Two years after Destiny’s Child ended, getting a starring role in a nationally touring show like The Color Purple felt like I had come full circle. And you know what? The experience was incredible, y’all. And the show was even better. Your girl even earned a nomination for Lead Female Actress at the 2008 Eighteenth Annual NAACP Theatre Awards! I was like, Okay, this is it. This is going to be the beginning of the next chapter of Michelle Williams’s story.
The plan was that after The Color Purple, I was going to do another album. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to release a gospel album this time.
I remember having a conversation with my mama about what type of record I wanted to make. She said, “Tenitra, you need to do something with some soul. Something that people can dance to.” And I was like, If Mama says to do it, then I’d better do it.
I decided to call the departure Unexpected. I knew people expected me to put out more gospel music. And I love gospel music. If you look at my playlist, that’s the main genre I listen to. (Along with Afrobeat. If you’ve never listed to Afrobeat, do yourself a favor and check some out!) But I didn’t want to do what people thought I would do. I wanted to do something different. So plans were made to release Unexpected in 2008.
I had actually released a second gospel record during my time with Destiny’s Child, and this would be my first project since then — and the first commercial pop album I’d ever done on my own. I knew that the world would be watching how it did, and the pressure felt like I was walking around with a big ole gorilla hanging from my back. But still, I was excited. Like, This could be it. This could be the start of what’s next.
And of course, I started getting too much in my head about it, questioning everything. Will the gospel music community think I’m playing both sides of the industry? Will the secular music industry take me seriously as a solo artist? Even someone without mental health issues could lose their dang mind overthinking a release with this much potential for failure or success.
Ready or not, the release was coming. And in fall 2008, my first-ever dance album dropped.
And dropped — down the charts.
There are a lot of tracks on that record that I still jam out to, to this day. But I may be the only one. Unexpected didn’t do as well as I or anyone had hoped. And my music career was put on ice. Ice in the back of one of those walk-in freezers in the industry’s basement.
So I thought, I’ll take the entrepreneurial route. Maybe it’s time to press pause on the music, let a little time pass, and see how I feel about it. I remember writing in my journal that I wanted my own bath, bedding, and spa line. I made clear goals; I even wrote down what I wanted to earn after taxes. And you know what happened? I got laughed at. Literally, laughed at. I was like, “Hang on a minute. That wasn’t a joke. I’m not Chris Tucker out here throwing y’all a punchline. This is what I want to do. This is my life you’re cracking up about.” But they just kept laughing. Like, Oh, honey. Keep dreaming.
I spent a number of years after Unexpected feeling lost. It was like someone had dropped me in the middle of a complicated maze and told me to get out. Only they’d blindfolded me and tied my hands behind my back too. I didn’t know what was happening next, and it felt like I had no one fighting for me. To this day, I sometimes have to work through those old feelings of rejection. I know everybody was doing the best they could, but at that time, I felt like I’d been abandoned.
Confused, disappointed, scared, and lonely, I withdrew into myself.
Let me tell you something about depression. Baaaby, depression loves disappointment. If you’re inclined toward being depressed at all, when disappointment comes your way, depression stands up and cheers. It’s like, Yeah! This is my chance to get a foothold again! I sat in my disappointment long enough for depression’s roots to sink deep into my mind and spirit.
And I probably would have stayed there, had it not been for that little girl in the picture, that proud little girl with bows in her hair. Because even at that young age, I was being taught the right way to handle disappointment.
There’s a proverb that talks about teaching a child to seek God’s will:
Train up a child in the way he should go [teaching him to seek God’s wisdom and will for his abilities and talents], even when he is old he will not depart from it. — Proverbs 22:6
My parents weren’t perfect, but they did what matters most: They taught me to love and fear the Lord. They taught me to seek God’s wisdom and will for my life. And just like God’s Word says, when I grew older, even if it took me a few failed attempts trying to do things my own way, I eventually found myself at the feet of God, begging Him to take me where He wanted me.
The truth was, over time, I had allowed some distance to build between me and God. Now, I never once doubted that God was with me. I never said, “God, this is all Your fault.” I don’t have that testimony. I do have the testimony where, because of my actions, I’ve run away from God. I know I have. I felt He was ashamed of me. You know how sometimes parents can be disappointed in their children? I was like, I know God has to be disappointed in me, and I would literally see myself spiritually crumbling and hiding from God. Over time, my actions and my choices created space between God and me.
Now, we all get to this point. A relationship with God is just like a relationship with anyone else. Sometimes you feel really close to each other and sometimes you don’t. It all depends on how much time you’ve been spending together and how much effort you’ve been investing into the relationship.
The truth is, we all want to feel close to someone. We all want to feel like someone knows us and likes us. That someone is looking forward to spending time with us and cares about what we say and think. And for a lot of people, there is something really appealing about being close to God. But I know that’s not the case for everybody. Maybe the idea of being close to God sounds great, but it’s also kind of intimidating.
Maybe you’re afraid to feel close to God. Because if you were to get honest with God and check in with God, you might hear Him say something you don’t want to hear. That’s been the case with me almost any time I’ve been distant from Him — shame or guilt keeps me from opening up to Him. Maybe I’m afraid to hear something like, “Okay, Michelle. Now that I’ve got you where I want you, let Me get out my list of all the ways you’ve screwed up lately” or, “Let Me tell you all the reasons I’m mad at you.” For many of us, God reminds us of an angry parent or grandparent who always finds something wrong with us. So we stay far from God.
A lot of people I know say their main fear is that getting close to God will make them miserable. In other words, the only way to be close to Him is to give up everything they do that’s fun.
