“What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl R. Trueman

“Many of us despise the health, wealth, and happiness teachings of the American televangelists and their pernicious British counterparts, as scandalous blasphemy. The idea that Christianity, at whose center stands the Suffering Servant, the man who had nowhere to lay his head, and the one who was obedient to death—even death on the cross—should be used to justify the idolatrous greed of affluent Westerners simply beggars belief.

Nevertheless, there’s a real danger that these heretical teachings have seeped into evangelical life in an imperceptible yet devastating way, affecting not so much our theology as our horizons of expectation. We live, after all, in a society whose values are precisely those of health, wealth, and happiness. Look at the number of medical dramas and documentaries on television: is our obsession with the medical profession not a function of our obsession with health?

Or listen to the politicians: New Labour finance ministers say they want to reward “risk takers.” Are they referring to the men and women who work in the slums with the drug addicts, who bravely stand against the paramilitary control of their communities in Ulster, who go to areas of conflict and put their lives on the line, who take “real risks”? Of course not. They mean the entrepreneurs and the “wealth creators”—often those whose sole motive (whatever the altruistic rhetoric) is personal profit and whose only “risks” are the irresponsible financial speculations in which they indulge with the hard-earned savings and pensions of others. These are the counterfeit “risk-takers” that society must apparently prioritize and reward with tax breaks, gongs, and social status. If the real risk-takers need money, they can always queue up with their begging bowls outside the Ministry of Greed, aka the National Lottery, and take their turn with the rest of society’s no-hopers and second-class causes.

And look at the veritable explosion in the litigation and compensation arena: once upon a time, compensation was linked to loss of earnings; now it is often apparently linked to loss of comfort and happiness, with all of the trivial court cases that inevitably brings in its wake. Health, wealth, and happiness—the three modern obsessions, the three modern idols.

Where does the church stand in all this? Where do we as individual Christians put ourselves in relation to what is going on?

First, let us look at the contemporary language of worship. Now, worship is a difficult subject and, being a peace-loving sort of chap who always steers well clear of controversy, I would hate to say anything controversial at this point about the relative merits of hymns and choruses, of organs and music bands, etc. Having experienced —and generally appreciated—worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed—I am myself concerned here less with the form of worship than I am with its content.

I would, however, like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. 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 modern Western culture, 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 one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.

Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmist’s cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church.

Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament—but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence, and spiritual maturity. Perhaps—and this is more likely—it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing.

Yet the human condition is a poor one—and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party—a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals.

Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is—or at least should be—all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades—China, Africa, Eastern Europe—would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair—and joy, when it manifests itself, is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity.

In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

I once suggested at a church meeting that the Psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do—and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism.

On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship—and thus from our horizons of expectation—which has in large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies.

By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, and generated an insipid, trivial, and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent.

In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical—and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?

One might also look at the content of prayers—those we speak in private and those at the church meeting. How often did Abraham, Moses, and Paul pray for health, for worldly success, for personal happiness and satisfaction? How do the concerns of these men compare with the content and priorities of our own prayers? Do our intercessions, despite the pious theological padding, unwittingly mimic the blasphemous priorities of the Elmer Gantrys of this world who peddle a pernicious gospel of health, wealth, and happiness?

Then, look at our own aspirations. I often chat to theological students and ask them what they intend to do on completion of their work. Many say they think they will enjoy teaching, some say they are looking forward to doing research. Very few say, in the first instance, they want to serve the church.

Now, one can serve the church in both of the aforementioned ways, but is it not significant that their first reaction is not to express themselves in terms of service but in terms of personal satisfaction? And the church as a whole is little better: big houses, flashy cars, double incomes—all feature in the dreams of many of us, wrapped up as we are in making personal comfort and satisfaction our primary goal.

Yet we should not build our lives on the basis of personal satisfaction but on the vision of self-sacrifice and service that the Bible lays before us. Given the choice, what would many of us involved in the professional theological sphere, students and academics, do: speak at a major academic gathering and hob-nob with the great and the good, or talk to the church youth group?

Of course, many times we can do both—but what if we had to make a choice? The answer will speak eloquently of where our real treasure is stored. Has the gospel of our own personal ambition not upstaged the gospel of sacrificial service? It is faithfulness, not happiness or worldly reputation, which is the criterion of Christian success.

The church in the West is caught in a maelstrom of decline. One might suggest a whole variety of ways to overcome this. Some suggest we need to be more “postmodern” in our worship; others suggest we need to rethink how the gospel is communicated. I confess to being skeptical about these proposals, not because they are too radical but because they are not radical enough.

