Since her arrival on the pop music scene during American Idol's talent-drenched fifth season (which also introduced us to Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks), Mandisa has become a steady and praise-worthy presence in the Christian music world. Each of her four albums has earned Grammy nods. And this year for the first time, her latest effort, Overcomer, was named Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. (Its title track won Best Contemporary Christian Music Song).
Poignantly, perhaps, Mandisa wasn't present to accept her awards. Writing on her blog the day after they were announced, she confessed, "I have been struggling with being in the world, not of it lately. I have fallen prey to the alluring pull of flesh, pride, and selfish desires quite a bit recently. … I knew that submerging myself into an environment that celebrates those things was risky for me at this time. I am taking steps to renew my mind to become the Heavenly Father-centered, completely satisfied with Jesus, and Holy Spirit-led woman I felt I was a few months ago."
She added, "With what I do for a living, and the doors that have opened for me to sing about Jesus on mainstream platforms, I take the phrase from John 15:19, 'be in the world, not of it' seriously. God never taught us to stay in our safe Christian bubbles, completely separating from those who do not share our faith (see 1 Corinthians 5). After all, how else will people come to know Him, if not by His children? We must live, look, and speak differently so that we shine (see Matthew 5, Philippians 2, and 1 Peter 3)!"
And shine she does on Overcomer.
"Overcomer" immediately sets the upbeat tone for this eminently listenable pop album. "Whatever it is you may be going through," Mandisa tells us, "I know He's not gonna let it get the best of you/You're an overcomer/Stay in the fight 'til the final round." A bit later she exhorts, "Hang on to His promises/He wants you to know/The same Man, the Great I Am/The one who overcame death/Is living inside of you." "Press On" acknowledges that God redeems even our most difficult struggles. "What Scars Are For" says that even though the emotional wounds we receive in life "aren't pretty," they "remind me of Your faithfulness." The song eventually zeroes in on the very literal scars Jesus bore on our behalf: "I see it on the cross/The nails You took for me/Scars can change the world/Scars can set me free." "Where It All Began" unpacks similar themes of trust and perseverance amid struggle and heartache.
"The Distance" celebrates the fact that God pursues us even when our sin feels as if it might separate us from Him. Echoing Romans 8:35, Mandisa insists, as the Apostle Paul did, "Nothing can separate us/ … Your love is enough, enough." Elsewhere in the song, she says of God's holy hounding, "You are relentless/You've always been/Pursuer of my heart." "Dear John" encourages a struggling friend not to give up on his faith, reminding him of the forgiveness that can be his in Christ.
"Face 2 Face" looks forward to heaven ("I'm learning that the world I know/Is never gonna feel like home/'Til I'm face to face/Face to face/With You, my Savior"), and appropriates imagery and lyrics from one of Christendom's most recognizable hymns ("We'll sing holy, holy, holy is the Lord/Like a sea of voices praising your name"). "At All Times" reminds us that we can praise and worship God no matter what our circumstances ("Worship while you're weeping/Worship while you're waiting/Worship while you're winning"). "Joy Unspeakable" is the outcome of living a life of faith, gratitude and surrender.
"Praying for You" is a love letter to a husband Mandisa hopes for but hasn't met yet. She promises purity until that day comes ("I'll honor you with purity/ … For now I'm waiting, anticipating/ … Every day I'm praying for you").
Occasionally, Christian artists striving for crossover appeal have watered down their spiritual messages so much that when you hear a personal pronoun like you in their songs, it's unclear whether they're singing about their Savior or some significant other.
There is absolutely no such confusion on Overcomer.
Mandisa's muscular, winsome and passionate trust in her Lord is front and center on every track as she praises God for giving her the strength to surmount spiritual barriers. She rightly acknowledges that fear, weariness and brokenness are obstacles that she (and we) will inevitably face along that journey—obstacles she hinted at with vulnerable candor in what she wrote about the Grammys.
But as long as we keep lifting our eyes to the One who pursues us, loves us and redeems us in the midst of those hurts, Mandisa continually testifies, those struggles will never have the final word. Instead, we, too, will become overcomers whose lives glorify the gracious God who frees us from sin and fear.