A Church Out of Touch with Pain

“Can we sing this in church?” came the question I expected to get after sending out a Sunday playlist to the band. The lyrics were, after all, a bit different than the average worship song. The chorus was simple:

Jesus, when you gonna wake up?
When you gonna wake up?
And calm this raging sea?
Jesus, when you gonna wake up?
When you gonna wake up?
How can you sleep when we’re in need?

Song: Wake Up, Jesus (feat. Liz Vice)
Album: Lament Songs
Artist: The Porter’s Gate

“Yeah, we can sing it,” I replied. “Not only is this song Biblical, since it’s based on Jesus sleeping on a boat while the disciples are afraid they’re going to die in a storm, but it’s also the same kind of theme we find all throughout the Psalms.”

Many in the church today are unaware of these darker themes since modern worship songs are, “unrelentingly cheerful.” We sing songs that focus on victory, while being incredibly vague about our pain. Yet “sixty-seven of the one hundred and fifty psalms may be categorized as laments—if not in whole, at least in part” (Robert S. Smith, “Singing Lament,” Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to Lament, page 204, Kindle).

While victory is a great Biblical theme we can validly sing about, I have to admit that our obsession with it sometimes makes us look out of touch with reality. For example, the amount of times I turned on church livestreams during the pandemic to find high energy music with hands lifted high to lyrics of triumph weirded me out. It felt like I was spying on a parallel universe where everything was going just fine and the world wasn’t falling apart at all. And sure, some might say that’s exactly the point: That the church is a symbol of that which is to come, and so a service should show the joy of the Lord and the victory of Heaven. But while I understand this sentiment, this disconnect felt a bit more like ignorance—like binging Netflix in attempts to avoid a heavy conviction.

Politics were exploding with mobs and nooses on the capitol lawn, but “I raise a hallelujah” (which was a hard song to decipher in tone that week, given the church’s complicity with radical Trumpism). Black men were killed in the streets by white officials and vigilantes alike, but “What a beautiful name it is.” Millions of people all around us were dying from the same disease, but “I am who you say I am.”

While all of this was going on (and still is), I couldn’t help but join the disciples and wonder, “Jesus, when you gonna wake up? We’re struggling here! Everywhere we look, life seems to be unraveling at the seams! My friends are in the deepest pain I’ve ever seen them in and we’ve been praying and praying for answers and finding none!”

Do these questions sound blasphemous? Then it’s time to read the Bible with fresh eyes. Job is 42 chapters on the question of, “If God is good, then why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people?” That thought is hardly original with our generation. On top of that, 47% of the Psalms have themes of lament. And beyond that, the prophets are constantly calling God’s people to intervene in the pain of the world around them. And if we’re actively doing such things, there’s no way we ourselves won’t encounter some pain and need to talk and sing about it.

Fortunately, the Psalmists give voice to our tears. Let’s give the most extreme example we can to establish our point. Have you read Psalm 88? It’s easily the darkest song in all of the Scriptures. It doesn’t event end on a positive note: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” The end. (Except that the Psalms haver been crafted in an order that requires you to keep reading and singing your way forward, so it’s not fully the end.)

But as dark as Psalm 88 is, here’s the odd beauty of this song: It’s a part of God’s inspired Bible. So to sing such a song, is to lean into lyrics that God has helped craft for us to voice our own pain, both to ourselves and back to him. Or as Kit Barker says, “God offers these words to his people as righteous responses to their sufferings and as righteous responses to the suffering of those among them” (“Lament as Divine Discourse,” Finding Lost Words, page 55, Kindle).

To let the world burn in pain while we go on in blissful ignorance is the fruit of faulty Left Behind eschatology. To recognize that this world is our home, that we belong here now, and still belong here again once Heaven hits it with a sloppy wet kiss (you’re welcome), is resurrection eschatology. Letting the earth go to Hell in a hand basket is not the point—“God’s kingdom come, his will be done,” through us, wherever possible, is the point. And if we have no grief, no sorrow, and no pain when so much of the world around us does, then there’s a chance we’re not using the gift of these physical bodies to engage the landscape God assigned us to.

You can have the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s joy and be real about the trials and struggles and pains of this world. You can remain centered on the victorious resurrection of Jesus, while leaning into the dying Jesus who asked God why he forsook him. You can feast with friends and sweat great drops of blood brought about by deep agony. You can raise the dead and cry that they died in the first place. You can remain solidly firm in God while being tempted by Satan. And yes, despite what some of you have been told, you can be depressed and be a Christian. You can.

But if you want to relate to the great agony and pain people are going through on this second Pandemic-Christmas, then people need to not only be reminded of the birth of their savior, but that by being born, Jesus’ family had to become refugees while many families wailed in horror.

If God can put on skin and engage this world and its many pains, who are we to think that we have no need to do the same? For if we are Christ-like, we too will have to deal with suffering—even though we can rejoice while doing so (Romans 5:3).

Today I read, Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to Lament, while playing through Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, while continuing to get over quarantine from having covid. I deeply recommend both the book and the game, but not the covid. For another great book on the Psalms, check out C.S. Lewis’, Reflections on the Psalms.

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