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The Gift of Doubt

How singer/songwriter Sara Groves's dark night of the soul led her to a better understanding of God, his kingdom, and our role in it.

Five years ago, Christian singer/songwriter Sara Groves just wanted to be left alone by the big scary world. And by God.

She'd given birth to her first child, a son Sara and her husband, Troy, named Kirby. And while the adventure into motherhood brought the usual joys to this now 33-year-old woman, it also brought fear, as did a series of tragic events that followed this milestone. In the midst of loss and pain, Sara sought iron-clad promises of safety for her child—and found none.

And so began Sara's wrestling match with the big questions of the Christian faith. The result was a year-long tailspin, during which Sara rarely read her Bible and often felt mired in anger, bitterness, and fear.

"One day in frustration, I said to God, 'Jonah—what was that about?'" Sara explains. "'You chase the man down, and you get him swallowed by a fish. He doesn't want to go to Nineveh.' At the time, I felt like that. I was tired, filled with questions and fears. I felt swallowed up by a big tour bus. Sometimes I didn't want to go minister to people, either. 'Leave Jonah alone,' I told God. 'And, by the way, leave me alone, too.'"

Despite our depravity and selfishness, God uses us to heal this broken world. That's pretty amazing.

This was a surprising turn of events for the "good girl" who had become a Christian at age four, released five critically acclaimed Christian albums, and had made a name for herself with faith-affirming lyrics on hits such as "First Song That I Sing," "All Right Here," and "How Is It Between Us."

Today, sitting at the kitchen table in her suburban Minneapolis home, sipping coffee from a pottery mug, Sara talks openly about that difficult season she now considers a gift. As Kirby, now five, and his younger brother, Toby, two, wander in and out of the kitchen quoting lines from Disney's Tarzan movie, Sara tears up. Her renewed passion for God's kingdom—and our role in it—is obvious. The lyrics on her sixth Christian album, Add to the Beauty (INO), released late last year, and the phrase on her T-shirt both hint at where she's landed two years after her "dark night of the soul": Free to be you and me.

What happened after Kirby was born that triggered your questioning?

Several of my close friends and family members experienced tragic losses. Bringing my vulnerable baby into such a scary world terrified me. I was so worn out from a rigorous touring schedule, I had no reserves left to handle this struggle. I became paralyzed by fear.

Fear of what?

So many "what ifs." I worried about the end of the world and how bacteria are getting stronger and are immune to more antibiotics. I worried about computer hackers who could steal my identity and buy weapons of mass destruction with my Visa.

When I had Kirby, my worry expanded to include abductions, food allergies, and the pond in our backyard. I feared something would happen to him. I'd always told the Lord, "Your will, not mine. Take me, make me, break me." But when Kirby was born, it seemed impossible to say "Take him, make him, break him." I didn't trust God at that level. Death was the source of tremendous fear—not just my death, but my son's death, my husband's death.

I told a girlfriend, "If something happens to Kirby, I don't know if my faith will survive." I realized if I could envision a scenario in which my faith wouldn't survive, then it wasn't surviving now. Even with tough spiritual issues, I'd always said, "Lord, I don't understand it, but I trust you." But for the first time I said, "I don't understand it, and I want to know why. I'm not going to take your word for it anymore."

Did you ever doubt your faith?

I never doubted God exists; I just wasn't sure about his character. It was difficult to understand his sovereignty in the face of awful things that happen in our world.

I kept saying, "I know you're God, and I know you're going to win, but I'm still frustrated." I had so many big questions: If God was sovereign, why did all these bad things happen? How much does prayer impact these situations? I was frustrated and afraid. I didn't even pick up my Bible for about a year.

What finally changed?

I got sick of myself, really. I realized the fruit of my anger, bitterness, cynicism, and fear is anger, bitterness, cynicism, fear, and death.

Once, in my frustration, I said to God, "You don't just give Job a second family and then it's all better." Soon after we had a substitute bus driver, Dick, for a 72-hour drive to a concert in Georgia. At one point, I chatted with him about his family. He'd lost his only son in a tragic accident. Dick and his wife eventually joined a ministry called Helping Hands, which brings terminally ill children from overseas here to get whatever medical treatment they need. Dick and his wife nurse these kids to health and send them home.

Eventually they adopted their son, Brandon. At the end of our conversation Dick said, "If I hadn't lost my son, I never would have met Brandon—and I can't imagine my life without him."

