Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Time to Get Critical: Mandisa’s “Stronger” and “Overcomer”


Mandisa is a popular CCM artist but her two most recent songs are poor influences. They encourage listeners to focus on their own abilities and to seek power to overcome difficulties inside themselves, rather than trusting in God for help. The songs make inappropriate guarantees of end to difficulty, and relegate God's role in our suffering to the sidelines, as someone cheering us on rather than leading us through it. For these reasons, I discourage everyone from listening to or promoting those two particular songs. Their melodies are no substitute for their lacking content.


                I don’t know this particular artist, I can only judge the subject matter of the songs that are aired constantly on my local Christian radio stations. Their frequency implies that they are very popular, and so I think it’s important for there to be an analysis of them on the Internet somewhere. I’ll do my best to give them a fair treatment here.

                The songs are not blatantly anti-Christian, and in fact have a few references to Biblical doctrines (the latter more so than the former), but these would be easily missed by the Biblically illiterate main stream christian crowd, and especially any nonbelievers who might be listening in. The songs unfortunately fall into the category of CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) that can be summed up as “self-help encouragement.” The problem is not that it attempts to make people feel good, but that the emphasis is far too often on some alleged inherent capacity in the individual to “be great,” rather than on relying on God for blessings.

                Now I’ll look at a sampling of the lyrics. Here is the chorus from “Stronger”:

When the waves are taking you under
Hold on just a little bit longer
He knows that this is gonna make you stronger, stronger
The pain ain’t gonna last forever
In time, it (can/will) only get better
Believe me, this is gonna make you stronger, stronger

As is common when I write the longer blog posts, I’m not online as I write this, and so I can’t remember the entire song’s lyrics (repetitive as they are), but here is an excerpt from the second verse:

Try and do the best you can
Hold on (for as long as you can/and let Him hold your hand)
Go on, fall into the arms of Jesus [**the only reference to Him by name in the entire song]
whoa oh oh
****** (I can’t remember this line)
Even if you cannot feel Him
I promise you that He still cares

                All right. So what’s wrong with that? Let me count the ways: 1) emphasis on what you do, not what God has done for you or will do through you, 2) unBiblical promise that pain will go away (the song does not imply it will end in heaven), 3) unBiblical view of sanctification, 4) distant view of Christ as someone on the sidelines cheering you on.

                And the part that bothers me the most is the most subtle: “He knows that this is gonna make you stronger.” The He knows part galls me. Why? Because it says that whatever you’re going through is going to make you a better person somehow, and the only role Jesus has in the whole situation is to know that that’s the case. He apparently DOES nothing, just watches you suffer. At most, the song implies that Jesus tells you that it’s going to get better. But He doesn’t actually help you. The lyrics frame Christ as either unconcerned, sadistic, or impotent. Combine this with the end of the last line of the second verse: when I first heard the song, it sounded as if it would naturally end in, ‘Even if you cannot feel Him, I promise you that He’s still there.’ But according to this song, Jesus isn’t even present with you in your afflictions. He “cares,” but “Stronger’s” Jesus doesn’t ever show it. He’s like the estranged grandparent who lives in the next town over and sends $20 and a generic Hallmark card on birthdays but never visits or calls. I don’t want a God who “cares.” Personally, what has always made most sense to me is to have a God who “knows.” Because since He is omniscient, that means He knows all about my problems, and He knows the best way to answer my prayers. I can trust such a God. But a God whose main emphasis is on emotion divorced from rationality is a scary thought. What good does it do if God, or anyone, “cares” but doesn’t help you? The problem I have with this is that emotions, in the present culture, are viewed as chemical sensations and not as goal-motivators. When I say that God cares, it means that He’s actively being intimately involved in your personal struggles and is guiding you through them for His glory and your good, as the Bible says. When the Culture says “God (or anyone) cares,” it means that He feels bad for you – but that’s the extent of it. In the contemporary view of emotion, God caring about you doesn’t mean anything! It does nothing for you! So how, then, can this possibly be encouraging to someone? I affirm that it can’t. And so the song, though it seems aimed at being encouraging on its face, really plants seeds of discouragement in the listener. Because what happens after a person has been struggling for 30 years, wondering every day when their affliction will end, and all the time people are telling them “hey, God cares.” They’ll despise the gesture. It’s as meaningless as saying “Jesus loves you” because people don’t know what love IS. We need to explain these things, we can’t just throw them out. And sadly, the context of how the words show up in this song confirms that the “encouragement” is empty.

