In May 1998, Sara Groves took a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher in Minneapolis, Minn. A few months later, her husband, Troy, quit his job to help her follow God’s call to share her gift of music. Through Sara’s music, the couple helps people pause to ask the question, “Where am I on the road, and where would God have me go next?” The Dove-nominated singer-songwriter stopped at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove this past February for an Evening at the Cove.
Sara Groves grew up in a family with a long history of faith in Christ, and from a young age, she realized that the Gospel was paramount. Not only is it the power of God for salvation, but it also determines how we live each day. She knew there were two paths she could take in life: She could be God’s person in the world or she could be her own person.
“Even in difficult seasons of my life I was drawn to the Good News,” Sara says. “It’s been my life’s quest to portray in music that the Good News is good, and that it is applicable to every aspect of our lives.”
Sara credits her parents with helping her to develop this worldview. The Gospel and how it is put into action in the world formed the foundation of the family’s dinnertime conversations. This gave Sara tools to help her integrate her belief in Christ into her daily life. It also set the stage for how she writes songs now.
She explains, “I’m asking the question, ‘How is the Good News good in this scenario? I believe the Good News can and should square off with every dark corner of our existence. I don’t want any area to be off-limits where I can’t say, ‘All right, Lord, what about this place? This hard news? This thing I just learned about in the world? How is the Good News good here?'”
Sara and Troy have worked together for 14 years and 10 albums. From the beginning, Troy has been Sara’s manager and is the percussionist when they tour.
As Sara describes it, “I always refer to it as our music. Troy doesn’t write a word or a note. I play the piano, I sing and I write—and he does everything else. So, he very much facilitates. I wouldn’t have started and I wouldn’t be here now doing music if it wasn’t for Troy.”
It’s a setup that many marriages wouldn’t be able to weather, but Sara says God has called them to work together.
“Over the years you haven’t just seen me with a really supportive husband. You’ve seen the manifestation of Troy’s gifts via my gifts. And so we have been called, but we’ve gone through a lot of marriage counseling.”
Sara and Troy haven’t hidden their struggles, either. They decided early on that they would be willing to share their lives if, in Troy’s words, “it would help someone else feel more normal.” At most concerts Sara talks about their difficult seventh year of marriage. The couple believes that this vulnerability helps others to not feel so alone when they find that their marriage needs some hard work.
The power of the Gospel will meet couples in their lowest times, even when they are barely willing. Sara says her heart was very hard, and she told the Lord, “I’m not even willing. Will You help me be willing?'”
God answered that prayer. “I’ve never felt the grace of God and felt His salvation like I did in that season of our marriage,” Sara says. “We’ve been married for 17 years, but in year seven, God saved me from something. He saved me from myself. I cried out for help, and He saved me.”
Give and Take
During that hard time, Sara wrote a song in the aftermath of an argument. “Roll to the Middle” follows the arc of the conflict from the initial hurt to the reconciliation afterward. The song is summed up in the lines:
This is how I know our love.
This is when I feel its power.
Here in the absence of it,
This is my darkest hour.
Sara felt the song was too personal to record, but Troy urged her to include it on the album “The Other Side of Something.” It’s this kind of give and take that makes their partnership work, and it was Troy’s prodding and encouragement that pushed Sara into sharing her songs publicly.
“Of course, I was dying to do something like this, like every person with a dream,” Sara admits. “I had quietly hoped someone would hear my music someday. But in public and out loud, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to take this big fall in front of everybody. I was very afraid. And Troy, the best way for me to describe it is that he discovered that his calling was to help facilitate my calling.”
In the Groves family, if Mom and Dad are driving to an event, their kids Toby, Kirby and Ruby pile into the bus, too.
“Approaching our family as a team has been a big deal for us,” Sara says. “We’re Team Groves, and when we’re out together, the boys are working back at the merchandise table, and they’ve loved that. The boys share from the stage about a Christian ministry that addresses poverty, and Ruby is starting to get in on the action, too. They feel they have a part in the night, and that is really important to us.”
