08.04.14

Singing When the Pain Won’t Stop

So I’m getting into the groove of life in DC, which means getting into the groove of local radio stations. I’ve got my presets clicked into something for classical, something for R&B, a little hip hop, some jazz, and even a Spanish language station though I don’t speak Spanish. I just love the rhythm of the language and the music.

But being in DC also means clicking into a gospel station or two. I’ve been out of range for gospel radio for the last eight years. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do and I’m enjoying it.

But the other day I was riding and I noticed something. A LOT of songs all seem to have the same basic theology: “God is going to deliver you.” Now, that’s a very old trope in African-American history and culture. From slave narratives and field hollas to Civil Rights-era marching songs, we’ve long believed and celebrated the truth that God is a “way-making God.” Those songs tell the story of “how we got over” and kept us filled with hope “in the midnight hour.” Nothing wrong with that!

But there’s a difference nowadays. It seems to me that most of the “deliverance” songs I heard have a lot to do with financial matters. There is still the familiar “When my friends don’t treat me right” and so on. But more often it seems like I’m hearing “When my seed has been sown,” “When my bills are due,” or “You’re going to get that house/car/husband” because God is going to “deliver” you. That’s a significantly different notion of “deliverance.” It’s prosperity theology put to song.

Over the weekend, I’ve had two reactions. The first started off with a silly chuckle. How is God going to deliver to women a husband but men rarely feel “delivered” to a wife? LOL. Ever notice that? Judging by the song, the woman will be delivered but the brother will be enslaved! When that thought first came to me it was just a silly musing. Then I thought more deeply about it and wondered if that’s not actually how a lot of men and women feel. Some sisters feel “trapped” in singleness and want to be “delivered” through marriage. Some men feel “free” in singleness and want to avoid being “trapped” in a marriage. And I wondered if these deliverance songs that make reference to God “delivering” to a marriage might not inadvertently keep a kind of desperation growing, especially for our sisters. Things that make you go, “Hmmm….”

But my second thought was a little more substantive, I think. It was this: Where are the songs or perhaps even the verses that begin, “If God does not deliver me…”? As I heard Trip Lee preach so beautifully yesterday, God does not promise us blessings in every situation. Sometimes, for His own purposes and glory, the Lord allots us hardship and suffering. We need a lot of songs to reflect this reality, too. God does deliver. But God sometimes allows suffering to carry on.

And here’s why I think the balance is important: When suffering comes unexpectedly or contrary to prosperity theology it can overthrow a person’s faith. Suffering makes us better or it makes us bitter. A lot depends on whether we have a theology of suffering. And since so much theology is delivered in song, we need more songs to pay attention to prolonged, unrelenting, light-blocking, bone-crushing, soul-perplexing affliction. We need songs that help us to say with Job (and many a preacher), “though He slay me, yet I will still trust in Him” (). We need choruses that sing along with the psalmist, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (). We need some stanzas that teach us to say with Paul, “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” ().

When we lack this biblical view of suffering, we often lack what we need to persevere in the faith. Some turn away. They prove themselves to be those whose hearts are rocky ground, who “endure for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” ().

Our songs should help us not only trust God for suffering’s end, but also trust God for the suffering we’re in. God is good even while we hurt. God is good even if we only hurt. It would be helpful to have more songs that help us hold fast to God’s goodness when our pain is long-term, perhaps terminal, and deliverance might not come.

Somebody ought to take the good theology of John Newton’s hymn “I Asked the Lord” and do it the way we do it!

15 Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
yet I will argue my ways to his face. (ESV)

71 It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes. (ESV)

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (ESV)

21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Rease Wilson

    Brother T,
    Bro this article was spot on and was so encouraging. I long for the day where the gospel songs on the radio would actually convey the gospel, in the end they’re catering to what the listeners/consumer wants… for the most part at least. Brother I am officially moved into Southeastern’s student housing, your counsel was greatly appreciated by my wife and I’m looking forward to possibly talking when you come for the 9 marks event in September (if you have the the time of course), in fact I’m actually enrolled in a class taught in part by Jonathan Leeman. This class entails me (and other students) traveling to DC for the 9 marks weekender event mid September. I would love the chance to connect/chop it up when I get up there for that seeing as though I will be there for about 4 or 5 days… email me when you get a chance and we can see what happens. Thanks Pastor T lol, welcome back to the states.

