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Is Christian Music Too Happy?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.


Credit: aradaphotography via Fotolia

It’s often said that art imitates life. If that’s true, then it seems like most Christian musicians must live a pretty carefree and pleasant existence. As Leah Libresco writes for FiveThirtyEight, positive words are far more common than their negative counterpart in today’s Christian music. For example, over the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top fifty Christian songs, grace appeared two and a half times more often than sin, life eight times more than death, and love seven times more than fear.

Of course, those positive notions have their rightful place in our worship as God is certainly the author of grace, life, and love. But is it really a good thing that they’re so much more common in our songs than sin, death, and fear—also very real aspects of the Christian life but ones that are overlooked and underestimated far too often?

As Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University and the author of several books on how theology and psychology intersect, warns that when our songs become “excessively positive or wholly positive [they can] come across as cotton candy and inauthentic.” Beck would go on to say that when such darker themes are not reflected in Christian music, those who are struggling or going through those desert times where God does not seem as loving, present, or faithful can begin to believe that there’s something “wrong or diseased about who they are.”

Giving some voice to the harsh realities of this life is both biblical and pastoral. Many worship pastors do a great job of balancing the positive impact of our relationship with Christ with the darker moments that we all experience from time to time, but it’s human nature to want to focus on the things that make us feel good. The hard, and often overlooked, truth of the matter, however, is that when we are struggling, simply wishing to feel better or focusing on the positive at the expense of our more negative reality will seldom accomplish much of anything.

It is vital to remember in all circumstances that God is loving, that our sins have been forgiven, and that, for those who have placed their faith in him, our eternity is secure. However, repressing the pain and acting as though everything is fine when our souls scream something different is not part of God’s plan.

Throughout the Psalms we find examples of David taking his pain, his frustrations, and his fears to God in an honest cry for help and not once does the Lord condemn him for doing so (Psalms of lament such as 13, 17, 22, 43, etc. are good examples of this). Instead, God meets him in the midst of his darkness and guides him back to the light.

The thing is, though, David’s problems are usually still there at the end of the psalm. The change in tone and outlook had nothing to do with his circumstances. Rather, by meeting God in the midst of his pain and being honest with both himself and the Lord about what he was feeling, David positioned himself to hear God’s answer and to receive his help. The same can be true in our lives as well, and music is often one of the most effective avenues through which we encounter him.

So the next time those upbeat and carefree songs of praise simply don’t resonate with the cries of pain emanating from the depths of your soul, take that pain to the Father and, in what is an equally valid act of worship, cry out to him for the help that only he can provide. And don’t hesitate to search for Christian music that more accurately reflects your present state. It’s out there and can give a voice to your suffering in a way that mere words often cannot. That too is a gift from the God who understands your pain and longs to help you move beyond it to a stronger, more vibrant, relationship with him. Will you let him?