Sara wishes the family could drive everywhere together, but even so, the children have practically grown up on the tour bus. It’s not always fun, Sara admits. Sometimes they feel like they are stacked on top of each other. And then there are other times when the family is separated for weeks.
“We try to follow God’s call and ask the Lord daily, ‘Are we in the right place?'” Sara says. “We’ve tried to quit, or have thought maybe this isn’t healthy. And from the beginning God has told us He would define normal for our family.”
“It’s the Gospel”
In her late 20s, Sara hit what she calls a faith crisis, a time where she struggled with seeing the crushing of innocent people. She wanted to know where God is when innocent people, especially children, are the victims of someone else’s evil deeds. She felt her heart grow rebellious toward the Lord during that time, but she also sensed that God was dealing gently with her, allowing her to ask hard questions and vent her confusion.
“I emerged from that season really needing to see the Good News at work,” Sara says. She felt like believers were forever talking about the Gospel but not doing anything with it. She compared it to waxing a car, reupholstering it and wiping down the windshield every day but never driving the vehicle.
“I just couldn’t do that another day,” Sara says. “When I asked, ‘Lord, let me see Your Good News,’ He started bringing me to places where the Good News is changing lives.”
Sara learned about ministries like Teen Challenge, a Christian drug rehab program, and International Justice Mission, an organization that fights human trafficking through courts and criminal justice systems around the world. Both organizations stress that only repentance and faith in Christ can change an individual’s heart and free them from the bondage of sin. But they also actively work to bring that change to individuals every day.
As Sara learned about IJM, she discovered the horror of human trafficking and learned that millions of people are enslaved around the world.
“Human trafficking is not far off,” Sara warns. “It is in our own communities, and it’s one of the greatest evils of our time.” This fight is another way that Sara sees the Gospel in action in the world.
“What is the Good News to a girl enslaved in a brothel? Well, you have to take her out,” Sara says. “What do you tell a woman who is working in a brick kiln, whose children are enslaved and who is being treated like an animal? How do you say ‘Jesus loves you’ to her? You advocate for her and for her freedom papers, and you help her understand salvation and her worth in Christ. It’s the Gospel.”
No Good Thing Withheld
This past October saw the release of Sara’s 10th album, “Invisible Empires.” The album includes a song that is reflective of the truth of God’s goodness expressed in Psalm 84:11: “No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” (KJV).
During the period that Sara wrestled with the suffering of the innocent, she thought about that verse. What are good things? she wondered. How can the psalmist say that God withholds no good thing when we all know believers who are sick, impoverished, oppressed and struggling? She voiced these thoughts when she sat down to write with fellow songwriter Ali Dahlgren.
Ali pulled out a Charles Spurgeon devotional she had been working through and read from his commentary on Psalm 84:
“But how is this true, when God oftentimes withholds riches and honors, and health of body from men, though they walk ever so uprightly; we may therefore know that honors and riches and bodily strength, are none of God’s good things. … The good things of God are chiefly peace of conscience and the joy in the Holy Ghost in this life; fruition of God’s presence, and vision of His blessed face in the next …”—From Treasury of David, Psalm 84
That is it! Sara thought. He has never withheld those things from me.
In response, she wrote the song “Open My Hands” a song that shows God’s goodness in contrast to the struggles of life. One stanza reads:
I believe in a peace that flows deeper than pain
That broken find healing in love
Pain is no measure of his faithfulness
He withholds no good thing from us
No good thing from us, no good thing from us
Sara’s understanding of this verse continues to grow as she fleshes out the good things of God in her life. “Many times the Gospel gets twisted into these worldly things, and [we believe] that these are the good things of God,” she says. “So I wrote the song ruminating on this idea: I believe in a fountain that will never run dry, even though I myself have thirsted to the point of thinking I might die. My thirst is no reflection of His faithfulness. He is faithful to us in His way, and He doesn’t withhold His presence from us—ever.”