Frederick Douglass and Singing Through Tears

You may be surprised to hear that the single most frequent command in the Bible can be summed up in the word, “sing!”.  Upwards of 250 times in the Scripture, someone is declaring to God’s people that they ought to praise the Lord, an expression of worship often accompanied with music.

Virtually everyone, regardless of what they believe, agree on the power and meaning of music.  We’ve been hardwired (or from a Christian worldview, designed by God) to be drawn to truth communicated through music, and to not just listen to it, but participate in it.  This is why people sing their hearts out in their cars, why tens of thousands of people will pile into a football stadium for a concert, and why Spotify is a $25 billion dollar company.  We need music.

It’s also why we at Grace Church, like all churches, include singing together as a congregation as part of our weekly gathering.  We are commanded to, yes (Eph 5:19), but we also do it because it’s so, well, fitting to do so.  Here’s the thing about singing in the church’s weekly gathering – the ultimate reason why we do it is not because we love music, but we love and serve a God that makes us want to sing.

Assuming we agree there, I think there is still a misconception amongst many within the church today: that we can and should only sing when we’re happy.  This is also why I think a vast majority of worship songs (especially more modern ones) tend to be lyrically and instrumentally upbeat and why you often hear worship leaders say something like, “let’s have some fun this morning!”.  While not intentionally doing so, this communicates the message to the congregation that you should only be singing if you’re happy, which is to say, you should only be going to church if you really feel like it on that given Sunday.

The Bible paints a different picture – the command to sing is not contingent on having a good week prior to the gathering.  The Psalms, the “songbook of the Bible”, include every possible emotion: fear, happiness, sorrow, confusion, celebration, gratitude, anger, sadness, contentment, insecurity, and everything in between.  Which means this: every emotion is one that we can sing through.

While I understood this from a theological perspective, it wasn’t until I read an excerpt of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography that it really sunk in.  Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland before going on to become a leading abolitionist in the North.  In his 1845 book, Narrative and Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he wrote this:

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”

If someone had randomly asked me, “why do you think slaves sang together?”, there’s a good chance I would have ignorantly said what Frederick Douglass heard often in the North, that it displays their contentment in God regardless of their circumstance.  I would have been blinded to how ridiculous that is – why would they be content to have the image of God within them completely denied, owned and treated as property and stripped of their freedom and many times, access to their family?  No, they sang not to express a content heart, but to receive relief from a broken one. 

While I don’t know that we’ll ever understand singing from a place of suffering to that kind of depth, this is the power of music that we can taste on some level, of singing together about God in the weekly gathering: the same song that is an expression of a gladdened heart for one person can also be the song that is a relief of an aching heart for the person they’re standing next to.  Our God is a God to be worshipped with both smiles and tears.

I’m not a very good singer, nor an overly vocal one.  If you are ever standing next to me, there’s a good chance you won’t even hear me.  But I love it, and I know that the gathering of God’s people in the church is a place where I can go and sing regardless of what’s churning within me as I live in a world full of ups and down, things that make me glad and sad.  God is to be worshipped and sung about and sung to not because we feel a certain way, but because he is God and he alone made a way for salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ, and he promised that he will not fail in his purposes to complete the good work he began in us.  In this way, we sing not despite our circumstances, but we can sing through our circumstances.

So let us vow to learn together from Frederick Douglass and not rob ourselves of the joy of singing through tears, for it is often the very remedy we need in the worst of days.