That night, I felt God say, Sara, you go tell Dick the second family doesn't cut it. I realized Dick knew something about depending on his Maker I had yet to understand.

How did that conversation impact you?

I finally picked up my Bible again. I started reading in Job and flipped over to Psalms. I couldn't get enough. And I haven't stopped since. Something broke open inside me.

Soon after, I discovered I was pregnant again. I wanted to set things straight before this new child arrived. My brother-in-law Mick suggested we name the baby Toby, or Tobias, which means the Lord is good. I told my husband, Troy, "The birth of our first child caused me to start questioning, so I'm going to say this is finally over with the birth of our next child." I feel like I dedicated Kirby to the Lord, but I never really gave him over to God. At Toby's dedication, I gave them both to God.

Before, I was trying to create a perfect world for my children; now I want to introduce my children to the world we're in. I thought I wanted to be safe, but I realized I don't want my kids growing up watching me be safe. If that's my highest goal, then I'm not reaching out to the tax collector, I'm not surrounding myself with sinners, as Jesus did.

In the end, this journey has been a gift to me.

How so?

The Lord helped me gain, deep within my heart, a greater understanding of his nature. He is good. I know there will be questions and struggles in the future. I don't have all the answers, but I feel better equipped to handle the questions.

Michael Card, in his wonderful book A Sacred Sorrow, says doubts are actually a profound statement of faith because they're a person saying she won't let go of a good God in the face of the profound evil she's seeing.

When I'd questioned God about Jonah, telling him to leave Jonah—and me—alone, I eventually felt God tell me to ask him about Nineveh. And I thought, Well, Nineveh was an evil place. God continued, And what happens in evil places? I thought, Little girls get abducted from their own stoop. People are awful to each other. There's war and famine. And God said to me, That's why I sent Jonah. I was being personal to a little girl in Nineveh, to a hurting woman there. I was running to their rescue. But I need people to do that. I need you.

I've come to see that's the good news. Despite our depravity and selfishness, God uses us to heal this broken world. That's pretty amazing.

What has healing our broken world looked like in your life?

I feel as though I've spent most of my life grooming my faith. It's been like a nice antique car I've been rebuilding and reupholstering. Lately I've felt, If I don't get to drive this thing real soon, I'm going to explode! I want to live out this faith I've been given instead of devote so much meticulous care to perfecting my worship experience and devotional life. I want to be God's hands and feet.

The process I went through changed my paradigm of what the kingdom of God is. It's coming—but it's also as real now as this chair in which I'm sitting. God has invited us to live in his kingdom in the midst of our regular existence. It's not a place of perfection. It comes when we speak respectfully to our husband, when we refrain from letting our anger spill out onto our kids, when we have the chance to gossip and don't, when we open our home, when we apologize, when we refuse to blame others for our problems.

How have you made an effort to live in that kingdom?

Besides being involved at our church, Troy and I volunteer with Teen Challenge, a Christian drug rehab program for people of all ages. One of their largest facilities is here in Minneapolis. Troy's my manager, and we do whatever they ask: fundraising banquets, chapel hours, a Christmas concert. I love hanging out with the Teen Challenge folks because I love being so close to stories of redemption.

Troy and I also got the chance to go to Slidell, Louisiana, right after Hurricane Katrina. A week before, I'd been in a prayer room at our church sobbing. I'd just read Terrify No More by International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen, and watched the movie Hotel Rwanda. I was struck by the power of one person. I was inspired by Gary's challenge toward the end of his book: "When disaster happens, I've ceased to ask 'Where is God?' and begun to ask 'Where are God's people?'"

What did you do in Louisiana?

Listeners from a local Christian radio station filled our tour bus with diapers and formula. We drove that down to a church a friend of ours attends in Slidell.

I witnessed a miracle of God's provision there. He assembled people from all over the country to raise up a whole warehouse of donated goods where there was nothing five days prior. Chris Tomlin's worship song "Indescribable" includes a line that asks who has seen God's heavenly storehouses. Well, I've seen one of them. It was unbelievable. So I keep looking for such opportunities to be God's hands and feet.

It sounds as though you've come a long way in the past two years.

I always said I'd never write an "it's going to be all right" song, because that seemed so clichéd and simplistic. But on my most recent album, Add to the Beauty, I finally wrote such a song, because ultimately that's what God told me: In the scope of eternity, you're going to be all right. You're going to be beyond all right.

And if what God's done in my life to this date is any indication of what he's going to do in the next world, then I can't even imagine how true that really is.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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