The Healing Power of Singing the Psalms amid Suffering
In the early 2000s, Carl Trueman wrote an article about hymnody titled, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” Many Christians would recoil at the idea of a “miserable Christian,” as if this is the strangest oxymoron they have ever heard. However, when reading the Psalms, you realize that many of the writers were walking through pain, difficulty, and depression. They wondered why God would abandon them, complained about going down into “the pit,” and asked the Lord how long he was going to allow them to suffer.
When you read many of the older hymns, they reflect a sobriety about the suffering we encounter in this life. They recognize that Christians walk through unbelievable pain, suffering, and difficulty. The writers expressed their trust in the goodness and providence of God, knowing that their suffering might last until they saw Jesus face to face. These hymns were honest about the trials of life and often reflected the language of the Psalms.
A new genre of Christian song emerged over the last decade. These songs focus on the victory and the triumph we have through Christ. As with every error, they begin with a truth but blow it out of its proper proportion. The victory we experience through Christ is only partially realized until Christ returns. We don’t experience uninterrupted series of triumphs in this life. We walk through valleys, and we walk up hills, but life in this fallen world is never characterized only by victory.
Individual Christians also experience different circumstances. One Christian may have plenty of money in the bank, a fulfilling job, and a healthy family, while another may be impoverished, unemployed, and infertile. We’re increasingly comfortable celebrating the victories the fortunate believer experiences while offering mere platitudes to appease the suffering of the believer in tough circumstances.
Perhaps we can establish a new principle in thinking about the songs we sing – “could a Ukrainian Christian sing this song?” Are we singing songs that ring true in the hearts and lives of people whose homes have been bombed, whose children are hungry, and whose friends are buried in unmarked graves?
We see this when we give a careful reading of the Bible’s hymnbook – the Psalms. The Psalms explore the full range of human emotions from a God-centered perspective. Some Psalms leap off the page as they call worshippers of the one true God to lift their voices up to him with thankfulness and joy. We also see Psalms in which the writer laments the horrible position he finds himself in.
The Psalmists speak to God honestly about the pain they are facing. They ask God why he has driven them down into the pit. They ask the Lord how much longer he is going to let them suffer. They cry out to God for deliverance and plead their cause. They proclaim the injustice of their situation and point out the evil of their oppressors. They speak clearly and honestly about their pain.
When Christians sing songs that sound like the lament Psalms, we gain a vocabulary for how we talk to God when we are suffering. We put a song in our hearts to sing when we are in pain, and we gain an understanding of how God works in our trials. We aren’t going to pick this up when we are only singing songs about triumph and victory in this life.
Recently I was walking through a difficult trial. I was scared, sad, and thought I was alone. As I struggled to sleep, I turned on an album of old hymns. As I listened, I recognized that I was not alone. Millions of Jesus’s faithful followers have suffered, as Jesus himself did. I was struggling to even know how to pray, and then the old hymn “I Asked the Lord” came on. As I listened, I found myself praying the words of the song. In and of myself, I didn’t even know how to pray through my trials, but a hymn written by a suffering follower of Jesus helped me.
In the days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a video surfaced of a Ukrainian family singing “He Will Hold Me Fast.” As they gather around the table to sing while their country is being invaded, their song of confidence in the Lord rings differently. They needed to remind each other that the Lord is with them in their pain, and this simple song reminded them of the truth their souls craved.
When the diagnosis is cancer, when the pregnancy test is negative again, when war is looming, and when your marriage is failing, a superficial song will not suffice. You need words laced with realism and hope. You need something other than most of the music we sing now.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/CaseyHillPhoto
Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”