Contemporary Music in Church?

The church is the domain of the sacred, not the home for an adapted, accommodated worldliness.

Do not model your behavior on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and mature. (Romans 12:2)1

People sometimes ask me why I am opposed, in principle, to the use of guitars for music in church, and in general, why I think that musical contemporary styles are incompatible with the spirit of the liturgy. My first answer is perhaps a weaker argument, an argument from authority: an eminent theologian who has written deeply and clearly on the liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger, holds this position and defends it persuasively.2 But my second answer, my own explanation, is based on my personal experience with church music, in which I have been a steady participant for 25 years, from the time of the children’s choir in my parish to more recent years as director of a Gregorian schola and (occasionally) of an amateur choir that enjoys singing Renaissance motets and traditional hymns. Added to this has been seven blessed years of frequenting the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, which is celebrated daily at the campus where I teach.

My basic objection to the popular idiom of guitar music in church—whether the tunes are sentimental or snappy makes no difference—is that it is nothing other than a conforming of our minds to our secularized age, to the artistic, psychological, and spiritual degeneracy of our times. It is a sort of aping of Bob Dylan and Billy Joel (though such “folksy” singers seem straight-laced in comparison with the unrelenting noise pollution, grinding violence, and abject sensuality of the music many teenagers now listen to). It is as if the mass-marketed “rock anthem” is implicitly recognized as a new standard of excellence, to which even music for the worship of God must be conformed. God, too, must be wooed by a streetlamp lover; he has to be cajoled and whined at about sin and grace, much as a popular singer cajoles and whines about whatever cause is in the air—the Vietnam war, Third World poverty, the AIDS epidemic. The sound has to duplicate (albeit more innocently) the misty-eyed, raspy ballad or the happy-cat hop. However one may describe the music, its origin and likeness to secular forms is unmistakable in any ear that has been trained to recognize family resemblances.

Here I wish to stress something extremely important: This is not the first time we have had this problem in the history of the Church’s music for worship. The last great epidemic of musical secularism was the age of opera, lasting through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when nearly all church music was dashed off in strict operatic style, a hardly-disguised relative of the tiresome epics and predictable romances played out on the stage night after night, when the audience assembled mainly to hear the gorgeous voices of the lead tenor or soprano, or perhaps to thrill at the unnaturally pure timbre of the castrato. When Pius X (among others) sought the reform of church music, he had in mind principally its resacralization, its recovery from the dizzy worldliness of opera. He wanted music that was crafted for the church, for her liturgy, a tranquil and soul-searching music that channels attention not to performers but to divine mysteries, fostering an atmosphere of contemplative prayer—a music of many moods and modes, gently and subtly playing upon the emotions, yet always at the service of something greater than itself, something essentially non-emotional: the “rational worship” of which St. Paul speaks in the letter to the Romans (12:1), in the verse right before the verse at the head of this article. For Paul, the “true circumcision” belongs to those who “worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).

The point is that although our baptized bodies are the temple of the Spirit and we are to worship the Lord with heart and voice, still our worship is not at the level of body, it is not a sensual moving and being-moved, but a spiritual sacrifice and adoration served by a well-disciplined body whose passions are chastened, whose emotions are purified. In short, for Pius X the glory of truly Catholic sacred music is that it has power to move man, in tune with the dignified “dance” of the liturgy, to an ever-higher level in his God-given aspiration to love the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is thus a humble instrument of man’s divinization, his becoming God-like in grace and charity. This implies that music should either help, or at least not hinder, the progressive maturation of the soul in her journey through the Teresian mansions, in her arduous ascent of Mount Carmel, up to the summit, the transforming union, the mystical marriage.3 What all this implies is that music that remains stylistically at the level of sensuality or “everyday” emotions, thereby stimulating and supporting the same within the souls of its listeners, is not music fit for worship, because it does not help the soul to mature in spiritual dignity, it does not purify the passions and elevate the mind to a more heavenly plane of existence. Indeed, it would seem that a casual, talkative style of celebrating Mass coupled with a popular musical idiom could almost guarantee, or at any rate allow, a stunted psychological growth, an artificially prolonged adolescence of the emotions, out of keeping with the increasing spiritual perfection the Lord intends to impart through the sacred rites and mystic sacraments of the Church. It does not provide the optimal environment for that quieting of the heart, that subsiding of the hyperactive will, which St. Teresa sees as indispensable preparations for the trials and blessings God has in store for faithful souls who persevere through the first three mansions. The soul, she says, has to grow more and more receptive, not getting caught up in a sort of mental activism that makes it nearly impossible for the God who speaks with a “still, small voice” to act sovereignly, on his own initiative. The Christian has to develop a heightened capacity for waiting and listening, for welcoming and receiving, and finally, please God, for surrendering to his delicate invasion into the soul, to bask in the warmth of his light.

