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

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