The Gospel of Whitney


I was cheering on contestants of The Voice when a small ticker began to run across the screen. Tickers rarely bear good news. I held my breath and read:

Whitney Houston … confirmed dead … 48 years old … Beverly Hills hotel … cause of death unknown.

The tension twisted in my chest. 


I was cheering on contestants of The Voice when a small ticker began to run across the screen. Tickers rarely bear good news. I held my breath and read:

Whitney Houston … confirmed dead … 48 years old … Beverly Hills hotel … cause of death unknown.

The tension twisted in my chest. 

Whitney Houston was the Jersey Girl from New Hope who sang with a church-infused power and grace that captivated me from the time I was 9 years old. She was black and unequivocally beautiful, and I wanted to look and sound like her. In a musical landscape of forbidden music (everything from Madonna to Prince), she was a safe place with parental approval (they must not have listened closely to Saving All My Love for You).

Whitney Houston was also the addict who destroyed the voice that made her famous. The princess who chose the bad boy. She had everything we wanted–fame, money, good looks, talent–and she frittered it away while we tutted and criticized and dreamed of how we would do better if we had what she had.

Whitney Houston’s memorial highlighted hope within the tension. Kevin Costner revealed his Baptist roots, and said that Whitney is now singing before God, no longer wondering or worrying whether she is good enough. Tyler Perry spoke of a grace that carried her; because nothing could separate her from the love of God, not even when she was in the stratosphere of a drug high. 

Whitney Houston was a famous example of the best and worst in us all. The person we rooted for even as we ridiculed. In her last public performance, she sang Jesus Loves Me, arguably high. She fought hard with her demons, and tried to overcome them by sheer will. She tried to get clean. She tried.

And don’t we try? Singing and slurring the gospel message, trying to wipe our faces clean of sweaty, rank worry and fear so we appear fine? Singing loud to everyone with ears that Jesus loves us, hoping the message sinks in to our questioning souls? (Because if Jesus loves me, really, then why didn’t He save me from ______?) Muting the hurt that led us to the deep and abiding desire to turn down the volume of our private pain through, what? Drinking? Drugs? Sex? Legalism? Work? Silence? Avoidance? Porn? Shopping? Hoarding? Binging? Purging? Control? Denial?

Or for me in this case, sharp criticism. I thought to myself, for Kevin Costner and Tyler Perry to practically sing, Yes, Jesus loves Whitney at her memorial service is typical; treating the dead like they lived as saints (how many times has Whitney Houston been referred to as an angel?). All is absolved, all is forgiven. Hollywood types don’t tend to know their theology. I believe the words of Acts 4:12 to be true.

Then, this still, small thought arose: What if the song that Whitney Houston, Tyler Perry and Kevin Costner are singing to us right now is also true? 

Well, that would be scandalous.

Like a baby boy born to a woman who was pregnant before she got married. 

Or a man who let a woman of ill repute wash his feet with her tears and costly perfume. 


Like a man who allowed an unclean woman touch his garment for healing, and then called her “daughter.”

Like a rabbi who let women sit at his feet to learn. 

Or like a man who defended an adulterous woman in front of a rabid and condemning crowd. 

Scandalous, indeed, to surround these women with a song of gospel love. 

Jesus’ love is scandalous. His grace is unfathomable. Whitney Houston’s tragic and untimely death pains my soul because she didn’t get to scrub clean her image and restore her voice. She was seemingly overcome by her demons. Is the dirt in her life evidence that she was not saved? 

The Bible chronicles those whose lives and stories didn’t end as well as they began (think: Lot, Samson, Miriam, Moses, David, Solomon, Saul, the Prodigal Son and the thief on the cross dying next to Jesus). As the thief bore the condemnation for his crimes in his body, Jesus promised him paradise. The thief exercised faith; Jesus honored it with His scandalous love. This is John 3:16: You believe in Me? You won’t perish. You will live forever. I would imagine that those looking on saw two dirty, bloodied criminals meeting their end. They couldn’t hear the song playing in the heavenlies: Yes, Jesus loves me.

I don’t wish to glorify ending badly–I can just hear Paul’s words in Romans 6:1-2 concerning sin and grace; should we purposefully continue in sin so that God’s grace may abound? Absolutely not!

I give glory to the scandalous love of God, for me and you. Do you believe that Jesus loves you? Then here is the ticker scrolling on the screen of your life:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Sharifa Stevens is a Manhattan-born, Bronx-raised child of the King, born to Jamaican immigrants, and currently living in Dallas. Sharifa's been singing since she was born. Her passion is to serve God's kingdom by leading His people in worship through music, speaking and writing, and relationships with people. Her heart is also unity, inspired by John. Sharifa hates exercise but likes Chipotle, bagels with a schmeer and lox, salmon sushi, chicken tikka, curried goat (yeah, it's good) with rice and peas, and chocolate lava cakes. She's been happily married to Jonathan since 2006...and he buys her Chipotle.


  • crys

    Don’t ever stop writing

    Because if Jesus loves us, really, then why didn’t He save me from ______?

    Ouch. That one hurt.

    For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


    Amazed and grateful yet again for your words.

    • Sharifa Stevens

      It Does Hurt, Right?

      It hurt me, too – to write, and to live out. When Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross, he said they'd both be in paradise that day. But they didn't come up off the cross to go there. Jesus had to endure the cross to fulfill His salvation mission. The thief would not have had paradise, if he didn't encounter Jesus while on the cross.


      I don't get it. I'd rather not experience pain or loss. I know that it brings a depth of character and conditions us for perseverance. But our pain is not an indicator that God has removed His love.

