Singing the Blues in Faith
BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church
I love blues music. I think I first discovered it through its influence on the great rock and roll singers and bands that I loved as a teenager, like Eric Clapton, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Allman Brothers Band. Later, I graduated to more blues-oriented style as I became a passionate fan of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan, and now my current favorite is Davy Knowles. That form of rollicking electric blues is still my favorite, but I also enjoy listening to the earlier pioneers of blues music like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.
Blues music developed largely out of the African-American community of the late 1800’s that had endured the sufferings and indignities of slavery. The music is known for its shuffling rhythms and melancholy sound, which is produced by adding “bent” or flattened notes to produce darker sounding chords. Its lyrics are usually simplistic laments sung in a call-and-response style about life gone wrong or angry rants against those who have done the singer wrong. Here’s an example from a song by Ray Charles called “Hard Times”: “My mother told me / 'Fore she passed away / Said son when I'm gone / Don't forget to pray / 'Cause there'll be hard times / Those hard times / Who knows better than I? / Well I soon found out / Just what she meant / When I had to pawn my clothes / Just to pay the rent / Talkin' 'bout hard times / Those hard times / Who knows better than I?” There’s never been a musical style better fitted to address the darker side of life.
I used to be a little ashamed of my love for blues music. I thought, “Aren’t all mature, Spirit-filled followers of Christ supposed to smiling and cheerful in all circumstances? Isn’t that why, according to the old hymn, we ‘trust and obey’, so that we can always ‘be happy in Jesus’?” But the more I studied God’s Word, the more I came to understand that real wisdom and spiritual maturity are found in honestly affirming the hard times in life, not in denying them. Yes, Jesus is our Redeemer, He is risen from the dead, He is Lord, and we are heirs together with Him for all eternity. But we are still sinners, living among other sinners, on a planet crippled by the curse of God upon our sin, and we constantly long for something far better.
Authentic Christianity is well summarized by the phrase, “Life is hard, but God is good.” My life is overflowing with undeserved blessings, including my wife and kids, my career, my possessions, my health, and on and on. But I also look in the mirror every morning and am reminded that I fall far short of God’s glory, and I’m again disappointed that I’m not nearly the husband, father, or pastor that I once dreamed I’d be. My body is breaking down slowly. Thorns and thistles, dirt, decay, and rust continually threaten to take over and destroy everything I own. I experience as many conflicts in relationships as kindnesses. For every spiritual victory I celebrate I face eight or ten spiritual defeats. On my best days, it’s three steps forward, two steps back. My redemption and deliverance are certain in Christ, but they are far from complete, and there are many dangerous and painful miles to go between here and there.
If we look to the Psalms for a picture of spiritual health, we will find a wonderful balance of joyous elation and praise alongside of honest expressions of doubt and lament, sometimes all in the same Psalm. In Psalm 13, David begins with this lament: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will You hide your face from me? How long must I…have sorrow in my heart all the day?” But by the end, he speaks of the confidence that the Lord will lift him out of his pit of despair: “…my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.” The range of expressions of human emotion in the Psalms, from deep anguish to unbridled happiness , puts to shame any man-made hymnal or book of choruses.
There are many whole books of the Bible that should come with a blues soundtrack. Solomon cries out in Ecclesiastes 2:11, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after the wind.” He later says in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
The Word of God teaches us that the life of a wise and mature believer in Christ will be characterized by consistent joy, but joy isn’t always, or even most often, exhibited in exuberant happiness. It is even more powerfully exhibited in the undeniable peace and strength of one who sorrows over the death of a loved one, or the pain of disease, or the unjust treatment by an opponent while clinging to Christ in faith. When I’m facing the hard realities of my life and I listen to the blues music that affirms the immensity of my struggles, I often experience a soothing and reassuring inner embrace from the Spirit of One who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses…one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).
Of course, it wouldn’t be healthy for me to only listen to music that affirms the hardness of my life as a sinner in a fallen world. I need both minor and major keys in my music, to balance my diet of “mopey music” about the hardness of life with powerful musical affirmations of the goodness of God.
Paul says, “…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23). So we both groan and wait eagerly in faith. When I face and embrace the pain of conviction and the shame of confession, I find the relief and joy of forgiveness and reconciliation. Honest reflections upon the effects of sin and suffering must always resolve in a cry of faith and hope: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:11).