Working in a level-four neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for over 12 years, Grace Assad has cared for newborns with heart defects, rare genetic disorders, and risky surgery recoveries. Navigating infant loss is part of her job.
She’s also a songwriter and musician, making music with her husband Peter under the name “poems of grace.” Their latest single, “Held,” came as a cathartic expression of grief and heartbreak after sitting with a family through a traumatic loss. Assad wanted the song to be a gift to hurting parents and her NICU coworkers.
The cutting lyrics don’t obscure the aching reality of loss:
Darkness shrouds where light began
Unwelcome guest breaking in
Quiet crib, weeping room
Beating breast, needless food
Assad’s new release is part of a recent outpouring of Christian music that explicitly addresses contemporary suffering.
While songs of lament have always been a part of Christian worship, this cohort of Christian artists are singing about issues that can carry stigma in church settings, including trauma, abuse, and mental health. Their raw, confessional lyrics invite believers to name their struggles and speak about them honestly with God and their communities.
Like many who face grief and pain, Assad said she feels tempted to put up emotional barriers to cope with the loss she sees in the NICU. But remaining sensitive and open is important to her—and part of why she put her experiences into her music.
“I want to be strong, but I want to stay soft,” said Assad. “Human beings can endure a lot, sometimes at the expense of the walls we build up.”
Artists like Assad are hoping that by choosing honesty and vulnerability, listeners and worshipers will feel empowered to do the same.
In his newest album, Manna Pt. 1, Chris Renzema writes openly about doubt and the realities of living with mental illness as a person of faith. The album features the song “God & Prozac,” a reflection on God’s promise to make all things new amid the reality of being stuck in a world where things aren’t as they should be:
The better part of my twenties spent writing songs about God
On a Prozac prescription, doesn’t that seem odd?
’Cause I believe in a gospel and a God who is good
But these chemicals don’t always work like they should
Songwriter and recording artist Matt Maher sees this wave of unfiltered, tender, gritty music as part of a trend toward music that foregrounds vulnerability and honesty.
“In an age of so much edited, curated, AI-assisted, performative content, people are dying for something real,” said Maher, who contributed to the new album, Sanctuary Songs, from The Porter’s Gate .
Sanctuary Songs is a collaboration between a group of musicians and mental health professionals from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, an organization that seeks to help churches address mental health and serve those in crisis.
“If we’re living life authentically, there’s always going to be pain and joy at the same time,” said Daniel Whitehead, CEO of Sanctuary.
“Everyone on the planet needs someone to look them in the eyes and say, ‘I see you as you are and I’m glad you’re here,’” Whitehead said. “I hope [Sanctuary Songs] will do that, that people will feel seen. It’s an invitation to bring their whole authentic selves to the church.”
Some tracks on Sanctuary Songs are well-suited for congregational use. “I want to be where my feet are,” the refrain of “Centering Prayer,” invites singers to meditate on God’s presence in the here and now, to listen to the beating of their hearts, and to release their worries and their striving.
“Centering Prayer” is a particularly approachable song because its tone is hopeful, and the text setting is syllabic and singable. Incorporating mournful or emotionally raw selections may be more of a challenge. Maher said that leaders may be hesitant to use songs that take a worship service in a dark or sorrowful direction because of the desire to maintain a particular emotional arc in the service.
“If you start singing about this stuff on a Sunday morning, people wonder how you could sing about it for seven or ten minutes and then just move on to the next part of the service,” he said.
That practical concern is likely a barrier for churches that want to incorporate lament but worry about abrupt shifts in tone or seemingly rushing through a moment that requires sensitivity and patience.
These concerns are valid, said Whitehead, but churches need to learn to navigate worship services that include a range of emotional experiences.
“If we don’t do that—and I’m saying we because I’m part of the church too—we’re going to lose a whole bunch of people,” said Whitehead.
Although some studies suggest lower rates of depression and other mental health struggles among Christians, some researchers suggest that the rate isn’t actually lower—rather, the reported rates are lower because of persistent stigma.
The pressure and disillusionment he experienced as the pastor of a church plant brought Peter Assad to his breaking point; he found himself overwhelmed by depression and suicidal ideation. In 2021, he stepped down as pastor and left his church plant. “[As a pastor] you rub up against grief pretty regularly. It affects you,” said Assad.
Worship leader and songwriter Rachel Wilhelm has seen people she loves leave faith communities because of institutional unwillingness to acknowledge trauma, harm, and abuse. Until recently, she was a worship leader at an Anglican church in Tennessee, and she is vocal about the destruction of abuse in the denomination and in the church more broadly.
Her new album, Jeremiah, features songs using lyrics adapted from the prophetic Old Testament text that speak explicitly about spiritual abuse and the desire for vengeance. The song “Vengeance with the Sword” is a rare treatment of a violent text in sacred song that doesn’t water down the anger and desire for retribution found in Jeremiah 25:
Shepherds, run and wail,
Roll about in your own filth.
Leaders of the flock,
Your own slaughter is fulfilled
For the trust, the trust that you have killed.
Despite the sharp, confrontational tone of the song, Wilhelm sees this work as an act of stewardship and kindness.
“God needs his people to know that he cares about justice. And God’s justice is always good,” said Wilhelm. “As artists, we’re carrying feelings and burdens for people, then releasing them into the world, hoping we capture their experience for others.”
She knows that churches most likely won’t program songs like “Vengeance with the Sword” for Sunday morning worship services, but she does hope that the creation of new music that conveys God’s compassion and care for those suffering trauma and abuse will help prompt churches to rethink what Sunday morning is for.
“Some people treat Sunday like the vacation day of the week, and church is a part of that,” said Wilhelm. “They want to check their negative feelings at the door. We don’t know how to bring struggle into the service and lay that at the feet of Jesus.”
Laying suffering at the feet of Jesus and seeing him as a companion in human suffering brought Grace Assad healing and comfort while writing “Held.”
“He’s not called ‘man of sorrows’ because he wept at a grave one time,” said Grace Assad about Jesus. “He was well acquainted with our grief. And that’s the hope we have.”
Poems of grace’s new album, Rivers to Eden, traces a journey from wilderness to flourishing, opening with the song “East of Eden,” which voices collective struggling in a barren world:
East of Eden, far from all we’ve known
In desert places searching for a home
Barren wasteland, thorn and thistle grow
Troubled labor, cursed and fruitless toil
The final track is “Come, Lord Jesus, Come,” addressing a listener still in the wilderness, but blessed and seen:
Blessed are those who yearn within
This wilderness to be free
Who hear the call to enter in
Who answer, sit, and eat
“I hope someone feels understood listening to it,” said Peter Assad, who sees this kind of music as pastoral, an act of caring for God’s flock.
Caring for the church as a worship leader and musician requires responsiveness and compassion. Chris Juby, worship arts coordinator at King’s Church Durham, wrote the song “In My Distress” after a close friend died from suicide last year. He needed a song that asked questions and offered no answers.
The song, featured on the forthcoming double album Downcast Souls / Expectant Hearts from Resound Worship, questions God’s faithfulness, presence, and compassion:
Lord I come in my distress
Can you bear my brokenness?
Will you keep your promises?
Do you care?
Resound Worship will start releasing tracks from the album in October. Juby and the other writers in the UK-based songwriting collective hope that the music on the album will continue to push churches to widen the emotional vocabulary of their musical worship, even if it’s a little uncomfortable.
“There is an opportunity here to be pastoral, just to sit and listen,” said Whitehead. “To journey with someone in the midst of their pain is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person. But it’s very hard for many of us.”