Songwriting and the Honest Happy Ending

Last year I wrote an article called Songwriting and the Spirit of the Text. In it, I talked about how good songwriters weave together music and lyrics to communicate truth in a powerful way. With our recent Open Mic night, I figured I’d take another shot at a songwriting post. For those of you who aren’t songwriters, stick around! I think you’ll find the core truths of this post have application beyond songwriting.

Recently, I sat down at the piano. As will happen sometimes (increasingly less these days, sadly), I found a catchy chord progression, improvised some lyrics, and emerged with a very rough draft of a song. When I finished for the night, however, the song still didn’t have a happy ending. It ended with a question mark, with the speaker still searching, not in despair, but definitely still unsure.

Here’s the question I’d like to explore today: as a Christian songwriter, can I write a sad song that doesn’t end with a resolution? Can I write a transparent confession of doubt, for instance, without the a-ha moment of enlightenment or a love song that ends with heartbreak instead of a triumphant declaration of contentment? Or is there something self-glorifying and even idolatrous about a sad song that doesn’t acknowledge the power and sufficiency of Jesus?

Sad Songs and the Importance of Honesty

As we think about those questions, let me start first by asking: what is it about sad songs that moves us so deeply? This will sound obvious but I think they move us because they honestly capture and express feelings of sadness. Sadness is one of our strongest and most important emotions. It is also one of our most complex and difficult-to-explain emotions. Because of that, we often struggle to communicate what we feel and to find others who can understand and speak into our experiences. Words often feel inadequate to do justice to the turmoil of our hearts.

But, every once in awhile, we come across a song that expresses exactly what we’re feeling. The music and lyrics work together to powerfully and precisely capture our sadness. Interestingly, I’ve found that many of these profoundly sad songs are written by nonbelievers. There are Christian artists who do this well, but, on the whole, non-Christian songs tend to be more honest about insightful about sadness. They don’t simplify or sugarcoat, but rather show sadness as it truly is, with all its painful warts and sores.

We as Christian songwriters (writers, preachers, artists, etc) can learn an important lesson from our non-Christian counterparts. We must be careful that we are talking about sorrow honestly. Don’t talk about it cheaply or lazily. Don’t skip straight to the solution. The more truthfully we capture sorrow, the wider our audience will open their hearts to listen to what we have to say.

Sad Song and the Danger of Idolatry

Honesty and transparency are good, but they are not ends unto themselves. The problem is that our raw and honest feelings are often contaminated with sinful self-pity. John Piper says this about the dangers of self-pity:

“Crying out to God is one thing. A very good thing too. But self-pity is not that. Self-pity is crying out in the echo chamber of my own little world. It’s issuing a lament just to take pleasure in hearing the lament over and over.”

Writing sad songs can amplify and aggravate these dangers. Why? Because when we write sad songs, we take our laments and craft them into something beautiful and moving to listen to. The better written our songs are, the greater the temptation to ‘take pleasure in hearing the lament over and over’.

Moreover, writing sad songs can become an idol that we trust in to deal with sorrow. Expressing sorrow and finding the solution to that sorrow are two very different things, but if we’re not careful, sad songwriting can  trick us into believing that the expression of sorrow over and over again actually is the solution to pain.

What do I mean by that? There is something cathartic and pleasurable about expressing sorrow. When you’re sharing, you don’t have to worry about what comes afterwards–it feels good just to let it all out. Sad songs freeze time right at that pleasurable moment of confession. As long as you keep listening and singing, you can confess forever and never worry about finding an actual solution to your sadness. But it’s a false promise. The solace only exists in the imaginary world of the song, not in reality where you must move on and live courageously in spite of sadness.

Let me try to illustrate through Love’s not a Spaceship. A while back, some friends and I thought it would be fun to make a musical/love story set in space (strange, I know). This song is part of that larger story:

In the song, the speaker is expressing something beautiful and, you could even say, heroic. Loving someone against all odds is commendable. Being willing to do anything or go anywhere for the one you love is something we can all root for. Laying your raw feelings out for the world to see is moving and powerful.