    • AshleyB

      I second that . . .

      That line hit me in the heart as well.  So true that the doubt lingers because of the world as I experince it.  Yet much of the time, I don't acknowledge that truth.  Thank you for giving voice to that feeling crouching the corner of my heart and mind.  And for speaking Truth to it.  

  • Sue Bohlin

    Stinkin’ BRILLIANT.

    Sharifa, there isn't another soul on the planet whose take on Whitney I would rather read than yours. Thank you so, so much! Amen and amen.

    (And, being a visual learner rather than an auditory one, I had to go read the lyrics of Saving All My Love for You because they never sank into my my memory when I was hearing the song on the radio. Yeah, good call on your parents. wink)

    • Sharifa Stevens


      Sue, thank you for the ALWAYS encouraging words. 

      We sing "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" to our little one, and though he's not yet 2, he can sing it back to us. He can't sing the song without smiling and clapping his hands in great excitement. He's a constant reminder of how I should respond to the scandalous love of Jesus.

      (And, re: Whitney's lyrics, I toyed with putting a link up, but then said…nah. LOL.)

  • Rose H.

    Convicting and Encouraging!

    What a wonderfully insightful commentary on Whitney's life. I saw a clip of her singing "Jesus Loves Me" just before her death and it was hauntingly touching. When all else fails, we can cling to that truth … and it seems she was doing just that. I'm going to share this with the ladies in my Sunday school class.

    Oh … and "Jesus Loves Me" is the song that has always quieted my 2 year old grandson even as a tiny baby.

    • Sharifa Stevens


      The Jesus Loves Me rendition was definitely haunting. I could barely hear her voice, and I had to watch her face to fully get how she felt about the song. And she was not neutral about it. She was emotional. What a tension in that scene.

      Yes, we can cling to that truth, even as tiny babies hushed by the gospel song.

  • Dimitry

    This is your best column yet

    I had just turned on Whitney's greatest hits when I began reading this entry. By the end, I forgot about the music and was completely immersed in your words. I almost began to weep.

    Keep up the great writing.


    • Sharifa Stevens

      Thank you, Dimitry

      God be glorified! He's worthy. 

      Thank you SO much for the great encouragement. 🙂

  • Matthew St. John


    Thank you so much. Brilliant. Insightful. Convicting. I love your writing, and, more importantly, you provoke once more regarding this amazing, scandalous God.

  • Mitzi Arellano


    I just posted this on Twitter. Sharifa, you just get better and better! Thank you so much for your authenticity and humility. God is good, ALL the time! I look forward to watching how He continues to use you to build His kingdom through your writing and teaching (and wife-ing and mothering…)! Grace!

  • Kmarielt

    How I have longed to read this-

    I was so moved by this entry of yours. Thanks so much for taking the time to write from your heart.  Years ago when I first saw a picture of Whitney's bathroom counter covered in nastiness and drug paraphenalia I felt moved to pray for her. I even wrote to her on her website, which was odd. I have never written a celebrity, before or since. I doubt she read it, nevertheless I wrote and I did pray for her.  I prayed a few more times when I would hear of her on the news, always silently rooting for her to get it together. I hating hearing that she had died, as we all did. I was tormented that she couldn't seem to beat her addictions, couldn't be a better mother to her daughter.  Now my prayers are for Bobbi Kristina.  
    I said all that to say this- what comfort to me to read your post. It was so compelling. Yes, yes Jesus loves us, loves Whitney. Yes we all struggle, of course we do. How I was able to overcome my own miserable addictions had nothing to do with me, but only the grace of God himself. I want to be like you, to be far less judgmental, far more merciful. How lovely it is! Mercy triumphs over judgment. Bless you, Sharifa. Keep writing, keep loving Jesus with all your heart dear girl.

  • bethmck

    Great allegory. Thanks so

    Great allegory. Thanks so much for giving me the best morning reading I've had in a long time. I have been feeling lonely and tired, and needed this reminder of Jesus' scandalous love.

  • Kristin


    Singing loud to everyone with ears that "Jesus loves us", hoping the message sinks in to our questioning souls?….. WOW…this is my first time to read your blog.  (All thanks to a FB friend who posted this on his page!)  I couldn't get through it without  having to stop and take back my breath that had been so quickly taken out of me!  How I very much needed to find this…

  • Sandra Glahn

    I agree

    Your writing seriously gets better and better. Scandalous love. Who doesn't desperately need that?

  • Toussaint L'Overture

    Why Whitney and she is angel before death as well.

    I am always surprised that individuals use Whitney Houston to anchor their story. Just do you and pray for us all!  

    The same people who threw metaphorical palm branches at her path said crucify her when she was down so GOD called her home when the devil tried to take her.

    So I uplift Ms. Houston she is worthy and she is deserving! If you care to use her as a learning lab then try her overbearing hard to please mother, her boy mindchild husband and her older druggie brother who peer pressured here into drugs as well as the fashion industry that supported thin-ness at all possible costs. 

  • Dianne Miller

    you hit it on the mark

    After watching all the specials and the incredible memorial service I felt every emotion and thought you shared

    I grieve she is gone… and with her one of the most beautiful voices of all time…I grieve her daughter is left without a mom…I grieve her mother lost a daughter who was loved but was still struggling in the far place….I grieve she ended like Samson but without the opportunity to bring down the walls of her enemies..

    But with her death we are confronted with "what do we do with grace when we are really undeserving by our lifestyle, our witness, our 'not keeping the commandments that prove we love Jesus'"?

    Thanks for your thoughtful well-written blog that captured all who read it…

    blessings and love, Dianne