The Pit of Despair, or, A New Lament

By

The oldest song on my new album is also the title track.

I wrote it in Pennsylvania in 2008, after spending a few days at Lancaster Bible College, a fine establishment that flew me in to talk to the students about writing and to put on a concert with the Captains Courageous the next day. (Psst! Lancaster! I had a great time and would love to come back.)

So there I was in Lancaster, feeling as sorry for myself as I ever had, languishing in the hotel room alone, wishing Andy and Ben’s plane would hurry up and arrive. The road is, of all lonely places, one of the loneliest. There’s a certain thrill in the beginning of the trip. I love seeing the sights, exploring new towns, feeling for a while like an observer of life rather than a liver of one. Of course, that’s a dangerous place to be.

Soon the excitement fades, and before you know it every face you see is a reminder of the faces you left behind. Every house looks sad. You start paying attention to the weather in your hometown. My heart literally aches sometimes when I hear my children’s voices on the phone. Along with the homesickness, on this particular trip I was shadowboxing some old familiar demons. I’m susceptible to a particular set of lies, voices that ring in my ears, voices that would have me believe a thousand things of myself and my God other than the truth to which I cling. When my faith falters and I forget my God, when I forget that his undying love now stands guard against all condemnation, I hold myself in contempt. I can hardly look in the mirror because all I see is sin, sin, sin. All I see is a fool. I see a failure.

This is the point in my little essay when I stop and make a disclaimer. I don’t loathe myself every day. When I’m with my family, when I’m on a plane with Ben and Andy, when I’m at church, most of the time I’m doing shows and talking to folks afterward the voices are silent. I don’t hear them because Christ himself has my attention. I don’t hear them because I am forgetting self and remembering the holy Other. Because I felt this way in Lancaster doesn’t mean I’m in a constant funk. Joy marks my life in Christ. In many ways happiness does, too. Still, there are moments of despair.

That reminds me of this woman I met after a concert once. I opened for Michael Card, and at the end of my set we played “The Silence of God” together (another lament). She found me after the show and with a smile as big as her purse said, “You should be happier. Be happy! Don’t be so sad! Be happy!” I tried and failed to hide my annoyance. “Why?” I said. “Was Jesus happy all the time?” She blinked, smiled her immovable smile, and repeated after a moment, “But you should be happy!” Here’s the thing: God wants more for us than happiness. In fact, of all our emotional postures, happiness might be the most fleeting and inane. What do we learn about holiness through happiness? Compassion (literally to “hurt with”), joy, gladness (which is not the same as happiness, I don’t think), contentment, sorrow, and even righteous anger are all more sanctifying than mere happiness. There’s nothing wrong with happiness. It’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. You won’t be healthy if all you eat is cake.

Back to Lancaster. I, like Westley in The Princess Bride, was in the Pit of Despair. I hated myself. I disbelieved that God could love such a worm as I. That day, that little hotel room was as dark a place as I could remember being. The room was thick with sorrow seasoned with fear–a potent combination. My soul cried out against all hope that it would be heard.

And then, though I hardly knew it at the time, I was. The King of Heaven heard. He stooped down from Heaven and loved me in my lowly state. And that, of course, is the story dripping like dew on all creation. He loves to tell it.

I started this song that long, dark night without knowing where it would end. I didn’t know what I thought, or what I believed. I didn’t know what I was trying to say. I was lamenting. I knew that much. By the time the final refrain appeared I believed again, weak as I was. The Lord reached deeper than my anguish and my disbelief and lifted me into the truth.

THE LAST FRONTIER (A NEW LAMENT)

Why don’t the mountains make me cry no more?
They don’t sing the way they did before
They’re just piles of stone, as dead as bones
Like corpses on a field of war
And they just don’t make me cry no more

And the highway’s like an old sad song
People moving through their lives alone
On the run from grace, from place to place
Like fugitives without a home
And the highway’s like an old sad song

And my heart is black as coal
It’s been mined and there ain’t no gold
It’s so dark in there, but I don’t care
I will lay down in this empty hole
Where my heart is black as coal

And oh, there is nowhere left to go from here
I have fallen past the last frontier
But at the bottom of this well I hear you breathing:

