have whatever kind of encounter with God they need to have at that moment. “I want to give believers a language. I think that’s what being a worship leader is: helping people have their conversation with God, helping them say the things they need to say. Giving them permission to enjoy God, complain to God, love God, in an action-oriented way, where they can worship God at any moment of any day. Why do you wait until you get into a service to do it? Is it because for some reason when the guy gets on the stage or the lady plays the chords, that gives people permission to do it in that setting?
“The Bible says there’s one mediator between God and man, and that’s Jesus. So as a worship leader you can’t be a mediator, you don’t stand between the people and God and offer sacrifices for them, like the priests did in the Old Testament. But what you do is create a space for them to come and offer what they have. So I absolutely love doing it. I want to help cultivate worship in people’s lives.
Finding Your Own Voice
“I think I’m called to inspire worshiping bodies to write their own music. And just connect with their own heart for the Lord. You can write something that is kind of important to a huge group of people or write something that’s very important to a smaller group of people. I feel the culture of every single city in the United States is different—every nation, state, the culture is different. People communicate differently. They have different needs and different conversations they need to have with God at different times. And they have different ways of doing it. We definitely don’t worship the way David did, you know.
“It’s not that I don’t want people to sing my song, too. But my hope is they’ll say, ‘This inspires me to go write something and sing my heart and help my group of people connect with God in a way they’re called to.’ I’m hoping that people will take it and be able to use it as a tool for their conversation with God—whatever conversation it is they need to have.” I have so many kids, college age, and full-grown adults who come to me and tell me things like, ‘I totally gave up on God after my friend committed suicide. And I heard your song and something broke in me’— because the song identifies with their pain. Just like Jesus was able to identify with mine. I think really what’s happened is that this song has given people the opportunity to have that conversation, a conversation that they didn’t know they were allowed to have, giving them opportunity to experience God again.” How he loves us, indeed.