                Do I have a Bible verse to justify this with, so I’m not just throwing out my opinion? You bet. And this is what I challenge the people who say “God cares” frivolously with:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
James 2:15-16


                Bottom line: you don’t always get stronger. Sometimes people get utterly crushed. What the Gospel says is that even in utter defeat and death, you can still look forward to everlasting life in the world to come. It isn’t about feeling good in this life. Consider this video of Matt Chandler preaching: “It Could End Badly.”

                And now I’m moving on to the song “Overcomer.”

You’re an overcomer
Stay(in’) in the fight til the final round
You’re not going under
‘cause God is holding you right now
You might be down for a moment
Feeling like it’s hopeless
That’s when He reminds you
That you’re an overcomer

                My big criticism with this song is the same as the last. God is seen as a sidekick whose single role is to impart to the Main Character—You—some helpful words of inspiration that will allow you to unlock your inner strength and rise to a new level of greatness. God becomes the Uncle Ben of Spiderman, whose only redeeming quality is a one-liner that becomes the guiding principle for the Main Character after the former’s offscreen death. If you haven’t realized the number one problem with this yet, let me point it out: you’re not the main character!!! GOD is. You’re an extra, barely a supporting character—unless the Director, who’s also the Main Character, decides to give you a bigger role to play. Are you getting the idea, now? The center of your life shouldn’t be YOU, it should be God. By making the self the central focus of a person’s life, they effectively practice idolatry. God should be the center. It’s no wonder that Mandisa’s songs are so popular, because the people who live this lifestyle are guaranteed to hit a wall and feel desperate for a pick-me-up. You can’t function in life if your entire spirituality is so off balance. Yes, people can seem to, outwardly. But sooner or later, they’re going to get exhausted from running their drama with a crew of one. Mandisa’s song unfortunately perpetuates the very thing that makes people desire the encouragement her songs purport to give. From a marketing standpoint, this is an effective way to ensure a steady supply-demand relationship. But from the perspective of actually solving the problems, her songs are not the answer. Here is an utterly confusing verse from the end of the song:

Don’t give up, don’t give in
Hang on to His promises
--- --- ---
He wants you to know
That you’re an overcomer!!

                Hey, ‘hang on to His promises,’ that sounds nice! But what promise? One would reasonably conclude that based on this song, Mandisa thinks that God promises that we shall overcome. A different song, this one by Jeremy Camp, puts it this way: “We shall overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.” Now if only Mandisa would have been more specific, we could know what she meant. Because the Bible does promise a certain sort of overcoming for God’s people. But the one who overcomes is God, and we simply share in the victory. It is not by our power that we overcome anything—but Mandisa doesn’t make this clear in her song. Furthermore, what is overcome is sin and death—a spiritual victory—and it isn’t fully actualized until we die or are caught up in the Rapture. Can anyone deny that sin and suffering still occurs on earth and to believers? If it didn’t, what on earth would be the point of Mandisa’s song? If Christians were immune to suffering, then her song could only possibly be directed toward the unsaved. Hmmm, now there’s something to contemplate. Do you think that Mandisa’s song might be meant for people who haven’t really taken hold of God’s promises and who are striving to live by their own power and wondering why it doesn’t work? Could be. Maybe the reason Mandisa’s songs are so popular is because the Church is filled with people who severely misunderstand what God tells them they can expect out of life. They could be caught up in the Prosperity movement, or they could simply be Biblically illiterate. Either way, songs that confuse or ignore Biblical truths are not helping the case. What people need isn’t songs to make them feel good about themselves, it’s songs that point them away from themselves and toward God as the source of their strength and as the author of victory.

Also, "don't give up, don't give in" is about as strong of an exhortation to pride and stubbornness as can be written in a song. The Christian life isn't about always fighting. Believers should know when to submit in humility, when to walk away from something, and how to return good for evil. Refusing to 'give in' is a recipe for conflict.

