[Editor's Note: Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident September 19, 1997, in Illinois. This interview was conducted several months before his death.]
"Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?
"Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?
"It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all."
Soundtracks play inside Rich Mullins' head that have less to do with his music and more to do with developing a deeper, heartfelt connection to the Lord.
Having struggled with everything from alcohol addiction to long years of "feeling tormented all the time," the Christian music superstar with the shoulder-length brown hair who today lives in a trailer on the Navajo Indian reservation in Window Rock, New Mexico, has had plenty of time to assess his struggles, the mysteries of faith, and the true meaning of being a Christian.
And what the forty-two-year-old Indiana native, who has garnered ten Dove nominations over the past decade, has concluded in his solitary search for God is that too many overrighteous Christians try to serve the Lord with an excess of doctrine rather than by simply opening their hearts to His love and light.
"The heart of Christian faith is a radical and reasonable trust and focus on Jesus," declares the popular singer and songwriter, who in 1997 was named Favorite Inspirational Artist by readers of Contemporary Christian Music Magazine. "But for many of us our focus has shifted very subtly from love for Jesus and faithfulness to Him and obedience to Him to a set of doctrines."
Rich asserts that the verse from Ecclesiastes serves to remind him to try to avoid such doctrinal extremes.
"Christianity is about a daily walk with this person Jesus," he proclaims, "and that's why I love Ecclesiastes. The gist of the whole book is just live - live out the will of God, and live abundantly."
Rich Mullins' voice takes on a tone of annoyance as he recalls a recent incident that illustrates what he believes is wrong with much of Christianity today.
"I was at a citywide youth rally, and one of the pastors at a meeting said 'We need to tell these kids about Jesus so that they'll stop getting pregnant, stop doing drugs, and doing all these things.'
"And I thought, 'Wow, we need to tell all these kids about Jesus because Jesus wants them to know about Him. It has nothing to do with their sexual conduct or with the management of their bodies or their minds. It has only to do with God so desperately wanting us to know that He loves us, that He incarnated Himself - He became Jesus - so that we can know that.'"
That type of heartfelt contact with the Lord is much of what Rich Mullins is all about, and he makes every effort to impart his feelings through his God-glorifying songs of faith and wonder.
"Jesus' message is not to be good boys and girls so that when you die you can go to heaven," he passionately proclaims. "The message of Jesus is 'I love you. I love you so deeply it kills me.'"
Letting that light into his own heart has been a long and arduous struggle for the Christian music star - one that involved "more than ten years of darkness where I felt tormented all the time."
Rich adds that his struggle is far from over, which is one reason why he is living on an Indian reservation in the first place - "to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling."
Although Rich recalls having always felt driven to know the Lord, the Cincinnati Bible School graduate also painfully remembers how he often felt spiritually empty and separated from God's love - an emotion he today believes was induced by Satan.
"I've been in and out of all kinds of things - like self-depreciation, self-interest, ego trips, alcohol, and other addictions," he declares. "I've failed many times to avoid those kinds of temptations. But that's not what the Devil was really interested in. What he was trying to do is make me feel apart from God.
"You know, I was brought up in a very rationalistic kind of family - the idea of the Devil was a little outside of our thing. It's taken me a long time to recognize that there are spiritual forces who would like to harm us. Now I know that what Satan would like most to take from us is our true knowledge of who we are - which is children of God."
It wasn't instant revelation that helped the then thirty-year-old performer pierce the darkness with God's light, but instead, a series of "small steps" that included prayer, confession, and the reading of Scripture.
Rich recalls how one day he made an honest assessment of his life and found all the secret sins he was guilty of less than pleasing.
"I remember being on the road to Michigan and saying to myself, 'Oh, God, why don't you just make my car crash?'"
However, instead of crashing, Rich found himself steering his car in the direction of Cincinnati, where a couple of his good friends lived. It was there that Rich unburdened his soul and began to lighten his load.
