Pain & Justice in The Tortured Poets Department

In previous years, Taylor Swift has been stereotyped as a boy-crazy, drama-filled singer-songwriter who expresses her volatile feelings by writing “break-up” songs. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Only about 17% of her songs are about breaking up, and most aren’t rage filled. The other 83% of her music has other more creative themes like love, friendship, and family. Her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, is no different, with its various themes of grief, success, and love.

Swift wrote The Tortured Poets Department during an emotionally tumultuous time of change in her life. In 2023, after the coronavirus lockdown (COVID-19), Swift found an incredible amount of success in her The Eras Tour. It became the top-grossing tour of all time—according to Rolling Stone.1 The fame and success were also accompanied by significant tragedy, when Swift’s six-year-long relationship—which seemed to be heading for marriage—ended. Besides bearing the exhaustion and change of performing The Eras Tour, the ending of such a close relationship also brought its own pain. During the tour there were nights when the crowd noticed Swift’s fragile emotional state and began commenting about it online, concerned about her well-being.

The Tortured Poets Department was written about Swift changing as a person, what grief feels like, and how estranged she feels from herself and the world. She’s asking the question: What do I do when it seems like I’ve been lied to and wronged in broken relationships? This question seems to weigh heavily on Swift as we see in The Tortured Poets Department.

So What?
You might be tempted to think: So what? A billionaire and unbelievably famous singer-songwriter isn’t getting to marry the guy she wanted to. Why should I care? While it’s true that Swift lives a comfortable life, the struggles she’s facing aren’t frivolous “first-world problems.” We’ve all been wronged and are in search of healing and proper retribution for the wrongs done to us. What is unique is Taylor Swift’s emotional intelligence in communicating what it is like to go through those experiences.

In her song “loml” Swift discusses what it’s like to experience embarrassment, depression, and longing to forget unfulfilled promises of one’s deepest desires. For Swift, being a wife and mother were incredibly important to her before the loss of her relationship and she feels betrayed and lied to. She sings:

You s***-talked me under the table/ Talking rings and talking cradles/ I wish I could un-recall/ How we almost had it all // Dancing phantoms on the terrace / Are they second hand embarrassed / That I can’t get out of bed / ‘Cause something counterfeits dead?

Many of us experience these complex feelings when a deep desire we’ve been promised goes unfulfilled. The lie stings our soul; the pain is so great that you just want to forget about your hopes and cover up the desire, pretending you never hoped in a counterfeit future that will never come to fruition.

In the song “How Did It End?” Swift considers what it’s like to try to sort through the details of a relationship, job, or friendship that has fallen apart and what it’s like to listen to people gossiping about your situation. She sings:

We hereby conduct this post-mortem / He was the hothouse flower to my outdoorsman / Our maladies were such we could not cure them / And so a touch that was my birthright became foreign // Come one, come all, it’s happening again / The emphatic hunger descends / We’ll tell no one except all of our friends / We must know / How did it end?

In these lyrics, Swift first reflects on trying to understand how the relationship fell apart. Second, she expresses how it feels when people ask prying questions about how the relationship ended. She feels like she lost something she had the right to and feels violated by on-lookers.

In her song “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” Swift sings about the struggle of achieving the greatest success of her life with The Eras Tour while feeling broken inside from betrayal and sadness. She sings:

‘Cause I’m a real tough kid / I can handle my s*** / They said, “Babe, you gotta fake it ’til you make it” and I did / Lights, camera, b**** smile / Even when you wanna die / He said he’d love me for all time / But that life was quite short / Breaking down, I hit the floor / All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, “More!” / I was grinning like I’m winning / I was hitting my marks / ‘Cause I can do it with a broken heart

Many of us know the pain of having to “perform” our duties with a smiling face while we are broken inside because we’ve been lied to. Even in our daily responsibilities the internal injuries are still bitterly felt.

Processing the Injustice
In other Reflect articles we’ve discussed what we should do when we feel this kind of pain, in this article we’re going to discuss how God responds to injustice. What should we believe about God when it seems like we’ve been wronged because of a broken relationship? Many Christians don’t expect to face severe brokenness and hurt in their own lives—like Swift has faced in hers—so when we face it we are surprised, and often respond in poor ways. We wrongly assume that since Jesus is in our lives, nothing significantly bad will ever happen. Unfortunately, bad things do happen.

We live in a world that was created good by God, but through the wrong choices of humanity has fallen into sin and brokenness. While individuals may experience individual redemption in Jesus Christ, as Christians we are looking forward to when broken people and systems in the world are restored by God to a good and peaceful state. The Christian story is not that people won’t experience pain as we live in a broken world that has fallen from its initial “very good” state in which God created it (Genesis 1:31). Most importantly, we’re promised through Scripture that Jesus will bring redemption to all the pain in our lives.

The promise that Jesus will redeem everything is sometimes used to create terrible cliches that we tell people when they are hurting. For example, “Just trust God” or “Have faith” can imply that if hurting people just try harder then they won’t feel as hurt. Instead, when we say that Jesus will redeem everything, we are making the claim that he is perfectly just, he will ultimately defeat evil, and we can trust him to accomplish this.

The love of God toward all of his creation requires that God practices justice.2 For God to be just means that he will confer to everyone what they deserve. This works out through two kinds of justice. The first kind of justice is about honoring the rights of others. The second kind of justice (retributive) is the action required to restore a person whose right to goodness and flourishing has been violated.3 When someone hurts you by sinning against you, they’ve violated your inherent rights—granted that their actions toward you are genuinely not in your best interest.4

God cares when your right to well-being and flourishing has been violated. Because God is perfectly just, he cares about conferring the correct consequences to everyone, but he also cares about restoring wholeness to broken people who’ve been wronged and violated. To be clear, this isn’t Karma. Justice is perfectly exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ, and God’s justice will be fully accomplished when he brings about the new heaven and new Earth (Revelation 20:11-15). He will end the evil in the world and in our hearts. We all (including Taylor Swift) will have the opportunity to stand before God, and to have the evil in our lives dealt with and to be restored to the person God made us to be. If you’re anything like me, this seems a little scary—like getting a grade back on the most important final test of our lives, but this is not how it will be.

As Christians, we don’t need to fear this judgment because Christ took the consequences for our sin on our behalf, and we are protected in him (1 John 4:17-19). The lie that we are all prone to believe is that God’s justice is destructive and meant to steal goodness and flourishing from us. This is the exact opposite of what God’s justice is. God wants to lovingly restore us because we are his adopted children (Ephesians 1:3-10). When we ask God to lovingly make us more like him and to defeat evil now it is the same request that we will be able to make before him on Judgment Day—except on that day we can say, “God, please complete your work once and for all. Defeat the evil in my heart and restore me to the person that you made me to be!” (Psalm 139:1-6, c.f. Colossians 3:2-4).We can trust him to restore the parts of us that are broken and complete his work of sanctification on that day—we don’t have to battle evil alone.

Elli Ramirez

Elli Ramirez is a M.A. in Philosophy of Religion student at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. She is passionate about helping to equip and support rising generations to embrace God’s truth and champion a biblical worldview. By working in the Publishing and Content Group at Summit Ministries she helps to create and acquire products and resources that equip students. Elli and her husband Victor live in Colorado Springs. When she is not working you can find her spending time with friends and family, going on road trips, reading a good book, hiking in the mountains, or camping.