Why don’t Christians sing the blues?

There are times in every Christians’ life when sadness and grief strike. For some it comes for a season, brought about by tragedy or loss. For others sorrow is almost an integral part of daily life. So here’s my question. Why is it that our hymnody often doesn’t reflect the way that many of us feel?

It hasn’t always been like this. More than a third of the Psalms are laments. Take Psalm 88 for example:

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength…

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths…
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

It’s hard to imagine such a hymn being written or sung today, particularly when the Psalm ends not with hope, but with the words ‘darkness is my closest friend’. As Carl Trueman says, it’s ‘very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity’.

I am not suggesting there is no place for joy and praise. It’s no coincidence that the very next Psalm begins with the words, “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever”. But I am suggesting that the relentless cheerfulness that is found in some modern hymnody can be damaging if it’s not balanced by hymns that are more contemplative and reflect that we worship a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. If we silence the cries of sadness and brokenness in our worship, what are we saying to the lonely, sorrowful and grieving members of our church and local communities?

So why don’t Christians sing the blues or laments?

Some say it’s because we’re not living in Old Testament times. They point out that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a great and certain hope, and conclude that laments are no longer appropriate in the New Testament age.

It’s certainly true that the Christian hope is gloriously clear and strong. It’s also true that the wonder of the cross and the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ in every believer, should constantly bring us to thanksgiving and praise.

But at the same time, we are not yet in glory. We are still living in a fallen world. We suffer, we experience loss, we cry, we grieve. Paul tells us the whole creation is ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ (Rom. 8:22), and as believers we have to wait for the glory which will one day be revealed. In the meantime, whilst we are comforted by knowing we are God’s children, we also share in the sufferings of Christ. That means every believer should be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That doesn’t mean we are hopeless, of course, as we do not grieve as those who have no hope. But it does mean that we don’t simply rejoice, we rejoice in suffering (e.g. 1 Thess. 1:6, 1 Pet. 1:6).

Theologically therefore, we need songs that not only express joy, but that express joy in suffering. Thankfully, such songs do exist, even if they’re relatively rare. Take these lyrics from Blind Willie Johnson. Blind Willie was a preacher and gospel blues singer who lived through the depression and died in poverty in 1945. But in 1928, he recorded this:

Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes
Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes
When my heart’s full of sorrow and my eyes are filled with tears
Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes

My mother, she’s in glory, thank God I’m on my way
Father, he’s gone too, and sister she could not stay
I’m trusting Him every day, He will bear my burdens away

It’s a simple lyric, but the most profound truths are often the simplest. Johnson’s mother died when he was young, and his father and sister had left him to follow the cotton harvest. He had been blinded (probably caused by an attack from his step-mother), so he remained behind, scratching out a living by singing songs on street corners. He sang unashamedly of his grief and sorrow, and when he thanks God that he’s on his way to glory, we know that his longing to be with Jesus is heightened by a longing to be away from this suffering world.

Songs like these (and more modern equivalents) can be very helpful in private devotions, but they’re almost too personal to sing in a congregational setting. Yet we need songs we can sing when we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with a brother or sister in Christ who is grieving and suffering. We need songs we can sing after 9/11. We need hymns of longing, like this one from Vernon Higham:

Deep in my heart there is a sigh,
A longing, Lord, for Thee;
To know the depths that in Thee lie,
The grace of Calvary…

There is a fellowship of pain
Deep in Thy heart of love,
Of suffering sweet, eternal gain,
The tears of heaven above.

…or this from Timothy Dudley-Smith:

When troubles come and hopes depart
in mercy, Lord, arise;
the ruined landscape of my heart
lies bare before your eyes…

Though darkness seems to hide your face
amid earth’s sin and pain,
break through the clouds, O God of grace,
restore my soul again.

We need songs to sing when God seems silent, like this from Matt Searles, based on Psalm 28:

To you I call O Lord my rock
Do not be deaf to me
For if I do not hear your voice
I’ll sink into the grave
Oh hear my cry for mercy
I call to you for aid…

You are our fortress, Lord
Mighty and strong to save
You are our shepherd
Carry us in your arms

And we need hymns that speak of future hope in the midst of present suffering, like the second stanza of David Charles’ From heavenly Jerusalem’s towers:

And we, from the wilds of the desert,
Shall flee to the land of the blest;
Life’s tears shall be changed to rejoicing,
Its labours and toil into rest.
There we shall find refuge eternal,
From sin, from affliction, from pain,
And in the sweet love of the Saviour,
A joy without end shall attain.

It’s only when we include songs like these in our worship that we can truly appreciate that God is a very real help in times of trouble, and begin to understand the depths of sorrow and sin that Christ suffered on our behalf to redeem us from a broken world. So let’s sing our laments and sing the blues with one another, to the praise and glory of God.

For more on lament in worship, see:

  • “The voice of lament”, in The Message of Worship by John Risbridger (IVP, 2015).
  • “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages of Spin by Carl R. Trueman (Christian Focus, 2004).
  • Getting the Blues: What blues music teaches us about suffering and salvation by Stephen J. Nichols (Brazos Press, 2008)

Matt Searles will shortly be releasing ‘Tumbling Sky’, an album of devotions on the Psalms of lament, including Psalm 88. See http://mattsearles.bandcamp.com/