Sandi Patty is known far and wide in Christian music circles as “The Voice”. For more than 40 years, the five-time Grammy and 40 time Dove Award winner has inspired vast audiences with her powerful and sometimes breathtaking vocals.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that the Oklahoma native lived much of her life feeling unworthy of love or value. In fact, she often coped by allowing others to influence her identity to the point where she felt fractured and living anyone’s life but her own.
In her latest book, The Voice: Listening for God’s Voice and Finding Your Own, Patty shares how she slowly but surely found her identity by diving deeply into the plans that God had for her. Now she wants to help others battling the same affliction.
I recently sat down with Patty to discuss the days where she felt like she didn’t have a voice of her own, how she found healing, and the advice she has for the people who feel “voiceless”.
First off, you’ve had a long and storied career as a gospel singer. You have been very successful to say the least. But now you have a book coming out. While this is not your first book why publish one at this juncture of your career?
To use a book analogy … when you’re writing a book, there’s always the epilogue. This is kind of like a “now let’s look back and reflect” type book. One of the things I love about God’s Word is it gives us an opportunity to go back and see the stories as they unfold. We can reflect and we can say, “Oh, God has been faithful here. He’s been faithful there. Of course He’s going to be faithful in the future.” So, in a way that’s kind of what The Voice is. In previous moments I may not have realized how faithful God was, but looking back I’m able to say, “Yes, this was His hand all the long.” So that’s why I am publishing this book now.
One of the main premises of this book is that despite having a legendary singing voice you really didn’t feel like you had a voice of your own. That you lived through the voices of others and allowed them to prescribe your identity. Tell me about that?
I grew up at an early age, and I go into some uncomfortable detail in The Voice. It’s important in my story of being sexually abused as a child. That just sort of sets your world upside down a little bit. I remember so clearly the words, “Don’t tell anybody. Don’t speak up, or I’m going to find you and do this again.” So, I think I received that message early on which sort of became the lens that I looked at the world through. I also grew up in a church tradition that it was either you’re all in or you’re all out. There was none of this, ‘Hey, I’m really trying to figure it out, but I am taking steps toward the Savior. That’s my goal here.’ So I never wanted to speak up, because I didn’t want to be “out” so to speak. I didn’t really cultivate a group of friends who we could be a support for each other. I didn’t really have anyone to share that parenting is hard, and sometimes working with a spouse is hard, and all of those things. By the time I reached a point where I could no longer hold it in, I didn’t speak up in the right way. I definitely see this in churches now that they are offering a space for small community groups where you can share life together and say, ‘You know today it’s hard.’ Somebody doesn’t give you platitudes but will walk with you. I am so very grateful for that. I wish I had had that, and probably it was available. I just didn’t know how to ask for it.
Having experienced some of what you described, you chose not to keep yourself under lock and key. You gravitated toward music and subsequently made a career for yourself performing on stage in front of thousands of people. Knowing the things that you were holding within you, why do you think you gravitated toward music?
Music was a safe space for me. When I was a shy kid, words were hard for me. I used to dread when the teachers would go down the row and say, ‘Okay so and so you read this paragraph. You read this one.’ I used to count and read ahead. I was terrified to try to speak those words. If the teacher had said you can sing it’s like, “Yes, okay.” So I didn’t know how to really speak up. So music became that sort of comfort, and I think that I sing from two different places. I sing from a place of inspiration. But I also sing out of aspiration. I aspire to feel this way. I aspire to know what this means. So they both come from a very honest place. I want to know that all is well in my life, or whatever that lyric might be.
For years and years you’ve sort of kept this stuff to yourself, but now you’re putting it out there in a book. Has this process been therapeutic for you? Has it helped you to overcome some of these feelings from the past?
That’s a really great question, and the quick answer is yes. Now let me unpack that just a little bit. BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) began the transformation in my life. I think something happens when you begin to take God’s Word in deeply, the other stuff has no room anymore, so it’s got to go somewhere, and it just begins to bubble up. This is because God’s Word is true and it’s going to excommunicate all of the things that are not true. I was fortunate enough to have a discussion group leader who was intuitive and insightful and would say, “You know what, let’s just go grab some coffee. Tell me why this particular question hit you this way this week.” She began to really encourage me to speak some truth about the sexual abuse, which got me in touch with a very gifted, skilled and wise Christian counselor. For a good ten years I really began to dig deep. The hardest part for anybody is to speak it out loud, but once you speak it out loud, it no longer has the control over you. I know that now, but all the ways that people would say that to me, that was the scary thing. So in my early thirties, I began to really dig deep into that and find some closure in this area. I’d never told my parents. So it wasn’t until I was maybe 35 that I told my parents (about what had happened). Then I asked God to take the false narrative away. I had to spend time in learning what the true narrative was. So time was definitely my friend. So now 30 years later, when I’ve done a lot of processing, I feel the only reason to share it is that hopefully it can encourage someone else. It has been immensely therapeutic to me to be able to just feel another level of healing that God has brought me through.
Fortunately, you found your voice so to speak. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to find their “voice?” Why is it so hard for people to arrive at the place that you eventually did?
I think a lot depends on your type of personality. My personality wants everyone in the room to be happy. For me there was a risk that somebody wouldn’t like me. I think for another personality, it might not be that hard. But I think we all have a desire to want to belong, and we don’t want to risk not belonging. I think we all have a desire to matter, so I don’t want to waste words, because I want the words that I say to matter. Ultimately, I think we just want to “belong.” We want to feel like we’re in our place with our people and we want to matter. We want to belong and give but there’s always a risk in that.
What advice do you have for someone who is experiencing this “voicelessness” that you write about?
My best example is my mom. My mom shares a story that when she was growing up she knew she was loved. But her family didn’t use the words. So, when my mom and dad married, my mom wanted to use the words, especially when my two brothers and I came along. But she didn’t know how. So she practiced. She’d wait until we were asleep, and she would come in our rooms and speak life to us. It’s the sweetest story. She would use our name, “Sandi, I love you.” She’d say to my brothers, “Mike, I love you. Craig, I love you.” She modeled that if you don’t know how to do something, practice it. There’s something about practicing it, because anybody who doesn’t speak out loud, they’ve got a lot going on in their mind, a lot of really good stuff that the world needs to hear. So write it first, and then practice saying it.
Final question for you … have you ever been on stage and sang your heart out on a song, then felt like, “This was perfection.” Then in a moment of glory have you ever “dropped the mic” and walked off the stage?
Not intentionally, but yes. One time, I think it was actually at an Christian Booksellers convention. It was hilarious as I’m thinking about it. We were using wired mics, and I was singing my heart out, “We shall behold Him,” and went to do sign language on it, (singing): “Savior and,” and when I did Lord, I [sound effect – thwack], I threw the mic out into the audience never to see it again. (laughs)