There are a few redeeming qualities in lyrics to her songs that I haven't quoted here, but as C H Spurgeon wisely said, "It is not difficult to tell what is right from what is wrong. But what is more crucial is the ability to tell what is right from what is almost right." Overcomer and Stronger are 'almost right,' but not right. 

A Better Alternative

                Might I suggest a more Biblical alternative to Mandisa’s two songs before I go? Chris Tomlin’s song, “Our God is Greater.”

Our God is greater
Our God is stronger
God you are higher than any other
Our God is healer
Awesome in power
Our God, our God
And if our God is for us
then who could ever stop us
and if our God is with us
then what can stand against us

This places the emphasis on God as the One who gives us victory. Not as Mr. Miyagi to our Karate Kid or as Albert to our Batman. We are Robin the boy wonder, or Commissioner Gordon, at best. We are Mary Jane, the helpless girl who Spider-Man has to rescue from the evil clutches of supervillain after supervillain. We are the Lois Lane to God's Superman. Not even the sidekick. It is our relationship to God that ensures our continued deliverance from the trials of life. Not any strength within us that He sits back coolly, “cares about,” and “wants us to know” about ourselves.

A final suggestion as an alternative, Jeremy Camp's song, There Will Be A Day, brings Biblically appropriate comfort to those in periods of struggle.

The good stuff:

I know the journey seems so long 
You feel you're walking on your own 
But there has never been a step 
Where you've walked out all alone

Troubled soul don't lose your heart 
Cause joy and peace he brings 
And the beauty that's in store 
Outweighs the hurt of life's sting


There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears 
There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more, we'll see Jesus face to face 
But until that day, we'll hold on to you always 

~ Rak Chazak


  1. Thank you for posting this. Apparently-to this day (summer 2014)-this song is a sacred cow and no one is touching it with a critique. I had red flags going up about it, too. It seems more suited for secular radio. Good job quoting Spurgeon: "It is not difficult to tell what is right from what is wrong. But what is more crucial is the ability to tell what is right from what is almost right."

    1. I did that mostly from memory, and I think the official quote is that it is simple/not-so-simple, not 'crucial,' although I think the way I remembered it certainly retains the essence of the saying. If it's difficult to tell apart right from almost right, it would certainly be of great importance to develop that ability. Because I didn't intentionally, or utterly, alter his words, I figured I'd leave it that way. :)

      I even think I heard a new Mandisa song that sounded much better in terms of its theological content--but I can't remember the words and it hasn't come back on the radio for me to listen to it, scrutinizingly, again. But it would be nice indeed if she gets a hit that possesses Gospel clarity. I still don't know enough about the person herself to make any sort of statement about her. After all, with the large library of music she's published, it could simply be that the radio stations hand-selected two of the worst ones she's made. If she's done more God-honoring music, I'd sure like to see more of it than these two songs.

      In the view history on Blogger, I'm intrigued by seeing which posts have had the most consistent views over time. This one is one of them; my interpretation of Owl City's "Beautiful Times" is another. The lesson I'm learning from this is that being quick to produce a quality content writing on a popular-culture subject is an excellent way to reach people who might not otherwise search for the theological ponderings I write. The point is not to try to capitalize on subjects of interest to certain crowds as a "bait-and-switch" to promote my blog--no, but if the point is to get important information (any theological truth or Gospel presentation) out to many people, reaching them through the avenue of their online search interests is one effective way to do that. It could be an application of Paul's statement that he became "all things to all people." Not changing the message. Talking about subjects that might not be the *most* interesting to oneself as a writer-radio host-etc, in order to not fail to speak the truth to various groups of people on the basis of petty differences. It's a valuable insight, and I'll probably make more of an attempt to write about music as the year progresses. Some favorable words for Casting Crowns has been in the back of my noggin to write about for some time.

      Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad I was able to provide encouragement. That's my main objective at the stage of my life that I'm in right now. I can do little else major, but I can write, so I will proclaim truth to the deceived and offer encouragement to likeminded, sanctified believers.

      And write lots and lots. Even in the comments. :)