“What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” (Carl Trueman)

In Carl R. Trueman’s book The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism, he included a chapter entitled,”What Can Miserable Christians Sing?”

The answer to that question, Trueman answers, is the Psalms and specifically the Psalm’s model of lamentation.

Of this short chapter Trueman states,

This little piece which took minimal time and energy to author has garnered more positive responses and more touching correspondence than anything else I have ever written. It resonated with people across the Christian spectrum, people from all different church backgrounds who had one thing in common: the understanding that life has a sad, melancholy, painful dimension which is too often ignored and sometimes even denied in our churches.

He describes his purpose for writing as

to highlight what I saw as a major deficiency in Christian worship, a deficiency that is evident in both traditional and contemporary approaches: the absence of the language of lament. The Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, contains many notes of lamentation, reflecting the nature of the believer’s life in a fallen world. And yet these cries of pain are on the whole absent from hymns and praise songs.

CarlTruemanHe sums up the thrust of that chapter as follows:

There is nothing in the typical book of hymns or praise songs that a woman who has miscarried a baby, or a parent who has just lost a child to cancer, can sing with honesty and integrity on a Sunday.

The desperation and heartache of such moments are things which we instinctively feel have no place in a religion where we are called on to rejoice in the Lord always. Yet there is a praise book which taps such emotions and gives the broken-hearted honest words with which to express their deepest sorrows to God.

It’s called the book of Psalms; and its recovery as a source of public praise in the Christian church can only help the church overcome its innate triumphalism and make room for the poor and the weak.

In short, he says, in the Psalms “one finds divinely inspired words which allow the believer to express their deepest pains and sorrows to God.”

The following is an excerpt from the chapter.

Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would 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 psalmists’ 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?

The Wages of SpinI did once suggest 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 a 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, 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?

Carl R. Trueman, from “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) pp. 158-160.

In reflecting upon this essay, Trueman provides the following helpful insights:

That which we say and sing as a congregation will over time subtly and imperceptibly inform our thinking about the Christian faith and thus about life in general in a powerful way. … A liturgy which accurately reflects the expectations we can have for life in a fallen world, one that inculcates and reinforces that week by week, is important as a means of preparing our people for the suffering that must eventually come their way.

The church which makes the psalms part of her regular diet provides her people with the resources for truly living in this vale of tears, just as the church which does not do so has perversely denied her people a true treasure in pursuit of what? Relevance? There is nothing more universally relevant than preparing people for suffering and death. 

Our people need to know that in this world there will be mourning. Not worldly mourning with no hope. But real mourning nonetheless, and we must make them ready for that.

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