Reformed Baptist Fellowship

“What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl R. Trueman

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 30, 2009 at 12:20 pm

“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?

I 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.

  1. A compelling observation in light of the battle that ensues daily for souls. I would think that a devil roaming about like a lion seeking whom to destroy would be sobering in the least, but sadly it seems to not be the case for many.

    The weeds of sin in the form of postmodernism and worldliness are always seeking to take root where they can.

    The words of a faithful pastor come to mind, “Fluff won’t cut it.”

  2. I know of a Church that sings the psalms all the time…

  3. The singing of Psalms can be a very edifying aspect of worship. Like the rest of God’s Word, the efficacy of the Psalms in dealing with our soul should not be overlooked when compared to the compositions and writings of men.

  4. Good point made by Dr. Trueman. I would add, What about “imprecatory” hymns and worship songs? I’ve noted that even some Psalters rephrase imprecatory language in order to soften the tone. In my mind, our hymnody (whether traditional or contemporary) ought to strive to address the whole counsel of God and make room for all appropriate moods of worship, including lamentation, confession, and even imprecation.

    Bob G.

  5. Hi Bob,

    Not that this observation could be answered “across the board”, but I think it is important to mention. Maybe because of this it is not the best question to float out there…but I will give it a whirl.

    What was the motivation to soften the tone of imprecatory language in the Psalters you have noted? Why were they deemed to “hard” or maybe “serious?” I know these things can be conjectured at best, but I am keenly interested in what motivates the heart to action.

    The questions I often churn over in my own heart when there may be a change in course (however minor) it might be is, “Why is there a necessity to change” and “Is the motivation biblically rooted/informed?”


  6. Christian,

    The Psalter I had in view was that published in 1912 by the United Presbyterian Church (revised in 1947). That Psalter either tones down or excludes imprecatory language. It’s difficult to answer questions of motivation when you can’t question the editors of the Psalter who are now deceased. Perhaps they were influenced by some of the (erroneous) perspectives represented below:

    Halley’s Bible Handbook states without apology that these psalms “are not God’s pronouncements of His wrath on the wicked; but are the prayers of a man for vengeance on his enemies, just the opposite of Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies” Halley justifies this apparent contradiction by saying that “in Old Testament times God, in measure, for expedience’ sake, accommodated Himself to Men’s Ideas. In New Testament times God began to deal with men according to His Own Ideas (191).

    Commenting on psalm 35, one of the authors of The Pulpit Commentary says, “So with this and other imprecatory psalms, they give us, not God’s precept, but man’s defective prayers” (270).

    According to C. I. Scofield, the imprecatory prayers are a “cry unsuited for the Church” (Scofield Reference Bible, p. 599).

    The commentator Peter Craigie thinks the imprecatory psalms are “the real and natural reactions to the experience of evil and pain, and though the sentiments are evil, they are a part of the life of the soul which is bared before God in worship and prayer.” Craigie then draws a contrast: “The psalmist may hate his oppressor; God hates the oppression. Thus the words of the psalmist are often natural and spontaneous, not always pure and good.” Accordingly, “These psalms are not the oracles of God.” Psalms 1-50, 41.

    Finally, in his Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis tops them all when he writes of the imprecatory prayers, “They are indeed devilish” (25).

    In a word, some Christians believe it inappropriate and unbiblical for the Christian to pray let alone sing imprecations. I don’t doubt that their rejection of imprecatory language was motivated by a desire to follow Christ’s command to “love your enemy.” But in my opinion the authors I cite above are not operating with a proper theology of imprecations and are, therefore, mistaken. For that reason, I prefer the Trinity Psalter (a joint publication of the PCA and RPCNA in 1994), which does a better job of retaining the language of the original and, as a result, reflects the imprecations.

    Bob G.

  7. While not condoning any of the obviously erroneous comments above, I could certainly understand a Christian’s hesitation in singing imprecatory psalms.
    Our union with Christ is a precious and a glorious thing. And by it we learn to sing a new song (Isa 42:10ff) and hate what he hates (Rev 2:15). I have marveled often at Moses breaking into song as a response to the carnage at the Red Sea (Ex 15) But even a mature believer with a well developed biblical theology of justice must admit he feels a bit of tension in the directives of Micah 6:8.
    If it’s our propensity to uphold justice a la Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, then a bit of hesitation is probably in order. And an emphasis on the Creator/creature distinction as it informs our sense of what, indeed, is just would also seem to be a helpful thing, if it sows the seeds of humility that demonstrate that we truly are Christ’s own.
    As we mourn and despise the damage that sin inflicts, whether it breaks out in our own lives or the lives of others, and wrestle with passages like Jas. 2:8-13, let us confess that, in the weakness of our flesh, our notions of justice are suspect. And the more time spent at the foot of the cross, meditating on the exactness of God’s justice, the more those suspicions will be confirmed…

  8. Its such a blessing when men (I assume) like “debtortograce” write on here. Thank you for your contributions. Please continue to do so.

  9. Excellent thoughts. I think this article perceptively brings up a point that is often disregarded in today’s average evangelical church.

  10. I came across “Sons of Korah” that may fit the bill:

  11. Brandon, thanks for sharing that! That was beautiful!!

    Although I was hoping to hear how they’d interpret v.8 😉

  12. […] leaves one with the impression that many modern hymns barely scratch the surface.  Carl Trueman has an excellent essay about why God’s people should sing Psalms (although I reject his exclusive Psalmody).  If we […]

  13. […] “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” by Carl Trueman.  […]

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