Love below me
Love around me
Love above me
Love has found me
Love has found me here

So lay me down
Oh, lay me down in a field of gold and green


 

I got up in the morning, washed my face, and picked up the guys from the airport, ready to sing my songs and tell my stories to whoever would listen. It wasn’t until later that I remembered King David’s words:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


31 Comments

  1. Ray P.

    It is important to feel. Whether sad or happy- feeling matters. It tells you that you are alive. It also seems that the sadness and lonliness that comes from being away from family like you were in that hotel room (been there felt that by the way) is a gift because the coming home is so much sweeter. Sad songs are great. In particular your sad songs are great because they are not absent of hope. After the Last Tear Falls might be my fav because in the end there is love…

  2. Josh Petersen

    Proud of you man……

    This song reminds me of an old, old Johnny Cash song……in all the good ways.

    It also reminds me of the first time you played it for me……….on our trip across the mountains of Northern Arizona…………

    Some of my favorite memories

  3. Travis Stewart

    Andrew, thank you for healing truth. I need to believe this today (and tomorrow and yesterday). I particularly like where you said there are things about yourself and God that you need to believe. I can relate to that. I recognize that I need to believe not only that God is full of grace but that I am a new creation, a new man and I am not the man that I sometimes hate. I need to sink into that hope. I ned that love around me, below me, above me, in me.

  4. John Cal

    AP,

    I’m not much of a blog reader, not even yours, though I am often blessed by your music. I just felt compelled to read this one because of the scary face in the picture at the top. No idea what/who that is, but it was an attention grabber. Thanks for reminding me that I have permission to be honest about how I feel, even when said feeling is seemingly undesirable.

    I remember working for a church youth event, wherein it was raining. Later in the day it stopped and the sun was shining, and a woman I was working with said, “Look at the sunshine. God always finds a way to bless us.” to which I (antagonistically) responded, “So, he wasn’t blessing us when it was raining?” “No, I don’t know what you mean,” I replied.

    I am reminded of the words of two of my favorite writers:

    Derek Webb in “Faith My Eyes”: I mistake some happiness for blessing.

    &

    Paul in his letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord, always. I say it again, rejoice.

    Thank you for being honest about your loneliness, and shame, and fear. I think the truth, no matter how scary at the time, always adds to the beauty of what is possible, and I like not feeling like I’m the only crazy person in the world.

  5. Hannah

    “…there no feeling in a human heart which exists in that heart alone — which is not, in some form or degree, in every human heart.” ~George MacDonald

  6. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    AP, I have a hard time imagining Peter telling Jesus in Gethsemane, “You should be happy.” We are to “fill up the measure of His sufferings,” and it would seem to me that Suffering and Happiness are mutually exclusive (though not Suffering and Joy). You’re right in comparing happiness to cake. It’s nice and all, but we are meant for something much deeper and better than cake.

    This is one of the things I love about the songs you write. They’re real. They come from real places. It isn’t just you getting out your Bible and writing something you think you ought to write. Your songs come from your experience, filtered through the lens of Scripture. The Silence of God is a classic in that regard.

    Any art, in order to resonate with other humans, has to do this. “A thing resounds when it rings true.” Humanity, put into perspective by the Word of Deity. “I feel” combined with I AM.

    Christianity is often seen as some sort of Happy Pill; “Things Go Better With Jesus.” But to tell the truth, things sometimes go worse with Jesus. If we’re just looking for short-term happiness, we’re probably better off being materialistic hedonists (some believers are, anyway, I suppose). But if we are looking for Goodness, looking for Father to make us good, trusting, obedient children, maturing us into grown up sons of God who will rule and reign in His universe and judge angels, we need to expect quite a bit of suffering to come our way.

  7. Amy

    Beautiful. And even though I feel like I say this so often, it felt particularly fitting for this moment of my life, for this day when I felt so dark and far from happy and was battling my own set of lies.

    Ray’s right, too, it’s important to feel, whatever it is we are feeing we must feel it through.

    And as cliche and tired as it sounds, I thank God for the words and the songs he gives you. I’m not sure you can ever know the depth of what they mean to me.

