The phrase “excruciatingly beautiful” first appeared in an email from a friend in Ohio. He told me he had been through a painful betrayal and that God was teaching him how to forgive. “It is excruciatingly beautiful,” he wrote.
I’ve never seen those two words used together anywhere. When I typed ‘excruciatingly beautiful into my search engine, our podcast from two years ago by that name was the first listing. However, other listings defined excruciatingly beautiful as “something so beautiful it hurts,” often used in art forms such as a movie plot or musical score. There’s nothing about how it applies to life.
I would define excruciatingly beautiful as “something beautiful produced out of excruciating pain,” such as the birth of a child or healing from trauma. It can also be true of any pain in our lives that moves us to behold God’s beauty more significantly.
If you’ve never been there, it is hard to imagine how pain can give way to beauty. And yet, I’m so grateful it does. Many see the suffering of our world as proof that a loving Creator cannot exist; I see the beauty he weaves into this fallen universe as proof of a loving Creator spilling redemption into human chaos. No doubt, there is excruciating agony in the selfishness and darkness of our world, and yet there is also exquisite beauty as well. And they aren’t always unrelated. My life’s most remarkable transformations and joys have often come through the most challenging times.
Two years after my friend’s letter to me, that phrase continues to crop up regularly in my conversations, as it did this week talking to a man in a years-long, gut-wrenching crisis. He continues to share with me what he is learning about himself, the Father’s love, and how to engage others more authentically. He described it as beautiful, even while his crisis deepens. Let’s be clear; God is not the author of his situation; it results from how others treat him. God didn’t give him this pain or “allow it” to teach him a lesson. The pain was coming anyway; God is simply working his goodness into the tragedy to make it part of his redemption for my friend and others around him. This is how we become part of his redemption story.
What amazes me is how easily he could cut himself away from his pain and run from it, but he does not. Most do in his situation, which is why many of them don’t get to the beauty that would lie behind it for them, too. He’s sometimes felt like it, but God keeps revealing stuff to him that keeps him in it.
If we’re going to discover his beauty in our circumstances, we can’t run from ‘excruciating.’ No one enjoys pain, but rather than trying to deny your grief or disguise it beneath temporary amusements, it would be far better to sit with God in it. Embrace him in your pain and disappointments, and you will discover what he wants you to know that will soften your heart and transform your thinking. This can take some time—months even—but let his work be perfected in you, and you will discover the mystery of excruciatingly beautiful as well.
That’s what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.18 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.
When the temporal things we think are so important give way to the eternal things that truly are, we behold a beauty more incredible than we could dream. On the one hand, it is sad that it often takes difficult times for us to gain that perspective. On the other, aren’t you grateful that our Father can use anything that happens to us to move us more deeply into the things that matter most?
I love the way Father weaves himself into the fabric of our day. I hadn’t seen the notes pictured above for decades. I forgot I even had them until I picked up a tablet off my desk, and there they were sitting beneath. Look at the date: “2/12/75.”
How they got there, I have no idea. Between moving into storage from our old home and then into this one, I suspected they fell out of something, and I laid the tablet on them without knowing they were there. When I picked it up a few days ago, I was undone for quite a while.
These are not just any set of notes. They are scribblings from lectures given by Dr. Clyde Kilby, a professor of English at Wheaton College and the founder of The Marion E. Wade Center, which is a library to study the writings of the Inklings, including C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, two of my favorite authors. They opened my heart to the wonder of God’s mystery and the adventure of following him. He wrote and taught extensively on the influence of these men and was one of the leading authorities on their material.
As part of my work for the Chaplain’s Office during my senior year, I was assigned to escort Dr. Kilby to his lectures and take him for meals when he visited Oral Roberts University. We often ate with others, but the last night we dined alone at the Steak and Ale Restaurant beside a log fire in a stone fireplace. The Old English ambiance and the fact that Dr. Kilby resembled in so many ways the wise, gentle, witty man I thought C. S. Lewis must have been, it was like dining with the great thinker himself.
Then, to my horror, he pulled out a manuscript I had written as part of my senior project. The Chaplain had given him a few chapters, and he pulled them out to discuss them with me. For the next few moments, he told me how impressed he was with my writing for a young man and encouraged me to pursue my craft. “You have the gift of writing. Don’t ever forget that, no matter how difficult it might be to find your way into print. The world needs your words. Pursue it no matter what.”
I was blown away then, and still am, by the encouragement God gave me that night through this dear man. Our friendship grew from there through letters, and twice when I was in the Chicago area, I got to sit in his garden with him and his wife after their retirement. My interactions with him are some of the clearest and most treasured memories of my journey.
My eyes moistened, thumbing through those old notes as they rekindled the memories of my relationship with Dr. Kilby and his encouragement for me to write. I have no doubt it was providential that they ended up on my desk at this moment. Something had been stirring in my heart, and not only finding these notes but also the content of the first lecture seems to confirm a growing direction in my heart.
It has been nearly sixteen months since I returned home from my last trip to discover that, to my complete shock, Sara had left me and planned to file for divorce. A few days into that stretch of the journey, and before I had any conversation with Sara, God seemed to be letting me know that this was not what it appeared to be and that he would be bringing her back. As I prayed one day, I saw in my mind a spaceship approaching a giant planet. Its trajectory bent about sixty degrees as it passed, and soon it was off in a different direction. God seemed to speak to my heart, “This is going to change the trajectory of your life.” And has it ever!
Early on, everything stopped—podcasts, blogs, writing, and travel. Sara was first; find out what happened to her and see if I could reconnect. When we discovered that Sara was drowning in trauma from her childhood, about which she had complete amnesia. At that point, I dedicated the rest of my life to being part of Sara’s healing and Sara’s joy. Over the last year, we sold our home, wandered around together in an RV to Virginia and back, and now have purchased a forty-year-old home and are remodeling it as a place for us. I’ve held that lady through the most painful revelations, helped her set a course for freedom, and now we are finding a way to live together that will honor her trauma and the work Father is doing in it.
It has all been a joy to live in this space with her and to let go of everything else. It has not only changed the trajectory of my life; it has also transformed me in ways I never saw coming. I see many things differently today than I did sixteen months ago. God has been expanding my heart to see that the way I’ve loved Sara through this is how God loves his people who are lost in the world’s darkness and tormented by sin. We are exploring some of that now on The God Journey podcast.
Over the past year, I’ve wondered if I’d write again or travel. Walking with Sara through this has taken most of my time and emotional energy. I managed to keep podcasting with Kyle when we understood what was happening with Sara and knew she wanted to tell her story there. I have also continued to walk with people through tragedies and discoveries that are rocking their world and continue with a small group of others to gaze with God in prayer at the brokenness of the world and his redemption in the midst of it.
Now that we are approaching the end of our remodeling projects, the desire to write again has been steadily growing. Honestly, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever write another book. My best book is already in the world, He Loves Me, and its companion devotional, Live Loved Free Full, are encouraging many people to live in Father’s love each day. So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, and Finding Church are still the best things I have to say about being part of the church Jesus is building and not being disillusioned by humanity’s attempts to fabricate its own version.
“Will you speak for me again?” The words ran through my mind a couple of months ago. I’ve resisted giving in to them because Sara and I are intentionally avoiding old patterns to embrace new ones. She has been wonderfully encouraging, however, about me writing again. I’m sure she’ll want me distracted when she has time to play in the garden. So, I’ve been toying with two possible books that keep rising in my heart.
That’s why finding these notes one morning undid me a bit. As soon as I saw Dr. Kilby’s name on it, it was as if all the encouragement God gave me through him almost fifty years ago came flooding back as if it were yesterday. And the first few pages of those notes strike the heart of the Father’s passion growing in my soul. Here are a couple of quotes that feed Father’s adventure in all of us and that exploring specifics is the gift of God, not codifying God’s life into systems or workbooks:
The best evidence of man’s fall is that every experience that overwhelms us with beauty becomes after a bit of time mere commonplace. It is one of the saddest things. Heaven will not have that quality. God can enjoy every sunrise as if it is his first.
The greatest sin you can commit is to think that today is just like yesterday and that tomorrow will be just like today.
Reality is never found in organization and analysis. The more you abstract or define, the further away the thing itself gets from you. Systematic theology is God on the dissecting table. Anything worth talking about is greater than the sum of its parts.
Snowflakes are intimately beautiful and intimately individual. Each one is unique. The world is not a generalized world. No two apples are alike. If I call them “apples”, I have abstracted them and taken away a bit of each of them to find the lowest common denominator.
Everywhere I go, I look around to feel something. I thank the Lord for the freshness of life. All things are full of beauty. God made butterflies. They have a reality of beauty, as does everyone you meet.
I love how God makes himself known. That he would bring these notes and memories to me now means more than I can say. I have no idea what the future holds from here; Sara and I are still living each day in the beauty and adventure of what doors God might open on any day.
These notes remain on my desk today as a treasured reminder of his gift to me fifty years ago and perhaps a glimpse into what will yet be.
I didn’t know such a thing existed until I saw it in the wild.
Even then, it was difficult to believe my eyes. It looked like a rainbow, but it was completely white. It even had a fainter, secondary rainbow beneath the full one. The picture above doesn’t do it justice.
I found it while walking with Zoey a few weeks ago in the open land behind our neighborhood. It confused me at first, wondering if it really was a rainbow. We were in the early morning mist not far from Mt. Boney. As I crested a hill, I saw it stretched across the grasslands—a pure white arc of reflected light. Startled, I tried to figure out what it was while it accompanied us on our walk for almost fifteen minutes. I even got close to one end, but it stayed just out of reach until it vanished.
I didn’t know if this was a natural phenomenon or if a divine moment was afoot, like the burning bush. The air was electric, my heart quivering in the exquisite beauty of this unique rainbow and the God behind it. But what was I seeing? Was it real? The moment was exhilarating, and while I looked for some glorious revelation beyond the rainbow, none came.
I could think of little else on my way home, where I searched the web to see if there was such a thing as a white rainbow. To my delight, I found there was. They are also called fogbows or ghost rainbows. They are rare, only forming when the sun is low, and the droplets in the mist are not large enough to split the sunlight into the tell-tale colors of the rainbow.
No one I’ve shared this with has ever seen or heard of a white rainbow, which made me feel less like I had missed something in my science classes. Knowing it was a natural-occurring event that others had observed did not rob my wonder. On several occasions, I have seen something so surprising it takes my breath away—a shooting star across a dark, alpine sky, the immensity of the Grand Canyon, the brilliant colors of fall in New England, or a little green iridescent fish swimming by my face mask in Hawaii. This was that kind of experience.
