Hymns Sound Different When You’re Grieving
Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible through numerous Bible study books as well as at conferences around the country and internationally. She and her husband, David, host Respite Retreats for couples that have faced the death of child. She is the author of What Grieving People Wish You Knew and the host of the “Help Me Teach the Bible” podcast at The Gospel Coalition.
When you lose someone you love, many of the hymns you have sung your whole life sound different. Words that you barely gave a thought to become weighted with meaning. Promises of submission and gladness that once easily rolled off your tongue now get caught in your throat. Promises become precious. Truths bring tears.
In the months after my daughter died, I heard and understood two lines in “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” in a way I never had before.
O that with yonder sacred throng, we at his feet may fall,
We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown him Lord of all . . .
Never before had I given any thought to what the “yonder sacred throng” was. But now I could recognize a face in that throng. And I longed, like never before, for the day when I, too, will join that throng.
Other hymns as well presented me with truths that challenged my doubts about God’s goodness:
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires all have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
In those days of grief, I couldn’t help but want to argue with words like these. As the truth presented in them intersected with my difficult reality, it created a constructive crisis. Singing the words of the hymn forced me to grapple with whether or not I would truly take hold of the truth I was singing and allow it to shape my perspective about my loss. Simply singing the words became an act of submission to God’s sovereignty.
Hymns that spoke of the suffering and sorrow of Jesus assured me that he was a safe person to draw close to in my own sorrow, a source of healing for the agony I was in. They helped me to cry out to him for the help and comfort that could only come from Him.
Jesus! What a Help in sorrow! While the billows o’er me roll,
Even when my heart is breaking, He, my Comfort, helps my soul.
Hallelujah! What a Savior! Hallelujah what a Friend!
Saving, helping keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.
When Christmas rolled around then, too, I heard all-too-familiar lyrics with new ears.
No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found . . .
I had been working through the question of why my daughter had been born with a fatal genetic disorder, and it became clear to me that it was ultimately a result of the curse that infiltrated every part of creation, including our genetic code. I knew that the thorns that represent the curse still infest the ground and blessings do not flow far as the curse is found.
Like most western Christians, I have sung, “Joy to the World!” my whole life. And in my mind, perhaps not thinking through the lyrics deeply, I assumed that since we sing this hymn at Christmas it must be about the first coming of Christ as a baby. But how can that be, since this song celebrates the eradication of the curse which is still a part of our reality?
The song we sing as “Joy to the World” is Isaac Watts’ rendering of Psalm 98, which is about the coming of the Lord. What becomes clear, in light of what we know about the first coming of Christ as a suffering servant, is that Psalm 98 is more about his second coming as triumphant king. When Jesus came the first time, earth did not receive her king but instead hung him on a cross. Even after his death and resurrection, sin and sorrow still grow, and all the thorny effects of the curse remain the reality that we live in. The nations do not yet prove the glories of his righteousness.
But when Christ comes again, all will be different. Every knee will bow, as there will be no more resistance to him. It won’t be just humanity that will celebrate his coming: the earth itself will celebrate. The curse will finally be gone for good so that all creation will be set free from decay to worship Christ. People from every tribe and nation will gladly crown him as King. This is why there is so much joy in “Joy to the World!” It anticipates the joy to come when Christ comes the second time—when the Kingdom he established at his first coming will be consummated as the reality we will live in forever.
When we understand what we’re saying when we sing this song, we realize that this song celebrates the essence of our Christian hope as believers. Our hope is not simply or solely looking back to treasure Christ’s birth, or even his death. Our greatest hope is not in the difference Christ makes in the way we experience life here and now.
Our greatest joy is centered on our future hope for the day when Christ will return as king in glory to this earth. On that day, all who are dead in Christ will be resurrected. “God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away . . . no longer will there be anything accursed.” (Revelation 21:3-4, 22:3). It’s because God fulfilled his promise to send Christ the first time that we can confidently sing, “Joy to the World!” any time of the year, anticipating that his promise to come again and set everything right in this world full of pain will also prove true.
The day will come when we will sing together like never before, "Joy to the World, the Lord is come!" On that day, we will look each other in the eye and say, “The curse is gone for good! We put our hope in Christ, and he has proved worthy of our trust! Let’s sing!”
 All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, text by Edward Perronet
 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, text by Joachim Neander; translated by Catherine Winkworth
 Our Great Savior, text by J. Wilbur Chapman
 Joy to the World! text by Isaac Watts