I Cannot Stop Listening: Gut Reactions to the New Derek Webb Album

By Bob Hiller

Remember that song by Garth Brooks where he sang, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers?” Yeah, unfortunately, so do I. It’s this sappy romantic song about how Garth and his wife went back to his hometown and ran across his boyhood crush, the one he had prayed and prayed for God to let him marry. After seeing her he looks at his wife and is just so thankful that God ignored his prayers for the crush so he could marry his wife. God didn’t answer Garth’s prayer. He had a better plan in mind.

How sweet.

I guess there is a certain level of truth in that song, though, it seems to me it is a rather shallow view of prayer. Especially the unanswered ones. While Garth is thanking God for the unanswered prayers, I know people whose faith is near the breaking point because of them. In angst and sorrow they cry out to God for mercy, for hope, for certainty, for healing, for something. And no answer comes. The unanswered prayer is no cause for thanksgiving. For them, it is resulting in a crisis of faith. Where is this God who promises to answer prayer? Why won’t he listen? What’s wrong with Him? What’s wrong with me?

I’m going to be honest, I’ve never had the sort of crisis of faith that causes me to question God’s existence. I’m convinced of the incarnation, resurrection, second coming, and so on. My trials have more to do with whether or not my sins really are too much and whether or not the blood will finally be enough. My struggle doesn’t need someone convincing me that God is real, but it requires a preacher promising He’s gracious.

Where I have a harder time is identifying with someone who is struggling to believe in God at all. When someone is having a crisis of faith that causes them not only to hate God, but to flat our reject Him, I have to work towards empathy. My knee jerk response is to argue, to correct, to fix with the right answer to the wrong questions. I don’t deal well with the doubts and struggles of others, because I am a Lutheran pastor, after all, and I have all the answers! In other words, when someone questions or denounces the God I am so convinced of, I become Job’s worst friend.

This is how I came to the new Derek Webb album, “Fingers Crossed.” Webb, whose album dropped last night, has been a favorite of mine for years. After a stint working in the music section of the Christian bookstore in college, I grew quite cynical towards anything that smacked of CCM. But Webb is different. I’ve always found his music thoughtful, provocative, honest, and, ultimately, gospel-driven. His songs have brought me great consolation and even absolution (something I need quite a bit of). Over the past few years, Webb has had some personal-gone-public sins that have caused many in the “Christian music” community to question his faith and conviction. And (as I’m listening to his new album while writing this blog) it sounds like he’s joined in the questioning. What’s more, some of the songs sound like he’s arrived at the answers–answers I want to correct, I want to discount, I want to dismiss. Maybe it’s all a gimmick, right? I mean, this guy’s music has been damn near pastoral to me, and now he’s having a crisis of faith, maybe even leaving it? I want to sit Job down, shut him up, and fix him.

The last song on the album “Goodbye for Now” (a typically loaded title) is wrecking me. Two lines are particularly haunting:

So either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen. Maybe I’ll never know, either way my heart is broken. As I say goodbye for now.

Excommunication never made much sense to me like abandonment to demonstrate how you’ll never leave.

Now, I want to correct these things. Maybe I ought to decry his Calvinistic leanings and show him the upside of the grace of absolution found in the Lutheran Church. Maybe I’d preach to him about the hidden versus the revealed God. Maybe I could explain the importance of excommunication for the purity of the church and how sometimes if you love someone you have to let them go. Maybe I’d just tell him it may seem like God isn’t there, but sometimes we just need to thank God for unanswered prayers.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time for me to shut up. Maybe it’s time for insecure me (and everyone who is about to write reviews of Webb’s album) to not review, check the judgment at the bar door, buy him a drink and listen. I don’t know if Webb has left the faith. I don’t know where he stands theologically or spiritually. I don’t know him at all, frankly. But, I know people in his shoes. And, like a great evangelical music critic, I’ve done a bang-up job of diagnosing without listening.

Webb’s album is beautiful, painful, and heart-wrenching. It exposes my inability to handle someone whose trials might challenge my faith. But, that’s all the more reason to keep listening, (despite the permission he gives his old fans to stop listening given in the album’s first song), to keep struggling, to keep praying. Yes, to say prayers for Derek Webb or for anyone you know who battles with the silence of God. But, perhaps, those prayers shouldn’t merely be for Webb and others to see God’s hidden plan in unanswered prayers or for them to come around to seeing the truth as clearly as we do, but rather, ours is to join in their lament, to cry out with them. The closing words of the 44th Psalm might be a good place to start as you cry out with them,

“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

“Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Psalm 44:23-26)

My faith is clinging to the hope that such redemption will come. But, hope is hard. Weeping tarries for the night and joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). But, it’s a long night. I mean, there is One who has come through an even greater abandonment than we can conceive of and found that morning. I know this too shall be made right. But, in the meantime, in this time of unanswered prayers, it is right to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, and hope for those who don’t.