I was thinking today about the Brooks & Dunn hit “God Must Be Busy” and thought taking a long look at it would be interesting. It’s affecting, but why?
The big “what does this song mean” question gets to the heart of its genius. This is not a song about a man who’s lost someone he loves, or about the bad things happening in the world, even though these things occupy the entire space of the song. Instead it is a song about faith and doubt in which we learn about the narrator’s struggle to believe by listening to him talk about the subjects of prayer, never asking if it is effective.
There are three explicit prayers in the first two verses, “the world prays for peace,” “they’re praying that they find the missing three” and “they’re praying that God keeps that girl from danger.” There are, however, bad things that don’t seem to elicit prayer – the mother who lost her job, and the trivial traffic jam. ”God must be busy” is an observation because God has lots of prayers to answer, but it is also ironic. If God is really busy, why is there so much bad in the world?
Verse three continues this ambiguous look at God. One prayer is answered, “them prayers work you know,” but there are new kinds of evil mentioned without any notion that prayers are being offered at all.
In the chorus we learn why the narrator is mulling over all the evil in the world, and in particular thinking about prayer. His own prayers, for the return of “you,” have not been answered. He never questions the existence of God or God’s omniscience – “I know he’s heard my prayers, cause he hears everything.” The narrator never asks “why” his prayers aren’t answered, but we know that’s what he’s wondering, and his answer is “God must be busy.”
In the rambling catalogue of evil and tragedy that eventually circles into his personal tragedy we see a man who has faith enough to say he “knows” God hears everything, and the “them prayers work you know,” but who can’t stop thinking about unanswered prayers. And, tellingly, doesn’t ask God to help him understand. He’s thinking about God, but he isn’t talking to God. He’s really not sure it would do any good – “God must be busy.”
So that’s what the song’s about. How does it get there in such a moving way? First, although the song has a clear structure and lots of rhymes, it has a meandering quality that mirrors the wandering thoughts in the narrator’s mind. Most of the rhymes are not perfect, and they don’t all occur at the end of musical phrases. In the first 8 lines of each verse the rhyme location wanders around a little bit in the music. The last 4 lines of each verse put the rhymes where expected, but lines 9 and 11 don’t rhyme. This variation and use of soft rhymes reinforces the idea that his mind is just jumping from one thing to another.
The tragedies he discusses are also various. They move from far away places – the Middle East — to his own car, stuck in a traffic jam. They range as well from the many, “old folks” to the few in Oklahoma, to a single girl or working mom, and of course the narrator himself. This isn’t a meditation on big evil, or personal evil, but on whatever kind of evil seems to be on the news, which is all kinds.
The setup of the verses makes it clear that his thinking is not conscious or directed — he didn’t sit down and decide to work out why God doesn’t answer his prayers. He thinks about what the news mentions, what he sees outside his car window, and finally what haunts all of this thoughts, his own personal loss. There’s a general movement in the first two verses from the general to the specific, and from the anonymous to the particular that moves naturally to the chorus, but it isn’t explicit or forced.
Because the song is about uncertainty, it leaves us uncertain in many ways about the narrator and his situation. He’s driving, but we don’t know where. He left home, apparently in the morning, but it isn’t clear he’s back home in the last verse, maybe he’s left home forever. When I first listened to the song I assumed his wife or girlfriend had left him, but there’s nothing in the words that requires that. He could be talking a son or daughter who left or died, or a friend.
The reason the song strikes us so deeply is, I think, because in the end the narrator is us. He’s in the same physical situation we are so often in, driving in traffic, and listening to the same news. He’s also in the same spiritual place we are all in, at least much of the time. We’ve all lost loves, prayed for their return, and been disappointed. We’ve all wondered why the world is filled with evil, and all grasped for hope in the one story of prayers answered out of a dozen in which no prayer seems effective. And no one, including the best theologians, has come up with a better answer to all our questions than “God must be busy.”