Seeing a pure white rainbow for the first time still makes my heart happy—the glory of God shining through a thin space in his Creation. He seemed particularly close at hand, though I know he was no more present there with it than the many other times I’ve walked those fields.
That’s what I love about this fantastic Creation we live in. There is a ton of pain in this broken world, yet now and then, we catch a glimpse of extraordinary beauty that harkens our hearts to a better day yet to come. You can never be sure what you might see on any given day that can turn your heart to him in a fresh way.
What a joy to know that Father always watches over us no matter what life throws at us. He is a refuge as certain as the rising sun and as steady as a granite mountain.
One of the things that drew us to this neighborhood was the breathtaking views of Mt. Boney (just over Sara’s shoulder above) that we see down our street and from our backyard. It’s a constant reminder not only of the wonder of God’s Creation but also of the rock of refuge he is for whatever life might hurl at us.
Boney Mountain is one of the highest peaks in the Santa Monica Mountains. It is 2,825 feet, also known as Boney Peak or Old Boney. It is the top section of a mass of volcanic rock, which scientists think solidified about 15 million years ago. It was later pushed up to its dominant position, overshadowing western Conejo Valley. The Chumash Native Americans have a long and deep spiritual history of interaction at and near the mountain, and their descendants consider the peak a sacred mountain.
As do I, though perhaps for different reasons. I’ve always been a mountain guy, much more than a beach dude. Now I have one rising over my neighborhood. I see it everywhere I walk and when we drive in and out of the community. It still takes my breath away and evokes the theme of Psalm 121. It has long been one of my favorites, and I play the first verse in my head each time and think about its meaning:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
The power is not in the mountain but in the God who made the mountain. That he will watch over and care for me is as certain as the presence of those mountains every morning. The same is true for you.
We are settling into our new home in Newbury Park, CA. The view of Old Boney is ever-changing as Sara and our dogs walk around the neighborhood or into the open area beneath the mountain. It’s hard not to take pictures, especially when the clouds and fog play with the hills, which it does almost every morning through May and June. One day, my friend Luis and I will take the trail to the top of that mountain.
Clouds and fog play with the mountains
We are growing increasingly settled here and connecting with new neighbors in a way we’ve never experienced before. Walking the streets is like a throwback to forty years ago when kids played in the streets and people conversed easily on the sidewalk. This is not your typical California neighborhood. The people are friendly and helpful and have gone out of their way to welcome us, one even bringing us a bouquet. They have graciously endured the noise and dust we’ve brought caused by the work we had to have done on this forty-year-old home. We are blessed to live on this cul-de-sac.
We have completed the work on the interior and are so over-the-moon delighted with how this space will reflect his peace to others. We are starting on Sara’s garden, which is a bit more dust and noise, but now our neighbors get to watch it take shape and are fascinated. And this time, Sara and I will not just view her garden out the back patio and across the creek; we will live in it, seeing it out every window. It seems clear Father has brought us here for this season in our lives, and we couldn’t be more excited about what this chapter might unfurl.
So, what’s ahead for us? Along with our ongoing conversations with people finding freedom in Father’s love, it looks like I’m going to be able to have some time to get back to the writing I have longed to do. I may pick up that sequel to the “Jake book,” which I had already started and put on hold when life took a surprising turn. I also feel a growing nudge to write a series of letters for the followers of Jesus who will be alive at the end of the age. I don’t know if this is that season, but I see many signs that point to the possibility. Whether we are approaching the end of days or not, Jesus invited us to live every day as if we were. I know, end times talk is the stuff of fear and disappointed expectations. I am not writing a prophecy but an invitation to find a life in Jesus strong enough to withstand the worst life can throw at you with the hope of his growing light guiding you through it.
And it’s likely we’re headed out on another RV trip this fall, probably through Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, before heading back to CA through New Mexico and Atlanta. Please let me know if you’re along that trail and want to get some people together to talk about living loved, trauma, healing, or following Jesus.
Also, I’ve got an outstanding promise to get to Austin, and I think this fall will do it. I may also speak at a conference for the Coalition Christian Colleges and Universities along with Arnita Taylor and Bob Prater about the concepts in our book, A Language of Healing for a Polarized Nation. I also have an invitation to gather with some folks around Little Rock, so we’ll see what Father has in mind.
Wherever this next stage of our journey takes us, Sara and I know we will live under a mountain of God’s care, kindness, and direction. That same life is also available to you.
Maybe it was just a few notes, but even a bit of it will begin to breathe hope into your exhausted heart. You’ll recognize it as the soothing melody inviting you beside his quiet waters where peace and tranquility will wash over your fear and grief. Linger there and lean away from anxious thoughts and angry voices, both internal and external.
His song carries a different rhythm—
He is enough.
You are deeply loved.
All of Creation is still in his hands.
There’s no fear or frustration in his song. Its soft and lilting tones draw you more deeply to his heart, where fear no longer thrives. It allows you to embrace a reality far more consequential than anything you see with your eyes or hear with your ears.
It calms your heart with the confidence that God is big enough for this, too.
They sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.” REVELATION 15:3 (NIV)
It is the Song of the Ages, still playing beneath the stresses and strains of this world, fresh from your Father’s heart. Regardless of all that’s going on around you, it invites you into his reality.
It’s not the loudest song in the wind. Fears and anger will scream louder. The rancor of political discord will drown it out, and it can easily be swallowed up by the cacophonous strains of anxiety that dominate these troubled times.
But beneath it all, his song still plays, as certain as the rising sun, more triumphant than the most exquisite symphony.
You won’t find it while groping for certainty in your imagined future. You won’t be able to focus on it while arguing your politics or putting your hope in yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecies about a coming revival.
You have no idea what is to come, and neither do all those voices. The honest ones will tell you that. Your certainty now has to be in Jesus and him alone. All others are mere illusions, which may comfort for the moment but, when they fail you, how deep will that pain be? Circumstances, both favorable and unfavorable, will come and go.
The only refuge is to abandon yourself to the amazing love of a gracious Father and see his divine purpose unfolding around you. He will never let you down.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. ISAIAH 12:2 (NIV)”\
If you haven’t listened to our current podcast about Vengeance, Mercy, and Justice, it’s something I’ve been noodling on for a few weeks. It started with this quote from Adam Smith, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Too often, our society “lets off” those who are well-connected at the expense of those who have been the victims of their violence or greed. Such “mercy” only adds more pain to those they harmed.
And yet, mercy is what we want for ourselves and those we love, even if we have wronged and offended innocent people. And when we or someone we love suffers at the hands of another, our cry isn’t for mercy but justice. It’s strange, isn’t it? We want mercy for our failures and justice for those of others.
How does God sort through the wake of human pain and brokenness, dispensing both mercy and justice in a way that does not excuse the evil done or revictimize those wronged? Complex questions, to be sure. I don’t know how God does it or will do it when he sums up all things at the end of the age, but I trust him with it. Walking that line between justice and mercy is something we find challenging to do.
Even our cries for justice are often thinly veiled hopes for vengeance. We want people who cause heartache for others to suffer indescribable pain and call it justice. How often have we heard that “justice was served” by a murderer being put to death or dying by his own hand? But was it? Did it restore the life of the one they murdered or right the wrong they had done? Of course not.
The other day, I was talking about this with my friend, Luis, and he shared a recent dream. He was in a battle with a vicious hoard, primarily humans, but also mixed in were animal-human hybrids. He had expended all his ammunition, and still, they came toward him to destroy him. In the fury of adrenaline and the frustration of a losing battle, Jesus came to him in the dream.
“What do you want, vengeance or justice?” Jesus asked him with Luis breathless and terrified
All of his emotions screamed for vengeance in the rage of his own powerlessness. But with Jesus standing there, he knew that was best. “I want justice.”
“Then you better let me fight for you,” Jesus responded, and there the dream ended.
I’m not sure all that means, but as we talked about it, we realized how easily the adrenaline of our fear and anger spills over into feelings of vengeance. We have no idea where the dividing line is. Learning to live in his love will invite us to let Jesus fight for us. He has to show us the way where love can walk through the darkness without being exploited by those who are destructive and also know when he’s inviting us to lay our lives down for someone else’s good. Only he is wise enough to negotiate this space where mercy and justice are complements to each other, not competitors.
I love the instructions he gave his disciples: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” The economy of the coming kingdom is based on a mercy that doesn’t excuse evil nor allows us to be exploited by it. It’s a long process to learn the power of that statement and discover that his mercy is greater than any sacrifice of time, money, or life that we can offer him.
Who is sufficient for these things? We are not. How much more pain have we caused by trying to save ourselves or fix a situation that is beyond us? Of course, that does not mean we quietly suffer abuse or injustice. Allowing him to fight for us is not lying down and suffering the abuse of others. It means we will first find our refuge in him. He is the only one that can hold us in any storm, heal the damage we have suffered, and make up for what others have stolen from us. From there, he may well show us a way to resist those who seek to abuse us or help others find the justice they deserve. But now, we won’t be doing it with vengeance or our limited wisdom or power, but responding where love and justice dance together in his victory.
Micah invites us into that same reality: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). And I think the “with your God” phrase at the end applies to all of the previous invitations:
Do justice… with your God!
Love mercy… with your God!
Walk humbly… with your God!
Because, in fact, that’s the only way we can do those things.
It has been a while since I have had the chance to post some of my thoughts. The last month of settling into our new home has brought a host of challenges, decisions, and work. I’ve managed to keep up with The God Journey podcasts because I greatly enjoy those conversations. We just posted Episode 900 today about Vengeance, Mercy, and Justice. I never tire of what we learn as we explore the journey of Living Loved. The rest of the time, I’ve been handling a bit of correspondence and conversations as well as unpacking, discarding, and preparing a place for Sara and me in this next season of our lives. It is all going so incredibly well, though taking up far more time than I would have hoped. More on that next week, if time allows.
Catching up on some emails today, I ran into this one, which asks some questions that might interest others. This is from a friend in Hawaii:
I do have a few questions about your book, He Loves Me. In chapter 22, you write: “If you’ve ever known that glory, either just sitting in his presence communing with him or having just seen him use you to reveal himself to someone else, you know what I’m talking about. At such moments it seems time itself stands still. Waves of joy sweep across us, and it is so incredible that you feel if you were made just for that one moment, your life would have had a wealth of meaning. ‘I was made for this.’ And you were.”
