Today, for the first time, I heard (or at least paid close attention to) a popular contemporary Christian song called “Blessings,” written by a prominent contemporary Christian singer-songwriter and worship leader named Laura Story. According to Wikipedia, the song was a hit in 2011 and recently won a Grammy award. As I listened to it, I thought it was nearly a great song, bravely tackling the difficult subject of faith and suffering—not a frequent theme in the happy-clappy world of most contemporary Christian music.
Upon further reflection, however, I hate it. If people in the midst of suffering and grief find comfort in it, as apparently Story herself did when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, to God be the glory. But I couldn’t stand beside a deathbed and share these sentiments with either a dying person or the loved ones who are left behind. I hope I’d lose my credentials as a United Methodist pastor!
The first verse sounds promising:
We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering
That’s certainly true. But listen to the verse’s turnaround (emphasis mine): “All the while, you hear each spoken need/ Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.”
“Lesser things”—you know, like healing, comfort, protection, and peace. Apparently, for Story, the greater things God would rather give us—for our own good, mind you—may include terminal illnesses, war, genocide—pick any evil, natural or human. We may pray against evil, as our Lord himself taught us to do, but if we receive evil in spite of our prayers, we should thank God because even these bad things—as Story implies in the song’s chorus—”are your mercies in disguise.” In other words, they aren’t really evil at all.
Didn’t I just complain yesterday about how John Piper’s hyper-Calvinist vision of God’s sovereignty attributes human sin and evil to God’s authorship—because even sin and evil serve his (at times) inscrutable purposes. How is Laura Story not saying the same thing?
Does your spouse, for example, have a brain tumor? According to the song’s theology, God gave it to him or her. Remember: If God wanted to give someone a “lesser” thing like a healthy brain, he would do so. God’s motives for giving someone cancer are blameless: “What if a thousand sleepless nights/ Are what it takes to know you’re near?/ What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?” In other words, you needed this bad thing to happen; therefore, our merciful God obliged by giving it to you. God will do “what it takes.”
To make matters worse, if the suffering person to whom Story directs these words doubts the hard truth of what she’s saying—and isn’t completely comfortable with the idea that God constantly sends evil-disguised “mercies” our way—we can be sure that God himself “longs” that “we’d have faith to believe.” Here, she says, doubt isn’t faith’s necessary correlate, as classic Christianity teaches, but is instead the opposite of faith. I should throw out every sermon I’ve preached on “doubting Thomas,” that’s for sure!
Am I being too hard on the song? After all, she asks, “What if?” As if she’s wondering aloud. But listen to the song and tell me that she means it as an open question. The most charitable reading is that Story got a bit sloppy with her words and meant to say, simply, that God takes all these bad things—including sin and evil—and uses them for his good purposes; or that God is continually bringing good out of suffering; or that God is incredibly merciful in the midst of suffering. That’s what I would like the song to say. In which case I would agree wholeheartedly! In C.S. Lewis’s masterful book The Problem of Pain, he writes that God is “mercenary” about using suffering for our good. But using suffering isn’t the same as causing it, especially when doing so makes God complicit in sin or evil.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not even arguing that God never sends suffering our way. That wouldn’t be biblical. I haven’t changed my mind since last week, when I wrote the following:
The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.
What I’m arguing is that when it comes to human suffering, there are things we can say with theological certainty—based on the Bible and two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject. But there is also a great deal of mystery, especially as it relates to God’s involvement and agency in suffering. We owe it to those who suffer to speak with circumspection and humility. Unfortunately, this song fails to do that.