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 time of year, you hear a lot about goals, self-improvement plans and similar objectives and resolutions to get the new year started off right. No matter how you fared last year, or what things that were in your list of achievements that never got accomplished, we view the new year as a clean slate, a chance to start over and try again (or trying something different or new.)
As I’ve tried different programs and reflected on some things that have worked in my life and didn’t work (including some real doozies of failure), I have to wonder, “Is this what Jesus has in mind for us?” To continually try to improve ourselves? Or is there something else that He wants from us? Is there a different way to go about this whole “following Jesus” thing?
Having not only done the planner/calendar approach, the goal-setting program (I even came up with my own goal-setting challenge a couple of years ago I sheepishly admit), and others, I can say that seldom does this approach work when you’re talking about spiritual growth. There are things like spiritual disciplines that can be helpful, but only as you approach it from a relational perspective.
There are no spiritual principles that will be 100% effective. There isn’t a 4 step plan that will help you become a better Christian. I don’t believe these things even work very well when we’re talking about day-to-day self-improvement. The industries that are “built” to help you succeed (all the self-improvement programs, the goal setting workshops, diet and exercise programs) are really banking on your failure. Very few of the people who start programs like these end up with their desired results, even of the few who finish.
So does that mean Jesus wants you to step it up? Does he want you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and try harder, learn more, and (as one of my friends say), “suck it up, buttercup?”
Hardly. Jesus doesn’t offer just another self-improvement program. What he offers is new life. The two couldn’t be more opposite. Whereas a self-improvement program depends on, well, you and your self-discipline to make things different. What Jesus offers is really more of a self-crucifixion program. There needs to be less of you so that there can be more of Him.
More of His life.
More of His Spirit.
More of Him. In. You.
A number of years ago, this verse hit me smack in my spirit:
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8:11)
Do you see what’s going on? I read that verse for two or three decades before it really sank in. I finally understood what was going on here.
First, think about the power that is required to raise someone from the dead. That is no natural power. If they are close to life, then CPR or a jolt of electricity (“Clear!”) might do it. But, for those (like Lazarus) who are beyond hope physically, think about the kind of power that it must take to raise someone from the dead. Jesus was like Lazarus in that it wasn’t just a near-death experience. They were both in the grave for 3 days.
Meditate on this for a few minutes: the supernatural power of God that dwells in the Spirit.
Now, what else does this verse say? “…is living in you…” So, this same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead; this same Spirit who brought Lazarus back to life; this same Spirit who caused the lame to walk and the blind to see; He lives in you! Isn’t that amazing?
All of the power.
All of the wisdom.
“…is living in You…”
The Spirit who “hovered over the waters” at the beginning of creation. The Spirit who breathed life into Adam. The Spirit who was there at Pentecost that fell on thousands of people and made them speak in other languages.
That’s the Spirit we’re talking about. This Spirit resides within every believer. And He is there to comfort, to guide, and to help.
Are you beginning to see the difference in what we think our spiritual life should be versus what God offers us? And that’s not even scratching the surface of all the gloriousness (did I just make up a word?) that Father wants for us.
When I visit with others about this – even when I just ponder and think about it – or write about it, there is something that wells up within me that wants to shout this from the rooftops.
This isn’t something that any man taught me. It’s something that God revealed to me as I read the Scriptures. It’s another reason this truth is so special to me – Father Himself was my teacher.
I know you want to do better, to be better, to have the abundant life that He offers. The trick is, you can’t earn your way or work your way into it. It’s something that comes as a result of the Life that lives in you by the Spirit. It’s part of the self-crucifixion program that Jesus beckons you to. It’s not something that comes by effort. It’s something that comes by rest, believe it or not.
So the next time your tempted to buy that self-improvement program, ask Father what He wants of you and where He wants you to invest your time, energy, and resources. Chances are, it isn’t to plan out your next 5 or even next year.
Chance are, He will invite you to a one-step-at-a-time plan that Has you trusting in Him and leaning into Him each step of the way.
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.
Have you ever wondered if what Christianity “sells” is just another way to improve your self? To stop doing bad things and start doing good things?
After all the sermons and rhetoric, is it still just about me, me, me?
What if it were more than that? What if Christianity has nothing to do with that at all? What if it were more about entering a new reality, becoming a NEW person (not just a better version of yourself), and what if you could become part of a story – God’s story – that has been woven from the beginning of time. It’s a story that you’re invited into and one in which you have a role to play.