How important is it for the daughter or son of Abba to experience what you call “waves of joy”…given that is a huge part of our design in Him?
I never try to focus on a single “experience” as something essential or even something to seek. Walking with him manifests his glory in our lives in various ways, and how we sense them depends a lot on our personality. I don’t even know how each interprets “waves of joy,” and it may be very different from what those words mean to me. “Waves of joy” is the feeling I get when I’m at rest and enjoying his work in me, and it comes without me trying to manufacture it.
It is distracting for any of us to try to pursue an experience. Even the focus on doing so can quickly become a distraction. That sentence was for those who have experienced it, not to discourage people who haven’t. Instead of getting people focused on any specific manifestation, I try to help them recognize Father’s presence in the experiences they are already having. Surely he is making himself known to all of us in whatever way suits us best, though much of his work goes unrecognized by those distracted by the shiny things in the world or the darker corners of their hearts. I want to help people recognize him, however he is making himself known, not getting them focused on hoping he works in a specific way.
How is it that we settle for not living with as much joy as Papa, Jesus, and the Spirit are longing for in our lives? Your last chapter, “Living Loved,” is great and speaks to this, but I was wondering if you have any other insights.
There are lots of reasons for this. Lots of worldly distractions. Lots of unresolved pain that makes us try to self-medicate. Lots of disappointed expectations that God didn’t meet, even like the “experiences” above. However, I think it is also because we haven’t learned how to engage Father, Son, and Spirit as they make themselves known. It’s been easier to force people into religious performance, but those who have tried it grow discouraged because it doesn’t work.
Learning to live inside Father’s joy is to give up control of life as we want it to be and find God in the chaos of real life and how he is making himself known. Following him is the ultimate loss of control, and religious performance is the ultimate attempt to control God. A lot of people get discouraged and sadly give up.
Giving up the notion that we can control the relationship we have with God is a critical step in all of our journeys. He is the initiator; we are the responders. That’s because he knows best about everything, especially how to engage each of us and invite us to be at home with him.
“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)
Dave Coleman was one of those friends for me. He was a man of immense wisdom, rock-solid integrity, and deep love. I don’t know why he took a liking to me, but he’s one of those friends where the conversations always go deep, and the affection builds over a lifetime. He helped me discover how to live the life behind He Loves Me and was my co-author for So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore.
More importantly, he was there when I was betrayed by my co-pastor, giving me comfort and counsel that steered my heart into a better reality than I might have seen otherwise. He was there through the lawsuit over The Shack and encouraged me to find my home in the truth and not worry about the lies being told of me. And two summers ago, he held my heart through the rejection of a lifelong companion that came out of nowhere.
A few weeks after we talked, he sent me this prayer and admonishment. This was August 2021, still eight months before Sara’s trauma exploded. I wish he’d been there for that, too, but he passed away in November of that year.
May the Father, who is rich in mercy, speak kindly to your heart and comfort you with the thought that the only way out of this is to lay it at the foot of the cross…. with the prayer, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Do not allow your accusers to stifle in any way your message of God’s love. Just allow this experience to increase your urgency and your compassion and, above all, to deepen your dependency on His grace.
Those words have been taped to my computer since receiving them. There is so much in those words that have held my heart, even through the painful days of last spring, as if Dave were comforting me from the grave. Why am I sharing them today? Over the last few days, I’ve found myself sending them to almost a dozen people who needed to hear those exact words in their context. I figured others might need to hear a similar word for their heart. It is as true for you as it continues to be for me.
It’s a beautiful thing for the Father, who is rich in mercy, to speak kindly to your heart and to comfort you at the foot of the cross where the only way to liberate yourself is the prayer of forgiveness in recognition that most people doing hurtful things have no idea what’s motivating their behaviors. And when the Accuser, even in the other voices he uses, tries to erode your confidence in Jesus’s work in you, it’s time to lean in more with more urgency and depend on his grace.
Good news! The renovations on our home are nearing completion. This has taken a bit longer than we thought it would starting out, but this is Sara’s dream. To see it come together now as a place for us to live a life we love and to share our lives with others brings a profound sense of joy. Sorry, no pictures yet. We will in time, but much still needs to be cleaned up and completed.
So, we’ll be moving and settling in over the next couple of weeks. Don’t look for much new stuff here for a bit, though we hope to keep the podcast going on Friday, which is the best way to follow my life these days. All that God has been teaching us and doing in our hearts have found their way into my conversations with Kyle. I can’t begin to tell you how rich these last two years have been. They have had more trouble than we thought we could bear but also a profound grace and Presence that has held us safe and opened our hearts and minds to some unique insights that have touched us deeply.
Our journey over the past 16 months will come full circle next week. We’ve been through an exodus from trauma and a home we loved, took a sojourn through the wilderness of Sara’s trauma, and the healing that came out of it in our RV last fall and our apartment this winter and spring. We will soon move onto a new land of God’s promise—an oasis for our hearts and all who Jesus sends us in this season. We have no idea what any of that means, but we could not be more excited.
After four years and a dozen conversations, Jake is finally relishing the fruit of the transformation that has happened in him over that time. Their final conversation celebrates so many wonderful things I enjoy when people I know move away from Christianity as an obligation into a meaningful relationship with a Father who has genuine affection for them.
Some of my favorite observations of that trajectory shift are summed up in their last moments together:
It was easy to remember how frustrated John had made me in those early days. The more I listened to him the more my life kept falling apart.
John smiled. “I never told you to do one thing. I simply made some observations, asked some questions, and gave you some options. The choices were all yours.”
“I realize that, but they didn’t always turn out so well.”
“How could they? You had two desires that conflicted with one another.”
“What do you mean?”
“You had this incredible hunger to know God and follow him. But you also wanted to be circumstantially secure and well-liked. Those just aren’t compatible with following him. We are safe because he is with us, not because our circumstances are easy, and trying to get everyone to like you only made you less of a person than God made you to be. When you started following what God put in your heart, the other kingdom had to collapse. It was inevitable, if not enviable.”
This Sunday will be the last gathering of theJake Colsen Book Club, where a group of us are walking through So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. I have not read this book since I completed it in 2005, so I have been fascinated to remind myself what’s in that book. It’s also been a chance to relive working with Dave Coleman, my co-author, who passed away 18 months ago.
This book still contains the critical lessons I want people to know when they are ready to embark on a different journey—outside the walls of Christan obligation to discover an endearing, growing friendship with the loving Father. We’ve had a lot of fun exploring the themes most dear to my heart.
This has been a fluid group, and you’re welcome to join us even if our final time is your first one. We are gathering on Zoom this Sunday, May 21 at 1:30 pm PDT. We will cover the final chapter of the book, as well as open up to any questions or discoveries from anywhere in the book. Anyone is welcome to join us, even if it’s your first time. We will also stream it live on my Facebook Author Page, but if you want to be part of the conversation, you can get a link to the Zoom Room by emailing Wayne and asking for it.
It’s the most amazing process in the universe—how Jesus finds us in the twistedness of our sins, doubts, fears, and illusions. He rescues us not only by his death on the cross to cleanse our sins but also to invite us into a friendship with him that untwists what has been damaged in our hearts. Do you know what it’s like to live increasingly untwisted in a very twisted world? It is the essence of joy and freedom, even in the chaos of the brokenness of others around you. Instead of being pulled into darkness by them, you can offer them a way into the light.
As Sara and I read I Peter recently, a phrase jumped off the page at me and took my breath away. Here’s how Eugene Peterson in The Message translated what Peter writes about obedience to God: “Let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness.”
Does that not capture your heart with great hope and promise?
Who wouldn’t want a life shaped by God’s life? I’ll tell you who—those whose views of God were shaped in religious settings where he was portrayed as the angry author of onerous rules and where holiness was a standard impossible to reach. There’s nothing more difficult than trying to get someone schooled in legalism to be excited about the possibilities of his blazing holiness. They think the fire comes when you haven’t done enough and that his holiness means we suppress who we are to follow the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But for those of us who know him, we hunger to live in his reality, where his affection sets our hearts at rest, and we get to discover who he really made us to be. He lives without fear of the future and without a doubt that he will prevail over the darkness. He is the safest place for us to be at our most broken. Imagine what your life would be like if it were shaped by his life.
Over the last year on The God Journey, Kyle and I have been sorting out what a transformed life looks like. How does living loved change the way we think and engage the world around us? We’ve used a chart to consider how God reveals himself in our tangled-up mess and engages us in friendship. With every revelation of himself and his wisdom to each of us, he invites us to know him. As we learn to listen and believe him, he lifts us above the pain and chaos of this broken age so we can grasp God’s reality that pulses with joy and wonder.
In him, we begin to discover what it means to live inside the Trinity with Father, Son, and Spirit. We learn what love is by how he treats us and then watch it rises in our own hearts for him. We see how his work is so much better than our own efforts and to rest in God’s work and his agenda. And finally, we discover the playful wonder of how God interacts with us, even in our most painful moments. Like a father playing with his children, we become ever more endeared to him, laughing through our joys and weeping with him in our pain.
Now it becomes unthinkable not to believe him, and when we believe him, we will find ourselves following him. This is where we are drawn into a way of living shaped by God’s love, wisdom, and character. In the I Peter verse above, notice that God does the shaping. That’s not our job; we would be incapable of it anyway. We only do the letting. I don’t have to change anything about me to make God happy; all I need to do is let him have me, and that exchange over time will begin to transform me from the inside. This is not following the rules to make him happy; it’s enjoying his life as it liberates me from the illusions that twist my heart in knots. He is always drawing me into that life. My choice is either to go with him or resist him, replacing his wisdom with my own and letting my fears drive my actions.
Discovering how to let him draw us is such a different trailhead from all we were taught to do to try to earn God’s favor. This is where Christianity has gotten discipleship so incredibly backward by creating systems of thought, ritual, practice, or discipline and imposing that on how we think or live. It would be great if it worked, but it doesn’t. No matter how much it is based on truth, it is still an artificial construct like David trying to put on Saul’s armor. It never fits and won’t change us. Our cookie-cutter, mass-produced attempt to make Christians in the world continues to fail when we could instead invite people on a transformative journey with a loving Father.
Helping people discover how to recognize and respond to God’s fingerprints in their day, and his whispers in their hearts are the real work of discipleship. Finding a relaxed pace inside his love will do far more than our old zealous attempts to conform our lives to his ways through human effort. Learn to listen, believe, and follow as you grow to know him, and his fruit will be borne in your heart.
