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?
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.
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