The Kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Luke 17:20b
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were looking for physical, tangible evidence of God’s Kingdom. They wanted proof. They wanted signs. They wanted a kingdom led by a king who would free them from Roman oppression and lead them into a palpable reality. They thought they wanted more, but in truth they wanted less – much less than what Jesus had to offer.
Jesus knew differently. God’s plans were so much more than that. It was better than they could have ever imagined. He wanted something more – more than what people could just touch or see, more than merely a physical reality. His kingdom was one that would touch both heaven and earth. It was a future kingdom that touched the here and now.
Yet, today, we still fall into the very same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We want God’s Kingdom to be tangible. We look for ways that God will prove Himself to us. I know because I’ve been there.
As if God needs to prove Himself to us! The very idea sounds ridiculous, but this is what we do. I know I’ve done it. There’s times I still do it.. My faith is weak at times, so I look for proof. Only that’s the opposite of what faith is.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
Yet God is patient. He continues to draw you and I to a place of greater trust. – the reality of the unseen. It’s a place where I must listen to Him above the noise of the world. It’s a space where I have to press in to know Him deeper and trust that He knows best. A place that is often uncomfortable and stretches me beyond what I think I can bear at times. It’s a space where I must rest in Him, despite the outcome, despite the stillness. It’s a vast meadow with a beautiful spring where He draws me to deeper waters.
Than again, it’s not a place I can see with my eyes. It’s a place that’s felt more than seen and yet it’s so very real. It’s a reality God endears me to as I am captivated by His love and His grace. It’s a reality outside myself where His spirit connects with mine, moving me deeper still.
And this is only the beginning.
This is the intangible kingdom.
For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)
This is really a follow-up post to Can You Have Church Without an Agenda? If you haven’t read that, I’d encourage you to read it first before continuing.
I can’t tell you how it happened or why it happened in the timing that it did. I can only tell you that it did happen. The events that have taken place over the last couple of weeks have been more than mere coincidence. I consider them to be divine encounters.
Maybe the Lord has opened my eyes to see more clearly the way He moves. Why now? This is a prayer I’ve been praying for years. What has changed and what has happened these last few weeks? As far as i can tell, nothing special. I haven’t changed jobs or received some kind of special revelation. Only, I’m beginning to see things differently. What I might have chalked up to happenstance encounters, I am beginning to see with new eyes.
Shortly after the men’s retreat I talked about in a previous post, I was tempted to “start something.” You might know that urge that I’m referring to. The need to start a Bible study, a home group or home church, or something else. Yet, I resisted. I did not feel that I was resisting Father, but my own flesh that felt the need to “help God out” and make something happen.
There were three words the Lord gave me for this year towards the end of last year. Release, relax, and rest. Little did I know what those meant at the time. But it’s those three words that have been the focus of my year when it comes to both my relationship with Father and learning to live by His rhythms.
- Connecting with a couple who we have been trying to get together with for over 2 years on Halloween night simply by popping in (and staying for 2 hours!) since we were already on their street for Trick or Treating.
- Getting to eat lunch with a friend on the same journey when he was at my work for a workshop and luncheon.
- Having the freedom to go to a baptism where my friend (who I baptized a few years ago) got to baptize his daughter – it just so happened to be one of the weekends I was free in October.
- Hearing from a couple of brothers who are dear friends and on this Jesus adventure together in the same week.
I am so encouraged by what Father is doing in my life right now. I know there are some who might read this and are struggling to understand or connect to how He’s working in your life, or feel that He is silent or withdrawn.
I went through a period of feeling like that, too. I’m not sure why it feels that way or why He seems to be quiet sometimes. Yet, I always believed that God was speaking. It wasn’t necessarily His fault that I had trouble listening. There are times I believe we look for the wrong things and assume God is speaking in certain ways when He wants us to tune in to a different frequency, so to speak.
I believe that God is always speaking and speaks to us every day. Whether or not we hear Him is a different matter. It’s worth learning to recognize His voice. In fact, His sheep know His voice and know how to follow.
This happens based on a relationship. There’s no principle to follow or “how-to program” to go by. It’s a daily recognition that He is speaking and learning to discern what is His voice, what is yours, and what is noise and distraction. The only way to do it is by a daily focus on Him and a continual quieting of both internal and external disruptions. As soon as we feel or sense that we are getting off track, it’s simply a matter of refocusing our attention on Him.
It can take a while. It’s not a striving to hear Him perfectly. It’s a step by step journey to discovering which voice is His, which one is mine, and the ones that are trying to lead me off the path and into the ditch. When you discover His voice, it’s not a raging cacophony, but a quiet whisper, a gentle nudge, or a sense or urge that says, “Come this way. Walk over here for a while.”
Learn to trust yourself and the nudges that you sense are from Father. You’ll make mistakes. It’s okay. I’ve made plenty. But when you learn His voice, and you know it’s Him and you obey and follow, it opens up a whole new world.
A couple of weekends ago, I participated in a men’s retreat. It was one I helped coordinate, and we had invited Wayne Jacobsen (founder of Lifestream Ministries, co-host of The God Journey podcast, and co-author on The Shack) to come and be with us.