So what does that God-shaped life look like? I’m sure it can be described in many ways, but the following five terms express it well for me. I gleaned these from Scripture and from observing those in my life who have lived multiple decades in an awareness of his love. They provided an excellent completion to the above chart Kyle and I have been working through this year. (You can see the chart above or download it here. And, if you want to listen to those podcasts about that chart, you can do so by following the reverse of the list here. These would make a good study for personal enrichment or even small-group study.)
Here are those five attributes that give evidence of a God-shaped life:
Sincere Love — Not flattery, pretense, or mere niceness, but the heartfelt impulse concern for those you’re engaging and the ability to help them discover what’s true as much as their hearts will allow.
Resilient Trust — A growing confidence in God’s goodness and faithfulness through the chaos and disappointments of life. Everything that comes at us is an opportunity to discover what he is doing in it, knowing he has the best in mind. It may ebb when challenged, but it always comes back stronger.
Generous Compassion — An awareness of the needs of others, especially those on the margins, that touches our hearts and opens the doors to make available our time, emotional support, and physical resources available to others.
Tender Authenticity — Never less than honest, but always in a form best able to find access to another’s heart.
Bold Humility — Never lording over, never pressuring anyone to accept our view, but also not shying back from stating the truth plainly, even with people who might take offense to it.
Please keep in mind that this is not a list of the ways we’re supposed to behave or traits we are supposed to mimic. The wonderful thing about the God-shaped life is these attributes increasingly emerge in you as you grow freer in his love. You cannot produce these characteristics by your own ingenuity. They can’t be taught in a seminar or codified into a workbook. This is the fruit that grows out of a life spent in God’s presence, discovering who he really is and how he engages you and the world around you.
We have covered the first two characteristics on The God Journey and will cover the remaining three in the next few weeks. I hope you find them helpful to your journey.
Sara and I finally have a move-in date on our remodeled home. We’ll be moving back to Newbury Park on May 30 and setting up our house, where Sara plans an extraordinary garden. And the dogs will love having a yard again. We can’t wait to share this home with others who want to come hang out with us.
“They led me into a relationship with God that I’ve only dreamt about.”
I can’t tell you how much those words mean to me. That’s the reason for all the writing and podcasts I have done over the years, so that someone else can find their way into an intimate connection with God that changes the trajectory of their lives. I love reading those words; they make my heart soar. That’s the hunger God has put deep inside us and what religion so often fails to let us experience.
I also get emails from those who say they cannot sense his presence or recognize his love for them even though they have sought it over many years. I hurt with them as much as I rejoice with those who do find that connection. I don’t think God is at fault here, nor that the person seeking is unworthy in some way of him. I have come to conclude that it is not as easy a connection to make as many have been led to believe. Indeed, God is doing everything from his end. But so much from our end makes it difficult—misplaced expectations, unresolved trauma, delusions of darkness, not having someone who can help, and trying to find him through self-effort and discipline.
However, I have seen God overcome all these things for people who had almost given up hope. It takes a lot to relax enough on the inside to affirm what Father is already doing to make that connection with us. No matter how desperately we try, we can’t be disciplined enough or knowledgeable enough to earn our way into it. This relationship is a reality we relax into, a gift that Father gives as we make ourselves available to him. Keep letting your heart lay before him, and be patient as he makes these connections. And don’t be afraid to get help from those you know who are finding their life in him.
The email I quoted above came from a young woman I first met before she was in high school as I shared some time with her family in New England. You have no idea what it meant to me that she would write and touch on so many things that I also want to share with you. I received it after Sara and I returned from Hawaii to celebrate our upcoming anniversary and all God has done this last year. We had a beautiful time together and even spent a day in Honolulu with a congregation that has been studying He Loves Me. What a day with the people there! I love those conversations so much, and having Sara in them, sharing from her journey, makes them all that much sweeter.
And the time Sara and I had alone together was so precious, and I would say even sacred, for reasons I share on the podcast this Friday.
But let me share this email with you as we discover what helped her make that connection. Also, I want to respond to it with some information I think others will enjoy as well. So much of what she wrote to me touches on the critical things in my life these days and some things I would love to update many of my readers.
First, I want to thank you both for sharing your story over this past year. I know sharing it has changed the lives of many in such an incredibly positive way.
Sara’s courage to share her story and its impact on our marriage has borne incredible fruit worldwide. Her vulnerability opened a wide door for others to deal with long-buried trauma in their own lives. We are continually amazed and blessed by the emails we receive and the conversations we have with people taking a serious look at the brokenness in their lives and seeing where Jesus might be in it for them. And if her story encourages you to lean more closely into Jesus to heal some unresolved trauma, that’s awesome. Be patient with the process. It is scary. It may take a while, but the rewards of freedom are worth every bit of it.
I’ve been listening to your podcast along with the My Friend Luis podcast since 2021 and it’s led me into a relationship with God that I’ve only dreamt about. So thank you for that!
If you’ve not listened to the My Friend Luis podcast or stayed up with our Redeeming Love story at The God Journey, you might want to go back and catch those. They helped her make that connection, and hearing stories of how God has connected with others can help us recognize him in our own story if we don’t try to get him to do it the same way with us as he did for them. They are two powerful stories of God intervening in dark places in very different ways to unfold his glory and bring his freedom. We all have a story like this going on in our own hearts, and I love that these were catalysts for this young woman to find the relationship she dreamed about.
I realize I have updated you on Luis for some time. I will write more in an upcoming post, but you can rest assured that Jesus continues to engage him over some of the residues of his past and draw him into greater freedom. He continues to work with young men and women, helping rescue them from trouble and offering them a life lived in Jesus’s love. His application for amnesty and legal status in the U.S. is still pending. This is a laborious process. Your prayers and support for his work with at-risk youth are deeply appreciated.
Like Sara, I have a playlist of songs on my phone from over the years where I felt a connection with a lyric or lyrics. I was recently questioning whether those lyrics that were speaking to me were actually God or just in my head. The next day, I was listening to your podcast, and Sara shared the lyrics that have recently connected with her. I guess I got my answer.
I’m glad you did. I love the creative ways God speaks to us—through song, Scripture, conversations, nature, and inner thoughts. Song lyrics can powerfully mirror the insights he wants us to see. Sara has a twelve-year song list that reflects God’s thoughts to her through this season of her journey. It’s spectacular, and each is an excellent reminder of his truth as it continues to win her heart over the illusions of trauma. For those still seeking this connection, discover how God is making himself known to you and explore him there. He may be using unconventional ways to open your heart to his reality.
About a month ago, I had a dream that God opened a window for me to look through and I saw a beautiful landscape with golden colors and trees. Next to the window there was writing that described it as The Garden of Eden and God said, “It’s time.” Since then, I have felt God’s presence significantly more than I ever have in my life. From sitting with this for a while, I think it may also relate to the it’s time that you heard in regards to God’s children being revealed.
Her words were such an encouragement to me, and I hope to you. We will revisit these words, as I did in a recent blog. Nothing is more critical now than people learning to embrace an affection-based relationship with God that transforms them so that they reveal his glory in the world without trying. For too long, the wrong people who promote themselves and their brand have twisted God’s image to build their own following. Making people dependent on them or their message, they have supplanted Jesus’ influence in the lives of his followers. Kevin Smith of Australia told me years ago that in these days, Jesus is taking his church back to himself, inviting his followers to know him and follow him instead of those who claim to be his surrogates.
Now more than ever, it is time to lean in close, forsake our misplaced confidence in self-effort, and learn how to ride the wind of his Spirit, letting his life and light unfold in us and reflect from us to a world so hungry for something real.
Before we go, I wanted to leave you with this amazing dream, which can be of great encouragement when you find yourself facing one of your greatest fears. It was sent to me by a good friend, Harvey Mast, who lives in Ohio. He had this dream nearly four years ago while volunteering with a ministry helping women who had been sexually trafficked. He sent it to me recently, and it deeply touched me. It can be interpreted at so many levels and can redirect our focus to the only thing that matters in times of fear. With his permission, I’m publishing an edited version to see what Father might want to reveal to you.
(And my dear sisters, please don’t be put off by this male-as-rescuer story. I know that is a struggle for some since it can be a tiresome cliché. However, Harvey is a man, and this is his dream. I hope you can put yourself in the same place of fighting through your worst fears to help others trapped in theirs, male or female.)
I stood with a group of friends in front of a castle. This was a magical castle, but dark magic ruled inside. There, your worst fears become your reality. Two young girls had wandered into that castle decades ago, and now fear held them captive at the top of the tallest tower where it was so dark no light could penetrate except the warmth of real love.
Many well-meaning, brave young men had tried to rescue the princesses over the years, but all had failed. Entering two at a time, they went to the winding staircase with their romantic ideas of love. Eventually, their fears would overwhelm them, and their screams would echo through the castle as they made a hasty retreat.
With each failed attempt, the lowest section of the staircase would crumble to ruin. Only time would repair the stairs enough to try again, which could often take up to ten years.
As we stood at the castle entrance, time was mending the last step after another failed attempt. “Who will go now?” The question reverberated off the walls. A great silence fell on the crowd. Would anyone risk their greatest fears and another ten years in hopes of rescuing the two lost princesses? It would take two, for each girl needed a separate escort out.
I looked around for someone else to step forward and face his worst fears for the love of another. To my dismay, no one did. Tears began to form in my eyes as I thought about those two young girls trapped inside, and I couldn’t stop myself from stepping forward. “I will go,” I said and waited for another to join me on this quest. Would the love of my Father burning inside me be greater than my greatest fears? I believed it was true, but this would test that for sure.
Soon, a good friend stepped forward to go with me. We entered the castle and started climbing the staircase like many others had. The first fear that came was the fear of failure. “What if we fail and these precious little girls are lost in this hell for another ten years?” I halted at this thought, and this gripping fear weighed heavy on me. I could feel myself shrinking in size.
I continued climbing, now a bit slower. “Who am I to think I could rescue one of them?” was my next fear. I had all but stopped now, and the castle walls seemed to close in on me. “I don’t even know them; what if they are afraid of me?”
Soon I was standing still, paralyzed by these gripping fears. I could no longer see anything in the pitch-black air, not even my friend I knew was beside me. I could physically feel the darkness.
“Father, help me,” my heart whispered as fear roiled inside.
Why did I even come?Oh yes, it was his love inside my heart for those girls. I could feel that warmth again, still burning in my chest. As I paused, I looked down at my feet, hoping to see the next step. I could see it. A warm glow about my feet illuminated the step before me, and I knew this was the way forward. As I took that step, another appeared and another, and before long, we were moving upward again.