It kinda makes me laugh, because when people who truly are close to God talk about their faith, that’s never part of their narrative. They’re not like, “I started checking in with God, and everything went downhill from there.” But deep down, many of us still have this suspicion that there’s more to the story, that being close to God is difficult and complicated. And that staying close to Him is nearly impossible.
Have y’all ever heard of a guy named Abraham? He was a pretty big deal in the Bible. And his story is in its very first book, Genesis. It all starts in chapter 12, where his name wasn’t actually Abraham yet, but Abram. The first thing we learn about Abram is that God showed up and spoke to him in some sort of vision or dream. He told Abram to leave the country he was living in. That may not sound like a huge deal, but it was. God basically told Abram to leave his family and everything he had ever known and go to a land that God would show him.
If it’s me, I’m like, “God, I’ve got questions. You want me to do what? Pack up and leave my family and friends? For how long? What am I supposed to tell my mama? You know how she is. She won’t understand. And wait a minute, you want me to go where? To a land You will eventually give to me? So You’re asking me to be homeless in the meantime? I need details, Lord! A timeline. And a map, if possible.”
But what’s so interesting is that God didn’t give Abram a command and then wait to see what happened next. God told Abram to leave, then God kept talking:
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. — Genesis 12:2-3 NIV
God was asking Abram to take a big step. But before he started, God also wanted Abram to know that there was a promise attached. He wasn’t going to have Abram leave his life so that he would be miserable, but so that God could use him and give him a life Abram had never imagined. Basically, God wanted more for Abram. But Abram had to take the first step in faith, with no timelines and no guarantees of what this “better” future would look like.
Abraham’s story didn’t end there; it started there. Over and over God walked with Abraham and made promises, giving him bigger glimpses into the role he would play in the future of the people of God. The point wasn’t to get Abraham to do more things. God’s purpose was to continue to draw Abraham closer to Himself. The point was for Abraham and God to develop a relational history together, so that when the time came and it seemed like God was asking him to do crazy things, Abraham could look back at what God had done for him already and say,
“God is trustworthy. God is good. More than my obedience, God just wants me. He just wants to be close to me.”
As God showed up over and over again, Abraham was learning something about God. He was learning that relationships matter to Him. That God has a plan and He can be trusted. That the point for God is never to get us to do something more, but for us to get to know Him better. To be closer to Him.
But there’s more. A lot of times when we talk about the Bible, we talk about it in two separate sections: there’s the Old Testament, the part of the Bible before Jesus, and the New Testament, the part of the Bible after Jesus. I know I do this. I get so caught up in these two parts that I think the God in the Old Testament is different from the God in the New Testament. It’s like, the God in the New Testament loves us and wants to be close to us. But the God in the Old Testament is low- key scary. The God in the Old Testament is kind of moody and mad. But that isn’t the truth.
The story of Abraham shows us that God has always valued people; He’s always valued closeness. It shows us how God has always placed the most importance on relationships, even before sending us His Son, Jesus. If anything, it was the God of the Old Testament who did send us Jesus. He knew that He would never be as close to us as He wanted to be unless He made a way.
So He sent His sinless Son, His perfect Son, His compassionate, strong, brilliant, and good Son to be killed. Not just to make a point. Not just so we’d follow Him. Not just so we’d know He is God. He sent Jesus to make the first move — the first move toward us. To show us He wouldn’t let anything stand between us. That’s how much God wants to be near to us. It’s kind of crazy, right? It’s like, Lord, you can’t really love us this much? You can’t really want to chill with us this badly?!
But yes, because of Jesus, we can be close to God.
If the problem isn’t God moving away from us, it must be that we’re moving away from God. Because God isn’t going anywhere. He doesn’t take vacations to Cabo and leave somebody else in charge. He doesn’t nap or get on Twitter. God always stays exactly where He is.
So how do we get close to God again after we’ve allowed some distance to grow between us? In the book of James, Jesus’ brother put it in the simplest way:
Come close to God [with a contrite heart] and He will come close to you. — James 4:8
Oh, is that all? You’re saying that all I have to do is come to God with a contrite heart? Contrite — that’s not a word we use a whole lot.
If the problem isn’t God moving away from us, it must be that we’re moving away from God. Because God isn’t going anywhere.
It basically just means a heart that realizes it’s in need of God. Well, honey, that’s me. I know I can’t face life alone, not even for five minutes. When I realized I’d let my shame and insecurity move me away from God, I did the only thing I knew to do.
With nothing else to hold on to, run to, or rely on, I checked in with God. I said, “God, not my will, but Yours. I’m tired of striving. I’m tired of fighting. I give it all up. I just want You. I just want Your peace. I just want what You want — in my career, yeah. But for my entire life.” I told Him everything: How disappointed I was. How hurt. How pissed I was, to be honest, whether or not I had a right to be.
Now, change didn’t happen right away. It didn’t even happen quickly (or at least it felt that way). But the more I prayed real, honest prayers, the more I was releasing my control over my life and future, and the more I felt that vice grip of pressure loosen up a little bit. The more I felt at ease. The more I felt at peace. The more I felt God’s presence, even when things around me weren’t necessarily changing in a way I could measure.
After checking in with God regularly, being honest with Him and with myself, the fog of depression slowly began to lift. Once I’d gotten over myself, gotten over my emotional reaction to the unmet expectations of the group ending, the silver linings started to peek their way through the darkness.
For one, I finally had time to take care of myself. And no, I don’t mean “self-care,” the term that’s so trendy to talk about today, like manis and pedis, although I do get plenty of those. I mean taking care of my heart. Of my soul.
Watch the Video
Excerpted with permission from Checking In by Michelle Williams, copyright Michelle Williams.
* * *
Are you checking in with God, too? Maybe He feels far off right now? If so, then it was you who did the moving, friend. If you want His peace and you want Him, He’s there for you! Just ask! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full