I learned long ago that my hope in Christ does not grant me immunity from feelings of hopelessness. I look to the Light of the World for help, but sometimes my heart seems impervious to His illumination. In the midst of my own darkness, however, I am encouraged when I encounter other believers who struggle similarly but live bright, hopeful lives despite the melancholy within.
Singer-songwriter Sara Groves is one such person. She has been candid about her struggles with anxiety and depression, but any black cloud hovering over her seems to be no match for the radiance of Jesus Christ. In her work as a musician, an advocate for the International Justice Mission, and a cofounder of Art House North in St. Paul, Minnesota, the glory of God somehow shines through the gloom.
Chad Thomas Johnston: What advice do you have for those of us who want to hope in Christ, but find it difficult because the darkness we encounter in daily life is easier to believe—because it’s here in the world we can see and touch?
Sara Groves: When you talk about a darkness that is believable, I really relate to that. I think we tend to turn to the tangible things, and it can be difficult to do the same with an abstraction. But I also feel it’s what we do when it comes to the stories that we really grab onto and hope are true. We root for the ones that manage to pull light from darkness—and this is what God does. He pulls light out of the darkness, and [did so] as early as the first day of creation in Genesis.
I see a lot of disembodied hope out there, and by that I mean this tendency to tell yourself everything’s fine—positive thinking, really. But that’s not the gospel that saved me. The gospel that saved me is rooted in Gethsemane. It has to be real and gripping or it won’t have traction when anxiety or depression are present, or in the difficult circumstances in which millions of people find hope in Christ all over the globe. If this gospel matters at all, it has to matter when I'm hurting. So this Redeemer that comes to know us—this Immanuel that puts on human flesh—He helps my life make sense.
CTJ: He experiences the darkness and then triumphs over it. Which means He can empathize with us. It’s like Psalm 34:18, where it says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
SG: Yes! Jesus says, “You know where to find Me. I’ll be with those who are downcast. I’ll be with those who are hurting or poor in spirit.” That's where you'll bear witness to really miraculous things in this world. If you want to find this God you can hold or understand, that’s where you go.
Jesus says, “You know where to find Me. I’ll be with those who are downcast.”
CTJ: Are there certain experiences of God you return to again and again that serve as anchors for you when you’re feeling hopeless—experiences that help you maintain your hope in Christ?
SG: Yes, and my mentor in this regard is my grandfather. He had a hard time reconciling the vivid life in Christ portrayed in the gospels with what he was doing when he went to church. He and my grandmother volunteered at a federal prison in my hometown for 40 years, and that was where he found and expressed his faith. He was serving as the hands and feet of Christ—but I think he would say he was receiving Christ there, too.
CTJ: I know you work with International Justice Mission (IJM). Can you talk about that a little?
SG: In my late 20s I had a faith crisis, and at that time I just realized I needed to go where people were—where they’d been lost and then they were saved. I needed to see that because I had this disembodied faith and I needed to see it incarnate. That happened when I found IJM.
I started partnering with IJM in 2005 as an arts partner and advocate. That was life-changing for me because I saw men and women of faith engaged in bringing about the kingdom life in places where there had not been life for a long time. And they were pushing back the darkness in very real ways: They were working to stop violence and to strengthen judicial systems to protect those who can’t protect themselves.
I learned that if we're not listening to the people crying from the margins, we can kind of end up with a disembodied faith that doesn't have any incarnational life—and that's what I needed. Any way to keep my feet on the ground!
CTJ: It’s too easy to think about the kingdom of God as being something that’s happening somewhere besides here.
They were pushing back the darkness in very real ways: They were working to stop violence and to strengthen judicial systems to protect those who can’t protect themselves.
SG: On my album Add to the Beauty (2005), I’m saying “The kingdom’s among us. I think it’s here.” Charlie Peacock always says, “Awaken the kingdom imagination.” Think, How can I participate in the kingdom life here? What if we were doing what God does—pulling light from darkness—out in the world? What if we pull people out of their circumstances? I think of Jeremy Courtney, founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition, serving in Iraq and Syria—that’s as grounded in reality and hardship as it gets.
CTJ: You and your husband founded an event venue called Art House North, with the intent of “nurturing a creative community of people who learn, grow, and create together,” as your website says. Your slogan is “Creative Community for the Common Good.” What exactly do you guys do?
SG: We basically followed in the footsteps of Andi Ashworth and Charlie Peacock, who founded an Art House in Nashville. We block off a street and host a square dance every summer. We have a church that meets on Sundays, and they host a meal where they block off the street and have a big table down the center of the street. A theater company does all of its productions out of the Art House. It’s been so community-driven, and we’ve put a lot of joyful trust in people.
CTJ: It sounds as if you’re adding a lot of beauty to the community.
SG:When we bought the church where Art House North is based, the windows were boarded up and the neighborhood had been hit by the housing crash, so there was kind of a sense of depression there. When we were looking to buy it, I had a vision of light coming out of the windows and just a real sense of pride around it—that people would be glad it was here.
CTJ: Your approach to culture is really refreshing. Growing up, a lot of Christians I knew were very preoccupied with fighting culture instead of creating something lifegiving.
SG: In his book Culture Care, the artist Makoto Fujimura says, “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.”
CTJ: I like that. So you and your husband are sort of working as cultural gardeners in St. Paul?
SG: Yes, I hope so!