Every fear I had ever faced, and even new ones, seem came at us with a vengeance the further we progressed. My focus had shifted to the warmth of His love inside of me, and it was more significant than all the dangers surrounding us. Eventually, we could hear the girls’ voices as we approached the tower’s upper levels. We called out to them, explaining that we were coming and encouraging them to hold on to hope. As we did, this hope grew in us as well. Our pace quickened.
Soon, we reached the top of the staircase and found the room that imprisoned them. We could hear them but not see them until we ran into them in the darkness. We exchanged names, and the glow brightened slightly. I could see one was of Asian descent. She looked up into my eyes and spoke her greatest fear. “How do I know I can trust you?”
An answer came out of my mouth before I had time to filter it. “Why, it’s simple; this is where love led me. Right here.”
“You needed help, didn’t you?” Her fear receded slightly as she hugged me around my waist with her tiny arms.
But they were both still afraid to leave. Their fears had captured them and did not want to face them again in this horrible place. We tried to reason with them, assuring them we would be with them the entire way, but they were reluctant. We could only invite them, realizing we may very well be going back down alone. I don’t know how I would have been able to leave them alone in this place.
We explained that this warm light around our feet was the Father’s true love’s light coming from within us. He is the Father of Light, and he loved all of us so extravagantly. It had shown us the way step by step as we made our ascent and was always greater than our greatest fears.
Though they, too, would be facing their greatest fears as we descended the staircase, they could also have the warmth of his light. They both agreed to come with us if they could walk alongside one of us and learn to focus on love.
“Of course,” we answered.
One step at a time, we made our way downward. Fear assailed each of us unrelentingly, but we simply followed the glowing warmth until we found our way out of the castle.
The girls, whom we thought to be around ten years old when we met them, transformed to their rightful ages as they crossed the threshold into the sunlight.
Instead of being overwhelmed by the voices that scream at you from the uncertain darkness, focus on the warmth of Jesus’s love already inside you and see what next step illuminates for you. Then you, too, will discover that Father’s affection is stronger than our greatest fear. It’s a journey that will not only set you free inside from anything this life can throw at you, but it will also show you how to be a part of God’s redemptive work for others.
We all know the power of fear and how impossible it is to ignore it or manufacture more trust through our own strength. And we all need someone to go with us, not just telling us to “trust more”, but willing to sit alongside us as we learn to let love rule our hearts.
And when you need help, follow this advice from a young woman whose book I am reading at the moment, Cole Arthur Riley’s This Here Flesh:
Find those who tell you, “Do not be afraid,” yet stay close enough to tremble with you. This is a love.
This is what I struggle with most for those who claim to follow Christ and yet have no compassion for those who have wandered through difficult places. In an email last week, a former pastor who has battled alcohol addiction for decades added this comment at the end of the email:
You also have no idea how much your acceptance and compassion for my addiction was received. I have only shared with two nonaddicts outside of family in 30 plus years of recovery as I learned most do not take it well. Thank you for helping me in my listening journey.
Here’s what I wrote him back:
It saddens me that those who claim to follow Jesus can’t hold each other’s pain and weakness with love and compassion. That means they are either unaware of their own or they don’t know how to be compassionate to themselves. Pretense is their refuge, and that’s a pretty sad place to live.
I understand his reluctance to share that story with people who aren’t ready to hold it. That’s just wise. But I’m glad he shared it with me, and I could appreciate the courage it took to face his addiction and let God walk him into freedom. It wasn’t an easy road; it rarely is.
His struggle with addiction does not diminish him in the least as a follower of Jesus; it just makes his story all the more extraordinary. I’m sorry that he had to go through such deep waters, but who wouldn’t want to celebrate the fruit of that journey with him?
Compassion is what God pours into our brokenness. When you struggle, drink fully of his compassion, and then you’ll be able to naturally share that same compassion with others without having to manufacture it.
And the following day, we’ll have another conversation about Wrestling with Trauma on Sunday, April 23, at 10:30 am PDT. Among other things, we will explore what it means to let go of the hurtful things that have happened to us and the process God uses to help us find out how. Sara shared that in a recent podcast if you haven’t heard it. To join us, please email me for the Zoom link. We’ll limit it to the first twelve who request a link.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to travel there to be with them personally, but they asked if I would send a video of any word I might to encourage the hundreds of pastors gathering in Kitale last weekend.
Though I don’t refer to it in this video, the seeds for what I shared with the pastors in Kenya began two years ago as I stood in the burn scar of a wildfire that consumed more than 400,000 acres of alpine forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Scanning the hillsides for miles in the distance, I could not see one speck of greenery in the burgeoning light of spring. Overwhelmed by the devastation, something rose in my heart over the next few days. It was a drumbeat I could not ignore: “It’s time!”
As I pondered that thought over the next few days, I was drawn to the passage in Romans 8 about the Creation groaning in frustration for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed on the earth. I shared that in a short video I recorded from the burn scar a few days later.
How has that weathered the last two years? It has only grown in me with all the calamities in the world and what God has been shifting in my heart, even through the shock of last year. My prayers still reverberate with the desire for the sons and daughters to grow to know Father to be revealed in the world. I see that happening as many find healing and transformation inside his love. Unfortunately, I also see the love of many Christians growing cold as they react to those in the world they think victimize them. Growing increasingly angry and judgmental, they are unable to extend compassion to those who seem lost in the illusions of darkness.
It is time for the children of God to be revealed on the earth, letting God draw a clear distinction between those who only practice their religion for personal gain and those who are being drawn into a life of love shaped by God’s life. He is equipping a people for these days who are learning how to recognize God’s love and helping others to do the same. They are learning to recognize his leading and helping others do the same. And are also learning to love whomever God brings to them and help others to do the same. That’s what my heart was for those Kenyan men and women this weekend, and it’s where my heart beats these days in so many other areas.
They are not drawing attention to themselves or their beliefs on social media or trying to build a brand about love. They are living out his compassion, one person, one conversation, one engagement at a time, without having to work at it. Empathy is becoming so infused with their person; it’s just how they live.
That’s the revelation the world waits for—men and women, young and old, of all races and ethnicities, who embrace God’s compassion for their own hearts and reflect it with ease into the world.
On another note, Sara and I will be in Honolulu, HI, on Sunday, April 30, at the Bluewater Mission Church, 1114 Mona St., Honolulu, HI, 96821. We’ll begin at 2:20 pm, and if you’re in the area, you are welcome to join us. For most of our time in Hawaii, we will be on the island of Maui if anyone wants to connect with us there.
And our next Wrestling with Trauma conversation will meet next Sunday, April 23, at 10:30 am PDT. Among other things, we’re going to explore what it means to let go of the hurtful things that have happened to us and the process God uses to help us find out how. Sara shared that in a recent podcast if you haven’t heard it. If you’d like to join us, please email me for the Zoom link. We’ll be limiting it to the first twelve who request a link.
Here are a few opportunities to hang out with me if you’d like. Two happen next week, one is just a podcast, and the other is in February 2024 in Israel:
The Jake Colsen Book Club
Learning to follow Jesus as he reveals himself in each of us is the adventure of spiritual life. Institutions are afraid to encourage that pursuit since it may not fit in easily to their preplanned activities. One of the strangest things about Christianity is that we have invested all of our chips for helping people follow Jesus in religious institutions that can transfer information while rarely transforming lives.
Highly orchestrated experiences cannot show people how to live each day in him through the real struggles of life. That’s one of the strangest things about Christianity locking itself into an institutional box. Who would choose to be raised in an orphanage? Our hearts hunger for family. That’s where children learn who they are and how they fit into the world.
This congregation is like an orphanage revolving around the convenience of the whole. You survive best in it by following its rules, but that’s not how Jesus connects you with his Father. For that, you need a family—brothers and sisters who can respond to you in the moment, not wait for a meeting or to schedule a seminar.
That’s a key topic in our next gathering of theJake Colsen Book Club, which will be held next Saturday, April 22, at 1:30 pm PDT. Anyone is welcome to join us, even if it’s your first time. We will also stream it live on my Facebook Author Page, but if you want to be part of the conversation, you can get a link to the Zoom Room by emailing Wayne and asking for it.
Our next Wrestling with Trauma conversation will meet next Sunday, April 23, at 10:30 am PDT. Among other things, we’re going to explore what it means to let go of the hurtful things that have happened to us and the process God uses to help us find out how. Sara shared that in a recent podcast if you haven’t heard it.
If you’d like to join us, please email me for the Zoom link. We’ll be limiting it to the first twelve who request a link. These are not teaching sessions but a conversation to serve those who join us and help encourage them to the Way Jesus wants to lead them through the pain of trauma into his increasing freedom. These conversations are not streamed live or recorded. They are for the personal benefit of those who can join us. You can even join in anonymously if you prefer.
And if you can’t do any of that and haven’t heard my conversation with Daron Maughan over at the MiDentity Podcast, you can listen here. It aired this week and is a good summary of our story over the last year if you haven’t listened to the podcasts Sara and I recorded last year.
On April 11, one year ago, I spent most of the day flying home from a ten-day trip around the Carolinas, looking forward to being in Sara’s arms again. I hadn’t the foggiest notion that I was about to drive off a cliff at 180 miles per hour.
My first indication that all was not well was a cryptic text I received when I landed at LAX that Sara would be unable to pick me up. She had arranged for a driver to bring me home, something she had never done before. I tried to call or text to find out what was wrong and got no reply. That’s when the knot first formed in the pit of my stomach. After an hour’s ride home, I had concluded that she must have left me, but I had no idea why. Our marriage seemed to be going well as we approached our 47th wedding anniversary.
When I got home, she was gone, all her stuff was gone, and I was left with the most painful of all letters telling me she was divorcing me. The next three weeks were filled with heart-wrenching pain, not only for my loss but also for whatever Sara was going through. I re-examined everything I thought I knew about myself and our relationship. If Sara’s letter had been true, our 46 years together would have been a lie. I know I haven’t been a perfect human or husband, so there’s always stuff to probe inside.
Slowly, however, we began to find our way back to each other, and the truth unfolded. Sara had been experiencing PTSD, and a therapist she saw assumed I was the cause without ever consulting with me and even though Sara’s symptoms were present in her childhood. She coached Sara into moving out when I was completely unaware of her plans, as one does to escape an abusive husband. My wife was in trouble, but it wasn’t from me. I knew there was something darker in her life and prayed earnestly for her during the days of our separation. As much as I hated the pain of those days, I love what Father did in my heart through them. Unmerited rejection by someone you love is fertile ground for his Spirit to rearrange things in your own heart if you let him. He prepared me to be an active part of the healing Jesus wanted to bring to her as he brought her back.
