What a sad week it has been. And as I write, it is only Wednesday morning.
On Sunday night, Derrick Brown died in Alberton, as did Jabulani Moyo’s father in Zimbabwe and John Grainger’s grandmother in London. On Monday morning Mary Moodley’s nephew was killed in a motorcar accident in Vanderbijlpark and, on Tuesday, Sylvia King’s daughter, Lesley, died of a heart attack at the Linksfield Hospital. Death is certainly no respecter of persons. Nor of places. So much heartache; so much grief; so many reminders of the fragility of life and the certainty of death. Such are times for a biblically-informed sad song. Perhaps several of them.
I recently re-read the essay, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?”, by theologian Carl Trueman. He argues that too much of today’s Christianity is influenced by the myth of the health, wealth, and happiness of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which of course, is no gospel at all. Trueman is of the view that otherwise sound churches—churches like ours—have been subtly influenced by this mindset. One evidence he points to is the abundance of “feel good” songs in our corporate singing with a conspicuous absence of songs that address the deep sorrows and laments of living in a sin-cursed word. Songs, in other words, which reflect the psalms.
In observing that the psalms rarely inform our singing he writes,
I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In Western culture [he is a Brit living in the USA], these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society.
Christians, he argues, are therefore therefore averse to singing a sad song. Rather than honestly lamenting the numerous sorrows of living in a broken world—sorrows meant to drive us to the Lord for the ultimate comfort—we plaster a smile on our face while inwardly we are dying a thousand deaths. We fear to express our lament to others lest we be judged “unspiritual.” This is not only not honest, it is also neither healthy nor helpful. Christians sometimes are to sing a sad song.
As an antidote to denying the reality of heartache, Trueman turns our attention to the psalms and encourages us to spend time in them, to sing them, or at least, to sing songs grounded in them. He counsels
Let us all learn once again to lament. Read the psalms over and over until you have the vocabulary necessary to lay your heart before God in lamentation. If you do this, you will have the resources to cope with your own times of suffering, despair, and heartbreak, and to keep worshiping and trusting through even the blackest of days; you will also develop a greater understanding of fellow Christians whose agonies of, say, bereavement, depression, or despair, sometimes make it difficult for them to prance around in ecstasy singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” on a Sunday morning.
Brothers and sisters, as Solomon would concur, there are times for a sad song (Ecclesiastes 3:1–4). This is one of those times. As we interact with those in our church who are grieving, let our interactions be such that they feel free to grieve, that they feel the liberty to sing a sad song. It is so important to remember that Christians—those saved by the grace of God through faith in the crucified and risen Saviour, Jesus Christ—are not immune from singing a sad song. Even Jesus wept (John 11:35). I suppose we can as well.
Thankfully, the psalms contain many glad songs as well. But sometimes we need to sing the sad songs in order to get to the others. As David well knew, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Sad, but singing, with you,