Another way of seeing the same point is to recognize, as the Western tradition has done for more than 2,000 years, that music is a kind of language in and of itself. Words can be added to music and will thus give it additional character, but music is already a language that speaks to the human soul. As Josef Pieper reminds us, “music does not speak of things but tells of weal and woe.”4 And it speaks a certain message, or better, it creates an atmosphere, it surrounds the listener with an implicit worldview, it stirs up feelings, evokes chains of ideas. By itself it cannot convey a particular message with the finely-chiseled precision of words, but neither is it amorphous and without power to communicate deeply what is in the bones and blood of its maker (or, at any rate, what he has the ability to plant within it, even if it is not his feeling.5 But it is not only the immediate composer of music that matters. What is far more decisive is the style he inherits from his teachers, his models, his contemporaries, his era. Just as one cannot change meanings of words at random (if one expects to speak to others), so one cannot just invent an altogether new musical language from scratch.6 The basic language and its many distinctive dialects are already there, to be unconsciously internalized or consciously exploited. A piece of music carries with it and conveys not only what its maker may be thinking and feeling, but in a deeper way, the thoughts and feelings of the context and culture out of which the musical style or its elements emerged.

So, if you take a folksy Bob Dylan tune, with guitar accompaniment, and substitute Christian lyrics for the anti-war screed that might equally well have suited the music, are you really producing a work of Christian art, or is it rather a hybrid of a thoroughly secularized musical language with a textual veneer of Christian sentiments? The underlying language, the one that shapes the soul most, is the musical language, not the text. Words are cheap and mostly ephemeral; music is rich, its influence powerful, its resonance in the body long-lasting. The living body reacts to the music more than to the words. There is, then, a great problem I have seen firsthand: a young Christian student of charismatic persuasion plays “secular” music in his room (the thumping of the woofers is unmistakable from a distance), and he plays or sings “religious” music in church, but the two types of music generically agree as far as the musical language or vocabulary is concerned—that is to say, both are secular music, though the lyrics of the latter are religious. There is, in other words, a pollution or infection of the atmosphere of church and liturgy and prayer by the antinomian atmosphere of a Woodstock, the sing-alongs of a carefree beach party, the cool chords of a smoky bar. And it hardly needs to be added that the manner in which the “music ministers” sing and play their instruments—a manner untrained, rough-edged, sliding and slurring from note to note, without sensitivity, subtlety, or purity of tone—fits perfectly the musical language and its worldly origins, which, as music history plainly shows, were a revolt against a sacred and secular high culture.