But the song is only heroic and beautiful if there is a chance she might turn back. What if the relationship really is over? What if years pass by and he’s still singing this same old song? Then, heroism and beauty changes, doesn’t it? Heroism would be letting go of all the hopes, dreams, and longings he placed in that relationship, even if it hurts to do so. Beauty would be loving her sacrificially from a distance even if she never notices, instead of broadcasting his hurt feelings to anyone who will listen. Over the course of the musical (which we never quite finished, sadly) that was a theme I was interested in exploring. How could this character move on from singing about his sorrow and in doing so, clinging to it as an idol, to acting with quiet courage and sacrificial love?

The Danger of the Lazy Happy Ending

There’s a danger to writing sad songs without happy endings, but I would say there is an equal danger to writing lazy happy endings to our sad songs. I won’t name any names, but I’ve deduced a popular formula for turning sad songs into happy ones.

Step 1: Write a sad song like normal

Step 2: At the very last verse/chorus, tweak a few words to make it happy

I don’t doubt the sincerity of artists who have written songs this way. I think, if done rightly, it can actually be very effective. Speaking personally, however, I’ve always feel a bit uncomfortable when I write songs in this sort of formulaic way. I feel like I”m writing a happy ending out of obligation. I know it’s the right thing do. Or I don’t want to be perceived as a pitiful Christian. It’s the same reason why I lessen the extent of my sin when I share at small group, or why  I put on a happy front at church when in reality, I’ve been struggling all week. It is that old sin of the Pharisees which dwells so deep within us: our hypocrisy and fear of man which paralyze us from telling the truth.

The Honest Happy Ending

What are we to do then? Write honest happy endings. Not sad songs without hope, or cheap happy endings. No, show sadness in all its darkness and bigness. Be honest with how you really feel. But then, show with your music and lyrics how Grace overflows into every single nook and cranny of our sorrow. I believe that kind of songwriting makes the biggest impact on people. Why? Because that kind of songwriting comes closest to the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is the true Happy Ending. It is brutally honest about our hopeless condition. And then, at the moment when all hope is lost, God steps in and saves the day through his Son. He changes all that is impossibly wrong with the world and our hearts for good at the cross.

This principle drives my songwriting. Once you understand the honest happy ending, you’ll see that many of my songs are basically reiterations of that same theme–new attempts to try and capture the moment when hopeless sorrow turns to joyous disbelief (If you’d like some examples, see Heart of my own Heart, Made Well, At the Shore)

I’ll end with the story of a song I wrote called ‘O Father Please’. It’s definitely not my most polished song. It has too many choruses and the melody isn’t the most memorable. But I would say, far and away, it’s the most honest and sad song I’ve ever written (and I’m a pretty depressing songwriter!). The song was written in tears. I wrote it at a time in my life, where I didn’t feel like I could honestly write a happy ending. So I didn’t. The song ended like this:

Have mercy God
Lift up this head bowed low
Oh Father please, I know you are good
But I cannot see

You, you do not treat
The lives of the servants you love as cheap
But I feel so lost, so put to shame
Forsaken alone
So this is my shout, shout in the dark
Lord, if you hear me, please answer me now
So I may know, you do not treat
the lives of the servants you love
The servants you love as cheap
O Father please, O Father please
Have mercy on me

At the same time, though, I didn’t feel like it was finished. So I didn’t perform it or post it. I waited. A year or so later, I came back to the song and felt I could write the happy ending in a way that was honest and not forced.

Your heart is good and your love is kind
You take away that we might find
That your heart is good and your love is kind
So take these dreams and let them die
Your mercy stings but its not cheap
You have given all for me
And I will sing cause I”m not cheap
You have given everything

At last year’s Open Mic, I had the chance to perform this song with a few friends. I taught the last chorus to the audience so we could all sing it together. The musician in me wishes it was less rough-around-the-edges, but singing that last chorus together with fellow brothers and sisters was powerful and made a deep impression on my heart.

