Once More With Feeling: On Recovering the Joy of Godly Lament

Earlier today I posted a statement on Twitter that received an interesting response. My Tweet, the response, and my response to that response are posted below. 

“The minor key is a major theme in the Psalter. Does your Christianity allow for the blues? If not, perhaps you should rethink it.”

Followed by this response:

“I don’t recall Jesus or Paul singing the blues but they did say ‘be of good cheer’ and ‘rejoice evermore.’ There is a time to grieve with those who grieve, but not to ungodly sorrow, not as those who have no hope. Maybe I’m missing something again in your post.”

This is an age of happy-clappy religion in which everyone thinks that true spirituality is marked by Cheshire grins and saccharine clichés. But that isn’t Christianity, that’s Stoicism with a toothy facade painted on it.

Christianity grew from the fertile soil of Judaism with its rich tradition of both hallelujahs and lamentations, though the latter were far more numerous than the former. The Hebrew Psalter normalizes and humanizes grief, pain, and sorrow in a way that modern Christianity fails to do simply because this newer religious expression doesn’t have the expressive capabilities as did its spiritual mother.

Part of the reason for this is because modern Christianity has allowed popular ditties to displace the Psalter as the organ of prayer and praise. Modern Christianity is brittle because it is but a shell of its former self. It wants Jacob’s privileges but not his pain; David’s triumphs but never his tears; Nehemiah’s joy but not his sackcloth. Scarcely can you find a notable person in the Scriptures who did not weep and mourn. But this is marginalized by todays retelling of their stories.

“Singing the blues” is a metaphor for the expressions of grief which so characterize the lives of godly men in and women in the bible. That you don’t recall Jesus or Paul emphasizing their sorrows betrays either a very selective reading of the New Testament or a desensitized reading of their words. The lamentations of Jesus at the graveside of his friend, overlooking Jerusalem, and upon the cross are nothing if not legendary. The godliest of men—indeed, God manifest in flesh—was characterized as the “man of sorrows” who was well acquainted with grief.  Likewise, Paul’s letters are noticeably tear-stained as we read of his various trials, tribulations. betrayals, and set backs. Paul, that joyful apostle, was often so burdened beyond his capacity that at times he even despaired of life itself. Paul was much more likely to show you his scars, speak of his thorns, rehearse his ordeals among the wilds beasts, or recount the duplicity of his countrymen than lead a rousing chorus of some vapid praise song.

We must have done with this notion of static, stoic, spirituality. Godliness is not better represented by laughter than by tears, by dancing than by mourning. Each of these expressions is sacred when presented without hypocrisy before the Lord. The same God who receives our blessings also has pleasure in broken spirits.

No one should be made to feel as though they must be “happy” all of the time lest they be taken as a second-class Christian. God gives beauty for ashes in his own time. When sorrow comes such believers are expected to wear their ashes faithfully rather than draw superficial smiley faces in them. Quite often the deeper joy comes through the realization that God created us to be these fragile creatures whose breath is in our nostrils and that our dust-formed frame is not expected to bear up under the greatest demonstrations of either grief or glory.

I say that we need to reacquaint ourselves with the Psalter so that we may learn what prayer and praise looks like in the valleys as well as on the peaks, in war as well as in peace. Incidentally, it is no wonder that the same generation that has lost its heart for grieving has also lost its stomach for imprecations. But I digress. Yes, we must learn to sing the blues if our songs of joy are going to be worth singing at all. We have to know the difference between the two.

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