Country Singers and Psalmists Sing Sad Songs

Written by William H. Smith Monday, 20 February 2012

Here is where sad songs come it, particularly country ones. They tell you that your misery has company and is understood: “Once upon a time there was tomorrow, but that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.”

The news on depression is somewhat depressing. The popular story, and the one you are still most likely to hear from your family practitioner or internist, is that depression is linked to the levels of serotonin in the brain and that the antidepressant medications address the problem. Not true.

While there may be some relationship between serotonin and depression, the link is not direct. Studies have shown that you can deplete a non-depressed person’s serotonin, and he will not become depressed. Add that to previous news that there is not much difference in the effectiveness of the meds over a placebo.

It’s somewhat confusing, discouraging, and frustrating to the depressed and to those who must deal with the depressed. At least some aspects of it, particularly its expressions, are perceived by patients and those around them as moral failure no matter how much they may have been told it is a medical condition. But we seem also instinctively to know that the problem cannot be wholly moral.

What is depression? Is it sin, soma, psyche? Is it temperamental or environmental in origin? It is self-pity or un-chosen suffering? Do you treat it with talk or a tablet? Do you rebuke the depressed, direct them to buck up, or give them empathy? Do you medicate, analyze, or fix cognition and behavior? These things are not mutually exclusive, but it is hard to avoid having to choose what is primary.

Depressed persons usually feel alone in two senses: (1) They feel alone in their experience, since most people around them seem somewhere between “normal” and quite happy. “Why am I so down? Why do I have to grind it out? Why do I not perceive and respond to life as others do?” (2) They feel not so much mis-understood as un-understood. “Does anyone know what I am experiencing and care? They seem to think I could choose to be like they.”

Here is where sad songs come it, particularly country ones. They tell you that your misery has company and is understood: “Once upon a time there was tomorrow, but that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone.” “I’m so happy that I can’t stop cryin’.” “On a good day I become the kind of man even I can barely tolerate, but as you can plainly see, I’m not havin’ a good day.” “Losin’ wouldn’t be so bad at all, but I’m always on a mountain when I fall.” Those are few lines that come readily to mind, which may tell you more that I want you to, or you want to, know. But there are lines in sad songs that can actually encourage a depressed person by reminding him/her that he/she is not alone. You can’t articulate such experiences in songs unless you have had them. People who write the sad songs have been sad and know what it is like.

But, of course, as Christians, we need something more than Jones and Haggard. We need something from God to say to God.

Depressed Christians don’t feel like singing, “Visions of rapture now burst on my sight.” (Truth is, I don’t feel like singing that when I am deliriously happy.) Nor, “Floods of joy o’er my soul like the sea billows roll since Jesus came into my heart.” Nor, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart.” (When you sing that to me, I wish you’d go sit on a tack.)

Sometimes, and more often than we are given, there needs to be the opportunity to express what we really are feeling. That’s where the Psalms come in: “Turn to and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (25:16). “My heart is in anguish within me and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (55: 4,5). “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled I cannot speak…Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? (77: 4,7). Sometimes we need to sing the whole 88th which is dark throughout and concludes, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (or, according to the marginal reading, “darkness has become my only companion”).

Of course, there is much more, including joy (though not of the sort sung about in the paragraph preceding the previous one). Calvin rightly said that in the Psalms we find an anatomy of the whole of the believer’s soul. But, there’s not a little of the expression of the soul’s sadness in the Psalms. As Carl Trueman observes: “…a high proportion of the Psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken” (What Can Miserable Christians Sing? in The Wages of Spin.)

One of the ways to mitigate that suffering is for the church not to ignore or deny it, but to let us sing the sad songs. They tell us we are not alone – the Psalmists have been there. They tell us we are not un-understood – the Psalmists understand and, even more important, so does the God who inspired them so to express the sadness of their souls.

The church might minister at least as much to depressed folks by singing Scripture’s sad songs as by putting counselors on their staffs.

Bill Smith is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Jackson, MS. This article first appeared at his blog, The Christian Curmudgeon, and is used with his permission.

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Tony Locke

Live in Gwinnett, GA next to Lake Lanier Islands. Married with four children. Pastored three churches over 18 years. Spent time serving as an Army Chaplain. Traveled in ministry to over 34 countries. B.A., M.A., M.Div., M.A.T.S., D.Min. BCC with NSC. Covering Georgia and upstate South Carolina

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