Michael Card* is a gifted and well-known Christian singer, songwriter, and author. He has recorded more than 20 albums, authored or coauthored more than 14 books, hosted two radio programs, and written for numerous magazines. However, he didn’t start out with the intention or desire to be a Christian musician.
Adventist Review assistant editor Bonita Joyner Shields had the opportunity recently to talk with Michael.
BJS: How did you “get into music”?
MC: I originally felt a call to be a teacher, and had begun preparing for that role. I got a master’s degree in biblical studies, and was going to continue on to get a doctorate and teach in the university setting. I think I still operate under that call. One day Dr. William Lane, my primary professor at the university, and who was also the pastor of the church I attended, knew that I played the guitar. He gave me some of his sermons and said, “I think you have a musical gift. Try to write us some songs.” So, the first several songs that I performed were from his sermons. Yet even at that point, Bonita, I didn’t do it because I felt it was a call. I did it to please Bill! I would have done anything in the world for him.
How have your biblical studies, especially your studies into Judaism, contributed to your music and to your Christian walk?
There’s a value system that you get from Judaism that I don’t think is part of American Christianity. I think the most important thing is that it gives us a context for what we’re reading. It’s always good to bring the story of a text into our own situation, but the first thing we have to do is to hear its original context. That has made all the difference in the world to me.
I think also that there’s a mentality of feasting in Judaism that we miss. Part of it comes from Sabbath observance, but part of it comes from the culture. Much of the time they didn’t get enough to eat, or they got barely enough. So when you see Jesus attending so many parties—I like to say that Jesus was preoccupied with parties!—you understand that in that culture when you didn’t often get full, what a big deal it was to get together. When you expand on that you realize why when God speaks of His return, He speaks of a feast! But it’s difficult for us to have that mentality when we feast every day.
You and your family observe the Sabbath. How did you begin observing it, and what difference has it made in your life?
There is not one moment I can point to and say this is where I began to attempt to observe the Sabbath. Both of my grandfathers, who were Baptist preachers, also observed the Sabbath. So it was kind of bred into both my parents.
I am careful to say that I am trying to observe it because it is such a constant struggle to do so, to rest when God says to rest. But when Sabbath happens for me and my family, everything changes. We are closer to each other as a family, and as a family we are closer to God.
In your latest book, Sacred Sorrow, you talk about how we often avoid suffering and sorrow at all costs, including the cost of our own souls. Could you elaborate on that?
I realize that is an extreme statement. However, Scripture throughout speaks of lamenting. To lament is to have an honest conversation with God about your suffering. So, for example, when a person has cancer or has a child who dies, if that doesn’t become part of an honest conversation with God—“Where are You?” “Stop hiding Your face.” “Wake up!” “Why did You let this happen?”—then gradually what happens is that denial very subtly takes place. And as that grows, I think it can suffocate your relationship with God. It’s then not the God of the Bible that you’re in relationship with anymore. It’s this God that you’ve made up. The God of the Bible is moved by our tears. And He can take it when we are frustrated and angry with Him. I think He invites that kind of discussion before He would want us to deny or walk away, or pretend that everything is OK when it’s not.
I think the dialogue begins in Scripture—God speaking to us. Dr. Lane, my mentor, used to say that God’s final and conclusive and authoritative Word is the Bible. He doesn’t stutter! That is not to say that there are no mysteries there. But I think that’s where the dialogue begins. It’s only when that has made an impact on your life that you learn how to respond, what to say, what you can say. Actually, I don’t think there are things you can’t say to God. Look at Job. He said some of the most cold-blooded, hurtful things in his conversations with God. He said basically that God doesn’t care. Of course we know that’s not true. I think what’s not appropriate, however, is to act as if He’s not there.
How do we align grace with obedience?
Grace is the only thing that allows obedience to make sense. I’m not obedient because I’m afraid that God’s going to get me. Grace is the motive for obedience. Obedience grows out of relationship.
For example, last night was the Fourth of July, and our family was all together. The kitchen was a total wreck because we’d been hunting and pecking in the kitchen all day long. Well, my youngest son and oldest daughter were the last ones awake. As I walked to bed I said, “It would sure be nice if you cleaned up the kitchen.” I didn’t say, “If you don’t clean up the kitchen, you’ll be punished!” Yet, as I went to sleep I heard dishes rattling. The two of them were cleaning that kitchen. Do they do that every time? No. But the reason they were obedient was because of our relationship.
Obedience that really matters is not dead works—the New Testament says that whatever is not of faith is sin. It’s the obedience that comes from the understanding that God will love me even if I’m not obedient—which makes me want to obey Him all the more! Actually, obey Him—certainly. But it’s really a matter that I want to please Him.
Your song “The Edge” is quite powerful. What is the history of that song?
As you know, it’s a song about suicide. “The edge” is the idea of going over the edge. It came out of my own experience. Twice in college when I was struggling with a lot of things, I came very close to committing suicide. People tend to move in the direction of suicide because they think there’s no other way to make the suffering stop. There’s no other escape from the pain. In my own experience, what happened both times was that it became a real exercise of the will. I came to a place in which I said, “I’m just not going there. I’m not going to go to that place anymore where it’s that dark.”
Now, I’m certain that God gave me the grace to do that. I don’t think it was my own accomplishment that kept me from going in the direction that I was going. I almost called the song “The Pledge.” I pledged by God’s grace that I will not go again to the place that holds these destructive behaviors and ways of thinking. I’m just not going there.
I’ve had a couple of counselors upset by that song. “We think it is dangerous to teach people that they can say no to those things.” I really disagree with that. I think it is dangerous to teach people that it is not within their own power to say no to it. There comes a time in your life when you have to make a decision. Yet, the only way you make that kind of decision is by God’s grace. It’s all His doing.
The line that bothers most people in the song is the line that says, “I’ll drink down death like water.” But what that says is that I will drink down death, I will endure anything, but I’m not going to go there again. I’m not going to the point where I try to become God, and to decide when the pain is going to stop. My mother is 90 and is suffering with Alzheimer’s. She frequently says, “I’ve lived too long.” It’s a lament, really. And I’ll say to her, “God decides how long you live. You’ve got to trust Him.”
What is it about your spiritual journey that is the most challenging?
I think that probably changes. There are many things that other people struggle with that I don’t struggle with, and vice versa. I have friends who question their salvation.
I have never for a split second questioned my salvation. I think I struggle a lot with [spiritual] gifts. I believe that one of my gifts is discernment. Yet I misuse that gift. I’ll discern something about a person, and then I’ll judge them. And that’s a horrible misuse of the gift.
I describe myself as a high-moral-grounds person. I think that’s always been a struggle because, again, I judge people to this standard. I see that one of my sons has this same struggle. He’s outraged when one of the kids at his school does something that’s not right. It takes his joy away. Ironically, for some strange reason I tend not to be as outraged at my own behavior!
You’ve stated elsewhere that the Bible is taking us somewhere. What do you mean?
That really means a lot to me. Maybe because over time I began feeling that I wasn’t going anywhere. But the fact is that there is a deliberate journey from immaturity to maturity; from hearing about God to really moving into relationship with Him. You see that in Job. He begins the journey offering sacrifices for sins his children might have committed, and God is sort of this principle in his life. He works and works and works to do and say the right things. He then enters into lament, and has a chance to struggle and wrestle with God the way Jacob wrestled with the angel. Then, at the end of the journey, it’s not that Job gets his stuff back. At the end of the journey Job gets God back. That’s when the great statement comes, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). I think that articulates what the end of the journey looks like.