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Where Are the Songs of Sadness?



Author: Dr. Ronald B. Allen
Worship Category: ,

Posted April 21, 2015 by

Adapted from Dr. Allen’s workshop at the 2014 National Worship Leader Conference entitled “…What about the Laments?” Find out how to join us in 2015 here.


emember the hymnals? You know, hymnals are those lovely books we used to use to sing from in our church services. If you can recall these books, hopefully you can also remember some of the diversity found within them. Themes range from adoration and praise to Christian living to the church year and beyond. As well, hymnals seemed to have a similar understanding of the human life in the way that they also included songs of sadness. Now, think about the new songs used in your church today. How many of them are songs of despair?

Likely none.

In the Book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture, more than one third of the 150 psalms are laments. This is an amazing fact. Our Western hymnals present what I call “Songs of Christian Triumphalism.” “Lead on O King Eternal” captures this spirit wonderfully. Christ is king, the gospel is spreading, peace is coming—“Joy to the World!” And our praise songs? They are wonderfully developed songs of trust and dependence—“Shout to the Lord.” These are expressions of joy and praise—well intentioned and powerful means of uniting the congregation in the worship of the Lord, for “Our God Is an Awesome God.”

Lost Treasure
But where are the laments? Where are the musical vehicles for the expression of pain, sorrow, loss, devastation?

Music in the public square has always had songs of sadness. From the melancholy of Rodolfo mourning Mimi in Verdi’s La Boheme to the plaintive chords of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” from the country singer whose girl is gone, dog is lost, and truck don’t run to sophisticated blues riffs in New Orleans, songs of sadness are a part of the musical world of real people.

But these sad songs seem to be lost among God’s people. The exception is the tradition of the Negro Spiritual where the experience of slavery shaped expressions of devotion to God: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / Nobody knows but Jesus.” Observe the sadness and confidence in these marvelous words!

Getting Real
The biblical psalms did not include songs of lament in order to make the worship of God a downer; they were a part of the singing of believers in ancient Israel because they gave expression to the sense of sadness and loss that are common to man. People of faith who trusted in the kindness and mercy of God were more sorrowful than others; they expected better and felt loss more deeply.

And so do we!

The laments in the Bible follow a rich pattern. These laments sprang from the lives of real people with real hurts in real time—and they were the faithful people of God. Not every song to God needs to be triumphant. Not every hymn sung to the Lord needs to be confident praise. Sometimes we need a song of sadness that is layered on a solid bedrock of trust—just like the psalms of lament.

One might say, the expression of pain in music is so “Old Testament.” But pain and loss and sorrow and hurt were not the experiences of people in olden days alone. We also hurt. We also suffer loss.

Range of Emotion
The same Apostle Paul that wrote so powerfully on rejoicing in the midst of trial (The Book of Philippians) also wrote plaintively of sadness, brokenness, and pain in Second Corinthians. Jesus not only laughed and encouraged hurting people; he also wept.

Songs of pain and sadness in the Bible were not intended to prolong the sadness. They were not self-pitying, tearfully sentimental, the maudlin rants of a broken drunk. They were designed as powerful tools to help people express sadness and to rebuild their confidence in Yahweh.

So, where are the songs of sadness in the Church today?

Ronald B. Allen, Th.D., is senior professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary. He also teaches and preaches in many contexts: academic, congregational and at conferences. The author of numerous books, including Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel, he was also a senior editor for The New King James Version, Old Testament, and was the Old Testament editor for both The Nelson Study Bible (aka The NKJV Study Bible) and The Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. His ongoing research interests are in the worship of God and in studies of the grace of God in Hebrew Scripture.

Adapted from Dr. Allen’s workshop at the 2014 National Worship Leader Conference entitled “…What about the Laments?” Find out how to join us in 2015 here.