We would not want (I hope) the aesthetic of advertising posters or the architecture of a supermarket for our churches, yet many welcome their equivalents in music. This can happen so easily because music affects our judgment more than any other art; we do not become blind to visual beauty as quickly as we become deaf to audible beauty. And this is because music goes more deeply into the soul, into its passions and emotions; it affects us at the intersection of spirit and flesh, it gets “under the skin,” it goes into the very sense appetites and shapes them by motion, by repetition. Just as the habits of virtue or vice are formed in the sense-appetites by repeated action, so too are certain habits formed in the same appetites by repeated sensual stimulation. What we listen to does not remain “outside” of us, but it enters into us and changes our way of feeling, reacting, perceiving. That means we cannot help being affected morally by long-term exposure to certain kinds of music. The music will make our passions—and through the passions, our souls and our selves—likeitself. Conversely, people gravitate toward music that most reflects or voices their conscious and unconscious preoccupations or expectations. Those who are longing for transcendence and for eternal beauty will seek a music that somehow gives expression to this longing, this transcendence.7.

Traditional Church music is derived from sacred precedents: Christian plainchant from Hebrew chanting of the psalms, Renaissance polyphony from plainchant (when singing a motet by Palestrina you can feel the Gregorian influence upon every line), Baroque styles from Renaissance ones; and it is clear how the energetic nineteenth-century revival of chant and polyphony—a movement encouraged by popes and bishops—was able to restore to the liturgy a sense of dignity and serenity lacking in the period dominated by a florid operatic style, with its bombast and superficiality. Though it has not always been possible to prevent their influence, the Church has always been suspicious of styles that evolved outside the temple, in secular entertainments, which is what we mean by “secular music.”8 This includes useful but essentially non-sacred genres like drinking songs for the tavern, marching songs for the battlefield, romantic songs for wooers and wooed. Particular specimens of these types of music had a more or less direct influence on Church music from time to time, but an effort was generally made either to prevent this from happening or to purge the borrowings of any distracting reminders of “vulgar” life. As the faithful at the Byzantine liturgy chant: “Now let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity now set aside every earthly care.” Or, as St. Thomas observes, apropos the Roman rite of Mass:

In this sacrament [of the Eucharist] both a greater devotion is required than in the other sacraments, owing to the fact that the whole Christ is contained in it, and also a more extensive devotion, because in this sacrament the devotion of the whole people is required, for whom the sacrifice is offered, and not only the devotion of those receiving the sacrament, as in the other sacraments. And for this reason, as Cyprian says (On the Lord’s Prayer, ch. 31), “The priest, saying the preface, prepares the minds of the brethren, by saying: ‘Lift up your hearts,’ in order that, when the people responds: ‘We have lifted them up to the Lord,’ they may be reminded that they should think on nothing other than God.”9

We cannot yet be exactly like the angels, perpetually caught up in the heavenly liturgy; some earthly thoughts and emotions will always cling to us. But the Church has always protested whenever composers allowed those earthly thoughts and emotions to enter into the temple and dominate the music. Inspired by the teaching of Jesus, nourished by his life-giving body and blood, our calling as Christians is to bring holiness from the altar into the world, and, as much as we can, to transform the world, renew it, sanctify it by the power of the sacred mysteries. Christians have never seen it as their job to bring elements of the fallen world from the outside into the temple, remaking liturgy, preaching, and art forms into reflections of that world. For even if they are “toned-down” reflections, still they have their origin not from God, but from the world, and they carry worldliness with them.

A similar dynamic can be seen with the reception and interpretation of Vatican II. The real goal of the Council was not to accommodate the Church to the world, as if the latter were the measure to which the former should submit itself, but rather to make it possible for the Church to understand better the world’s situation and thus have power to speak convincingly to it, bringing about its conversion. In other words, it is the world that has to awaken to its need for assimilation to Christ and his Church.10 So too with liturgy: the goal should be to let the riches of a genuine liturgical life spill over into (and sanctify) all aspects of our human social life, not to horizontalize and squeeze out the liturgy after the pattern of a desacralized world. If we want to know how the Psalms or other texts from Scripture should be sung, we should listen to the faithful monks and nuns who have committed their lives to “singing wisely” (cf. Ps. 47:7 [46:8]), who are the legitimate successors of the Israelites chanting the Hebrew “songs of Sion.” An attentive ear can in fact pick out the musical parallels between the Jewish psalm tones and the Christian psalm tones, whether Latin or Byzantine. If you listen to a recording of the monks of Fontgombault or of Le Barroux or many another monastery, you will hear the sound of sung prayer—reverent, adoring, and contemplative, savoring the sacred words like honey (cf. Ps. 119:103), with passions at peace and the mind lifted up to the heavens and to the Most Holy Trinity.