Sara began to question and regret her decision since I was not acting the way her therapist said I would. That proved pivotal. After all she had done to leave me, she was willing to look back and consider that she might have gotten bad counsel. I’ll forever be grateful that she was willing to open her heart again to me and let me inside her struggle. We began to spend some time together and began processing the PTSD she had been hiding from me. Finding a new, wiser therapist, Sara began to discover that she had been assaulted by her grandfather from the ages of 4-9. She had complete amnesia about it until those memories started to surface. It explained so much about things my wife has struggled with for decades.
For the past year, we have shared a healing journey into the dark recesses of Sara’s past with an exceptional amount of grace that has drawn us closer together than ever as it has renewed her heart and healed her mind. I have been with her in every recovered memory, and each one expands so much insight into Sara and helps her find freedom for how this trauma affected her for so many years though she never knew the cause. She lives with more joy now than she ever has. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D could be a history of her journey. One in three women in her generation was sexually assaulted by age 18. Sara never thought she was one until it all bubbled to the surface like a volcano in the last few years. She kept it hidden from me because it made no sense why she felt so horrible about herself. Now she has discovered that she was not a horrible person but that someone had done something horrible to her.
She knows the truth and has processed it into her story. I have not shared much about this on my blog here though Sara and I have on my podcast at The God Journey. We still meet friends who have no idea what our journey has looked like over the last year. If you haven’t heard Sara and I tell this story as it unfolded, you can listen to these podcasts:
This past weekend we were able to celebrate not only the Resurrection of Jesus but also our resurrected life together. As Sara continues to understand her past better, she’s becoming increasingly free to live in the present with a lighter heart and a clearer eye. Our mourning has definitely turned into laughter, and joy now earmarks our life together. What have we learned from this past year?
You can never truly know what’s just around the corner.
Without Jesus to guide us through this shocking time, we would not be together today.
Tenderness and honesty mark the trailhead where healing happens. Being willing to admit our failures and doubts while affirming our love helped us recapture our relationship and move it forward into a more glorious space.
Admitting when you’re wrong and expressing your sorrow about it repairs damaged relationships.
Being willing to stop and shift everything, and I mean everything, allowed us to find new pathways together that we treasure today.
Having people honestly and caringly speak into your heart is invaluable. We were blessed to have many people hold our hearts during this season, and we are grateful to each of them.
Holding someone while they heal from trauma is one of the most amazing things any human can do.
Given that last one, our hearts ache for those of you who have been impacted by trauma in your own life, whether it be something you suffered at the hands of someone else or you’ve been affected by the traumatic struggle of someone you love deeply, perhaps even your spouse. That’s why Sara has wanted to share this story so publicly, not to seek sympathy for our pain but to offer hope and help to those wrestling with similar darkness in their own journey. We know how alone you can feel and how hopeless the future might look. But God is a healer. He came to bind up the brokenhearted and set the oppressed free. We pray that you will let him draw you into your own healing as we look for ways to encourage and help those impacted by trauma.
So, this anniversary today is not a painful day! It’s a joy-filled one. We remember well the feelings of a year ago, but now they are markers for a turn in the road that drew us into more freedom than we knew we needed.
Twenty-eight years ago, my relationship with God shifted on this one discovery—Jesus did not die to appease the wrath of an offended God. Instead, he died holding our sin and shame in the all-encompassing presence of the Father until it was consumed in his love, and our redemption was won.
As we approach this Easter season and commemorate his death and resurrection, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I was able to hear a more complete story of the atonement than the one I was raised to believe. I cringe to think how the crucifixion story will be told in so many places over the next couple of days and the double-talk many preachers will have to employ to make their vengeful deity appear loving. What Jesus did was not to ward off an angry Father but to open the way into a love so rich and deep it will transform everything about the way we live and think.
I wrote an article in 2010 to summarize what I share about the cross in He Loves Me, Transitions, podcasts, and in countless conversations around the world. Until we get the Atonement story right, we will never be able to see our Father for who he is and come to him with confidence. I am reprinting it here to remind us all that salvation was a work of redemption by a gracious Father.
Something about the story made me cringe every time I heard it, and since I grew up a Baptist, I heard it a lot: To satisfy His need for justice and His demand for holiness, God sentenced His own Son to death in the brutal agony of crucifixion as punishment for the failures and excesses of humanity.
Don’t get me wrong. I want as much mercy as I can get. If someone else wants to take a punishment I deserve and I get off scot-free, I’m fine with that. But what does this narrative force us to conclude about the nature of God?
As we approach Easter, the crucifixion story most often told paints God as an angry, blood-thirsty deity whose appetite for vengeance can only be satisfied by the death of an innocent—the most compassionate and gracious human that ever lived. Am I the only one who struggles with that? The case could be made that it makes God not much different from Molech, Baal or any of the other false deities that required human sacrifice to sate their uncontrollable rage.
We wouldn’t think this story an act of love from anyone else. If you offend me, and the only way I can forgive you is to satisfy my need for justice by directing the full force of my anger for you onto my own son by beating him to death, you probably wouldn’t think me worth knowing. You certainly wouldn’t think of me as loving. And this solution ostensibly comes from the God who asks us as mere humans to forgive others without seeking vengeance. Is He demanding that we be more gracious than He is?
Many of the Old Testament writers did look forward to the cross as a sacrifice that would satisfy God, and they used the language of punishment to explain it. But the New Testament writers looking back through the redemption of the cross saw it very differently. They didn’t see it as the act of an angry God seeking restitution, but the self-giving of a loving God to rescue broken humanity.
Their picture of the cross does not present God as a brutalizing tyrant expending His anger on an innocent victim, but as a loving Father whose Son took the devastation of our failures and held it in the consuming power of His love until sin was destroyed and a portal opened for us to re-engage a trusting relationship with the God of the universe. The New Testament writers saw the cross not as a sacrifice God needed in order to love us, but one we needed to be reconciled to Him.
One of my best friends died of melanoma almost two years ago. Doctors tried to destroy the cancer with the most aggressive chemotherapy they could pour into his body. In the end, it wasn’t enough. The dose needed to kill his melanoma would have killed him first. That was God’s dilemma in wanting to rescue us. The passion He had to cure our sin would overwhelm us before the work was done. Only God Himself could endure the regimen of healing our brokenness demanded.
So He took our place. He embraced our disease by becoming sin itself, and then drank the antidote that would consume sin in His own body. This is substitutionary atonement. He took our place because He was the only one that could endure the cure for our sin. God’s purpose in the cross was not to defend His holiness by punishing Jesus instead of us, but to destroy sin in the only vessel that could hold it until—in God’s passion—sin was destroyed.
Perhaps we need to rethink the crucifixion in line with those early believers. God was not there brutalizing His Son as retribution for our failures; He was loving us through the Son in a way that would set us free to know Him and transform us to be like Him.
Now that’s a God worth knowing.
All that God did in his Son was because he wanted to invite you out of the bondage of sin and shame to a tender place he prepared in his heart for you. Don’t see a terrifying God behind the death of Jesus, but a Father weeping in his love for all his lost children.
What incredible lengths they went to so that we could enjoy life inside their love!
If you’ve never been to Israel, you have no idea what it means to—
To look out across the Sea of Galilee and contemplate all that happened there.
To stand on Mt. Carmel, where Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, and where you also overlook the Jezreel Valley.
To reflect alongside 2000-year-old olive trees in Gethsemane,
To wander through the city where God chose to reveal himself to the world and accomplish the redemption of humanity.
Those things profoundly touched my life in the three trips I’ve taken there as it has for others who have gone with me. I felt the earth where Jesus walked. I saw first-hand the sky, hills, valleys, and waters where he lived. This was his earthly home! At key locations, I’ll be sharing the insights from that land that most shaped my journey of growing trust in Jesus to help you process your own journey of growing faith.
In addition, you have no idea the amazing people you will meet from all over the world who cherish some of the same realities about God and his love that you do. Many have come away from past trips with new, life-long friendships that take root over the ten days we will spend together at the table, on the bus, or walking together through the most significant locations in redemptive history.
We are going in February since the weather is cooler in these desert locations. We can also take a smaller group more affordably at that time and not have to battle the crowds at the sights we will visit.
Taking flight is a triumphant chapter in So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. After the long process of poking holes in Jake’s illusions about God and what it means to follow him, Jake is finally finding his footing on a better trailhead as he begins to learn how to live out a life in Jesus free from guilt and personal performance.
Here’s a brief excerpt from that chapter:
Jake speaks, “As I read the life of Jesus now, I see more clearly that’s what he was doing-freeing people from shame so that they could embrace his Father. And I’m seeing that with increasing freedom in my own life too. That’s probably the greatest gift you’ve given me, John. I no longer labor under the oppressive guilt of how short I fall nor under the demanding obligations of self-produced righteousness. And I’m no longer putting that on others.”
“That’s fabulous,” John smiles.
“I never realized how much of what I thought was ministry was only manipulating people’s shame—whether it was to make them feel guilty for falling short or to earn other people’s approval.”
“That’s what religion is, Jake. It’s a shame-management system, often with the best of intentions and always with the worst of results.”
This is a great moment in someone’s journey when the gravity of human effort and guilt loses its hold, and the pull of his love and power takes over. At that moment, everything changes, and we look with new eyes at the trail Jesus has laid out for us. Yes, we still have struggles, but we are changed in the process. I’ve treasured this change in my own life and have watched it happen in so many people. It’s brutal to watch people labor under the burden and arrogance of religious performance, thinking that by doing so they curry God’s favor. His love is all we need to transform us with his glory as he invites us on the adventure of following him.
We’ll be talking about that this weekend for the next gathering of theJake Colsen Book Club, which will be held this Sunday, April 2, at 1:30 pm PDT. For our international participants, the U.S. has moved our clocks ahead one hour to daylight savings time, so you may need to recalculate what time it is where you live. Lots of websites will help you sort that out. Anyone is welcome to join us, even if it’s your first time. We will also stream it live on my Facebook Author Page, but if you want to be part of the conversation, you can get a link to the Zoom Room by emailing Wayne and asking for it.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be at your lowest moment and have someone safe enough to share your deepest hurts, doubts, and fears and have them listen carefully to hear your heart and hold your emotions soothingly and safely without the need to minimize your pain, fix your thinking, or even rush you through the struggle? They are simply fully present with you, sharing your pain, and occasionally offer a question or observation that will help magnify Jesus’s presence with you.
