Growing up, one of my favourite bands was R.E.M. I remember as a young teenager going to the local HMV store and buying their album, ‘Automatic for the People’, on cassette (yes, I am that old!) and listening to it over and over again. My favourite song was called ‘Everybody Hurts’, a hauntingly beautiful track about the pain and suffering we all experience in our lives.
I recently listened to this song again and was struck afresh by the pathos of its lyrics and music, which together give such tender expression to the sadness and loneliness we so often feel. Whether it means to or not, ‘Everybody Hurts’ captures the tragedy of the Fall and the soul-piercing alienation we all suffer as a result. Who at times doesn’t, as the song puts it, “feel like letting go” because “you think you’ve had too much of this life”?
But what is R.E.M.‘s remedy for the pain we all, to one degree or another, experience? It is simply this: “Hold on.” This is the refrain that echoes throughout ’Everybody Hurts': you’ve just got to hold on. Don’t give up or let yourself go, even if you’re sorely tempted to do so. Just hang on in there.
There are, to be fair to R.E.M, some slightly more positive encouragements. For example, “Take comfort in your friends” and “you are not alone.” It is, indeed, a great blessing to have close friends to help us in dark days. And it is good to know that, when we’re depressed, others have been there before us. These things can help us to “hold on.” But they fall well short of what really helps when ‘everybody hurts’.
This was the other thing that struck me when I listened to this song again: that, for all of its poetic genius in describing the tragic effects of the Fall, it offers no real or lasting solution to such tragedy. After all, what if you don’t have any friends in whom to take comfort? What if you are on your own? How much harder it then is to “hold on” when you are suffering, at least in a way that transcends anything more than Stoic resilience.
But this is where, to use a crassly commercial term, the ‘cash value’ of Christianity is realised. For we know that when we are hurting, when we feel like letting go, and when we think that we’ve just had too much of this life, we have a friend who is closer than even the best brother and who is very much with us in our suffering.
And this is what we celebrate at Christmas: him who was “pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.” Jesus, when he left heaven and came to earth, immersed himself in the ‘everybody hurts’ reality of our world. He suffered and groaned as no one had ever done before. He, at times, felt like letting go. He was, especially towards the end of his life, tempted to think that it was all just too much to hold on. But he did hold on. He hung on to the end. Until on the cross he truly was all alone.
Our Immanuel was, we might dare to say, ‘un-Immanuelized’ for those awfully infernal hours on the cross. Why? So that we, his precious friends, might never taste the torment of perpetual pain and abandonment. Jesus, our Immanuel, has removed far from us the poisonous root of all our hurt, pain and suffering: our sin has been forgiven, our guilt dismissed, and our enemy de-fanged. Now, we are with God and he with us.
I do not blame R.E.M. for their gospel-lite remedy to the hurt everybody feels. What they say is simply the wisdom of the world. But we have been given something so much better: heavenly truth and divine riches, all of which are found in Jesus.
Perhaps you are hurting at this time. Perhaps you cannot be jolly this Christmas because the pain, for whatever reason, is too great. If so, let me remind you: Jesus, your faithful and perfect friend, is with you and, in all of your suffering, he will give you the grace to hold on.