“Eaten up with zeal” (John 2:17), Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple precincts, even though what they were doing was a good bit less objectionable than much of what goes on in the very sanctuary of churches today. Why did our Lord, gentle as he was with sinners, act that way? Because Christ more than any other worshiper who has ever lived knew the importance of purity of worship, the need to keep a separation between the worldly and the sacred. He alone felt and knew to the depths of his uncreated being how unworthy of the living God were the motives, manners, and merchandise offered by those tradesmen. When a person enters the temple, he puts behind him the (legitimate) business and pleasures of the world and strives to worship God with his whole heart, his whole mind, his whole soul. And this wholeness of dedication and devotion is supposed to spill over from the temple into the world, so that the more a person worships, the more he is conformed to the mysteries he celebrates, becoming, as it were, a living embodiment of the liturgical rites even in his secular pursuits. The goal is not to secularize the sacred and make it more “accessible” to the mentality of the age—this would border on sacrilege—but rather to sanctify the secular, and make it holy by changing it for the better. The church is the domain of the sacred, not the home for an adapted, accommodated worldliness. The Church is supposed to win our minds and hearts for the sacred, so that this victory may then permeate the rest of our lives in the world. “Christian rock,” or even the mild folksy style of the St. Louis Jesuits, is nothing less than a victory of worldliness, a byproduct of unresisted cultural imperialism, a contamination of the silence and plainsong that should reign in the house of God, where the spirit breathes freely and the emotions are gently stilled.

Many good books and articles have been written on specific guidelines for music intended for worship and on the noble ideal of singing the Mass, not merely singing at Mass—doing so, moreover, in continuity with the glorious heritage of sacred music that the Spirit of the Lord has breathed into his Church down through the centuries. We can expect to hear more about this, too, from Pope Benedict XVI in the years ahead. Here, in conclusion, I wish only to suggest a good starting point for an “examination of musical conscience” that may lead to a change of heart, to new resolutions and concrete initiatives. The basic question that has to be framed is this: “What IS the Mass?” And for a basic answer we could let the famous Session 22 of the Council of Trent speak to us with its impressive synthesis of Scripture and Tradition:

Since under the former Testament, according to the testimony of the Apostle Paul, there was no perfection because of the weakness of the Levitical priesthood, there was need—God the Father of mercies so ordaining—thatanother priest should rise, according to the order of Melchisedech (Heb. 7:11), our Lord Jesus Christ, who might perfect and lead to perfection as many as were to be sanctified. He, therefore, our God and Lord, though he was by his death about to offer himself once on the altar of the cross to God the Father that he might there accomplish an eternal redemption, nevertheless, that his priesthood might not come to an end with his death (Heb. 7:24), at the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, that he might leave to his beloved Spouse the Church a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice once to be accomplished on the cross might be represented, the memory thereof remain even to the end of the world, and its salutary effects applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit, declaring himself constituted a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech (Ps. 109:4), offered up to God the Father his own body and blood under the form of bread and wine, and under the forms of those same things gave to the Apostles, whom he then made priests of the New Testament, that they might partake, commanding them and their successors in the priesthood by these words to do likewise: Do this in commemoration of me (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24ff.), as the Catholic Church has always understood and taught. For having celebrated the ancient Passover which the multitude of the children of Israel sacrificed in memory of their departure from Egypt (Ex. 13), he instituted a new Passover, namely, himself, to be immolated under visible signs by the Church through the priests in memory of his own passage from this world to the Father, when by the shedding of his blood he redeemed us and delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into his kingdom (Col. 1:13). . .