I don’t have to imagine. I’ve been fortunate to have people attuned to God’s heart and available to mine throughout my life. It is the rarest of gifts, to be sure, and a significant component in my life-long passion for knowing Jesus and walking with him. Father wants people like that covering the planet.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about not burying our emotional pain but waiting until Jesus carves a way through it for us and how a friend can be helpful. When you learn to embrace God from inside your pain, you’ll be better equipped to hold others inside of theirs. I’ll admit it’s not easy to do; our pain-detection and avoidance systems kick in with hardly a thought whenever we or someone near us chokes up with tears. “Danger! Danger! Must stop tears!”
Almost everyone tries to stop them by apologizing or switching the subject as if tearing up is supposed to be embarrassing. How tragic! Uncontrolled tears are almost always evidence of where God’s Spirit is working in our hearts. It shows us the most sacred space where grief and pain dwell, and Father is working to win us into trust. If we run from our tears, we may well miss him, and avoiding the tears of others will leave them in the dark as well.
Most of us have always been better at “rejoicing with those who rejoice” rather than sincerely “weeping with those who weep.” We’re called to do both,
But once our pain avoidance system kicks in, we say the silliest things to people that deepen their pain rather than hold their hearts—
“Just trust Jesus; he will take care of it.”
“Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.”
“But they are in a better place, aren’t they?”
“Cheer up! Jesus already has the victory.”
“Just forgive, and it won’t bother you anymore.”
“Are you still struggling with that? It happened so long ago?”
While some of those things may be true, presented in the context of raw pain, they will make people feel dismissed and more alone than ever. I don’t think our pain-avoidance systems are mean-spirited; they result from some specific weaknesses in our approach to pain. First, most people barely survive their own challenges and do not have the resources to carry someone else’s. Second, those in pain make us uncomfortable because they expose our doubts and questions about God’s love for us. Finally, Christianity today is geared toward procuring victory and blessings more than it is about how the glory of God is revealed in brokenness and sorrow.
Most people comfort someone briefly and tie it off with a quick Scripture or a pat answer, often concluding with the ubiquitous, “I’ll be praying for you.” And then they forget. That’s why people in pain often feel like a burden to their friends and end up isolating themselves as they are drawn more deeply into crisis. At least when Job’s friends heard about all his troubles, they came and wept with him in the dust for seven days before any of them said a word. What an amazing gift of presence! But then, they couldn’t keep silent anymore and piled on their false theology that only added to Job’s crisis.
Becoming a safe place for people in pain is a work of the Spirit through the troubles and hurts of your own life. You learn compassion when you are the victim of other people’s meanness. You learn authenticity by being gaslit and ghosted by people you care about. And you learn how to be present for others by what you wanted most when you suffered. Ninety percent of ministry is simply being there with A Caring Heart and a Listening Ear, as my friend Joni from Edmund termed it in a podcast we did recently.
You don’t have to start a ministry, hang out a shingle, or run an ad on Next Door. Just be aware of the people around you during your day. When you see someone hurting, let Jesus lead you on how to make yourself available. It can be as simple as “You look like you could use a friend.” Or, “If you ever need someone to talk to, please let me know,” You might invite them to lunch or over for coffee. You’re inviting them as you make your heart available, not imposing yourself on them. Be gentle, aware, and gracious, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to share his love in the world.
And don’t worry about having all the answers they might need. You’re better off holding people’s pain when you don’t have the answers and not trying to fix them. You only need to provide space where God can reveal himself and draw them into his light and freedom.
Coming alongside a broken heart or an oppressed spirit is as close to the Gospel as it gets. He came to bind up the brokenhearted and free the oppressed. You’re closest to the kingdom when you’re with people like that.
I’m sorry we’ve not had another trauma conversation recently or the next meeting of the Jake Colsen Book Club. We are a bit buried in the process of refurbishing and moving into our next home, taking some time to be with friends, and our schedule is not too predictable these days. We will get back to those in a few weeks and let you know here when we start those up again. We appreciate your patience during this season of nesting in a new place where we can share our love with each other and with all of you.
Fifteen years ago, God linked our hearts with a group of believers in Kenya who had been captured by the message of He Loves Me, even as they were caught in the tribal post-election violence that ravaged Kenya in 2008. When I met Michael, he had already taken a dozen parentless children into his home to raise among his family. We helped them care for the widows and orphans who had been displaced and even did small business loans to help them start income-generating activities. We also built a petrol station, so the profits could continue to meet these ongoing needs. Today, only six children remain in that Living Loved Center, and the facility will soon be repurposed for other needs.
Over the next decade, our involvement escalated there as they discovered more than a hundred thousand people in West Pokot, dying of hunger in a drought that had destroyed their nomadic way of life. We sent relief and medicine immediately and eventually drilled wells and started irrigation projects to feed them in an ongoing way. We also helped them start schools to teach their children, and coaches taught them all about hygiene because the lack of it was causing ninety percent of their diseases. The Gospel also took root among these people who had worshipped their ancestors for previous centuries.
We also began an enterprise to buy and store grain at harvest time and re-sell it later to generate income for ongoing relief work. We also helped a new school Michael’s wife had started in a forgotten community to educate children who were not in school. Later, a flood destroyed the school’s water supply. We helped drill a well so vast and pure they could also give free water to the entire community and bottle it to sell to generate money for the school. Then, one year ago, over 300 children were abandoned on the steps of the school by alcoholic and desperate parents who could no longer care for them. We spent over $400,000 in 2022 to buy land and build a rehabilitation center for their care. We added more to the grain enterprise to pay for their food and education, and have now posted a bond to ensure their health and higher education.
For the past five years, we have felt the season was coming to an end where we could help them with these large projects. We did not want them to become dependent on Lifestream but learn to trust God as their provider. We have left them three income-generating enterprises as tools for God’s provision. Over the last fifteen years, more than three million dollars have flowed from the Lifestream and The God Journey audiences to these needs. Not only had we never envisioned that this would be part of our mission in the world, but we were also continually shocked at how generous you were with their needs. Every dime you gave ended up in Kenyan hands. We took nothing out here for administration, or financial and conversion fees.
Incredibly, this also coincided with Jesus inviting Sara and me into a new season personally to live more simply and more focused on the journey God has for us. While we will stay in touch with our friends in Kenya, we are grateful to lay down this mantle of helping them find the resources they need for their work. The needs are still great there, but we trust that Father will have other ways to care for them. (If any of you reading this feel a nudge in your heart to pick up that mantle, please get in touch with us, and we will link you.)
Even more remarkably, this season-ending came from their hearts as well. Earlier this week, we received the following correspondence from those who have been our partners in Kenya:
On behalf of the Kenyan family, we wish to thank you for the great support of pouring your love, prayers, and resources into every area of our lives for over 15 yrs. We send our sincere gratitude to every individual, couple, and family for their sacrifices that have touched so many lives.
Your help rescued many dying families in Northern parts of Kenya and Turkana , through humanitarian aid, health, relief, and long-term solution – through irrigation and soft loans. Also, you helped orphans starting from Living Loved Orphanage, Forkland school, and now Rehabilitation Centre for expansion of the land, buildings, food, and bedding.
You brought hope to the hopeless and rescued the destitute with tender-loving hearts, and you helped us with long-term solutions – a water bottle company, grain enterprise, and petrol station. You have helped us reach the place where we can now stand on our own and use the resources you provided to continue moving forward. Only one thing we may need from you is prayers for wisdom and understanding that we may continue encouraging others with the same love you have taught us.
God connected us when we could not know how to move in the midst of an institution that was focused on buildings and organization. Your books and materials really changed our lives and the love of many, and we now understand intimacy with God and the Father’s affection for us. We shall be downloading more materials from the Lifestream website. May the Lord bless you so much for guiding, correcting, and pouring your love toward us.
We have now winded the projects in Kenya with great love and joy. All your deeds will remain in the book of remembrance with all of us here forever. As we end today, your support for our projects over here, we continue to love you, pray for you, and continue communicating with you in spiritual matters.
We will not return to ask for funds for any projects; now we are able to stand for ourselves. Thank you for your great support and sacrifice.
Michael and Thomas
We have many mixed emotions about this shift of season, but the pathway seems clear to us. We were part of an amazing miracle of God’s provision and their generosity to bless others in their country in more need than them. Your generosity has changed the lives of many people, and we have been honored that God would ask us to be part of something so extraordinary.
We still have a few thousand dollars left over in our Kenyan Fund and we will be sending that for whatever future needs they might have. If you would like to add any money to that as a parting gift and added resource as they make this transition, please let us know in the next few days so that we can send it all together. Beyond that, we will keep the fund open should people have it in their hearts to share in the ongoing needs there, but Lord willing, we do not plan on raising funds for any large-scale future projects there.
If you want to join us in this donation, please see our Donation Page at Lifestream. You can also Venmo contributions to “@LifestreamMinistries” or mail a check to Lifestream Ministries • 1560 Newbury Rd Ste 1 • Newbury Park, CA 91320. Or, if you prefer, we can take your donation over the phone at (805) 498-7774.
What can I write to end this posting? I know their hearts have been touched by your generosity; I want you to know how much Sara and I have been touched as well. To watch vast sums of money go through Lifestream to meet these needs in Kenya has blessed us beyond words. He did so much more beyond anything we could have asked or even imagined. It has saved so many people and offers Kenya a wealth of young men and women grounded in Father’s love to be his witness in that corner of the world.
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey, they reported to the church at Antioch that they “had completed the work God gave them to do.” We celebrate that now with you and our Kenyan brothers and sisters. We have completed the amazing task he gave us through his incredible mercy and strength. Generosity upon generosity is a great gift to put into the world. Thank you for being part of it with us.
Now, we commend them to the Father’s mercy for whatever purpose he has ahead for them. We pray he will guide them with his love, hold them in his grace, and make a way for his kingdom to be revealed through them. We are grateful to have been part of it and to have left nothing of Lifestream in Kenya except the fingerprints of Father’s love.
Last week I wrote about the agony of God for the brokenness of his Creation and how our sufferings can be a way of fellowshipping with his inside of ours. Once we see that the presence of Jesus and personal pain are not at opposite poles of the universe, we can find the freedom to explore his wisdom and power inside the challenges that this age hurls against us.