Have I piqued your interest yet?
I was sitting in a service at a local church not too long ago. Everything was normal and I was sitting there listening to the message. All of a sudden, it dawned on me. What I was hearing was almost the exact same thing that I had heard elsewhere – only, it wasn’t from a preacher, Bible study leader, or anything coming out of Christianity. The lesson and application from the sermon were almost identical to something I had either read or heard coming from a non-Christian, self-improvement guru. (I won’t share names because that’s not the important thing.)
It’s More than Principles
Something about living by principles, especially when we’re talking about the Church, has bugged me for a while. I’ve never jived with that train of thought because it all seems so trite and is still very much me-centered. You can try to use principles to get what you want out of both life and God, and you might even see some success (and that’s where the real danger comes in); however, in the end, it’s still about what you can get out of it.
Only, God didn’t create us to live by principle. He created us to live inside of a relationship. When we live by principle, we trust in the principle. We can say we’re trusting in God, have faith, whatever, but we don’t have to rely on God when we’re living by Principle X in order to get Result Y. There’s no need for trust when we live this way.
When we live by relationship, however, the full weight of the outcome rests with God alone. It’s not a principle that we’re trusting in – it’s a Person. You cannot predict the outcome when you trust in a person. That is out of your control. That is faith – following the One who is in charge of the results when all you can see is the next step.
At times, you can only hang on for dear life.
Failure IS An Option
When you’re learning to live by trust rather than principle, you will get it wrong. I know I have. There are many times when I think that there’s a certain direction I need to go in or something that God is telling me to do, only to find out that it was just my own voice I was listening to – not God’s.
So how can you tell the difference? At times, it’s not so easy – other times it is. God typically tells me to do things that are either outside my comfort zone or something I wouldn’t think do on my own. It’s usually requires me laying down at least part (if not all of) my “self.”
When I was a good little Pharisee, I hated to fail. I needed to be right and point out others faults. The truth is, I failed all the time. I just hid my failures. It’s easy to overlook when you’re a Pharisee. That’s how we roll.
I’m still learning to let go of my fear of failure. I don’t like it, but I know my loving Father is with me smiling (not judging) and eager to help and encourage me. There’s no condemnation but a gentle nudging back to His presence where I can try again without fear.
Have you ever tried to live by spiritual principles? Someone tells you,
“This is the way you should be praying.” Here are the 7 steps to an effective prayer life.
“Read your Bible like this.” Here are the 4 steps to being a better husband, father, Christian, etc..
“You need to be more involved in church meetings and programs if you really want to grow.” Follow these 5 things to become a better Jesus follower.
I know I have done those things. Shoot, I’ve even said those kinds of things before. The problem is that if you want to follow Jesus, He doesn’t work through principles. He works through relationship.
Living by spiritual principle is so tempting. It’s fairly easy and straightforward. I usually know what I have to do and where I have to be at what time to follow the Lord this way.
Only it seldom works the way we think. And, I believe the Lord does that on purpose. Why? Because He wants to be our shepherd. He wants to be the one whispering in our ear, “This is the way. Walk in it.”
When we follow the nudges of the Lord, it opens a vast array of possibilities. Sometimes frustratingly so. When the Lord asked me to step down from a ministry position at a megachurch, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I trusted that God knew the way – even though I did not.
That has led my family and I down a number of unforeseen roads – not all of which would have been ones I would have chosen and in the middle of them I’ve asked the Lord, “Really? This?” “Why not that over there?” Usually when I ask those questions he’s pretty quiet. I know the answer will be, “Trust me.”
And I do. I have to. It’s what I’ve hinged my life on. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s always simple. I seem to have spiritual ADD at times – flitting about and chasing things like a hyped up kitten freaking out on catnip.
I miss things, and I have totally gone in the wrong direction at times. What I love about this journey is that there is no condemnation for getting it wrong – just a loving Father smiling and guiding me back to where He wants me.
The Lord is also teaching me to ask “What now, Lord? What do you have me for today?” Instead of me asking, “What’s next?”
I believe God wants me to focus on the here and now and not necessarily what’s down the road. He’s patiently steering me in the direction I need to be (which isn’t always that easy – I tend to have a stubborn side.)