    Maurice “Rease” Wilson

    • Thabiti

      Hey bro,

      Great to hear from you! Thanks for jumping up on the porch.

      I’d love to connect at Southeastern. Let’s definitely plan on it. I’m glad to hear you all have settled in pretty well and I trust the Lord has many good things in store for you as you serve Him there! Let’s catch up,

      T-

      • Rease Wilson

        Yeah I would love to connect when you get up here I just sent you a email on the “fbc.org.ky” address you gave me but it said it’s no longer active.

  • Vince

    Amen Brother T,

    I think God uses adversity MORE than anything else to chisel/mold us into Christlikeness! Ironically, I know first hand the effects of the belief that means that we will NOT suffer. Suffice to say, one’s ‘true colors’ are revealed during times of struggle.

    • Kent Barber

      Amen Bro!

  • Kent Barber

    Pastor T,

    Awesome post! Is anybody besides me tired of the self-centered, hyper-narcissistic brand of Westernized brand of Christianity? With the smallest adversity, I hear Christians here talk about how they’re being “attacked” or persecuted. Really? Let’s face it, we live in a cocoon. I’m reminded of our recently freed sister Miriam Ibrahim who was on death row and under the threat of beating in Sudan for her unwavering faith. What of the terrorist organization ISIS crucifying Christians in Syria? While here we’re more concerned with God “blessing” us to “prosper” (financially).
    We say we want to be like Christ, but want no parts of suffering. I agree with Dr. Eric Mason that God uses suffering to sanctify us. Moreover Jesus said that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (). I find it amazing that so many believers today shun the Lord’s counsel and even that of Paul’s (, ) in the area of suffering for the sake of the Kingdom.
    Yet I believe much of the focus on what “God can do for me” stems from a heart of selfishness and greed along with ignorance of God’s sovereignty which regulates the circumstances of His elect in the worse of life’s situations. We must remember He’s after my holiness and sanctification rather than my comfort, ease or pleasure.
    Therefore, let us emulate Moses who shunned the temporary riches of Egypt and preferred not only to suffer affliction with the people of God but actually counted his sufferings for Christ of more value (). Brothers and sisters, if we live for Him, we have a reward awaiting us that is eternally, infinitely more superior!

    Grace and Peace,
    Kent

    • http://writetheology.com Ian Turner

      <>
      Would this be the same as what some call MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism)? http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/deists-who-love-jesus-and-talk-like-freud/

      • Kent Barber

        Ian thanks so much for the great article, very enlightening. To answer your question, if today’s hyper-narcissistic brand of “Christianity” isn’t the same as MTD then he must be his twin brother. LOL! But on the serious tip, I thought Carter was on point. These outlandish purveyors of a perverted gospel even go so far as to say that by our (finite, impotent) words, one can “obligate” the Almighty to answer one’s prayers according to human will…follishness! Thanks again the dialogue….keep choppin it up brother. Grace and Peace, Kent

  • Derrick Johnson

    Amen! Spot on.

  • http://urbanresurgence.com David Robinson

    Thabiti, yes, there is a huge lack of balance in today’s “gospel” music. Honestly, I wish there was more gospel in it, which is why I have distanced myself from it. However, it seems that today’s popular “gospel” music is a reflection of the popular prosperity teaching that gets the limelight, which never addresses the suffering of the saints biblically.

    There’s a lack the full view of salvation (new heavens and new earth) and too much of a focus on the here and now and a blurred focus at that.

    Thank you for continuing to bring these issues to the surface in a wise way! Jenn and I are praying for your family’s work in DC.

    d.

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