I’ve never experienced a men’s retreat like this before. For one, we decided to run the retreat without an agenda. I had heard Wayne talk about this before, and it sounded like amazing things could happen. However, it also scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. Being a good ex-pastor, I always had a plan or agenda for things like this. After all, God’s not a God of chaos, so we shouldn’t be either, right?
Wouldn’t not having a schedule lead to utter chaos?
I decided to trust in the process that God has been leading me in over the last few years, and trust that it was God who was nudging me to have an agenda-less retreat. I ran it by my friend who so graciously offered up his lake house where we hosted the retreat. He obliged to the request.
I’ve seen and been part of retreats that fill up every moment of time, not really allowing you to connect with God, or others for that matter. I’ve been to others that have a light schedule but also provide room to hear from God. I enjoyed the ones that didn’t fill up the whole time and so I wondered, “What could Father do if we don’t fill up any of the time, but turn it over completely to him?”
There were still doubts and fears, even at one point the first night of the retreat. I kept wondering, “Is this really going to work?” After that first moment of panic, I decided (again) to surrender the schedule to the Lord. We had one dinner planned with the wives on Saturday night; other than that, we left conversations, gatherings, and agenda to Father.
At the end of the weekend, as I reflected, I couldn’t have planned and orchestrated everything any better than what happened. There were deep conversations, there was time spent alone or in groups of two’s or three’s. I got to know new brothers and fellowship deeply with others that I hardly know. There was laughter and joy. There were moments where I was deeply satisfied and
It was, in a word, more.
I felt more community.
I felt more connection.
I felt more “church” than I have in a long time. All without an agenda – and all without planning much of anything.
I used to think that you needed a plan or schedule to make things happen. I really didn’t trust that God would show up without needing a bit of help. Now I know that a schedule isn’t necessary. Father can handle it. Much of the time, we limit God by our own agenda. We read into what He wants, instead of simply surrendering our agenda and plan to Him, because we ultimately don’t trust that He can do things without our assistance.
It doesn’t mean there is not room for a plan, on occasion. However, I think we (I know I did) have a tendency to over-plan and plan God right out of most of what we do. I’ve heard people ask, “Couldn’t God break into [our plan] if he wanted to?” I guess he could, but wouldn’t it be better to let Him lead from the beginning? Trust him with the program and the results.
Try it and see what happens. And when God shows up, I bet you’ll be glad you did!
Where can you create more space for God to set the agenda in your life or ministry? What fears do you have about leaving the results and schedule to Father?
Tonight, my 10-year old son wanted to go for a walk but didn’t think he could keep up with my wife and I as we were walking the dog, so I told him I would go with him later. He spent the day at home with a headache and wanted to get some fresh air.
I know that these invitations from him to spend time together will eventually fade, but I hope that’s many years away. All the same, I want to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along and as I am able.
As I’ve been on a journey to find community outside normal, traditional religious structures, I’ve come to see the life we live in Christ as a continual invitation. He invites us to spend time with Him, to listen to Him, and to follow Him.
“Come, follow me,” is a continual invitation, not a one-time decision to escape eternal fire and damnation. We tend to replace this ever-present beckoning with a safe and secure structure where we don’t have to depend on God on a daily basis. Jesus never asked anyone to resurrect a monument in his honor or construct a building with his name on it. (In fact, he encouraged the disciples not to at the transfiguration.)
“Dad, will you go for a walk with me?” What if the language that my 10-year old used to ask me to spend time together is exactly what we should ask of our heavenly Father? What if it were that relaxed? That easy?
I can tell you that as I’ve walked this journey over the last couple of years, I tend to make it way too difficult. I knew God could speak anywhere, but I also felt that I had to be in a certain place or do certain things to get Him to do what I wanted – or even just to pay attention to me. A certain time, the right Scripture, the right atmosphere, or even humbling myself by kneeling at the altar or raising my hands in worship.
The truth is (and was) that God loved me despite those things, not because of them. The invitation is always open. God is continually saying, “Come, child, walk with me.”
“I’ll set up my residence in your neighborhood; I won’t avoid or shun you; I’ll stroll through your streets. I’ll be your God; you’ll be my people. I am God, your personal God who rescued you from Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians. I ripped off the harness of your slavery so that you can move about freely. [Leviticus 26:11-13, The Message]
The God that rescued the Egyptians out of captivity wants to walk with you through your neighborhood. He’s already there.
All you have to do is ask.
“Dad, want to go for a walk?”
When I was in college, I went through a very well-known discipleship program. I met with my discipler once a week and we went through these huge notebooks of information. We would check off lists and tasks. A friend of mine was my leader. There were a couple of issues I had with the program. One, I began to dread going every week. I hung out with my friend weekly, if not daily. I enjoyed spending time with him, except the discipleship time we spent together was BOR – ING! There was no life in it – just going through a notebook and to-do items. (Snoozer!)
- Did I read the passages and answer the fill-in-the-blank questions?
- Did I memorize the scripture for the week?
- Did I witness to at least one person? (The answer was usually NO – since I was at a Christian university, who wasn’t a Christian? 🙂 ).