Can we write sad songs without resolution? I wouldn’t say it’s wrong or that I’d never do it. But songs like ‘O Father Please’ remind me of the power of the honest happy ending. If you have an unresolved sad song, perhaps you should wait awhile. God might have something to say to you and your song still.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:5)

Songwriting and the Spirit of the Text

Sometimes people will ask me, “how do you write songs?” Actually my approach to songwriting is pretty simple. I could sum it up in this single principle: Good songwriting combines lyrics and music to communicate a feeling or moment to your listener. 

Imagine those emotions you feel most deeply. It could be joy, sadness, frustration, anything really. Or imagine a significant moment–picture what you felt, your surroundings, etc. Your job as a songwriter is to capture that emotion or moment in its purest, most concentrated form so that when your listener hears your song, they can understand it as well as you can.

As a musician, you have two tools to convey emotion and feeling: lyrical content and music. In your content, write as beautifully and as precisely as possible. One gripe I have with modern worship music is that it presents truth in such a cliched generic way. It’s filled with stock phrases that talk about the Gospel in the exact same way that every other song does. In my mind, this hinders worship. If you write carelessly and thoughtlessly about the truth, then it’s only a matter of time before we begin to sing carelessly and thoughtlessly about the truth. The Gospel brings about deep emotions of thankfulness and joy. Labor to evoke those responses in your audience by writing well about the beauty of Christ, and by painting a picture of what a heart looks like when it genuinely responds to the Gospel. If you’re looking for examples, look to the hymns. The hymn writers did not just communicate truth, they did so poetically and imaginatively. To quote some of my favorites–from Come Thou Fount: “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love!” or from Be Thou my Vision: “Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision oh ruler of all!” Those are some darn well-written lines.

Your second tool is music. The music should not be an afterthought, but rather should supplement your lyrics. Most often, your music will support your lyrics. To name a secular example, think of the ultra popular song, “Say Something“. You’re probably sick of it by now, but let me ask you: how did such a simple and clean song become so popular among the normal crop of crass party/dance songs? Because its lyrics and music do such a good job capturing emotion.

Notice how the quiet slow music matches the exhausted speaker as he pleads with his love one last time . Notice how the music continually swells as the speaker builds up to one final plea, climaxing at 3:19. Notice how it quiets again as he realizes that its time to give up. The music plays a crucial part in telling the story of the song and communicating the speaker’s emotion. For some other interesting examples off the top of my head: check out the Adele songs “Someone like you” and “Rolling in the deep”. Notice how the music matches the lyrics.

You can also use music to contradict or complicate the message of your lyrics. For example, taking hopeful lyrics and putting them with minor-sounding chords. For a pretty clear example of this, check out “Joy” by Page CXVI,  or the band Ascend the Hill. . Or think about all the youtube covers which change a fast poppy song to a slow ballad or vice versa. How might music change the message of the song? Singing happy lyrics to a minor melody might, for instance, communicate the speaker’s desire to believe his lyrics, but the struggle of his heart to truly do so.

Well, there you have it. Use your lyrics and music to encapsulate deep feeling.  The difficult (and fun) part, of course, is thinking hard about your lyrics and your music, and using them to complement each other in creative and compelling ways.

My favorite way to capture emotion is through what I’ve called earlier the tension of faith. Basically, the emotion I want to capture is the feeling of believers as we struggle between earthly difficulties and our hope in Christ. Martyn Lloyd Jones writes that the glory of the Christian life is not “the absence of feeling” but that as Christians we “rise above them though you feel them”. I’ve found the most profound music which resonates most deeply with me, is the music which acknowledges earthly struggle, but upholds Gospel hope if we will but have faith.

Let me walk you through this thought process in  “Eternal Weight of Glory”, a song based on Paul’s words 2 Corinthians. Here are the lyrics of the verse and chorus:

We do not lose heart, and we are of good courage
And though we cannot see, we will look to what is certain :
This momentary pain is preparing for the day when we shall feel the weight of

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! (What shall we say when we see)
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! (eternal weight of glory?)
“O Glorious King, How great you are!

Here in the body, away from the Lord
We make it our aim to please and adore
Away from the body, at home with the Lord
We make it our aim, to please and adore him
O Glorious King how great you are!

