Rich Mullins’ Journey to Identity, Belonging, and Purpose

Be God's

Two little words scrawled in bold letters before his name served as Christian singer Rich Mullins’ autograph, and now grace his tombstone: “Be God’s.” That simple statement served as both a powerful testament to his own identity and a compelling invitation to the recipient.

Rich Mullins

For years Rich had struggled with his identity and with who God made him to be – a musician rather than an athlete or a natural farmer like his dad, who struggled to understand Rich and to adequately show him love and affirmation. At one of his concerts, Rich said,

“When I was young, I was angry and I was kind of going, ‘God, why am I such a freak? Why couldn’t I have been a good basketball player? I wanted to be a jock or something. Instead I’m a musician. I feel like such a sissy all the time. Why couldn’t I be just like a regular guy?’ The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, you know, sometimes God has things in mind for us that we can’t even imagine. And I think that maybe it was good for me to grow up being picked on a little bit, because then I realized what it meant to be kinda the underdog. And then to have someone who is not an underdog, someone like God, say, ‘Hey, I want you to be with Me,’ then you kinda go, ‘Wow!’ And so maybe for that reason, grace is more important to me than people who have been able to be more self-sufficient.”

 Mullins’ years on earth were filled with failure and success, depression and joy, confusion and clarity. Sound familiar? I imagine if you’re anything like me or most of the people I know – and are honest about it – you can identify.

The difference between Rich and most of us was that he didn’t pretend to be anything other than a flawed human being in much need of – and gratefully saved by – God’s amazing grace. As Brennan Manning  shared in the forward of James Bryan Smith’s biography of Mullins,  An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, his first thoughts when he met Rich were, “This man knows the real Jesus. Only someone who has experienced the forgiveness and mercy of the redeeming Christ could dare to be so open about his brokenness.”

 Rich knew he was not a worthy man. Yet he knew God loved him anyway. And he took every opportunity to make sure others knew God loved them, too:

“God notices you. The fact is he can’t take his eyes off of you. However badly you think of yourself, God is crazy about you. God is in love with you. Some of us even fear that someday we’ll do something so bad that he won’t notice us anymore. Well, let me tell you, God loves you completely. And he knew us at our worst before he ever began to love us at all. And in the love of God there are no degrees, there is only love.”

 Although Mullins fell in love at least once, he never married. Accounts vary regarding his love life, but we do know that in one interview when asked about a woman he’d been engaged to, he said this:

“I have no interest in anybody else and she is married to someone else, so that’s the way it goes, and I don’t mind that. Right now I cannot imagine that life could be happier married than it is single, so I’m not in a panic about getting married. And I think, you know, maybe God wanted me to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was to break my heart. So, that’s the way it goes.”

 He also said about his broken engagement,

“I wrote [Damascus Road] right after my ex-fiancé called off our engagement, and I just sort of did it as an act of obedience…. I decided to just thank God. It was sort of a writing exercise. But by the time I was over, what I realized was once again so often we think how our life is gonna go and what the Lord owes us and how it’s supposed to be. And sometimes God has better things in mind or something different in mind for us than what we have in mind for ourselves.”

 Another time he spoke of the freedoms he had as a single man, especially one who lived the nomadic life of a Christian singer. Some biographical accounts, including the movie of his life, Ragamuffin, indicate that his girlfriend broke up with him because of his life on the road. But it was the life God had called him to and he knew he couldn’t leave it – for a woman’s love, or anything else.

Rich could have been bitter at God, but he wasn’t. Another quote helps us understand why:

“God doesn’t have to be good to anybody. He doesn’t owe us the breath we breathe. I figure if God has given us salvation, that’s way more than we deserve, and I won’t judge Him for not giving me something else.”

Rich’s trust in His Heavenly Father for choosing his life’s experiences for a specific purpose and reason is inspiring. He identified with the poor and the broken. In one of his last concerts he observed,

“I wonder if one of the reasons God liked Abraham was because Sarah was barren and Abraham was this close to extinction when God called him. God seems to have a very special place in His heart for the small and weak, and for the oppressed and poor of the world.”

Later in the same concert he said,

“Jesus said, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers, you’ve done it to me.’ And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers, but they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.”

 These weren’t just words to Rich. Although he was a successful Christian musician he had such a heart for the children on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, that he went back to school and graduated with a B.A. in Music Education in 1995, and moved there to teach them music. The profits from his tours and album sales were handled by his accountant who gave Rich only the amount of an average working person’s salary to live on, and gave the rest away to charities, per Rich’s instructions. He didn’t want to know how much money he was making or how much he was worth.

Rich Mullins died in an auto accident in 1997 at the age of 41, but his legacy lives on. While his physical voice was silenced, his words and message were not. Perhaps because of his death his words now carry more weight to those of us still walking this earthly journey. Mullins was certainly a “purposeful single” –not one who focused on his singleness or even specifically on being purposeful – but rather on being God’s – and oh how God used this flawed man who gave himself back to Him!

“God will never give up on you. He will never stop loving you.
That love is a reality no matter what you do or don’t do.
God does not call us to be angels;
He calls us to be His, and to be who we are in Him.”
~Rich Mullins

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  1. Thank you, Fern. This is a reminder to all us, young or old, married or single, to live a purposeful life. God has a wonderful plan for each person to the give Him glory and be a blessing and an encouragement to others.

  2. Another great post. It occurs to me that if Rich had married as he had planned, his wife would have been left a young widow. God is truly in control of all aspects of our lives.

    1. Fern Horst says:

      Yes, we don’t always know the reasons why, but am so thankful we can trust God has a purpose for directing our lives as He does. Thanks for commenting, Karen!

  3. Thank you Fern. Makes me think that if we focus more on being God’s, and let Him just have our lives, we would see the purpose we’ve been seeking right in front of us, because we will be living it.