An Examined Life: Lecrae

Words by Dr. Jeffrey Heine

Portrait by Caleb Chancey

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”  —Socrates

Searching out answers to the more profound questions about life, about ourselves, about the world around us, is essential to living. This space in Good Grit is a place where we will ask some of these questions with our issue’s featured guest. Hearing from someone who is engaging in the examined life by asking the big questions and searching out answers will help us examine our own lives. Here, our featured guest, Lecrae, helps us consider the problem with finding our worth in our performance, to discover hope in the face of rejection, and to experience the power of empathy in a culture of conflict.

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Every day we are tempted to believe lies about ourselves, about God, and about the world. Depending on our experiences and personalities, some temptations have a better chance of success. What lie do you most often feel tempted to believe?

I think one lie is that my worth is wrapped up in my performance—whether my performance is my worth or that my worth with other people is based on my performance. In many cases, that’s just pragmatic. It’s kind of like, if I do something awesome, people love me for it and they give me attention. That is why kids love to perform for their parents. Because their parents will clap and then say, “Good job.” So, feeling like your worth is wrapped up in your performance is a lie I’m tempted to believe. Whether or not I know it’s true or whether or not I know it’s a lie doesn’t make a difference because I'm still tempted to believe it regardless.

And then that carries over into my faith where I feel like if I’m not doing something that God really wants, then somehow I’m worth less to Him. Or if I’ve made a mistake, or fallen, or I've sinned, that somehow my worth to God is decreased. And that’s the lie I'm most tempted to believe. And I do believe it sometimes.

Finding worth and meaning in our success is a constant cultural pressure. You once said, “If we live by people's acceptance, we will die by their rejection.” As an artist in a performance culture, how do you fortify yourself against the confusion wrapped up in acceptance and rejection?

I’ve always tried to keep the proverbial Jonathans and Nathans in my life. King David had a friend named Jonathan who was always loving and encouraging. He was always there to tell him how much he appreciated him, and he always encouraged him. But then there was also Nathan, who said to David, “Hey listen, maybe you need a dose of reality here. You are believing a lie. You’re walking on thin ice.” I’ve realized that I married a "Nathan." My wife is never short on saying, “Hey, hey, like listen. You’re believing lies. This is ridiculous.” And, “You've got to get off social media. What are you doing?” She’s always sober-minded with a dose reality. In that regard, she’s a prophet.

But I also have three very close friends. Two of them are Jonathans and one is a Nathan. The two Jonathans say, “Why would you even believe that? Like here is reality and we love you and we appreciate you and we’re going to walk you through this.” And my other friend is consistently saying like, “Hey man, you know you’re getting a little lazy, getting a little wrapped up in accomplishments.” And, “What are you doing to do something bigger than yourself? What’s the ‘why’ that’s bigger than your own name, fame, and glory?” So those have been key people in my life.

Recently you reflected on the negative reaction of some of your fans when you used your music and your platform to bring attention to justice issues, specifically the experiences of men and women who have suffered discrimination and violence because of racism. You said, “I couldn't understand why they couldn’t hear my pain.” These fans used to listen to your music, but now they couldn’t hear your pain. How do you process people not hearing you?

I think people tend to separate from themselves the art they consume, or whatever it is they’re consuming. That’s pretty consistent with American culture. We are a big consumer culture. We don’t call hot dogs and burgers 'American' food. Typically we call Chinese food, Chinese food. We call Indian food, Indian food. But we don’t really have a title for what we are. Our food is the standard. So it doesn’t have a name. We exist as the standard.

We don’t tend to think of LeBron James as anything other than a basketball player. When he uses his voice for something outside of basketball, we’re baffled. It’s OK for him to do what we require him to do. Maybe there’s some messaging there or something we can take from it, if he actually wins the championship. Then maybe we’ll listen. Like, Lebron’s done something for us in that regard. So, when Crae writes a song, I really love the song. He said some challenging things in this song. But he ultimately gave me what I wanted, which is a great song.

So, I think this is consistent with our consumer culture. It’s very easy for us to separate what we dislike and take what we do like. We want sombreros. We want tacos. We want Cinco de Mayo celebrations with margaritas. But we don’t know what to do with immigrants from Mexico. That’s seen as another thing. So, I think that’s what I wrestled with in that regard.

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Experiences of rejection or injustice often lead to a response of anger. However, your art and voice seem rooted in hope more than anger. How is it possible to choose hope over anger?

I’m OK with anger, as long as it’s constructive. Constructive anger is aimed at changing what we dislike. Right? I’m angry at child prostitution. And so I’m going to do something in light of that. That’s constructive anger. Destructive anger is, I’m so angry at child prostitution that I'm going to try to cause physical harm to anyone I even imagine is involved in that. And it doesn’t necessarily solve anything. It allows you to vent and get that off your chest, but it’s not a hopeful resolve.