There were 3 of these notebooks you had to get through in order to complete the program. These were not your ordinary 2-inch binders either. They were ginormous, 5- or 6-inch beasts that would put a large-print KJV Study Bible to shame.
My second issue was that it really didn’t seem to make a difference in my life or the life of my friend. We hung out together all the time, yet, his faith didn’t really seem to grow much during our time together. It just felt like something we did, checked off, and moved on. More life and relationship growth happened outside of that time – not during it.
I never finished the program. I didn’t even get through the second mega-manual. In some ways, I felt like a failure. Honestly, though, there was more life in a prayer time that another friend and I shared twice a week. I found his faith and trust in the Lord inspiring, and our time together wasn’t dry at all. I even experienced a major healing during this time. That was the kind of faith I wanted (and still want) to pursue. Not a checklist-based faith, but a living faith that learns to listen to and hear the Lord’s voice.
That’s why many so-called discipleship programs are flawed. They are based too much on what we do, and not enough on hearing from the Lord and following His lead. I’ve tried a number of programs and read about a few more. They may have had life at one point, but many seem ineffective in creating life-long followers of Jesus. The issue comes when we try and box up what the Lord wants to do through His Spirit and His people and put it into a system of checklists and principles. He’s a living God that wants a living relationship with His children.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)
It is not the system or structure we use (or even the person leading us) that causes us to grow in the Lord, but it is the Lord Himself. So why do we settle for a system created by a person to help us grow in the Lord? How about we connect with the source of growth first? And then share what Father is doing in our lives to help each other mature in the Lord?
What kind of discipleship would that look like? One that seeks to encounter a living God and to live where every day is a new challenge of faith and listening and learning both from Father and from each other?
What is your experience with discipleship? What have been the most encouraging times helping you grow in your faith? What funny stories do you have about attempts at discipleship?
In recent days, the pope made a historic visit to the United States. One of his stops was Philadelphia, where a Catholic priest had built a replica of the Vatican out of Legos. If I took you to Philadelphia and showed you the Lego Vatican and said, “Look! It’s the Vatican.” You might reply by saying, “Well, it’s a model of the Vatican.”
“No, no, no! This is THE Vatican. See the courtyard and the columns? The dome, the piazza, and all the people? The nuns? And look – the Pope is here and he’s even waving to the people.” If I said that you would know that I was either delusional, lying, or maybe a bit of both.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep-dive of Colossians. I’ve taken a slow and Spirit-led (and also very non-linear) approach to studying this book. It has long been one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, and I am finding a vast richness and untold treasures as I have dug in and allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal things to me.
One of the more significant passages in Colossians 2 has struck me recently:
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
With the things of God, there is shadow and there is substance. These themes run throughout Scripture:
- The temple was a shadow of the reality of heaven and eternal life (the presence of God in and around humanity).
- The Old Testament high priests were a shadow of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
- The Sabbath is a shadow of our eternal rest found in the work that Jesus did on the cross.
There are many more, but I think you get the idea. Now, if this is unfamiliar to you, please bear with me and hopefully it will become more clear.
The Shadow Points to the Reality
The things of God which are a shadow point to the reality. The shadows themselves are not the true things; however, they are often mistaken for things which have true substance. This was the problem with the Pharisees. They took the things of God which were shadows and built a religion out of them. Their understanding was limited and much of what they saw was not the true reality.
Take healing on the Sabbath, for instance. It was forbidden by the Pharisees. Why? Because it was considered work, and God had told them that the Sabbath was a day of rest. There was to be no work. When Jesus came, he healed people on the Sabbath. Again, why? Because he understood the reality of the Sabbath (that it was a shadow of things to come). God is for His people and He is working to restore all things back to Himself (See Colossians 1:20). This is just one way that Jesus demonstrated that truth.
As impressive as the Lego Vatican is (it does have a waving pope, by the way), it is not the real thing – it’s merely a representation of a greater reality. That’s what the shadows are as they relate to the things of God. The shadows are a representation of a much grander reality, and we must come to know the reality, or we will be left (like the Pharisees) holding up the obscure things as those with substance.
The Substance Belongs to Christ
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).
Because Christ dwells within us, we have a vast wealth of resources at our disposal. I have said before that although we have an inheritance of princes and princesses, we often live like spiritual paupers. That’s because we live by shadows and forget about the true substance. (The reality is that many Christians have been taught more about shadows than substance. It likely isn’t even your fault.)
The things which have substance are Christ’s alone. Colossians tells us that the great mystery of the ages is not just found in Christ, but it is Christ Himself. If that’s not enough, the mystery is also referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Can there be a greater mystery? How Christ could dwell in us? It is almost unthinkable. But that is the greatest reality. Christ dwelling in His believers.
One of the most challenge things for me in my spiritual journey has been to sift through the shadows to find the true substance. It is a journey that God is hammering into me at this very moment, and it is one of my favorite times in all my years of following Christ.
Leave the shadows behind and follow what’s real. You will not regret it.
What other things can you think of that are mere “shadows” of things to come? What are you holding on to that’s merely a shadow of the truth? (Feel free to share in the comments below.)