By Jeremy Armstrong
For the past five years Worship Leader has tried to get the story behind the song for “From the Inside Out.” We catch up with Joel Houston at a conference or worship night and have no way of recording any thoughts. Or we get the time, and a Hillsong recording deadline sneaks up, and plans change. Eventually the question periodically returns, “What’s Joel up to these days? Maybe he has a moment to get his thoughts out.” Through it all-the major shifts that have taken place in the past few years at Hillsong church in Sydney, Australia, shifts that have seen Joel Houston move from frontman of the massively influential youth worship team Hillsong United, to also taking over as the creative director of Hillsong, and now hanging his hat in the U.S. and co-pastoring the NYC version of his church-it just never clicked. Well, recently just after putting the finishing touches to a live Hillsong release, we caught Houston on his cell phone as he sat still for a couple of hours driving to London. And we finally got his side of the story on this song that has become such a passionate cry for so many in the Church today.
Where to Begin?
“‘From the Inside Out’?” he asks at the outset of the conversation. “That song is probably the hardest song I’ve ever had to write. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s possible that it’s because ‘From the Inside Out,’ more than any other song I’ve ever written, is the essence of me really gaining a revelation of who Christ is and what it means to be a follower. I feel like when I look at the lyrics of that song, it’s me unpacking everything I knew to be true about God at that period of my life.”
Maybe that’s also the reason it took us so long to get the story. It’s not something you just blurt out at a conference or while you are passing through town. The story behind “From the Inside Out” is also the story of a fuller understanding of worship for Houston. It started at the age of 23 or 24. Houston was dealing with some fairly typical 24-year-old passage-of-life issues. His friends were making decisions about their future, his own direction was mostly unclear, and his life as a pastor’s kid was coming to that all-important stage of differentiation: “Who’s faith do I accept? Where do I put the rudder of the will of my life? What do I truly believe?”
“I was maturing as a human being, but I was also growing in my understanding of faith and my understanding of God,” says Houston. “It was a season where I was really setting myself up, to come to terms with how I was going to live my life. I guess really stepping outside of the shadows and into the momentum of growing up. At the same time, I was really stepping into ministry, and that was something that I had been reluctant to do for the longest time. So there I was, even leading worship, which was something I never imagined for myself. My plans were kind of being swept out the window. But I was experiencing his grace in the midst of all of it.”
Art of Excellence
Before we move on with this story behind the song, let’s get something out of the way. Or, better, let’s set the focus right where it should be. When today’s hymnwriters talk about writing the prayers of their community, and in some cases, such as with the song “From the Inside Out,” the prayers that are clung to and are passionately poured from the lips of the redeemed around the world, it is good to ask, “What is excellence in a worship song?”
“Yeah. Interesting question. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?” says Houston. “There are always songs that tick all the boxes. And there are certainly formulas that work to get emotions going, but, you know, it’s obviously not that easy. You can’t put your finger on it. A song just has to connect with the heart and soul of God and at the same time the heart and soul of people-regardless of where they are at in life. Beyond that, an excellent song is one that has a clear message. All the elements-the melody, the chords, the way it harmonizes, the lyrics, and what it’s saying, it’s all wrapped up in conveying the emotion of the song in a way that is true and feels real.
“At Hillsong, we have this great culture of songwriting, and we hear songs all the time. The songs that stand out? You know, it’s a no-brainer. They just … I want to avoid using the word anointing, but that’s the only word I can think of. That’s what we search out-the anointing. You can start writing songs from your head, but I always feel like the head can get in the way. The beautiful thing about music is it opens up our hearts, and that’s what I believe worship through a song is all about.”
That anointing, as we are all aware, is impossible to simply induce via formula or sheer intention. And as is made clear with “From the Inside Out,” that anointing may come in a flash or it may come as a result of years of prayerful effort. Or it may come through both.
“The song actually took me about two or three years to write,” Houston tells. “It all kind of came at once, but it was also the hardest song to finish. I remember the original part clearly. I went for a morning swim, and while I was in the water, I started singing the melody. By the time I walked home, it was pretty much completed-it was literally a five-minute walk. And it was all there. Except the lyrics. I had scratched some lyrics out at the time, but none of them are in the song now.”
With a complete, yet completely unsettled song in his head, Houston’s tour with United that year was also a time to let the song simmer a bit. “I would always sing this incomplete song,” he says, “just sing random melodies or the melody with random lyrics during sound checks. It even got to the point where the whole band knew the song; all the guys knew it and could play it, but I just couldn’t seem to work the lyrics out.
“And that honestly went on for about two years. I would write lyrics that were all there. Theologically, it all made sense. You know, they would rhyme in the right places, but even while I was singing I just knew it wasn’t right yet.”
When asked when he finally felt the song was done, Houston responds with, “Honestly, about 10 minutes before we recorded it.” He explains, “We were working on United We Stand, and everybody in the band knew the song, we planned on recording it with the lyrics at the time. Still, about two hours before we were going to record, I couldn’t decide if we were going to do the song. Deep down I just felt that I was still not happy with the lyrics. So I went and locked myself away in a room. In-between sound check and recording it all just kind of fell into place. It was a remarkable experience. I mean, I have two or three notebooks filled with lyrics to this one song. But it all came together at the last moment.”
Long and Short of It
It’s staggering to learn that the final lyrics to “From the Inside Out” were pulled together at the last few moments. One reason the song has such a resonance in the Church today is the powerful writing, the terse poetic form that took both three years and five minutes to complete. It seems to be able to hold the essence of worship, not just for Houston, but for many around the globe. From an understanding of grace and mercy (“A thousand times I’ve failed, still your mercy remains”); to the active picking up of the Cross (“The art of losing myself in bringing you praise”); to a posture of adoration that entwines action, love, and worship in an insoluble purpose (“Let justice and praise become my embrace, to love you from the inside out”). And finishing with the center of the song, the center of worship, a celebration of the glory of the Lord: “Everlasting, your light will shine when all else fades. Never-ending, your glory goes beyond all fame.”
“Like I said, I was really forming my revelation of who Jesus was to me and what it means to follow him,” says Houston. “I guess you could say I was trying to work out what worship was, because all of a sudden, I was a worship leader. I needed to figure out what that even meant. The more and more I dove into the Word, it just started to become more clear. This song’s a really personal song, but the outcome of that personal revelation has to be outward. And so the idea of committing who we are, heart and soul, from the inside out means that it has to move beyond a personal experience. Really, it’s about the Church at large. As we each individually get the revelation for ourselves to live our lives from the inside out, that translates to a Church that is not inward focused, but one that is outward focused. For me, my idea of worship just came back to this revelation of love-because Christ loved us. Worship … this song … it’s a response to Christ’s love.”