It is hard to be hateful when you’re hopeful.

So, you have to say, “OK. Where does hope play into this?” And I think a lot of people outside the Christian faith wrestle with a lot of Christians’ responses to social issues. Because sometimes there is this writing off of what is currently happening in light of what will happen in eternity. By and by, something greater will come in and that will trump all of this. No pun intended.

And yes—I do have that view. I do have that eternal view that there will come a day and a time when all of this madness will cease. But that’s my eternal hope. I still have an earthly hope. And my earthly hope is that, in light of what I look forward to, I aim to make things better now because, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I want to see that “on earth as it is in heaven” manifested. And I work toward that.

I want to see my ceiling become my children’s floor. And so I’m hopeful. When you don’t have that hope, then you find yourself more hateful and your “Why?” becomes just this internal drive of bitterness and “I’ll show them,” versus “Man, I know it’ll ultimately be OK. And so in light of that, let me push for something. Just some semblance of that here and now.” And so again, swallowing those pills of bitterness, you know, it’s poison. I’ve learned that the hard way.

How has a deeper understanding of yourself and owning your story helped you connect with others and understand their experiences and struggles?

I mean it’s a humility that comes from looking at your own scars. It’s a humility that comes from owning this story and saying, “Listen, these are my failures, but forgiveness is greater than all my failures. These are my fears, but faith is greater than fears. This is my past, but my future is not impossible.” It’s humbling because you embrace all of who you are. And so when it’s the writing in the sand, it’s he who hasn’t sinned go ahead and cast the stone. And I think that’s what’s pushing a place of empathy and not a sense of self-righteousness, not a place of, “Well, you know I have it all together. I did this and I worked hard and it was all about me.” No.  You were forced to look at where you didn’t do it right. You were forced to say, “Let me own that.” And again, that’s a part of Western exceptionalism. That’s a part of the narrative we’ve been feeding ourselves for so long—that we haven’t made mistakes and we haven’t dropped the ball. We highlight how we’ve overcome, but we don’t spend time grieving over the losses. We don’t spend time making our heroes and heroines human. And so it’s harder for us to be empathetic. We lionize people historically and we really do think these perfect beings existed. Anything less seems uncivilized, and that just doesn’t make sense to us. And then a lot of times we don’t journey with other people and put ourselves in other people’s positions, so we just can’t imagine how anyone’s experiences can be different from ours. And I think that’s where the frustration comes from.

I have friends who grew up in privileged backgrounds and knew the neighborhood police officers by name. And so they really don’t have any other context for navigating police officers outside of, “That’s Officer Jones who hangs out with us from time to time.” But they have to also know that there is another officer somewhere who abuses his power and that when he goes on his patrol, everyone he sees is a perpetrator. And because of that, he doesn’t have empathy or sympathy for anyone; they all look the same and they’re all criminals. They all dress the same. They all live in the same area and do the same thing and there’s no potential there. And that’s unfathomable to some people who’ve never had that type of interaction with police officers. So therein lies the juxtaposition of empathy and not being able to see someone else’s point of view.

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How have you journeyed with your kids to grow in hope and empathy?

Because my senses have been so heightened in this season of life to what’s going on around me socially and spiritually, I’m trying to bring them in as much as possible. Every night I’m home I try to do some sort of curriculum with my kids that I have concocted, like a Bible study, with history, with life lessons. As everything I have to navigate weighs me, it changes where I’m going with the curriculum and what I want my kids to understand and think about. In many ways they are sheltered and will not have to grow up in the way I did. I don’t even think my kids fight. I had to know how to fight. It wasn’t just a suggestion to learn how to fight. It was, You need to learn how to fight if you are going to go to school here. Fighting is not a life skill they’ll ever need to pick up. Kids going to a private school, in a warm, welcoming environment. But I also want them to understand why that was my reality. And just to see from a different vantage point.

Recently we went out and filled up some bags with clothes and toiletries and all sorts of things in connection with an organization in Atlanta. We went out and just walked the streets in downtown Atlanta and passed out toiletries and talked with people who are experiencing homelessness. I wanted my kids to see them as people. Those aren’t homeless people. Those aren’t poor people. Those are people experiencing homelessness and experiencing poverty. That’s not your current experience, but it could be.

We’re all just people experiencing something.

I want them to have empathy and sympathy for these people because it’s not their own reality. But I don’t want them to be so isolated that they think it’s not a reality. I don’t want my kids to think it’s a reality these people created for themselves and so they need to fix it themselves.

That was benefiting, and they loved it, but it was also sobering. I introduce that type of stuff into what I do every night with them. But then they hear a woman on the street say she’s pregnant because she was raped. She was raped by someone was supposed to be protecting her. My 11-year-old was like, “Whoa.” Now, I probably would not have introduced him to that this early, but that’s the reality of the world out there. And so I think it’s helpful for them to realize that.