  8. Paula Shaw

    Whew! Reading this post, and then hearing the song that is posted on FB, has just wiped me out emotionally. As I read the post, I realized I’d felt the same way many times. I’m thanking God that He’s given you, Andrew Peterson, such a prolific and exquisite gift. Thank you, too, for using that gift to minister to people like me, who just can’t seem to articulate what’s in our hearts. Well, at least in a way that is so fluid and eloquent.
    I love the allusion to St. Patrick’s Breastplate at the end of the song, and just the sheer redemptive quality of, “oh, lay me down in a field of gold and green”.
    Thanks, Andrew.

  9. John Cal

    AP,

    Thanks for the clarification. I have never seen that movie, and my friends tell me that I am a lesser person because of it.

  10. kevin

    John Cal- I’m not saying you are a lesser person, but you sure can’t be living the abundant life until you’ve seen the princess bride.

    AP- Thanks for the transparency. There’s a certain beauty in our failings that shines a bright light on Christ and makes us long for the redemption of our bodies. Until that day, the fact that I still am a stinker is a living example of salvation by grace instead of lawkeeping. All glory to Him who loves me in spite of myself yesterday, today and forver.

  11. carrie luke

    i thank you ap for struggling well, with integrity, and with jesus. this coupled with the community God has given you(your amazingly selfless wife, your “rabbits” at the warren, and the CC’s and other fellow musicians) is what i believe makes your music timeless and incredibly impactful. you will never know this side of heaven the lives you’ve touched and given the light of hope in their own darkness with your music and unique personhood. thank you for being a faithful servant to us. i CAN’T wait for the new album:) huge charlotte, home school mom fan:)

  12. Gordon

    Andrew Peterson,

    I was at that show in Lancaster with my fellow songwriting friend Dan Harney (whom I know you know better than me and just did breakfast with this morning … I’m sure he says hi!). He got me into your music and ever since that first listen, God has used you to take me to deeper levels of faith and art than almost any other artist out there. Thank you for your transparency, artistry and the courage to find God even in the darkest places.

    Just like the George MacDonald quote above, I have experienced God in those same dark places and it seems as though He is more near then than ever before (although praise the Lord for the grace to find him elsewhere in life too ;-). It just reminds me of some lyrics from a song I wrote called ‘Healed’ for my uncle’s funeral about a year a half ago, processing through a God who let’s his faithful servants battle with brain cancer for 9 years before eventually taking them home.

    “So now for those of us who dwell
    Between redemption and the pain
    Would you heal our broken hearts
    With the hope found in your name.”

    It’s in those moments of true pain and beauty that we get those glimpses of eternity that allow our hearts to come more alive and live for all that is to come. Thank you for sharing another one of those ‘windows in the world’ to get our hearts longing for the day of ultimate redemption.

  13. Dan K

    Your post hit me for a few reasons.
    Born & raised in Lancaster. I also set up a multitude of Christian concerts at Lanc. Menonite HS, Hershey E-free, etc. I find it funny your “pit of dispair” moment arose there. (nothing funny about the pit or the dispair, or even Lancaster except that ppl can’t pronounce it correctly; just the coincidence).

    I get to travel to customer sites frequently, and get the feeling of dullness that creeps in when the novelty of travel wears off. it makes you ache for home.
    It has lately occured to me, i need some more routine (regular discipline) in my faith. There is something about training the mind not only to be ready in season and out, but also to carry me thru the outlands. things happen, but I would hardly call it training. faith routines get a bad rap, but they are powerful for bridging some valleys.

    I’ve been struck by Israel’s (and mine) reluctance to remember. “Remember I am the God who brought you out of bondage”, “be still & know”. Basically whenever someone remembers God’s blessings, they are blessed. Not a shocking revelation, but a great way to be equiped to remember is to train yourself. Just my understanding at this time for where I am, no further implications.

