What Do You Do When You are Too Sad to Sing?
Wait for the sadness to pass? Put on a stiff upper lip and grind it out? Give up on the kindness, wisdom, sovereignty, and goodness of God? Or something else? Yep, something else. :)
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An Awkward Moment
The opening of a worship service can be an awkward moment. As the leader up front, I want to be upbeat and positive, but as Ruth Graham has taught us, a broken heart sits on every pew. If we are honest, we’d probably confess that everyone in every pew is (even if well-dressed and smiling) to some degree, bruised, broken, discouraged, disillusioned, weary, and worn-out.
Years ago, I remember a preacher open his sermon with the greeting, “How’s everybody doing? Good? Alright, let’s dig in.” He absolutely did not mean to alienate the brokenhearted, the wounded, sick, and sore. His message was grace-filled and overflowing with the redemptive love of Jesus. I think the intro was just a way to break the ice.
But the greeting struck me as out of touch. Do we really think everybody is “doing good?" When I walk into the worship facility on Sunday mornings, I am often filled with anxiety and concerns, whether related to the church or my personal life. My guess is that you are, too.
A Shattered Dream
I remember one Sunday in particular. My wife and I had lost our third child at twenty weeks into her pregnancy. That week, Thomas was delivered stillborn. I'm grateful we were able to hold him and tell him how precious he was to us, that we would miss him terribly and longed to see him one day in the presence of Jesus. Our hearts felt more than broken. Shattered comes closer to expressing the emotion.
I was an assistant pastor at the time and was given the following Sunday off from official church responsibilities. When Kristy and I woke that morning, we didn't want to go to the service. We discussed staying home but knew that the times we feel most resistant to worship are probably when we need it the most.
We pulled into the parking lot, got out with our two living children, and entered the sanctuary. The congregation was incredibly kind and supportive. They put hands on our shoulders but didn't smother us. The space to lament was a genuine gift.
Then the music began and everyone stood to sing. I tried, but the words wouldn’t come. I was empty and felt distant, withdrawn into my grief. I wanted to cry, but having wept so much the previous week, I didn't know if I had any tears left.
I was too sad to sing. Thankfully, that was okay with Jesus.
What we needed was just to be present and listen to the lyrics of grace encircle us. Sustaining our sadness with songs of hope and healing. The voices of God's people became a balm that my family could just receive. As grace.
That is what worship is. Not a time for us to impress God with our religion but to bring to him our pain and tears. We are not called to be strong. He is strong for us. We are not expected to perform but to look unto the man of sorrows whose kindness and compassion burns bright for the broken and wounded.
When Jesus' friend Lazarus died, leaving two sisters whom Jesus loved as well, Jesus did not theologize the moment. He wept. In the wake of a national disaster, the prophet Jeremiah reflected that the Lord's unfailing and unending compassion is new every morning. If there is a quality that is highlighted in the New Testament Gospels concerning the heart of Jesus toward the bruised and broken, grieving and sad, it is compassion.
Matthew 9:35-36 — 35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Matthew 14:14 — When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Matthew 20:29-34 — As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” 34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
The apostle Paul draws our attention to the compassion of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 1, exclaiming "3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
The apostle James agrees in his letter, writing in 5:11, "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy."
And in one of his most well-known and most beloved parables, Jesus teaches us about the heart of God toward sinners and sufferers, saying, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)
That is the heart of the Father for you in your sadness. He looks for you and is filled with compassion, even in our rags of unrighteousness. He runs to us, hugs us, kisses us, and clothes us in the robe of Jesus’ righteousness. It is no wonder that Jesus said in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
“Look on Me and Answer”
So, what do you do when you are too sad to sing? Wait for the sadness to pass? Put on a stiff upper lip and grind it out? Give up on kindness, wisdom, sovereignty, and goodness of God?
King David of Israel would understand if any of those options sound sensible. I don't know what the presenting crisis was that caused him to lose heart and consider giving up, but it was intense. He felt like he might die. Whether literally or figuratively, I don't know. But he was at his emotional rock bottom.
If you are at that low place or know someone who is, I think David's vulnerability and honesty in Psalm 13 might help. In the first verses, we are gripped by his despair. Maybe you can relate.
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
With his remaining breath, in his weakness, and maybe with a whisper, he utters,
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
"Look on me and answer." What a profound and powerful prayer. Sometimes we think our prayers need to use the right words, matching some formula as if to magically access the intervention of God on our behalf. Is that how a toddler approaches his Daddy? Not at all. He just comes. It is the same way for us as children of our Abba.
“Look on me and answer.”
By the way, I don't think David is making demands. He is turning his heart to the heart of the Lord, asking for God's mercy to extend just one more day. And we would tell David, "Of course, his mercy will extend one more day. It extends day to day into eternity. It is limitless. His compassion never fails!" For we see Jesus looking upon the helpless and harassed, the weak, and wounded, sick, and sore, the broken in sin and suffering under the fall. And what does he do? He looks and weeps and heals.
He can't help it. Compassion is who he is.
If you doubt this, look to the very epicenter of where compassion has been most perfectly displayed. It was from cross-beams that Jesus looked upon us with compassion for our sin so that we might now look upon him with confidence in his love. Oh, he cares so much and his affection is so immense, that he would suffer the curse of our sin by enduring the furnace of judgment to rescue us from the pit of hell.
That act of ultimate love is what the sacrifices of the Old Testament foreshadowed. David knew that, which is why he could speak the final words of Psalm 13.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
I'm not sure how quickly the song returned. However much time it took, even in the midst of ongoing suffering, he was able to come to a place where his confidence in the Lord's objective goodness was restored. David might or might not be saved from this particular affliction (we don't know), be he was saved from his greatest affliction (this we do know). Somehow, meditating on that mercy was enough to renew his heart and, eventually, restore his song.
Until you are able to sing again, let others sing the gospel over you as a balm of grace in your sadness. It is okay to be sad. It’s okay not to sing. For even as the Spirit prays for us when we can’t pray, the Lord himself sings for you when you can’t. And what a glorious song it is!
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zeph. 3:17)
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