The tension I wanted to capture here is between momentary pain and the eternal weight of glory. The verse captures the reality that Paul is “here in the body, and away from the Lord”. It captures all of our realities as we endure through earthly life as we hope towards heaven. Yet, even though we believe in God’s promise, we still experience real and distressing pain. Notice, as the song reaches the line, “this momentary pain…” the volume and the dissonance of the music builds, matching the reality of earthly hardships.

Once you hit the word “glory” however we move from earthly longing to heavenly fulfillment. We glimpse the reality of  how it feels to be “away from the body, at home with the Lord”. You’re at the height of the crushing dissonance of suffering, and suddenly it’s over. There is a moment of rest and reprieve. You’re standing in heaven. Everything is suddenly quiet except for the chorus of angels and faithful saints singing “glory, glory, hallelujah” And then you see the King. And slowly you begin to realize the weight of the Glorious King.  As real as the weight of suffering was, it does not compare. All you can do is cry our with all of of creation, “Oh Glorious King how great you are!”

Earthly suffering and heavenly hope are held in tension throughout the song. Near the end, they even come together as they’re sung on top of each other, until it fades only to the chorus. It’s expressed in the bridge as we sing about how wherever we are we will praise the glorious King. I think the tension is captured most succinctly in the phrase: what shall we say when we see eternal weight of glory? Oh Glorious King, how great you are! It is both the cry of faith for the struggling believer, looking forward to the day of salvation. It is the joyful shout of the believer in heaven as he beholds the King.

Now, let me shift gears a bit. The interesting thing about this song is that it’s lifted basically verbatum from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, 5:6-9. Even more interestingly, almost all of the songs dearest  to my heart, which have also resonated most deeply with other people, have come directly from the Scriptures. I think this tells us something wonderful about God’s Word. Namely, there is tension in God’s word. There is deep profound emotion in God’s Word. When we come to the Bible with all of our longings and emotions, we don’t find simplistic textbook answers. We find a God of comfort who understands us and is able to meet us in our deepest needs.

Let me ask another question: why does God choose to deliver for instance, the book of 2 Corinthians, through a human author like the Apostle Paul? Why didn’t he just write an instruction manual telling us to hold on because heaven is better than earth?

Do you remember the role of music in songwriting? It is not arbitrary, rather it compliments the lyrical content. I think God does something similar with our lives. On the one hand, there are the words of Scripture, but God gives them to us through a real man, in a real situation, writing to real people. He has endured and is presently enduring real suffering. And so, he says those words with credibility and also with real heartfelt emotion. He speaks from within the tension of knowing the worth of heaven, while also feeling the heavy burdens of life. Paul’s life is the music which compliments the message (And our lives are the music which compliment our message too!). God, in his infinite wisdom, knew that speaking through a real historical Paul would minister more deeply to our souls than a tidy instruction manual.

All to say that, as we study God’s Word for ourselves and communicate it to others, I think it’s helpful at times to think like a songwriter. Yes, first and foremost focus on getting the truth of the text so that we faithfully communicate what God’s Word says. But also, look for the emotion, the spirit of the text. What does it mean for Paul to be able to say what he says in 2 Corinthians? How about in 2 Timothy? Or how would a poor sick man feel when he stood listening to Jesus preach the Beatitudes in the sermon on the mount? Why does Jesus get so angry at certain points of the Gospel? What does it mean when John tells us that Jesus wept? You could go on and on. But I think if we’re careful to pay attention the spirit of the text, we’ll find that the Bible speaks profoundly with weight and emotion to both our own souls and to the souls of our listeners.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17 ESV)

All the Sad Things: In Joyous Disbelief

I know I’ve been slacking on the “Forgiven Much” series, but I wanted to take some time to write a three-part series called “All the Sad Things”. This is another series meant for those who struggle with doubt  and sadness. In each post, I hope to establish something about the Christian’s relationship to sadness and doubt. In the first post, “In Joyous Disbelief”, I want to show that our doubt offers a unique opportunity for us to humbly worship God. In the second post, “The Resurrection and our True Reality”, I hope to explain how Christianity provides profound and satisfying answers to the sadness we see in ourselves and in the world around us. Finally, in the third post, “Broken by the Good Shepherd”, I want to argue that God, in his breathtaking love, often uses trials and seasons of sadness and doubt for our good. As an overarching goal, I hope to make clear that God does not exclude those who experience doubt or sadness;  he welcomes as we are and restores us to know and love him. I hope and pray that through this series, you will be refreshed to see anew the unsearchable wisdom and love of our God.