And inasmuch as in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner the same Christ who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, the holy council teaches that this [sacrifice] is truly propitiatory and has this effect, that if we, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, draw near unto God, we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid (Heb. 4:16)….

And since it is becoming that holy things be administered in a holy manner, and of all things this sacrifice is the most holy, the Catholic Church, to the end that it might be worthily and reverently offered and received, instituted many centuries ago the holy canon [of the Mass] . . . . And since the nature of man is such that he cannot without external means be raised easily to meditation on divine things, holy mother Church has instituted certain rites . . . [and] has likewise, in accordance with apostolic discipline and tradition, made use of ceremonies such as mystical blessings, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be emphasized and the minds of the faithful excited by those visible signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.11

Then, in a sort of appendix on practical steps for reforming the celebration of Mass, the Fathers of the Council declare:

What great care is to be taken that the holy sacrifice of the Mass be celebrated with all religious devotion and reverence, each one may easily conceive who considers that in the sacred writings he is called accursed who does the work of God negligently (Jer. 48:10). And since we must confess that no other work can be performed by the faithful that is so holy and divine as this awe-inspiring mystery, wherein that giving victim by which we are reconciled to the Father is daily immolated on the altar by priests, it is also sufficiently clear that all effort and attention must be directed to the end that it be performed with the greatest possible interior cleanness and purity of exterior evidence of devotion and piety.12

With such rousing words to guide us—words whose relevance the passing of centuries has done nothing to lessen—we may begin to shape anew and deepen our conceptions of musical fittingness. When all is said and done, we still hear St. Paul calling out to us across the ages, with the Fathers of the Church, with the Council of Trent, with St. Pius X, with John Paul II and Benedict XVI: “Do not model your behavior on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and mature.”

  1. As rendered in the NJB, capturing well the air of challenge. A more traditional rendering “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (RSV). 
  2. Some of the best quotations have been collected by the St. Cecilia Schola Cantorum of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Auburn, Alabama, under the heading “Pope Benedict XVI on Sacred Music”. An excellent article to read is Michael J. Miller’s “Cardinal Ratzinger on Liturgical Music,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, July 2000, pp. 13—20. Major treatments of the subject in Ratzinger’s works are The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 97—126; A New Song for the Lord (New York: Crossroad, 1996); The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 136—56. Mention should also be made of an article by Andrew Minto, “Is ‘Christian Rock’ a Contradiction?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 91.7 (1990): 52—57. 
  3. See, for a lucid account of the stages of prayer, Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, S. John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989). 
  4. Citing (with approval, in this case) Schopenhauer. See Pieper’ s excellent essay “Thoughts about Music” in Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 39—5 1. Herbert McCabe has an arresting comment along these lines: “poetry is language trying to be bodily experience, as music is bodily experience trying to be language” (God Matters. London: Continuum, 2005; 131). 
  5. I say this because you find a great composer like Fauré, who was agnostic, writing one of the most beautiful modem settings of the Requiem Mass. This he could do because his training and his talent enabled him to enter into a religious framework and follow its conventions. The result is a work that has power to activate a deeply religious response. It actually matters more how an artist is trained than it does whether he has good motives, a pious attitude. A devout Christian trained as a musician nowadays runs a much greater risk of producing mediocre or even spiritually debilitating products than an agnostic from 100 years ago. This is because the intellectual virtue of art is one that is acquired by dint of really hard work based on “cultural capital.” If you take away the capital, the power to invest falls away; he results are of little substance. 
  6. Schoenberg attempted it; the results are known to all. For a fuller account, see my article “Anton Bruckner, Sacred Tonality, and Parsifal’s Redemption: Spiritual Enfleshment and the Musical Via Positiva,” in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 8.2 (Spring 2005): 17—55. 
  7. See on this topic Basil Cole, OP, Music and Morals (New York: Alba House, 1993). 
  8. It is fair to say that there is much ignorance concerning what the Church’s magisterium has taught in regard to sacred music—not just from the days of Pius X or Pius XII, but also at the Second Vatican Council and in the pontificate of John Paul II. I published an article some years ago, Cantate Domino Canticum Novum, that summarizes the major documents and synthesizes the main elements of Church teaching on the subject. The teaching of John Paul II on sacred music is the subject of an article of the same title due to appear in the summer issue of Sacred Music, the journal of the Church Music Association of America. It is important to note that the mere presence of a pope at some liturgy or other event not organized by him personally cannot in fairness be viewed as a blanket endorsement of whatever music or entertainments are performed during it. We must look to what the popes teach asideal, not what they may allow or tolerate in this or that instance. 
  9. Summa theologiae III, q. 83, a. 4, ad 5. 
  10. And might there not be a connection between, on the one hand, postconciliar attempts to replace the hierarchical nature of the Church with a democratic model borrowed from Enlightenment humanism, and on the other hand, the decline in the quality of sacred and religious music, which now celebrates man instead of God, and only really succeeds in showing the banality and poverty of man without God? See Joseph Ratzinger, “The Image of the World and of Human Beings in the Liturgy and Its Expression in Sacred Music,” in A New Song for the Lord, 111—27. 
  11. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 97, 144—46, citing from Chapters I, II, IV, and V of the conciliar text. 
  12. Ibid., 150. In particular, bishops are asked to “banish from the churches all such music which, whether by the organ or in the singing, contains things that are lascivious or impure” (151). Those who know about Renaissance organ music, even of a purely secular character, will readily understand that what the Fathers of Trent were up against was as nothing compared to the invasion of musical profanity that has descended on most Western parishes today. 
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski About Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is Assistant Professor at the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Gaming, Austria, about 85 miles from Vienna. He received his B.A. from Thomas Aquinas College and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. His articles have appeared in a variety of journals, including Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, Angelicum, Medieval Studies, The Modern Schoolman, Communio, Logos and Faith & Reason.