"It was really liberating," he recollects. "My struggles with addictions and the darkness I was feeling lessened. There was a renewed feeling of intimacy with God."
Today, grateful to be on the road to spiritual recovery, Rich takes time out from his busy schedule to share the gift of faith with Navajo children on the reservation where he lives his Thoreau-like existence. "A lot of people think I've come here to save the Indians," he offers, "but it was a desire to feel God's love out of the American mainstream."
Whether onstage or off, Rich tries to spread the message that no matter how badly people may feel about themselves - as he once did - they are never unworthy of God's love and will never be abandoned by their Creator.
"Anytime that we focus on our performance, that in itself cuts us off from God - not successfully - because God's grace is greater than even our darkest sin," he declares.
"From my junior year of high school until age thirty I felt tormented all the time. I was depressed. I just think I have that sort of personality. Was I going to be kept from the Kingdom of God because I have a tendency to be morose? Or because you have a withered hand? Or because maybe you have some kind of chemical imbalance that leads to an addiction? You're not a Christian because of how you feel, you're a Christian because of what Jesus did for you."
The brown-eyed entertainer, whose laid-back stage presence often belies the spiritual intensity smoldering within him, is critical of "overrighteous" Christians who believe that only people who live so-called moral lives are eligible for salvation.
"Life and living comes from God - it comes from Jesus - not from doctrine or good morals," he declares. "You can be an utterly moral person and not be alive. Jesus came that we might have life, not good morals. It's not that I'm opposed to good morals at all, it's just that sometimes I think we put the cart before the horse."
Much of Rich's philosophy was shaped as a youngster growing up in the former Quaker settlement of Arba, Indiana. "About half the people who lived in Arba were relatives of mine." He chuckles. "My cousins lived there, my great-grandmother lived next door to us, and all my Sunday school teachers were my uncles and aunts.
"And one of my greatest influences in thinking about all this was my own father. My dad was very honest about who he was. He was very honest about his weaknesses and strengths. He never pretended to be something when he was in church that we knew he wasn't at home."
In contrast, Rich remembers himself as a kid who was almost "hyperpious. I remember being so embarrassed by him. Then puberty kicked in, and I became aware that all my piety - all of my devotion - was really very shallow. Somewhere deep inside me I was still very human. It was that human part of me that Jesus loved. It was not the phony part of me that I wore on the outside."
Although Rich will frankly admit that he is still not completely free from dark moments that sometimes grip his soul, nowadays he finds it easier to contend with those moments by turning to Scripture.
"This scripture has come into play so many times in my life when I've fallen into those moods and the temptation of evaluating myself and saying 'How am I doing?'
"It seems that God is always saying 'I'm not worried so much about how you're doing as much as I'm glad about who you are.' The scripture also says don't get too hung up in your failures, your weaknesses, or your addictions - it doesn't make you separate from God, because He still loves you."
Rich remains convinced that Scripture is a powerful tool that can help heal others as it has helped heal him. "I hope that by reading this scripture they'll feel like I do. There are so many times I've said, 'Who am I trying to fool? I may as well just quit.' Or you might be thinking 'I just can't bear this.' Then I read this scripture and it helps.
"It's helped me because what t says is this is not about your righteousness. Your righteousness is all in Jesus. So don't get so hung up about how important you are in the Kingdom of God or how important you are to the growth of the church. Just figure out where you're most alive, most vital, and go there. Enjoy the gift of life that He's given you."
The popular Christian artist does, however, add one word of caution. He warns against placing too much emphasis on the words of Scripture rather than upon the One who inspired it.
"The goal is not that you should become a great Bible scholar," he asserts. "It's not about mere intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. The goal is that you should be like Jesus - and the Scriptures can help you with that. I don't need to read the Bible because I'm a great saint. I read the Bible because I'll find God there. It's about a daily walk with this person Jesus."
Copyright 1998 by St. Martin's Press
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