They reduce the causes for decline to the level of methodology or sociology and offer relatively painless remedies to what is, if we are honest, a very serious, even terminal, disease. Indeed, those who see the problem exclusively in these terms are merely replicating the kind of solutions which the very health, wealth, and happiness culture itself would propose: in the consumer culture, Christianity is a product and poor sales can therefore be overcome by new management, better packaging, and more astute marketing.

Now I’m not suggesting that sociologists and postmodernists have nothing useful to tell us—we must, of course, take care that we present the gospel in a way in which society can understand it (though to describe that as “common sense” rather that “postmodern,” “postevangelical,” or “post-whatever” would seem on the whole to be less pretentious and obfuscatory)—but we must remember that to reduce Western Christianity’s difficulties to the level of bad techniques is to miss the point: the real problem is ultimately one of morality, not methodology.

Quite simply, the evangelical church has sold its soul to the values of Western society and prostituted itself before the Golden Calf of materialism. Our current decline is thus not in the final analysis simply the result of secularization; it is ultimately the result of the active judgement of God upon that secularization. We have bought into the idolatry of the secular values of health, wealth, and happiness, and until we all, on both the individual and corporate level, realize this, repent of it, and give ourselves in painful, sacrificial service to the Lord who bought us, we will see no improvement.

How can we do this?

First, let us all learn once again to lament.

Read the psalms over and over until you have the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax 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 worshipping 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 Sunday morning; and you will have more credible things to say to those shattered and broken individuals—be they burned-out bank managers or down-and-out junkies—to whom you may be called to be a witness of God’s unconditional mercy and grace to the unloved and the unlovely. For such, as the Bible might put it, were some of you . . .

Second, seek to make the priorities of the biblical prayers the priorities of your own prayers.

You can read all the trendy sociology and postmodern primers you want, and they may well give you valuable technical insights, but unless your studies, your preaching, your church life, your family life, indeed, your whole life, are soaked in prayer and reflect the priorities of the Bible, they will be of no profit to you or to anybody else.

And finally, as regards personal ambitions and life-plans, “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

–Carl R. Trueman, from “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus: 2004), 157-163.

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Filed under Bible, Book of Psalms, Carl Trueman, Christian Theology, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, The Church, Worship

39 responses to ““What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl R. Trueman

  1. Wow… just wow. And thank you.

    • Louw Grobler

      Why choose anything else to sing in the place of the Psalms. The Psalms come from the Bible, that is the Word of God and how can anyone push the Psalms aside and choose to sing any song that does not com from the Bible. In the church where I am, we only sing Psalms. We have no place for any free”imitation” songs. The whole scriptures of the bible including the Psalms,come from the Holy Spirit and that can not be said for any other songs.

  2. A lot of the psalms were written by David – one man expressing his feelings to God. When a congregation is singing, they are not all going to have the same feelings. So songs about God’s goodness fit, because he’s always good. But not everyone will be feeling at the same time “see how my enemies attack me” etc.

    • pentamom

      But it is not necessarily about how we are feeling at the moment, but about what is true. And since the spiritual war is ongoing, we are always being “attacked” by enemies of some kind, and it is better to be reminded of that than to forget it just because we don’t “feel” it.

  3. Absolutely true. I imagine I’d find it disturbing to surround myself with people singing about how they are attacked and forsaken feeling.
    I had forgotten though, how much of that was in the bible. It was a wonderful reminder.

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  5. Greg Bailey

    I must disagree with the first post. When I led worship for a year or so, we did a lot of responsive readings from the Psalms. Most folks end up saying “I really didn’t know heroes in the Bible felt that way.”
    In Christ Alone,

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  7. There is a time and a place to lament our “lonely, dispossessed and desolate” selves. However, corporate worship is not it. We are all “lonely, dispossessed and desolate.” When we worship God, we take our eyes/minds off ourselves and our wounded condition in order to praise and adore Him for Who He is. As a result, we paradoxically become healed as we focus on Him and NOT ourselves and our problems. Believe me, I’m not suggesting that we hide our personal pain and hold it inside. But save the singing/speaking of the deprecatory Psalms, which you are speaking of, for private. These more venting kinds of Psalms were most likely sung/written by David in private (like our present-day journaling), and not meant for congregational singing. Psalms such as 150 ARE worship and therefore could be sung in corporate worship. We are in church first and foremost to worship God, not our problems/pain. It is through worshiping God that we are healed in a profound way, partly because we are taking our eyes off ourselves. “Pray for each other that you may be healed.” We forget our “miserable” selves for the moment and “find” our true selves – the Christ in us – as we “lose” our disjunct selves in worshiping Him!

