A sturdy acoustic strum twines with forbidding guitars and thunderclap drums. The clouds part just long enough to let a little more darkness through.
How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing
Only a songwriter as gifted and grounded as Jason Isbell—acquainted with grief, accustomed to gritting his teeth and digging for buried beauty—could wrap a hook around the word “anxiety” without seeming trite. Instead, his chorus sounds like everything I never knew I needed to hear.
Few churches would program Isbell’s “Anxiety” into their liturgies. The “goddamn,” for one thing. The jarring reality of the verses, for another:
It’s the weight of the world
But it’s nothing at all
Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall
You got to give me a minute
Because I’m way down in it
And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak
The church sings adoration songs. We offer confession songs and belt out redemption songs. But anxiety songs? The idea seems a verse, chorus, bridge and another chorus too far.
On my permanent record you’ll find an anxiety diagnosis. I manage, reaching out and retrieving a little help here, a little help there.
Each morning, a light blue pill slides down my throat on a single sip of water. If it sits on my tongue too long, it grows bitter and betrays its inability to fix me all by itself. Yet without it, my body grows flush with nervous energy. Like a broken radiator, I overheat from the inside out.
Once a month, I log into Skype and heed the words of a counselor in St. Louis. A man with kind eyes who laughs when I repeat lies about myself out loud. I imagine he laughs the way God does. Tenderly, with no trace of malice. Oh my child, if only you could see how loved you are.
I cherish the hymns of the church, ancient and modern. Lifting my voice to repeat the words of faithful saints, love and mercy sink deep into me, strengthening my faith. And yet some Sunday mornings, I wish I heard something that sounds like the inside of my head.
My anxiety holds no power to define me. Someday I will cast my permanent record at the feet of Jesus.
But it affects my reality. Anxiety shapes, for better and worse, how I sing, “It is well with my soul,” or “Rock of ages, cleft for me / Let me hide myself in me.” It stirs up feelings and scribbles word pictures when I cry out, “The hold of God is stronger than we dare to hope or dream.”
We understand—sometimes even excel at—how to sing of our sins and all we break. Somewhere amid questions of style, substance and sound theology, we struggle to sing about the sins committed against us, of all that’s broken on the inside.
For the anxious and depressed, those slowly coming out from under the weight of trauma and abuse, setting this sort of honesty to music promises great consolation.
Hearing the rest of the church identify with our particular sorrows, just as Jesus did, lends the incarnation even greater beauty. Oh how sweet to sing of our anxiety in the manner of Isbell and then, in holy call-and-response, hear the church sing in the spirit of John 11: “This sickness will not end in death.”
In our house, we discuss two kinds of reality: honesty and truth. Honesty accounts for the day’s debits and credits, expressing itself in real time. Feelings spill over the surface, every fear and wish, every inflamed piece of our hearts given voice. No judgement in return, little in the way of correction.
Truth stretches beyond honesty to what we cannot see. The physical processes which keep nature humming and the earth on its rotation. The way God upholds every physical and spiritual inch of the universe. Here, what’s eternal meets up with what’s honest, and slowly begins to make sense of it, burning dross away, transforming it into its truest shape.
Singing the honest precedes singing the true. It represents the prelude before we immerse ourselves in the grand themes worth repeating.
But no song is a means to an end. We don’t play the songs of anxiety, depression and brokenness double time. We sing them as long and loud as we need to, knowing full well redemption songs ring even sweeter.
The Bible contains songs about distress and dangerous circumstances, songs in the key of soul angst, songs with honest verses and true choruses. The Bible makes room for these songs, calling them Psalms. Will we, the church, give them quarter too?
When we struggle to find our starting pitch, God gives us the richness of his church. From within his blessed creation, someone sits ready to count us in: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Ask artists among you to identify and craft songs which bring life’s stark realities into full relief. Many of these grace-filled souls know rhythms of anxiety, depression, and frustration by heart. Where they lack familiarity, their God-given gifts of empathy and poetry find room to stretch and imagine, to put in words and music what much of the church feels yet fights to express.
Turn humbly to traditions outside your own. The white evangelical church, especially, needs to sit at the feet of the black American church, a culture which finds no dissonance in singing the honest and the true.
Black church hymnals and black Christian memories overflow with songs expressing social and spiritual angst, collective and personal pain, while owning a right, righteous dependence on Jesus as redeemer. Singing backup to those saints—and others across the barlines of time, space and geography—produces a sound pleasing to the Lord.
Brokenness strikes a chord that rings until eternity, until grace drowns it out for good. Till then, the church knows what to sing. First, “Anxiety, how do you always get the best of me?” Then, “Jesus is better.”