For the past several weeks, our small group at ONEeighty Church has been studying various secular musicians, their respective impact on our culture and how you can find a spiritual and scriptural message in their words – whether intended or not. The lessons started with The Beatles, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and U2 (two weeks on them). This week, we took the story of Johnny Cash and talked about how to embrace your testimony. Everyone has a testimony and everyone has a struggle. BE YOU!
The group opened with the video for “Hurt,” one of the last songs released before his death. The lesson went from there.
In the video for the song “Hurt,” there is a lot of Christian imagery. The song reflects a darkness, perhaps depression, and a lifelong struggle with addiction. “Hurt” was written by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) about his own struggle with depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts.
When Johnny Cash was ten, his brother was pulled into a table saw and cut almost in half. After a week, Jack Cash passed away. The two brothers were supposed to go fishing together on the day of the accident but Johnny went alone and Jack went to the saw mill to earn three dollars for the family. Jack was only fourteen.
Johnny Cash blamed himself and carried guilt for much of his life. Even when he grew wealthy, he felt guilty because of his upbringing and the circumstances of his brother’s death. Although he grew up on gospel music, his early hits were country standards. His first # 1 song, “I Walk the Line,” was about the struggle of dealing with adultery and temptation as a result of his fame.
We don’t all walk the same path but, as Christians, we all walk a line between sin and salvation. We may struggle with different things, but we all struggle with something. Think of a time when you have experienced sadness, a loss, debt, a failed relationship or a struggle that appeared to have no end. Now, think about how God lifted you out of your despair. When you were going through it, did you think there was no hope? Have you ever felt that you were separated from God?
(We had some good discussion here from the group. Most people agreed that we have not experienced a time when we thought God was missing, but we have all questioned why things happen the way they do.)
In 1967, Johnny Cash gave in to the demons of his decade of addiction and depression and decided to kill himself. Addicted to pills, he crawled into a cave and kept crawling until his flashlight burned out. In total darkness, he closed his eyes and waited for death to arrive. He said the darkness there was symbolic of his sin and it was as far from God as he ever thought he could be but, he says, God had never left him. A calm came over him, according to his autobiography, and he began to feel sober and think clearly. He believed God was telling him who was in charge. When he found his way out of the cave, he decided to try to get sober again – this time with God.
Johnny Cash considered Billy Graham to be his best friend. He began to tour with him and sing at his crusades. He even thought about quitting music to become a minister. Billy Graham convinced him that he should not hide from his past mistakes and told him that it was good to sing his secular songs alongside his gospel songs in concerts. He stayed in music and began to dedicate more time to ministering to prisoners.
Last week, it was announced that our Friday night Celebrate Recovery services would be broadcast into the jails here in St. Clair county. Several times a year, a group of men from here serve in the Kairos prison ministry. There are other ministries, of course, but why is it important to show love to people in prison?
(The discussion here turned to the topic of Grace. It is something that non-believers simply cannot understand and something that lifelong Christians struggle with too. The consensus here was that it would be easy to forget about people in prison, but God still loves them and we should be there to tell them for him.)
People in prison have hit rock bottom in their lives. They have, perhaps, ruined their families or caused harm to others. They may have lost all hope and they may be consumed by anger, guilt or fear. One thing is certain, you don’t have to convince people in prison that sin is real. We are all prisoners to our sins.
Johnny Cash’s first auditions were gospel songs but the record executives told him to sing about his feelings – so he started singing about sin. Even when he wrote and recorded gospel albums, record labels would not promote them. He said it was almost as if they preferred that he was in prison instead of Heaven.
God knows your every thought and deed. When Billy Graham told Johnny Cash that he should embrace his past, it was liberating. God can, and will, take what you see as your weakness and make it your strength. Satan will bring you doubt and hopelessness. (Note: Our sermon series has been on DEEP WATERS. Peter didn’t know he could walk on water until he got out of the boat. Johnny Cash didn’t know the power of his story until he started telling it.)
Is the idea that God knows everything about you comforting or scary? Why?
Why do you think people pretend to be something they are not when God knows the truth?
We could probably do several weeks on the story of Johnny Cash, but this is not really about him. Today’s lesson is about redemption and about being yourself. If you have a grudge against someone, isn’t it time to forgive them and walk the line you have been given? Do you have a problem forgiving yourself for your past? Embrace it and make it your ministry.
In the video for the song “Hurt” we see a man, just months before his death, singing about changing his life if he could do it all again. There are things we would all do differently if we could. We can’t.
Someone once said that Johnny Cash was obsessed with death. He replied that he was actually obsessed with living and said “The battle against the dark one and the clinging to the right one is what my life is about.” How can you take your hurt and make it your song?
Conclusion: The troubles in your life are your testimony. Do not hide from your past. Use it to tell a story—your story—because someone, somewhere needs to hear it.