    • EB

      I find your position hard to comprehend. When we are down, disheartened lonely and lost we must cry out to God like the psalmist did. Focusing on him in the midst of our sorrow is a way we can find hope and joy and publicly singing, worshipping and acknowledging that God listens to us in this condition and answers our pleas for help is every bit as important as the psalms and hymns that speak of us being joyful and thankful. Humans are humans, we get down, we feel emotional pain and to hide this side of the Christian journey is to create a facade which leaves people in emotional pain feeling more alone than ever. These psalms have a very important role in public worship. They remind us that no matter what we are going through we can and should take it to the Lord.

    • nbubna

      David was a man after God’s own heart. Those Psalms are scripture. This world is still broken, not yet whole. There is so much pain and suffering out there. Even God has wept, and you dare not say He was not his true self at any time. When we exclude lament from our corporate worship and say “do that alone” or that’s just your “miserable” self, not your true self, we do disservice to God, his Scripture, and willfully ignore the realities of the brokenness of both our world and our selves, both corporate and individual. Remember, even whole congregations can be in mourning.

  8. Jon

    The comments are all coming up “proper,” but the underlying legitimacy of the original post should not be glossed over. The evangelical movement has in many cases oversimplified the complexities of the Christian experience, and forced us to feel that anything other than jubilation is a sign of spiritual failure. What exactly did Jesus mean when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” and whatever it means, does it not apply to us both before and after our encounter with Christ?

    • Amen brother!… Are we poor in the Spirit?, are we thirsty, are we hungry to do God’s Will and follow not just our emotions? Being always in need, always wanting for more of God, brokenhearted, wounded, crying and imploring Him to bring up his blessings and keeping us close to Him. The more we become like a child the more blessings on our hearts are poured.

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  11. Ian Spence

    Elizabeth has made one amazing assumption: that corporate worship means to exclude ourselves entirely from the equation and to merely speak/sing words that speak positively of God and his glory. Where is the authenticity, the genuineness in that? The fallacy lies in the mistaken belief that God is only good when he makes me feel happy. Some of our most profound experiences of God’s goodness are when he draws near to us in our pain and suffering and when he gives us the strength to carry on.

  12. I enjoyed reading your post. Sadly, contemporary musical worship in the western hemisphere has become a predictable monoculture that is unsustainable for the longevity of the western church. As someone who has opportunities to lead musical worship, I find it challenging to break away from the accepted paradigm of 1-2 fast ‘celebratory songs’, 1 medium tempo song, and 1-2 ‘intimate’ songs. I do present opportunities to introduce responsive readings, reflective response times, and responsive prayers from the lament psalms in my musical set lists but usually get told that is outside the accepted practice for worship at that church. The laments found in scripture are beneficial for personal and corporate use and relatable for broken people. However, at the same time, in the NT we don’t necessarily find lament language from the apostles but rather the expression of joy in the midst of persecution.

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  15. Patrick Russo

    Here, Here!

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  17. RRRatman

    It’s not what we like; not human entertainment. It’s what the Lord wants. They are to be sung in praise of the Lord. Check out Psalm 150!

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  20. James G. Ahlberg

    They can sing this, which I wrote in 1998. Sing It to the melody “Cwm Rhonda,” most familiarly known as the melody to “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

    Title: Though I Worry

    1. Lift from me this dark depression
    That has settled on my soul.
    Give to me unfettered mercy,
    Cleanse my heart and make me whole.
    Though I worry, filled with anguish,
    Help me make it through this day!
    Help me make it through this day!

    2. Though the very air around me
    Seems to mutter and conspire,
    If I cling to my salvation
    I can breathe till You inspire.
    Though each breath fills me with anguish,
    Help me make it through this day!
    Help me make it through this day!

    3. Just as time keeps inching onward
    Like a silent glacial mass,
    So I move from dark to daylight,
    Praying this dark mood will pass.
    Though I worry, filled with anguish,
    I will make it through this day!
    I will make it through this day!

    4. I will live to see God’s goodness;
    Trust in Him, do not despair.
    Jesus Christ will take my burdens
    If I offer them in prayer.
    Glimpsing hope within tomorrow,
    Lord, I humbly bow and pray.
    Lord, I humbly bow and pray.

    • David

      You have captured in your song exactly how I feel every day. In a strange way I get encouraged to know that another believer feels the way I do.

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  25. Andrew Collier

    There are loads of songs about taking comfort in God despite circumstances being hard. And it’s important to sing them when you’re a happy church, so as to be properly prepared for struggles and pain. “When the tears fall” by Tim Hughes. “Blesséd be Your Name” by Matt and Beth Redman. (Does everybody already know that song was written about their miscarriage?). “Rejoice!” by Stuart Townend and Dustin Kensrue “when you cry to Him he hears your voice” / “In the midst of suffering, He will help you sing Rejoice!”. Come people of the risen King talks of “those weeping through the night” and “those struggling in the fight”. There are older songs too, When Peace Like a River’s second line is “when sorrows like sea billows roll”. It’s not an absent topic as this article asserts.

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