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.
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?”
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.
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?