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.
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?
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?
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?