As a pastor of a two and a half year church plant, my responsibilities include the happy task of crafting a “hymnal” for our church—that is, establishing a list of around fifty or sixty songs that become our congregation’s corporate prayer and musical worship language. Rather than inheriting an already existing repertoire of songs, and then tweaking it from there, we have the opportunity to simply start from scratch. In this process, we would be foolish to not use the Psalter as our template, not only by singing the Psalms, but also by making sure every genre and worship-emotion represented in the Psalter is also represented in our “hymnal.”
During the past couple of months, I have been working with one of our music leaders to catalogue all of our existing songs into categories (e.g., praise and adoration, confession, petition, celebration, assurance, etc.), so that as we continue to build our list of corporate songs, we might focus our attention on categories that seem to be lacking. And one such lacking category was “songs of lament.” I know for a fact that our church is not alone in this current state of affairs, and I have no doubt that the present drought of lamentation in congregational singing is symptomatic of our culture’s general fear of grief. We think it undignified. The joy of the Lord, we are told (explicitly or implicitly through what is missing in our preaching and congregational songs), is incompatible with sorrow, cries of anguish, and complaints to God. But this is untrue, and we should not believe the lie that says songs of lamentation and heart-broken confession and cries of sorrow are irreverent in corporate worship. God doesn’t seem to think they are. The same God who inspired the Psalter (his hymnal!) to include lyrics like, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Psalm 100:1-2) also inspired words like, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.” (Psalm 31:9-10)
As I reflected on this strange state of affairs in modern American Christianity—and the way it starkly contrasts the Scriptures, and most of Church history—I couldn’t help but think of the variegated forms of suffering represented in the small church I pastor. I have wept with and for members who have experienced:
- The injustice of sexual abuse
- Chronic physical illness
- Ongoing, seemingly never-ceasing struggles with infertility
- The sudden death of close family and friends
- Joyless, contentious marriages
- Serious health problems with children
- Besetting sins that will not go away
And the list could go on. As their pastor, one of my responsibilities for these members is to teach them how to worship in seasons of extreme grief and suffering. Notice, I did not say “how to worship in spite of seasons of extreme grief and suffering.” The difference is important. It’s the difference between true worship and sentimentality. When my sister in Christ and her husband come to the corporate gathering after a weekend of literally hemorrhaging in the physical and emotional pain of miscarrying her baby, the last thing either of them need is a glib, chipper “nothing-can-get-me-down” song, which all but trivializes her suffering and chalks it up to “looking at the glass as half full.” She doesn’t merely have a “perspective problem.” She is down. She is starving. She needs to be reminded of a grand, sovereign, sturdy God who can handle her bitter cries of anguish—the kind that rumble from deep inside her guts, producing unintelligible groaning that only God the Holy Spirit can translate into worship.
But should this happen in the corporate gathering?
Yes, and here are three reasons.
The Psalms Include Holy Spirit-Inspired Corporate Songs of Lament
I’ve already touched on this briefly above, so I won’t belabor the point. But let me simply remind you that every one of the Psalms you find in your Bible was inspired to be singable on the corporate level. Of course, these Psalms can and should be prayed individually, but none of them are off-limits for praying corporately through song. If God has seen fit to make sure lamentations represent a significant portion of the Psalter, we should find the utter absence of lamentation in our modern song rotations disturbing.
This Is How We Weep With Those Who Weep
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul beautifully describes the organic and symbiotic relationship between members of the Body of Christ. He essentially debunks the notion that any member of the body is expendable. You can’t declare independence from any other member of the body; when one member is neglected, abandoned, or hurt, the whole body is neglected, abandoned, or hurt. “If one member suffers,” Paul says, “all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) The fact is, we have members in our congregations who are suffering. According to Paul’s logic, then, we are all suffering. This is what it means to “bear on another’s burdens.” When God supernaturally “knits us together in love,” he ties our nerve endings together; we feel the pain of our brothers and sisters. When we hear of a member’s child who’s been sexually abused, we feel the wind get knocked out of us. When another month goes by, and still, a couple in our congregation hasn’t conceived, we feel our hearts sink into our stomachs with disappointment.
Therefore, if such suffering occasions the lamentation of our brothers and sisters, it’s entirely appropriate for us to lament corporately. I may not have suffered the loss of a child, but according to Paul, when one member has suffered the loss of a child, we—as a congregation—have experienced a great loss. We are brought into their struggle, so their suffering becomes our suffering, and their lamentation becomes our lamentation.
We Need to Learn How to Grieve Well
For better or for worse, our congregational songs teach theology. Our regular corporate songs cause theology to seep into us in a way that cannot be quantified. Since lamentation should be informed and governed by right theology, one of the ways our members will learn how to grieve well is by having it modeled and scripted for them in theologically sound songs of lament. Obedience to the command to “rejoice in the Lord always” looks different from season to season. Picture the young mom of a newborn baby, holding her child and singing It Is Well With My Soul. That’s her rejoicing “when peace, like a river, attendeth her way.” But what about when a young mom, through sobs and tears, sings It Is Well With My Soul after she miscarries? That’s her rejoicing “when sorrows, like sea billows, roll.” And much of the Christian life is simply preparation for suffering. Even if some members don’t personally need a language of worshipful lamentation at this very moment, they will eventually. I want for my members to be prepared to know what to pray and how to process their grief when they are blindsided with unimaginable grief.
Make no mistake, there is a uniquely Christian way to suffer. A Christian’s suffering is no less painful by virtue of his Christianity, but there is a difference between a Christian’s lamentation and a non-Christian’s lamentation. We do not grieve as those without hope. When we cry “how long, O Lord?” we have been assured by God himself that the answer—whatever else it may be—is not “forever.” A Christian’s grief never leads to absolute despair because a Christian’s suffering is never meaningless—there is no such thing as an affliction that doesn’t prepare for us an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
If a Christian lamentation is nothing else, it is a longing gaze heavenward—it is a grief and discontentment for the present death and destruction the Adam’s sin occasioned, and it is the expectation for what God promised: that our eyes will be wiped of our tears and our broken hearts will be bound up. Christian lamentation is the shameless acknowledgement that things are not as they should be, and things are not as they will be. Through the eyes of faith—which are red and wet tired with grief—we look forward to a reality that our eyes of flesh insist is a wish dream: “We will feast in the house of Zion! We will sing with our hearts restored. ‘He has done great things,’ we will say together! We will feast, and weep no more,” “when these trials give way to glory, as we draw our final breath, we will cross that great horizon, clouds behind and life secure. And the calm will be the better for the storms that we endure.” It was with all of this in mind that I wrote O Lord, How Long?
O Lord, How Long? (Lyrics)
O Lord, how long will the wicked exult?
O Lord, how long will they prosper and boast?
When the pain of the innocent
Serves the lusts of evil men,
How long, how long?
O Lord, how long must we live in agony?
Our bodies ache, do you see our suffering?
Do you hear us when we cry,
When our day has turned to night?
How long, how long?
O Lord, how long must we go on childless?
O Lord, how long must we drown in grief for death?
If you give and take away,
Can’t our sons and daughters stay?
How long, how long?
O Lord, how long must we wrestle with our sin?
Disordered loves that we don’t want and we resent
When temptation wins again
And our spirits grieve within
How long, how long?
Oh Lord, how long till our faith is turned to sight,
Til you kneel down to wipe the tears off from our eyes?
When our loving Father says,
“Well done. Now, enter rest,”
When the sun is God the Son
And his blood-bought Bride will come,
When the Spirit brings us up
And we’re swallowed by Triune love
How long, how long?