    This is timely for me as I am currently writing my doctoral project on the need for every church to have rituals and songs of lament. There is such a rich biblical history of lament that we, as the over-blessed Western church, have an aversion for.
    We do like the occasional “Me, Myself and I” laments when things go hard for us but when it comes to communal or national lament (JR I suggest that you look at scripture again for these – like the book of Lamentations) the post-modern church, of which I am part, is sorely lacking.
    Our culture is a fake “happy happy joy joy” culture and so we sometimes think that in the church we must image that so people will come to our churches. This was brought home to me when asked the hypothetical question, “If our pastor and family were killed in a car wreck on Saturday, what would we sing on Sunday?” Traditionals would sing “It is Well” and “Amazing Grace.”
    What would post-moderns sing(and know the song we’re singing) that would allow us to express our anguish, questions, anger, and confusion while still stating that God is good, just as the lament Psalms do?


    I agree with Jen – there are many songwriters in the faith writing lament songs. They may not be songs in the corporate worship genre like JR mentioned but they are great for settings like coffee houses or to work in a musical like Patty would like to do. I’m delighted to see the songs of sadness given a thumbs up by a leading intelligent voice within the Christian Community. Hopefully this teaching by Dr. Allen will help bring a needed change within the walls of the church – or at least create a discussion about it. More discussion can overcome the misunderstanding that to be a victorious Christian one must keep his confession positive or to please God with your faith you must only speak words of faith. (If you haven’t spent time in a charismatic church driven by the prosperity gospel you may not know what I’m talking about.) There may not be a time within corporate worship setting to sing a sad song, but if at least we are free to express our feelings honestly in times of sadness it’s a start.


      As I had written a song of sadness and sorrow based on Scripture, I was curious if there were any in the Bible, so I did a Google search and found your article and book on the subject.
      I have a line in one of my songs that reads: “Sing of sadness, sing of sorrow, for it too is real with the joy that you feel!”

      Here is another one I wrote:

      (Lyrics below….and you can hear it here):

      I also invite you to visit my In Concert page on my website.

      I have written two documentaries on the history of hymns and sacred carols which accompany my Sacred Hymns for Classical Guitar and Sacred Carols for Classical Guitar CDs.


      James Sundquist

      (A tribute to everyone that has experienced despairing unto death)

      Text and Music by James Sundquist

      ©1979 ROCK SALT MUSIC, (Now Eagle Masterworks Productions) BMI

      Based on Scriptures of “despairing unto death”…the greatest depression one can suffer…, this song is a song of hope, encouragement, and consolation to all saints. I wrote this song on the piano to dissuade a woman who was seriously contemplating suicide. Job, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ all experienced desolation of the soul! I should say that our worth is not due to any merit of our own, but our inherit worth is because of Christ’s own infinite imputed worth. On a similar theme, I wrote in another song entitled: Shopping Bag Lady, these lyrics: “We are all refugees on the earth, only the Lord is refuge and our worth.”

      Here are scriptural themes for this song:

      “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life:” 2 Corinthians 1:8

      “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Isaiah 53:3 Prophecy of Jesus Christ

      Time doesn’t mean a thing when you’re crying inside

      I know it hurts now

      And all that happened makes no sense

      When you’re sitting on the fence

      Try not to think too often,

      Try not to think too often of the pain

      Try not to be ashamed of what has been done to you

      By the storm and the rain









      He has been there, two thousand years ago

      He is acquainted with your grief and your sorrow, and your sorrow

      And your sorrow










    Songs like “Blessed Be Your Name” (Matt Redman) and “Desert Song” (Brooke Fraser) would be examples of modern songs that explore something other than “triumphalism.”

    I think saying that more than one third are laments is misleading. Most of the “Psalms of lament” almost always end with a statement of trust in God, that there will be vindication, etc, and often they end in a way that could be considered “triumphal.”

    Just as a sample, I surveyed the first 50 Psalms – I can only find three Psalm 38, 39, 44 that would qualify as a Psalm that is truly expressing sorrow from start to finish.

