June 7, 2017. Today we’ll be taking a look at “Unfinished” by Mandisa which currently sits at #5 on 20TheCountdownMagazine.
Today’s song by Mandisa continues in her line of motivational and inspirational anthems aimed at boosting the listener’s self esteem and offering what the world keeps calling “empowerment”. We’ll address the biblical concept the song is trying to convey, by way of a best possible construction, but on its own this song does not stand. Not only is the Gospel not in this one, the focus of the song is on the christian rather than the cross. Let’s check out the lyric video and then work through the lyric.
Official Lyric Video
Lyric (via KLove)
Not scared to say it
I used to be the one
Preaching it to you
That you could overcome
I still believe it
But it ain’t easy
‘Cause that world I painted
Where things just all work out
It started changing
And I started having doubts
And it got me so down
But I picked myself back up
And I started telling me
No, my God’s not done
Making me a masterpiece
He’s still working on me
He started something good
And I’m gonna believe it
He started something good
And He’s gonna complete it
So I’ll celebrate the truth
His work in me ain’t through
I’m just unfinished
I know His history
And the kind of God He is
He might make it a mystery
But He’s proven I can trust in Him
And yeah, I believe it
Still, still working on me
He’s still working
Still, still working on me
Publishing: Ariose Music / 9t One Songs (Admin. at CapitolCMGPublishing.com) / Colby Wedgeworth Music / Fair Trade Publishing (ASCAP) (Admin. by Music Services)
Writer(s): Ben Glover and Colby Wedgeworth
We can assume the target audience is the singer’s fan base or listeners, ostensibly Christian. The opening lines of the song serve as a bit of a confession that the singer used to proclaim the “overcomer” message, but times got tough. She assures us that she still believes in the message she preached, but it’s tough. The picture of the world she had painted for her listeners started changing and it took her down. This is the setup of the song, that the artist has now experienced disappointment in life, but she’s not letting go of her message. I really wish the message was the Gospel of Grace and Forgiveness in Jesus’ Name, but this song is more a revivalist anthem. Theology of glory.
The turn in the narrative of this story happens in the first verse, though. We don’t have to wait for after the first chorus, the artist doesn’t want to dwell in defeat. This is an anthem, after all. It’s the turn that has me the most worried. But I picked myself back up
And I started telling me… who turned it around for her? She did. Who started talking to her? She did. On the surface level this falls into our pop-culture’s hyper-individualism, where I make the calls, I seek my own truth, I decide what’s real and what’s not… me. The visible church has absorbed much of this through the Revivalist movements of the early 1800s and 1900s by focusing on “a direct, personal relationship with God” as of higher importance and significance that orthodoxy. From here on out in the lyric there are many mentions of work God is doing, going to do, in the artist, but the credit for holding onto those promises is given to the artist in this turn. She picked herself up. She gave herself a pep talk. And now she’s motivating you.
Unfinished. There is a sense in which this theme of us being unfinished, or with God not being finished with us yet rings true, and that is in the context of the Last Day, passing from this temporal life into eternity. That is not the context of this song’s narrative, but I want to pause that for right now. Let’s look at the Apostle Paul’s opening in his letter to the church in Philipi.
Philippians 1:1-11 (ESV)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
I’ve highlighted the verse that first comes to mind when the topic of “unfinished” popped up in the song, but notice how that verse ends. Where is the completion of this work? At the day of Jesus Christ. Paul’s focus is in eternity. Paul isn’t doing concert tours here… he’s in prison. As we continue in the letter:
Philippians 1:12-14 (ESV)
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Paul’s comfort is in the advancement of the Gospel. Paul’s imprisonment is for Christ, and the church has become more bold to speak the Word without fear. And to finish out the opening introduction of this letter, let’s move forward a bit:
Philippians 1:21-30 (ESV)
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Notice Paul is encouraging the church to stand as one body, united in the faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no room for hyper-individualism. The Body of Christ is made up of many members (Romans 12).
So, with respect to the idea of us being “unfinished”, or God not yet being finished with us, this is Biblically true in the eternal sense. We will not see completion in this life. In this life we still struggle with our own sinful flesh and the corruption to which all of creation is enslaved as a result of sin. So, if the artist is preaching a world “where things just all work out” in an eternal sense by the Grace of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior, she does well. But this song seems focused on this temporal life and our earthly circumstances.
Regarding the Gospel, however, I take exception to the notion of God being “unfinished” with me. To my mind, this notion runs directly counter to the proclamation made by our LORD in His final breath on the cross, “Τετέλεσται“.
John 19:30 (ESV) When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
While I appreciate the desire to motivate Christians to persevere in the faith and unity in the Gospel, this song follows the worldly model of encouragement and “empowerment” we see in songs like Katy Perry’s Roar, though at least Mandisa is appealing to God as a source rather than her own femininity. What is missing from the song is an eternal anchor and a clear appeal to the Truth of the Gospel, that in Christ we have forgiveness of sin and assurance of salvation. This focus on the temporal circumstances actually distracts from the eternal maters of far greater import than our fleeting vocational successes, trials, set-backs, and struggles. In this life we will face trials of many kinds… but our Hope is in the LORD, who declared “It is finished”. Those of us in the household of Faith are strangers in this life, hated by the world who first hated Christ. We are not promised success and victory in this temporary life.
“Self empowerment” and “self motivation” is empty and unstable. This is a major problem of revivalism… it looks to law-keeping as a source of hope and comfort. No matter how many times you re-commit yourself to believe more, stand more firmly, do more, sin less… you will fail and fall short. The truth is that by God’s Grace we don’t fully see and understand the depth of our depravity. As we grow in faith, the Holy Spirit reveals more and more of just how wretched our flesh is, and this He does to demonstrate more and more what Christ took upon Himself on that cross in our place, securing for us reconciliation with God in eternity.
1 Peter 1:3-12 (ESV) | Born Again to a Living Hope
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.