Grammy Award-winning Christian singer Mandisa has achieved a great deal of success in her life, from appearing on “American Idol” to chart-topping hits such as “Overcomer.” But she has also endured a lot of trauma that left her feeling betrayed by God. It was only in recent years that Mandisa found the support and courage to get help for her mental health struggles and move toward peace and healing. She has now chronicled her life in the memoir, “Out of the Dark: My Journey Through the Shadows to Find God’s Joy,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Though Mandisa is well-known for songs that praise God, she didn’t feel that connection to Him as a young person, despite going to church. It was only after reading Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel “Stranger in a Strange Land,” about a Martian who comes to Earth, in high school that she began seriously thinking about Christianity. She said, “I don’t know if the author was purposeful in this, but [the book] helped me to look at Jesus not just as this story in the Bible, but He’s personal and He’s real and He wants a relationship with us. I think it was a strategic attack on the Holy Spirit’s part, where he was like, ‘I’m going to use anything to get to this woman, who’s trying to shut Me out.’ So, I am thankful that God uses the strangest things in order to get our attention.”
While that was a positive development, Mandisa also experienced a major trauma during her teenage years: she was raped. She recalled that as her assailant sexually abused her, he kept telling her, “You’re so beautiful.” That led Mandisa to start equating “beauty” with “danger” and find solace in food, which played a role in her weight struggles throughout her life. And instead of dealing with the trauma, she suppressed it and tried to move forward.
In the ensuing years, Mandisa’s faith blossomed. She became a contestant on Season 5 of “American Idol,” who publicly forgave Simon Cowell after he made a rude comment about her weight on camera. She recalled, “It’s strange to say God led me towards ‘American Idol’ – of all the words – but seeing how He used it, not just in my life, but even the moment where I forgave Simon and I told him I could do so, because Jesus forgave me for all that I’ve done wrong. I looked at how God used that and hopefully had an impact on other people who may not go to church, but heard this girl on ‘American Idol’ talking about Jesus and forgiveness. You never know how God can use things like that. And it taught me such a great lesson about forgiveness and how the impact is more for the person forgiving than even the person that’s being forgiven.”
In the years after ‘Idol,’ Mandisa’s career soared as she scored hits such as “Good Morning,” “Stronger,” and “Overcomer.” She also engaged in a public weight loss journey that led her to shed 100 pounds. But a personal tragedy would soon knock Mandisa off her foundation into a dark night of the soul.
When her close friend and backup singer, Lakisha Mitchell, was diagnosed with breast cancer, Mandisa firmly believed that faith and prayers – along with standard medical treatments – would ultimately save her life. Unfortunately, Lakisha passed away in 2014 at age 40, leaving Mandisa feeling betrayed by God. “When she passed away,” recalled Mandisa, “it made me start to question God’s goodness and even His existence.”
Mandisa isolated herself from her friends for an extended period of time, finding solace in TV and food. She regained the 100 pounds she had lost – and even more on top of them. Doubts continued to plague her – adding to the unresolved traumas already in her past – and she slowly came to believe “the whispering lie” about God’s existence, noting, “If you ignore it for long enough, it starts to grow deeper and deeper. And I shut myself off from everyone who loved me. That is a breeding ground for a dangerous position.”
That dangerous position involved suicidal feelings. Thankfully, before Mandisa acted on them, her friends staged a coordinated and well-planned intervention, reminiscent of the friends in the Bible who lifted the roof off of a house in order to get their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus. The intervention led Mandisa to finally seek out help and healing.
She said, “I went to counseling as a result of their intervention. And who knew that talking about these things, it’s actually good and healthy for you? It’s not a sign of weakness. In the same way that if you have a physical ailment, you would go and see a doctor, I’ve come to appreciate counselors. These are professionals to help you deal with some things that are easy to sweep under the rug. So, through my counseling journey, which has continued, it’s helping me to talk about difficult issues…that I’m forcing myself to face.”
Mandisa added, “I want to de-stigmatize counselors and therapists in the body of Christ, particularly. Because I sometimes hear the phrase, ‘Well, I’ve got God and that’s enough for me.’ It’s a little bit of a red flag for me, because I feel like He’s made us for community. He made us to depend on one another. So, if you can have somebody come alongside you in your journey, a professional and even my friends, my tribe, they’ve become so important to me as well, because I’ve come to understand, we really do need one another. So, if there’s any takeaway from this book, I hope it’s how much we need one another.”
On that theme of needing one another, Mandisa also touches on the issues of race and diversity in “Out of the Dark.” She grew up a self-proclaimed valley girl in California, an African American surrounded mostly by white people. For college, though, she attended Fisk University in Nashville, a majority black school that was originally founded in the 1800s to educate freed slaves. Those experiences taught her the beauty of diversity.
Mandisa observed, “I’m in this industry, where there’s not a lot of people who look like me…So I love being on tours with so much diversity. That is something to be celebrated. And it’s something that I think God is like, ‘[Without diversity], you are missing the beauty that I have created with the different colors and the different styles. And everybody has different experiences.’ I think if we were to embrace one another – and not just hang around the same kind of people that are just like us – I think we would understand the beauty of diversity that we have in the body of Christ.”
Mandisa has gained much wisdom in the last 10 years, and she hopes that people who read “Out of the Dark” benefit from her experiences, especially in terms of their relationship with God.
She said, “I’m so thankful for David in the Bible, because he was a man after God’s own heart. And he committed murder, he had an affair, there was a lot of things that he did wrong. When I looked through the Psalms that he wrote, one of the things that I see is that he would talk to God about all of it, if he was angry about something or if he was sad or he was joyful. I think what God has been showing me is, ‘When you feel like I didn’t answer things the way that you wanted to, if you’re angry at Me or if you’re sad, come to me with that.’ Before, I thought, ‘Well, no, I need to always talk to God respectfully.’ And I do. But the fact of the matter is, if I’m hurt about something, He wants me to bring that to Him. Not pretend like it’s not there. He knows it’s there either way. When you open up and let Him in on the things that you’re trying to keep hidden, that’s when He’s able to shine light on that. And that’s when He’s able to speak to those issues. So, I’m trying to be like David, and just speak honestly with God. This is more than just a Sunday morning relationship. He really wants an everyday, all day relationship where I can talk to Him about even the things I’m trying to keep hidden.”
(To listen to my full interview with Mandisa, click on the podcast link):