    One could also say, “where are all the vengeance songs in worship today?” (ie. Psalm 58)

    Just because something is in scripture, or even was used in worship in the past, doesn’t mean it is necessarily appropriate for today. The question of whether it is so “Old Testament” I think is a vital one. The early Christians were persecuted and murdered. Have their Psalms of lament been recorded? In Acts 5:41 we find them “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffering shame for His name.” The writer speaks of 2 Corinthians plaintiveness, but how about Col. 1:24 “I rejoice in my sufferings” ? 1 Pet. 4:13? We have the resurrection to remind us of the temporary nature of our suffering on earth (Heb. 12:2-3)

    In corporate worship, one looks for common denominators, things that the majority are experiencing/can agree with. Since we can Biblically “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18) that is obviously the easiest. You very seldom have situations where the entire group is in mourning (which is the subject of the communal laments—the entire nation of Israel was in mourning due to losing the promised land, being under God’s judgment). Events like 9/11 might be an exception.

    Subjects for mourning are usually personal and unique. On the other hand, subjects for praise, statements of faith, etc, are true regardless of personal circumstance, and as such can be sung both by the person mourning and the person who is joyful (as long as they aren’t idiotic like the old song “Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy are the people whose God is the Lord… where does this happy feeling come from? Jesus!”

    While we ARE to mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15) it makes more sense for us to mourn with those who mourn when considering what they are mourning about. (ie. at a funeral, while taking them out to coffee, or upon meeting them in the foyer, etc)

    Lest someone think I’m just out of touch with those who are sad, let me share my story. In the last five years I’ve lost both my parents to cancer. I’ve had moments of intense grief. Do I want to sing songs of lament at church? No. I want to sing songs of firm faith regardless of what happens (like Blessed Be Your Name, Desert Song, I Will Rise, In Christ Alone (My Hope is Found), etc.)

    I don’t want songs that are idiotic and claim we’re all happy all the time, but if a song expresses the truth that Jesus is with us, that God reigns, that God is our healer, etc, I am there singing it (sometimes with tears rolling down my cheeks) because I believe it!


    Thanks for writing this article! It caught my attention immediately. I am a songwriter who began writing music out of a place of deep despair and disillusionment. I prayed to God, asking him to give me a song which would honor him and glorify Him, and live eternally. He responded a few days later with a beautiful piece, I called Tranquility. Then, God continued to shower me with over 200 songs!

    One particular song, “Heal My Broken Heart, has hit a nerve with my listeners and has become one of my most downloaded songs.

    It expresses the confusion that a painful experience leaves us in, especially those of us who believe in God’s good nature, and ends like many of the Psalms with a commitment to hold on to the truths God has revealed about Himself.

    I’d like to share this song with you:

    If I ever get to write a Christian musical, I was thinking of possibly using this song as a lament by Mary, the mother of Jesus, after the crucifixion, and before the resurrection.

    I’m looking forward to your comments,
    God bless you,
    Patty Felker

    P.S. The talented singer in the recording is Tammy Michal.


    Also…Jesus was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Isaiah 53:3 we shouldn’t shy away from this area in our music ministries. I think there are many of us out there who understand this need and do write and sing to this.


    I am here, and writing these kinds of songs! 🙂

    I couldn’t agree more as a singer/songwriter and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. Real people in the church need real music that walks alongside them in their trials and says, “you are not alone” and “there is hope!” Raising the level of awareness in the church is difficult. Seems to be limited to support groups within the church.

    I did a concert once and a lady who wanted to bring me to her church said she liked my music, but could I just sing happier songs instead? The opportunity was missed. She didn’t hear the message or understand the importance of it in the lyrics. I hear others say people like me serve a niche for those who really have it bad. But did Paul or David just serve a niche? Pain is not impervious to a single one of us. Hope the church becomes more open to worship and music that acknowledges and comforts those who are hurting. Thank you for this article and trying to raise the level of awareness.

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