    Part 2 since I’m rambling. I’m bothered, like many, by shallow prosperity gospel. I think a bigger understanding (not that I have it but I’m digging on it) of Matt. 11 (yokes & burdens) is needed. Much of the prosperity preaching is a very narrow verse out of proper context. Matt.11 isn’t as easily dug out. It is easy to read this as believe & things will be easy and a light burden (Jesus directly saying “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”). Jesus says this, and things don’t look easy or light for him, and aren’t always for us. G.Macdonald had a rambling on this which helped me, I need to go thru it again. Mainly being yoked beside Jesus, not just putting on his yoke & going solo.

    Thank you for sharing. As Ron said the realness of your songs is powerful. Also loving the references to past songs. AP intepreting AP. Looking fwd to the new album.

  14. Richard Okimoto

    What’s there to be happy about? If you don’t recognize all the sad, lamentable things in the world, then can you really be happy that they have been defeated (and one day we’ll see them all as such)? Nothing is as good as experiencing it knowing that we are redeemed. Otherwise, its just one more coal on our head.

    I can’t wait to hear the new songs.

  15. Leslie

    Thanks for this. I had a seriously dark failure face day yesterday – feeling irretrievably lost. But there was love. And new mercies. We can’t have too many reminders that it is love that endures.

  16. PaulH

    I know that place very well.
    One thing I continue to try to do is strive for Jesus at all times. Brother Lawerence called it his “habit” of Practicing the Prescence of God. Paul wrote that it was praying without ceasing. All that said, it is so much easier said than done. It requires discipline, for sure,but I think God allows those despair, hatred of self moments to actually speak and teach us deep within, if we will recognize that in the moment. I know you know this already. just it is nice to hear a brother express this in words.

  17. JJ

    AP, this is one of the things (out of many) that I love about your music. Unlike some Chrisitian music, you aren’t afraid to write songs about heartache and despair. I’ve heard plenty of Christian albums that are “Hallelujah, oh Joy!” for 12 songs. Well, my life isn’t full of constant happiness. I don’t wake up, spend 8 hours at work, and go to bed in a constant state of peace and joy and warm feelings. Real life often hits you like a freight train and leaves you dazed and confused, unable to see where God is in it all. And from what I read in the Scriptures that’s exactly how life is. Jesus didn’t promise us a life of happiness. Is there joy in the midst of suffering? There can be. And should we be more joyful than those without God because of the hope we have? Absolutely. But read through almost any Psalm and you’ll find incredible doubt and despair BEFORE the joy and faith returns.

    It doesn’t help me in my despair when someone says, “Smile! Jesus loves you!” It helps when someone says, “Life really stinks right now. I know you’re going through a hard time. Let’s just sit here and cry together for awhile.” I think that’s Jesus’ heart too. He cried with Lazarus’ family when he died, even knowing he was going to raise him from the dead! He didn’t say, “Cheer up folks! I love you!” He wept with them.

  18. Aaron Roughton

    Thanks for letting us in on this story, Andrew. But seriously, let’s stop all the badmouthing of cake. It’s the only thing that makes me happy. Do we always have to make a point by tearing something else down here? Rise above, people. Rise above.

  19. Jaclyn

    I can’t think of anything else to add except that I agree with Aaron Roughton. After so many insightful comments and a beautiful post, Aaron’s was the icing on the cake. Pun totally intended.

    Thank you yet again for making my day and giving me something to think over and share with my friends!

  20. Peter B

    What Ron said… and just about everyone else (except the bit about Princess Bride ignorance). Thank you for continuing to use that divine gift to build up the Body.

  21. Joy C

    Thank you Andrew. It’s true. And you’re on the right track. And you said it beautifully well too.

  22. SD Smith

    AP.

    Thanks for holding up a mirror and artfully, humbly noticing things in front of all of us.

    This is true and beautiful.

    Green and Gold would also be a good album title. Fin.

  23. Mike

    Have you folks seen the Book of Eli. there is one scene when the main character has such a look of utter confusion and disbelief that you can almost feel it physically touching you. I’ve been that way with God before. I’m glad the there are song writers that can be honest about such.

    I can’t wait for the new album although I’m still getting to know the songs from Resurrection Letters V2

  24. Robert Treskillard

    AP, thanks for sharing this.

    “It’s been mined and there ain’t no gold”

    …so true, and often it’s us doing the mining and coming up empty.

    God is good. I can’t wait to hear this song.

    -Robert

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