“Guess there are times when we all
need to share a little pain
And ironing out the rough spots
Is the hardest part when memories remain
And it's times like these when we all need to hear the radio
'Cause from the lips of some old singer
We can share the troubles we already know” Sad Songs, Elton John
Let us pause whether enjoying life’s pleasures, or sufferings its sorrows and consider one of those little pleasures which comes amidst are many tears; sad songs. We all know them; we all have our own favorites. Some of them sound much happier than are, contrasting their appearance with their contents. Some sound even sadder than they really are, giving vent to every ounce of hurt and then some, even if their stories aren’t sad enough to warrant it. Some have a tinge of sweetness with the bitter tears, others season the sadness with defiance. Whatever the flavoring Sir Elton John is right about one thing, “Sad songs say so much.”
They speak of another situation likes ours, heart to heart. Making us feel we are not so alone, while giving us an expression for the difficult things we feel and sense. The songs seem to understand us, and that is comforting in some way. The songs you know always come back the same as they were when last you called on them. You push play and there they are to say exactly what you remember them saying. It is safe, and reliable in way other comforts never can be. And it is all very good and well, isn’t it? We have an outlet to vent our feelings, help to say what we might otherwise struggle to say. We have a reminder that someone else has felt the way we feel. That is good. Sad songs really o say so much.
Ah, but isn’t it a guilty pleasure? After-all, we are meant to be positive and upbeat. Christian radio has done a lot of harm in spreading the myth that Christian music is identified by its positivity. Psalm 88 a number from God’s own inspired hymnbook would certainly not play on contemporary Christian radio, and neither would a good portion of Lamentations, nor many of the cherished hymns of Church history. There is nothing wrong with a song being sad, sadness is part of life in this fallen world. Christians should feel free to express their many sorrows through those sad songs which say so much…
And then they must go on to say a little something more. Christian music is characterized not by its upbeat stylings, or its sheer positivity; but by its truthfulness Colossians 3:17. The trouble with so many of our favorite sad songs, secular or Christian, is not that say so much, but that they do not say enough. They leave us with the same basic problem, all hope is gone.
And the real danger of sad songs, and films, and games, and books, and all the sad stories in whatever media they are conveyed is that we will start to believe them. The danger is that we will start believing in them, and identifying with them. That is to say we start incorporating them into our identities. “I am the one they’re singing about,” and everything around me is interpreted by the lens of this new identity. Through subtle means we move from expression ourselves through the song, to finding ourselves expressed by the song. And when this happens, we become trapped in the world of the song. That is almost always a world we do not want to live in. Why?
Look though the list of sad songs and you will see that many of them are left in sadness, with perhaps the vague hope that it shall pass, or worse that we will accept it. If an answer is offered, it is never a good answer. “Suicide is painless, and brings on many changes,” says one songster; but in fact, suicide is extremely painful to a whole host of people, and doesn’t change anything for the better. That is a rather extreme example, but the pattern holds true something critical is missing in all that sad songs say. Unless they something about…
God, the ultimate truths that finally puts all of our sorrows in right perspective. God is the ultimate arbiter of truth, the definitive reality; when He truly enters a song that song must conform to His truth, the truth. Psalm 42 beautifully illustrates our point; the psalmist feels much and he has much to say about these sad feelings; but God is there and so His feeling must answer to facts. In this the psalmist see the way out of sorrow, he sees hope though he feels hopeless. Psalm 42 is not a prison of perpetual empathy, an echo-chamber of melancholy; a purposeful expression that leads to something more. Even Psalm 88, one of the grimmest and darkest expression of misery I know of in the psalms, finds God and so finds some glimmer of hope.
With these songs we can identify because they are truthful, full of the full truth. We can identify with them truly, and run little risk of living a lie. These sad songs say so much more then their godless counterparts, and this is very good. So, what do we do with those lesser songs of sadness that simply don’t say enough?
Well, we need to think carefully about them. We need understand that they do not express the fullness of our reality, and so we cannot rightly identify with them beyond a partial sentiment. If we find ourselves resonating more deeply with the godless sad songs, they need to go for own good. Otherwise, we are like poisoned men who drink more poison in hopes of being relieved. Get rid of them, and find some songs that speak to your feelings of sorrow, and then speak to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I know it is tempting to think we have got this together, and can listen with impunity to whatever we want; maybe we can come up with some good reasons to keep on with our listening habits. Let remember though that we are very good at deceiving ourselves. Take care that you do not justify yourself back into the ditch you are trying to get out of.
Without God we end up in a self-perpetuating feedback loop of, at best, in complete truth: and at worst outright lies. Even if the song claims to have God in it, it may only have some rip-off god that is too small and feeble to affect anything. God is so big and powerful He cannot help but affect everything, and our playlist should reflect this. Sad songs have a place, a limited place. They need to make room for happy songs which say just as much as the sad songs. More than happy songs we must have joyful songs. Happiness has to do with what is happening, but joy is the results of being in-touch with reality: the glorious reality of a good God.
I am well aware that this step will put us out of step with the world around us. Good! We ought to be out of step with them, and especially in this area. Listen to their music, it is overflowing with sad songs, and so to is our Christian music. We are in danger of sounding just like them, of having all the same problems without any more answer than they have. This is not right! We have Christ and Him crucified! We have the ultimate answer to humanity’s problems! We have reason to sing joyful song, and to do so truthfully. In a world where sad songs are saying so much, the songs of believers in Christ ought to be saying a whole lot more.