The title for this series comes from a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. After seeing Gandalf return from the dead, Sam exclaims, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

A while back, I wrote a post called the “Tension of Faith”. In it, I talked about how faith is the tension between God’s promises and our circumstances. What makes faith so agonizing is that our circumstances often make God’s promises seem impossible and downright foolish. Here, in Sam’s quote, we witness that profound moment when the tension of faith is resolved; when the distance between the difficulty and the promise is bridged by an unexpected miracle. What does it look like to be in that moment? when everything seems like it’s crashing down, only to be transformed into something beautiful at the last moment? We get a glimpse of it in Sam’s question. When the tension of faith is resolved, we stand in joyous disbelief.

What do I mean? Sam’s question to a living Gandalf expresses disbelief that such a wonderful thing could happen and joy that such a  wonderful thing has in fact happened. On the one hand, Sam is so shocked to see Gandalf that he can only respond in the form of a question. He sees Gandalf with his own eyes, but everything else that he has seen and experienced tells him the exact opposite. And so, he’s afraid to be sure. After all, endings like this only happen in fairy-tales for the naive, not in real life. But, on the other hand, there Gandalf is right there before him. We can feel the joy bursting forth from the question. “I don’t believe it, but here you are. Talk to me and reassure me I’m not dreaming. If I can just know that you’re really here and really alive, I won’t be able to contain this joy.”

Now, I know this is just a fantasy story, but you can probably already see all the parallels to our true life stories in the Gospel. I don’t know for sure, but perhaps this is what Luke wanted to capture when he wrote in chapter 24 of his Gospel that after seeing the Risen Jesus, the disciples “disbelieved for joy and were marveling” (v. 41)

Do you see how beautiful this is? I can’t think of anything more beautiful that the moment of joyous disbelief. For the Christian, there is no greater worship than in this moment. When we realize how lost we are in our sins and how the just wrath of God is coming upon us, and then we hear how Jesus loved us so much that he took hell in our place, we stand in joyous disbelief. We ask, “Amazing love, how can it be? That thou my God shouldst die for me?” When we endure trials and seasons of struggle that almost drive us to despair, and then we look back and see how God used them to keep us from making shipwreck of our faith, we stand in joyous disbelief and say, “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” It is in these moments, where we give God the worship he desires. There is no pride, only humble thankfulness and brokenness. There is no thought of self, only amazement at the wisdom and grace of God.

When you’re struggling with doubt and sadness, it’s easy wonder if you’re even a Christian. If I love Christ, then why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so little? Why do I have these questions? It’s easy to feel helpless and to want to give up. It’s easy to despair that we’ll ever have certainty in our faith or genuine love for Christ. What should we do in those moments? When the distance between God’s promises and our weakness feels as wide as the Grand Canyon? We should press on.

My point here is a simple one. There is no beautiful moment of joyous disbelief, without agonizing through the tension of faith. Sam cannot experience that moment of unspeakable joy, unless Gandalf dies and the whole journey of the Fellowship of the Rings seems utterly hopeless. There is no joyous resurrection without the Savior first hanging on the tree and crying out in utter darkness, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

If you are struggling with doubt or sadness, no matter how small or great, know this. Your struggle does not exclude you from the love of God, nor does it render you useless for God’s service. Rather, think in this way: God is faithful, wise, and loving and, if I will but trust him, he will use whatever struggle I am experiencing for a greater good than I can even imagine. If I will but trust him, I know he will certainly use this to give me the greatest good of all—to stand humbly and willingly before Him in worship. Therefore, I will press on by faith through every struggle, through every feeling and doubt. To the praise of his glorious grace. Amen.

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18 ESV)