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    michael – owner |24.119.27.Xxx |2011-07-27 02:Jul:th
    I’m glad that you are not our GOD for he is ever teaching and instructive. If he did not mean sing a new song unto to him then we are nothing but grass that just withers.

    Please try a little joy in your walk. Without love and growth within the lord you are of this world….just another little demon.



    Barbara – Ignorance of History |71.12.18.Xxx |2011-08-18 16:Aug:th
    Christ is the new song you’re referring to, according to Clement of Alexandria.
    The good professor, as he so eloquently explained, is agreeing with Pope Benedict XVI’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy”.
    James Macmilllan composed liturgical music for the Holy Father’s visit to the UK last year. He’s not alone!
    I say, bravo to the author. Most of what is played at our parish’s youth Mass isn’t contemporary – know teens who listen to that aged hippie stuff when they’re not at Mass and it’s theologically dreadful “happy clappy.” Who can sing to it? We’re allowed to join in on the choruses.


    Joe – True ignorance of history |72.92.83.Xxx |2011-12-14 17:Dec:th
    The pipe organ was considered by Pope Gregory I to be a loud and raucous instrument and the official Church word at the time was that singing was to be unaccompanied. It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that the organ became “domesticated” and widely accepted for accompanying the choir and the people. Even then there are numerous mentions by the church for care to avoid raucous sounds from the organ.

    Who’s to say what is profane and what is sacred. What litmus test can you use to determine that the exuberant music is sacred joy versus profane raucous?

    Also, I wonder if perhaps in our zeal to keep the tradition with a little “t” that we might inadvertently stifle the spirit which would be an unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. I do not want to be grouped with Michal (2 Samuel 6:20-23.) So, I’m going to take the way Nicodemus went. If it is of human origin it will fail, but, if it’s of God you won’t be able to stop them. And you may even discover that you are fighting against God!”