Many years ago, while I was at a Rich Mullins concert, he made a comment that stuck with me for some reason. He had just released his album Songs, which was a greatest hits collection with one or two new tunes thrown in for good measure. One of the new songs was called We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are. Rich explained that he wrote the song about a romantic break-up. It was a beautiful ballad about human frailty and the grace it requires to navigate relationships well. In the process of talking about the song, he made this comment: “I decided that Christian radio needs a few more good break-up songs, so I wrote one for them.” The audience chuckled at what was clearly a tongue-in-cheek comment. In retrospect, though, I think there is a deeper truth behind his comment that merits exploring.

Why does Christian music need break-up songs (and songs about other personal disasters, big and small)?

First, Christians are not immune to the slings and arrows of everyday life. And I think our art — music, literature, movies, etc. — ought to reflect this. Relational awkwardness and pain invaded the lives of men like Paul, David, and Moses. Why should we be immune? In fact, the Scripture even promises persecution and suffering to those who follow Christ (2 Tim 3:12). Christian art has the potential to reflect the realities of life in a sinful and broken world and to provide a biblical and redemptive perspective on those realities.

It just so happened that when I first heard the song I had recently experienced a difficult break-up of my own, in need of some relationship coaching. I felt relieved and even vindicated to know that my favorite musician understood my pain and could offer me some encouragement. I’m not saying that Christian artists should be Debbie Downers who sing angry and bitter songs all day. But neither should they pretend that the Christian life is a constant barrel of laughs. The Christian life is joyful because we have Jesus, not because we never experience pain. That’s a critical distinction to make.

Second, we need artists who consider suffering from a counter-cultural perspective. We live in a culture that values pleasure over character. Instead of growing through our pain, we run away from it. Entire theological systems are built around the idea that Christians should be healthy, happy, and rich. Thoughtful Christian artists can speak the truth in a way that impacts the mind and the heart. Specifically, they can remind us that both our culture and prosperity theology are wrong in their understanding of suffering.

Finally, suffering is transformative if we view it biblically. See, for example, Hebrews 12:4-13 and James 1:2-4. We certainly learn God’s character through praise songs, happy songs, and love songs. But we learn a great deal about Jesus when we suffer. And artists who write biblical songs about suffering do the church a great service. In fact, music and art can be tools God uses in the process of making us more like Jesus.

When I listened to Mullins’s song, I was reminded how necessary it was for me to rely upon God’s grace and kindness in a difficult time in my own life. I was challenged to practice humility and forgiveness as well. Those disciplines have continued to serve me well in suffering as an adult, and I think a well-written song at the right time helped begin the process of growth for me.

So if you’re an artist, consider writing songs that express the full range of human emotion and experience, not simply the happy ones.

If you’re a civilian like me, consider listening to music that challenges you rather than music that simply entertains you. (On a related note, the song “Blessings” by Laura Story is one of the better treatments of suffering that I’ve heard on Christian radio).

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