I will say, I’m getting used to it. I used to pride myself on seeing the “big picture” and the “end result”, only I don’t know that those things need to be my concern. God’s territory is the big picture. He may give me a glimpse of it if He chooses, or He may not.
His true desire is that I lean on Him and into Him to really hear what he’s saying. If we are His sheep, we will know His voice. It rarely is an audible voice, but usually it’s a gentle whisper or a loving little nudge in a certain direction. “Here is where I’m working.”
“Go, help those people for a bit.”
“Call this friend.”
“Serve here for a little while.”
“Love this person right where they are.”
God gives us desires and hints at what He is doing if we are willing to listen. I’ve prided myself in hearing God for a long time for big decisions. Now, He and I are focused on listening to Him in the day-to-day. And it’s exciting and frustrating at the same time.
Right now, I’m loving it. There’s no pressure, and He’s so patient and merciful. It’s a bit scary sometimes, and I get nervous I’m not doing it right. But that’s not the point, as I am reminded by some fellow journeyers moving in a similar direction.
It’s also frustrating when He seems so quiet, and I don’t get it. There are moments I think I do, and many moments lately when I’m sure I don’t. But, it’s okay. I’m learning to enjoy the process and this new part of my journey. Every day is different, and I’m embracing the unknown bit by bit as I hear from God and He says, “Here I am. This is the way. Let’s walk over here for a moment.”
What is God teaching you about following Him? Where have you heard or felt a nudge from God and where did it lead you?
Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash
This morning I received an email from a friend of mine who is a missionary in Mexico. I usually hear from him about once a week and we briefly tell each other how we can be praying.
He shared about his interns being too comfortable and needing to come to the end of themselves. He knew he couldn’t be the one to bring them to that point, but wondered at least how he could lead them down that road.
It got me thinking about our expectations for others, and the long journey it’s taken me to come to the end of myself. Every time I think I’m at the end, it seems Jesus is there tugging me forward saying, “That was just a resting place. It’s not the end.” Have you been there?
What Do You Expect?
Unmet expectations are the source of all kinds of conflict, whether in marriages or friendships or the workplace. This is especially true when the expectations are unrealistic. Much of the time, I believe they are.
- We expect others to meet our needs completely, when there is only One that can fulfill us (and it’s not your spouse or significant other).
- We have too high expectations of ourselves and get frustrated when we don’t meet those. (Come on, I’m not the only one am I?)
- We have expectations that others need to be where we are spiritually and if not try to get them there. (Is that really our job? Check out 1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
- We expect other people to behave like us, respond like us, and communicate like us. We forget that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. We fulfill different roles in the body, and our uniqueness is from the Lord (Sometimes it feels like it’s from the devil, though, right?)
Often we feel that we have a right to lead people down the road to meet our expectations, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. I know from experience. I’ve felt that way before, and I shake my head when I remember some of those moments. (That was before my Phari-sectomy).
God Has a Process
Does God want us to come to the end of ourselves? Absolutely. Can He use my friend as a part of that process? I’m sure He will.
The danger, I believe, is when we try to take on that process ourselves. Very rarely does any good come from trying to short-circuit God’s timing. (Just take a look at Abraham, Joseph, and any number of Bible characters who tried).
When we try to usurp the activity of God in someone’s life, we reveal a lack of trust in God and His work and growth in that person. Yes, he can absolutely use us to be a part of that process. So what role do we play in that?
What is My Part?
According to 1 Corinthians 3, we plant and we water. We are not in charge of growth. That is God’s domain. What does planting and watering look like? There’s not a specific formula for each person, and I’m not trying to set forth principles to live by but ideas to embrace.
When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, forgive them. When you don’t meet your own, forgive yourself. Extend forgiveness frequently and generously.
ANOINT WITH GRACE AND MERCY
Be willing to shower people with God’s grace and mercy. Let go of unrealistic expectations and ask God to show you those when they occur.
Above all else, listen. Listen to Father for the gentle nudges that can help you walk alongside your brothers and sisters. Listen to your fellow believers as they share their struggles and what God is showing them. Help them navigate and nurture their relationships with Father and fellow believers.
May we be rich in mercy and slow in our criticism of those who love Jesus and may not be as far along as we are or as far as we think they ought to be. May we learn to see the beauty in our uniqueness and value our differences.
Do you struggle with imposing expectations on others? How do you respond when others place those on you?