Ours is an age of happy-clappy religion in which everyone thinks that true spirituality is marked by Cheshire grins and saccharine clichés. But this isn’t Christianity, it’s a caricature. It is little more than Stoicism with a toothy facade painted onto it.
Christianity grew from the fertile soil of Judaism, with its rich tradition of both hallelujahs and lamentations. The minor key is a major theme in the Psalter. Just so, Christianity is such that it allows us to sing the blues. Sometimes faithfulness even requires it. The Psalter, Israel’s “Book of Common Prayer,” normalizes and humanizes grief, pain, and sorrow in a way that much modern Christianity fails to do. This newer religious expression simply doesn’t have the expressive capabilities as did its spiritual mother.
Part of the reason for this is that modern Christianity has allowed vapid choruses 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; Job’s soaring worship but not his ashes; 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 today’s retelling of their stories.
“Singing the blues” is a metaphor for the expressions of grief which so characterize the lives of godly men and women in the Bible. That we 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. They speak often of his various trials, tribulations. betrayals, and setbacks (2 Cor. 11:25-28). Paul, that joyful apostle, was often so burdened beyond his capacity that at times he even despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8). The sainted Apostle 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 bloodless 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 considered a second-class Christian. God gives beauty for ashes in his own time (Is. 61:3). 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 such 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.
We need to reacquaint ourselves with the Psalter so that we may learn what prayer and praise look like in the valleys as well as on the peaks. We must learn to sing the blues if our songs of joy are going to be worth singing at all. And we have to know the difference between the two.
J. Brandon Meeks (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) serves as Theologian-in-Residence at his Anglican Parish in Arkansas. He is the author of The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition. Follow him on Twitter: @nojesuittricks.