A church for broken people
The other year, while visiting a church, I met a woman. She was about 40 years old and very attractive, both in appearance and personality. I noticed her during the first song because of the beauty of her voice, and because she sang the words like someone who loved the Lord Jesus. She told me she had until recently been a music leader at another church, but had been retired because she no longer possessed the magazine-cover beauty which that church’s culture of worship required. Who knows, perhaps there was another side to her story. But she certainly felt broken and discarded.
Extreme examples make good opening paragraphs; they make us feel righteous. So let us recognise how hard it is for even the most biblical of churches in this glittering city to escape the cult of the Beautiful People. We dress well, we smile and make eye contact, we smell nice and make nice conversation. We radiate Health and Happiness – and yes, that is no bad thing. Often it is a blessing that flows from the gospel, a symptom of lives transformed by the Good News of reconciliation to God through Christ. But when the broken people feel that they are standing unnoticed outside the circle of light, we have a problem.
At my own church we place the names of sick members at the bottom of the news sheet, and pray for them in church. We cook meals for new mums, and many who suffer find themselves quietly cared for. It’s a good start. But the experience of brokenness remains for the most part on the fringes of our common life. When did we – when did you at your church – join our voices to the voices of Christ and his people by saying (or even singing) words like this together:
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4and my enemy will say, I have overcome him,
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13, NIV)
Here is an individual who has put away false piety to be totally honest with a God who has failed him. He is gutted by the absence of God, he is besieged by anxious thoughts, he is crushed by depression, he is cowering in shame (vv. 1-2). These are universal ills, and these very words have sustained many who in their dark, private pain need permission to be honest with God. And because Christ took up these words before you or I ever did, they also have the power to dignify our suffering by laying it alongside our Lord’s, and to alleviate the loneliness of our grief by an awareness that Christ shares it with us. That God makes room in Christ for human brokenness is a never-ending cause for wonder.
And yet this is not, in the end, a Psalm written to alleviate private pain. Its title, both in David’s day and ours, places the suffering individual squarely in the middle of the congregation, bravely exposing her pain so that all may feel it, desperately begging God for a lifeline so that all may beg with her, voicing her fear of disgrace so that all may share her dread (vv. 3-4). This is a Psalm that places the broken person, not the Beautiful People, at the centre. And as the congregation sings the song of the broken one, something more profound than empathy and intercession takes place. The brokenness of the one becomes the brokenness of the many.
As we enact these words together, in solidarity not just with a suffering sister or brother, but with Jesus whose life of daily struggle and daily faithfulness we see reflected in these words, our own failings are laid bare. Our daily wrestling with thoughts and yielding to sin rarely plunges us into despair, but it places each of us under the shadow of death as surely as the tangible suffering of the visibly broken person in our midst. It raises the same dilemma of God’s apparent absence, and we begin to see in the sufferer not just a burden to share, but a model to emulate.
Some scholars think that behind the last two verses must lie an experience of deliverance, and that the psalmist is remembering a crisis after the fact, when all is well once more. I am not so sure. It is true that the mood has changed, and the speaker is no longer straining towards a hoped-for future rescue. Instead, he has turned his focus onto the past; more specifically, onto the character of God as revealed by his past actions: his love, his salvation, his goodness. But the consequence of this shift of focus onto God’s faithfulness is not a simple Hallelujah! , as we might have expected had the prayers of vv. 1-4 just been answered. It is a willed change of attitude, which we witness as it happens in vv. 5-6. The first verb is a statement of present fact: I have trusted . But what follows next is a double expression of determination, which does not feel like the response of a person newly delivered. My heart shall rejoice , the singer exhorts himself, and I determine to sing . This is a person who has found the strength to trust in his Saviour, even if God remains silent for the moment. From the darkness of depression and unanswered prayer the psalmist can look back and affirm, he has been good to me .
And this is why we cannot afford not to lament when we join together as God’s people. Lament is not ultimately about weeping with those who weep ; we lament because this is where the gospel begins. What is the gospel after all, if not the living hope that enables us to lift our eyes from the encircling darkness and fix them joyfully on the risen Jesus, confident that he is God’s Yes to every one who calls him Lord?
In his Gospel, Matthew depicts the moment when Jesus first begins his public ministry as a dramatic shaft of light piercing a dark place:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned. (Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2)
John uses the same image in his prologue:
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)
Lament strips back our shiny veneer to lay bare the darkness that lies within each of us, and which most of us, most of the time, successfully conceal. And lament strengthens us to keep living and hoping – even when darkness presses in with no sign of relief – because the God we cry to in our despair is the Lord who has walked this dark road ahead of us, and who now shines a word of promise back along the path to direct our feet to safety.
The book of Psalms is filled with laments. God has given them to us to sing or otherwise perform together. For most of us this will be a counter-cultural exercise. It may be challenging and uncomfortable. But perhaps that is a sign of how much we need to begin singing them again.
A church of Beautiful People will be a hollow church, a church whose praise rings with shrill triumphalism. It takes a broken person to truly know the joy of their salvation – the joy which sings the lines And can it be that I should gain / An interest in my Saviour’s blood with a kind of amazed disbelief.
A broken person gives God their trust and hope because trust and hope is all they have to give. These are the people we need in church with us. These are the ones God esteems. These are the ones whose songs we need to sing as we learn to be broken people too.
Andrew Shead is Head of Moore College’s Department of Old Testament and Hebrew and lectures in Hebrew and Old Testament.