While we’re still in this season of COVID-19, it’s worth asking the question: what will suffering saints sing? When we are once again able to gather on a Sunday morning after COVID-19 has passed, and our members who have lost money, or even loved ones, due to this pandemic, return, what will we ask them to sing in our services? For those of us who are pastors, it would be wise to start planning ahead.
Will they be best served by happy-clappy songs?
What Should Suffering Saints Sing?
The repertoire of church songs sung across our beloved continent tend to be happy and exuberant. This is not all bad. However, for the single mom of 3 whose catering business tanked because of cancelled events or the child who watched their parent slowly succumb to the virus’ hand of death, will they be best served by happy-clappy songs? Will they be able to sing like David; “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief”? (Psalm 6:6-7a).
What will suffering saints sing when they go back to church? The Christian Church is not short of options for songs to sing. A discerning pastor or worship leader in Africa needs to wade through the available songs and group them according to the following four broad categories.
1. Scary Songs
These are the songs that, simply put, lie about God. They mislead congregants regarding God’s plans and mysterious ways. Typically, they are songs that minimise or completely erase pain and suffering. In churches across Africa saints sing lyrics such as, “Me I no go suffer” (Pidgin English for “I will not suffer”). However:
- The Bible says, in no uncertain terms, that we will suffer (Romans 5:3, 8:17-18, 1 Corinthians 12:26, Philippians 1:29, 1 Peter 4:12-19, Revelation 2:10).
- In view of all the terrible things COVID-19 has brought, many of us have actually already suffered. Others are suffering still. Pain and suffering is not a figment of our imagination. It is real. How then do we expect the suffering saint to sing, “me I no go suffer”?
- Lyrics that say ‘you will not surely suffer’ sound eerily similar to Satan in Eden. For he promised Eve, “you will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). This is, and was, a convenient addition to God’s Word, making it a flesh-appealing lie. To believe this would be to fall into Satan’s trap.
Pain and suffering is not a figment of our imagination. It is real. How then do we expect the suffering saint to sing, ‘me I no go suffer’?
This is what ultimately makes these songs scary. They lie to us about God. They leave us vulnerable to the whims and wiles of the father of lies.
False Doctrine; False Worship
Africa has been racked by the prosperity gospel and unsurprisingly, it comes out in our songs. There is a correlation we cannot ignore. If you hold to the prosperity gospel, you can’t have a theology of suffering, much less songs of lament. False doctrine leads to false worship because church music is simply theology set to song. If you want to know what a people truly believe: listen to what they sing. It doesn’t matter how great the preaching is, if the songs are laced with bad, satanic theology, that is what people will believe. For songs are the sermons people remember.
if the songs are laced with bad, satanic theology, that is what people will believe. For songs are the sermons people remember
2. Senseless Songs
These are songs that sound really good or are typically very sincere and well-meaning. Yet they lack cogent content. They tend to be repetitive phrases that sound more like mantras than psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). In my home country, Kenya, we can sing vowels “to the glory of God” and call it praise. Kenyans, who are fantastic singers, are accustomed to singing and hearing, “Aaaa, Eeee” for several bars within a song. But God desires that his saints love and sing to Him in worship with all our minds (Luke 10:27). These songs, well-meaning as they may be, gut our ability to do so.
3. Shallow Songs
While these songs do not lie about God, they don’t tell enough truth about Him. While they contain cogent content, they don’t plumb the depths. They do not explore the bedrock truths that suffering saints need to hear in church. These songs resemble icing on a cake, sweet and sentimental, but far from nourishing. In time, if that’s all one consumes, then they will make you spiritually sick. Songs that say, “It is You, it is You, Lord” (Ni wewe, ni wewe Bwana) repeated ad nauseam, are not evil or senseless. They just need to say more.
These songs resemble icing on a cake, sweet and sentimental, but far from nourishing. In time, if that’s all one consumes, then they will make you spiritually sick
Who is this King of glory? What makes Him Lord? How is He Lord in and over my suffering? Is He worth following? These are questions that the suffering saints carry in their hearts – questions that their souls desperately need answers to. God mercifully gives us those answers in His Word. Hopefully, this should force us to consider a new category of songs that suffering saints, and indeed all saints, must sing.
4. Scriptural Songs
These are biblically saturated, theologically rich songs. They can be sung both on a Sunday morning when all is well and at funerals, when all is not. And yes, Africans used to, and still do, write songs and hymns like this all the time. Songs like “Tukutendereza Yesu“, a great Luganda hymn from the East African revival that explains our hope in the Gospel. Or “Bwana ni Mchungaji wangu“, an African rendering of Psalm 23. This is the kind of spiritual salve a suffering saint needs. Others like “Vumilia roho yangu” that are a call to persevere in suffering.
These are biblically saturated, theologically rich songs. They can be sung both on a Sunday morning when all is well and at funerals
Aiding Confession and Lamentation
Along with these, it is important to remember that suffering saints are still sinners and need to confess their sin. Often this sin includes unbelief in times of trial. Songs such as “Nisamehe dhambi zangu“, a song of confession of sin, are needed amongst suffering saints. We need to bring back our practise of including songs and prayers of confession as an integral part of our church services in the light of 1 John 1:8-9.
I could go on, but suffice to say, there are many older and more modern African songs that are biblically rich and full of rock-solid theology. Suffering saints need to sing and hear these songs. It is these songs that will help the saint lament. It is these songs that will help us lift our broken hearts to the God who, in Christ, is for us and is working all things, including our pain and grief, for our good (Romans 8:28).
Finding True Joy
Often African Christians will say that God wants us to learn about joy, especially joy in His presence. However, I fear we may have mistaken happiness for joy. True joy is not mere happiness. Happiness is good, but transient, while joy is something we can have in our deepest pain. Consider Paul’s repeated rejoicing in Philippians, though he was imprisoned at the time. This is because joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of Christ even in our pain (Romans 15:13).
It is the calm assurance that because we have turned away from our sin and trusted in Christ alone, we have been forgiven of our sin and are reconciled to God. Therefore nothing, not even pain and suffering, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). There is not an ounce of condemnation or wrath left for those who are saved and in this we rejoice, even though we suffer and weep in pain on this side of heaven.
Though I may not understand all of it in this life, I can set my gaze on the eternal joy to come. That is what suffering saints need to focus on and sing about
Eyes Fixed on Eternity
The Good News transforms my suffering. Now, though my pain is real and cannot be ignored, it (like Jesus’ pain) will not be wasted. Though I may not understand all of it in this life, I can set my gaze on the eternal joy to come. That is what suffering saints need to focus on and sing about.
My prayer is that pastors, worship leaders and congregants across Africa will sing, hear and write Scriptural songs for all the saints, but especially for the suffering saint.