For me, that has been a major transition. I see God holding all the cards of the universe, and thoughts of him always go to victory and triumph over his enemies. That day will come, most certainly, but it misses the fact that on this day, God is also in our pain with us as he agonizes with the broken Creation and the devastation it brings to people he loves. To find our rest in him inside our suffering is not a natural response for most of us. We are taught to avoid pain at all costs, not learn how to share it with our Father.
Our innate aversion to pain is a good thing. The heat of the stove will compel you to pull your hand away without a conscious thought, and the pain of a sprained ankle will remind you to keep weight off it while it heals. Emotional pain is different, however. While it can alert us to pull away from circumstances or relationships that are toxic, more often, it’s an invitation to self-discovery. Why are we in pain? Is it coming from without or within? Am I contributing to it with my actions? Will it lead me to a different strategy in my circumstances? Emotions like grief and sorrow especially need to be tended to, not avoided. Running from them or repressing them will only drive the darkness deeper and blind us to God’s freedom.
This is where the impulse to run from pain doesn’t serve us well. The wisdom you need will come inside the pain as Jesus makes himself known there. If you try to run, you’ll miss him.
As I was writing this article, I received an email that contained this paragraph:
As an optimist, I shove trauma and suffering down deep, choosing to ignore it rather than deal with it. Father has been saying to me for years to “Be still and know….” But I knew that I would need healing, which would be painful. It was easier not to go there. I know His consuming fire is actually His love, and I know He will not necessarily take away the suffering, but I need to start the process, knowing He is in me, beside me, bearing what I bear.
“Shoving it down deep” is a classic way to avoid the pain that can open the door to greater freedom. It’s like fearing the dentist so much you won’t go deal with an infected tooth. Instead, you’ll just bear it hoping it will go away soon. Emotional healing begins when we own our pain and find a way to sit with him in it. When Sara was gone last year, my soul was in deep pain, and I spent many days and endless nights sitting in my grief and confusion. There, Jesus sustained me, encouraged me, and shaped in me the emotional base I would need to support and soothe Sara when her trauma emerged.
Knowing he is in it with you makes all the difference; he can bear with you what you cannot bear on your own. He can chart you a course through it to whatever healing or freedom he wants to do in you. So, instead of thinking he is ignoring you until you find the faith to get out of your painful circumstances, let yourself hurt with vigilant eyes for how he wants to reveal himself to you. If you try to ignore your suffering or demand that God make it stop, questioning his reality or love if he doesn’t, will only prolong the pain and confusion. I don’t believe for a second that he orchestrates our pain, even as a trial or a lesson. We get a steady dose of it just by living in a world out of synch with its Creator. However, he does promise never to leave us alone in it and to work wonderful things in us through it. Every writer of the New Testament celebrates the deep work God can do in our pain.
Richard Rohr told about his friend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who received some wise counsel from her friend in a time of personal need. “Stay where the pain is,” she was advised. In an incredibly difficult year, she was “very low and frankly so weighed down with grief, I didn’t really know how to move forward. I kept throwing myself into work, running fast to do something about the pain.”
That’s when her friend, Lyn, encouraged her with these words:
Wait, stay right there. Stay where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the struggle is. Stay there. That’s where it’s going to come. The insight. The knowing. The wisdom. Right there, Jacqui. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming. And when it comes, I’ll midwife it with you. It will come, we will do it together. Just wait for it. It will come.”
Read those words again. This is powerful counsel for those who struggle. Suffering in him allows us to probe the honest realities of our hearts and find the wisdom and power of God that will lead us forward. That’s why Ecclesiastes 7:3 speaks of the value of sorrow: “Sorrow is better than laughter; when the face is sad, the heart grows wise.” Holding God in our pain will tenderize our hearts and slow us down from the rat race of life to be more vulnerable to what’s true. It will be easier to see him there, as he exposes our illusion that we are in control of our circumstances. He can show how we contributed to that pain and provide the wisdom and courage to follow him through it to whatever freedom he has in mind for you.
And that part about having someone midwife it with you? That’s precious, too. I don’t know how I would have survived last spring without loving and faithful friends who made space for my pain and held my heart through it. Everyone wants someone to hold them in the darkness, but they aren’t always easy to find for reasons we’ll explore in my next post.
Learn to fellowship with God in the shared agony of a fallen world, and it will not only lead you to freedom, it will also equip you to be a safe person for hurting people.
I’ve watched too many Christians struggle to trust God more as if that is something they are supposed to do. If you’ve ever been down that road, you know that it leads to a vast wasteland. We can only pretend to trust him more, and that will fail us when we most need it.
Trust is not something you can demand from someone; it is the natural byproduct of knowing that someone loves you deeply and acts for your greatest good. We don’t give trust; Jesus wins us into it. So the question is never, “How do I trust him more?” The question is, “How is Jesus winning me into his trust today?” That’s the road you want to venture down.
And you won’t see him winning your trust as long as you’re trying to get God to do what you think is best for you. That will only lead you to disappointment upon disappointment. Focusing our trust in him on a specific outcome is not trusting him at all. It’s only using him to get what we want.
Jesus has something different in mind by teaching you to love what he loves and to follow him. There you will discover that he is constantly working around us in a way that wins us into his trust. We become increasingly confident that his way is best and that he is continually working to lead us into his freedom. That’s what chapter ten of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore covers.
Here’s an excerpt as Jake is just beginning to recognize that process:
“That’s the trust he’s building in you right now, and those deals falling through are part of it. Through moments like this he wins our trust. And it’s obviously working.” John said.
“What? Why would you say that?” I asked, not at all feeling like it was.
“Because you’re not as angry as you were when we first met. You’re in a desperate situation now, you’re concerned, but you’re not angry: That shows some incredible growth.”
And for the first time I realized that God had changed something enduring inside of me. I wasn’t burying my anger. It just wasn’t there, even in my disappointment.
“That’s how God wins your trust. He’s not asking you to do something despite all evidence to the contrary. He’s asking you to follow him as you see him unfolding his will in you. As you do that, you’ll find that his words and his ways will hold more certainty for you than your best plans or wisdom.”
Today, Jesus is at work in you to grow your trust in him and his Father. He wants you to know that his power and wisdom are at your disposal for all he is doing in you and how he is working in the circumstances you’re caught up in. Learn to recognize how he is working, and you’ll find your trust growing gradually no matter what you encounter.
We’ll discuss this amazing process at the next gathering of theJake Colsen Book Club, which will be held this Sunday, March 5, at 1:30 pm PST. This is a change from the previously announced date . Anyone can join us, though you’ll have to work that out in your own time zone. We will also stream it live on my Facebook Author Page, but if you want to be part of the conversation, you can get a link to the Zoom Room by emailing Wayne and asking for it.
(The graphic above was taken from the cover image of A Man Like No Other, art by Murry Whiteman with text by Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings)
It’s hard to imagine that these words would describe the most authentic personification of love to ever live on this planet, but this is how Isaiah foretold it:
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:3)
The fullness of God’s love was despised and rejected by many who knew him. Incredibly sad!
Jesus often talked about joy, and he wanted his joy to be in us so that our joy would be complete. Nevertheless, he also felt the pain of a fallen Creation and suffered from it himself. Even loving to the full, that love proved disquieting to the agenda of many, and thus he knew the undeserved rejection of those he loved. When I think of Jesus and suffering, I’m so immediately drawn to the events of his Passion that I skip over the pain he held each day while he was here, much less the pain he and his Father have held since Creation’s fall.
Only recently (for reasons I’ll share in the future) has my heart become attuned to the agony of God that beats through the cosmos beneath the strains of the joy and victory of his redemption. Oh, he will win, and one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of his Son. I can hardly imagine what that day will be like! Until then, God’s joy is also accompanied by undertones of anguish that he feels for the lingering injustices of humanity, the war and conflicts that devastate countries and destroy friendships and families, the sexual abuse of powerless victims, the despair of suicide and its impact on loved ones, malnourished bodies, natural disasters, and the betrayal and greed some trade on to the exploitation of others.
The writer of Hebrews told us that Jesus’s agony went beyond the crucifixion and was laced throughout his days. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears…” This was more than Gethsemane; this seems to be a regular undertone to his life and may well explain his weeping at the tomb of Lazarus and his anguish in Gethsemane. It certainly was not for the loss of his friend whom he would momentarily raise from the dead, but for death and suffering in the cosmos itself. And if so, he may still carry that agony of a lover for the wounds of his beloved.
Redemption was always in sight, but that did not mitigate his empathy for the wounds of his Creation. The Redeemer comes to our rescue with tears in his eyes, and an ache in his heart for all that “fallenness” has done to us. And when redemption happens, his ecstasy overwhelms his agony. For those of us living before the days of the restoration of Creation, we taste that agony as well in what we suffer and what we behold in others. So when I hear of the devastation of earthquakes in Syria or Turkey, starvation throughout East Africa, needless destruction in Ukraine, or delusion throughout the West, I have a place to put that now. I can hold the world’s pain with God in the hope of a victory yet to come. It has changed the way I pray and the way I walk with others through their own difficulties. You’ll hear more about that in future articles here.
For now, it is enough to be reminded that those who love deeply will hurt deeply. Every lingering pain can be a reminder of the as-yet unredeemed Creation and a touchstone with God’s passion for redemption. When we hurt with others, we are reminded that God bears our pain as well. When we are rejected by people we love, we find comfort that God knows that too. Jesus knows that all too well. Sharing my pain with him as he shares his with me is also part of living loved.
You cannot love and avoid pain. Love allows you to sit in the suffering, your own or someone you care about, and watch for how God moves redemptively. If you run from pain, you’ll find yourself often running from love, and, ultimately, from God. If you can embrace the reality of God-with-you in your suffering, then it will not consume you. It will also allow you to see more easily his way forward until ecstasy triumphs over agony.
Other Items of Note
Our next Wrestling with Trauma conversation will be Sunday, February 26, at 10:00 am. PST. Email Wayne if you’d like to join a small group to provide a place for people to explore their trauma or to find ways to help others they love deal with trauma
The next Jake Colsen Book Club session will be held Saturday, March 4, at 1:30 pm PST. You’ll have to work that out in your own time zone. We will explore Chapter 10: Won to Trust, as we consider how Jesus teaches us to trust him and what he wants for us, rather than trying to get him to give us the outcomes we want for ourselves. We will stream it live on my Facebook Author Page, but if you want to be part of the conversation, you can get a link to the Zoom Room by emailing Wayne and asking for it.
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