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.
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?
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.)
I had to make a quick trip to Austin for work last week, and since it was last-minute and within driving distance, I decided to skip the flight and hit the road. Within the first hour and a half, I saw the first of a number of things that would not only catch my attention but begin one of two patterns that would continue throughout my eight hour drive (and, yes, that is driving distance in Texas!)
I noticed a large manufacturing plant that had shut down a few years back. It was now just an empty shell of a place. A number of buildings, both small and large, once bustling with people and movement, now sitting silent and motionless.
“What a shame,” I thought to myself. A waste of resources, space, and material. Who knows what will become of that place? It’s especially a shame because of the hundreds of men and women who struggled to find jobs after it had abruptly closed its doors, a number of whom I have met.
One man, Martin (name changed), told me how he had worked there since his teenage years (he was now well into his 60’s), didn’t have any degree or certification and wasn’t sure what he would do or even how he would pay his bills. The local Workforce organization was offering assistance to a lot of these individuals, including paying for education programs, and Martin was supposed to begin one of those in Amarillo, but he never started.
Driving by, I wondered what had happened to him.
As I continued my long drive, I saw a number of houses and buildings that had been abandoned over the years. Gaping holes where windows and curtains used to fill. Overgrown grass and weeds jutted through loose boards and cracked brick.
One town had even re-purposed a building and put up a sign on it welcoming people to their town.
But how do you resurrect something that’s dead and gone? Lifeless? Worthless?
And that’s when it hit me. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
Because I want to share with you the other pattern that I began to notice.
I had been listening to a couple of podcasts as I was driving, and after turning them off, I just began to pray, “God, show me what you want me to see today.”
I started to notice butterflies. Lots of butterflies. I’ve driven a lot in my lifetime, and I have to say that I can’t remember a time when I’ve noticed more.
Most of them were flying right in front of my car (and no, no butterflies were harmed in the making of this post).
My daughter loves butterflies and so I thought of her and knew that she would love seeing all of them.
After a couple of hours, both the abandoned buildings and the number of butterflies stood out, so I knew God was trying to tell me something, but I just didn’t make the connection right away.
What could empty houses and abandoned buildings have to do with butterflies? You might already see the connection. I didn’t at first.
I thought about transformation, about metamorphosis. How a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, emerges from its cocoon and flies away. Only to leave what?
An empty shell!
That was the connection. The cocoon. What happens to it once the butterfly leaves?
It’s empty. Hollow. Lifeless.
What once held life is now motionless and silent. Abandoned.
That’s when God began making the connections.
When we put our faith and trust in Jesus, we become a new creation. We’re the butterfly. At least that’s how God sees us in Christ.
Yet, so often, we still see ourselves as the empty shell. Ugly. Worthless. Barren.
Only those are not God’s thoughts toward us.
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2)
What we’re seeing when we look at the empty shell is what Scripture refers to as the Old Man.
What the devil tells us is that is who we still are. God sees so much more.
He sees a new creation because we ARE a new creation. The old is gone. It was crucified with Jesus.
So then why do I still struggle with…
Imagine a butterfly once emerging from the cocoon trying to re-enter it and live there. You would think the butterfly were a bit off.
That’s exactly what we do, though, in our Christian walk. We receive this new life in Christ only to try and live it out in the empty shell.
The other thing we do is to try and “earn” being a butterfly. It would be like this same butterfly going to sleep in the cocoon every night praying that he would become a butterfly the next day.
Of course, that illustration is ridiculous. If we could see that butterfly and talk to that butterfly (and they could understand us of course), we would tell that butterfly, “But you are a butterfly. You can’t change what you already are! There’s nothing you could do to make you any less of a butterfly or any more of a butterfly. Why are you praying to be a butterfly? You are a butterfly! Now get out of that cocoon and be a butterfly!”
Believer, are you beginning to see?
You are the new creation. You have been transformed. Morphed into a new creature.
So, start living as a butterfly. Believe that’s how God sees you because that is who you are.
Nothing you can do will make you more of a new creation, and nothing that you can do will make you less of a new creation.
Stop trying to live out of the cocoon.
Stop seeing yourself as the empty shell (that old self is dead and buried).
Stop praying to be a butterfly.
You are a butterfly.
You are not worthless and lifeless.
You have Life living inside of you.
Be the butterfly.
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve become really bored with TV. There are so many channels but there’s little of value that is worth spending time watching. I don’t think that I can give it up all together. (Hey, I still have to watch some college football and a show or two that I find entertaining). But, I want to make better use of my time: spend more time with my kids and wife, more time studying God’s Word and really digging deep, more time planning ways to reach out in our community, and more time building a business and ministry that I’m really excited about. These are things that are worth spending time on.
What about in your life? What’s worth giving up for something of greater value? If you looked back on your life in 10 or 20 years, what is something you wouldn’t regret giving up for something you would like to gain?
Jesus gave up His position in the heavens to come to earth and sacrifice Himself for us (see verses below). There was and never will be a greater sacrifice. For me, giving up a few hours a week of television seems like a no-brainer. It’s still tempting to sit down and flip on the tube and veg out, but I am quickly reminded as I see what isn’t on how wasteful it can be. There’s a lot more useful things I can do with my time. Plus, when my kids are older and don’t want to spend time with me, there will be plenty of time to watch all those seasons of 24!
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.