Living Loved Newsletter

Newsletter from LifeStream – Living Loved. Includes downloadable PDFs, and translations to other languages.

Far Better Explored Than Explained

When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.
(John 16:8)

Some things in life are better explored than explained such as an alpine trail lined with wildflowers, the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the shoreline of Galilee, or even chocolate ice cream. Explanations just can’t do them justice.

The same is true of a relationship to God. It can be explained to death, literally. We quote Scriptures, memorize cute aphorisms, and read books trying to understand it. We have sought to understand him with our heads and missed the joy of discovering how God makes himself known, and how his purpose in the world is revealed each day. Many who can talk about God in eloquent terms have no idea how to live in him with grace and affection through the difficult challenges of living in a broken world. They have never explored it.

Perhaps the most significant proof of this, other than what I’ve observed with people, is drawn from the way Jesus lived. He walked this out very differently than we try to. For instance, he wasn’t preoccupied with a Sunday meeting or building an institution he called church. He was more interested in letting the reality of the kingdom flow through him in the encounters he had each day. It’s why he could spend an afternoon with a woman at a well, or on the hillsides above Galilee with a large crowd.

It’s incredible to me that we don’t seem to take much note of that. We act as if Jesus went to church every week to sing songs and listen to a lecture. He did no such thing, and, no, that’s not what going to the synagogue was like. He didn’t tell his disciples that’s what he wanted them to do every week. As far as we know, he never organized a single meeting, except for serving the Passover in the upper room, and even that didn’t take him long.

He seemed to wake up every day and navigate the circumstances and choices of his life with an eye to his Father’s unfolding purpose in the world. He shared the kingdom with others freely even as he sought to help the disciples learn to do it too. Even there, he didn’t hold an extensive array of classes teaching them all the intricacies of God’s attributes nor the mechanics of the kingdom of God. He didn’t offer them outlines of God’s characteristics or teach them a process for letting God’s power work through them. He didn’t offer them a curriculum, he let them watch it in his own life and explore that new reality in their own. He was offering them a different way to live—in a Father’s love, in power greater than their own efforts, in the growing simplicity of learning to trust his love.

He knew you couldn’t learn those things in a classroom or from a book. Real life has to be explored, and he encouraged them to do so—to ask questions, to struggle with their own fleshly ambitions, and to taste the power of his Spirit. At times, he even sent them to discover that they could pass the life of the kingdom on to others.

It is evident to me now that he wanted them to explore the kingdom, not analyze it. He knew they could only understand it by experiencing it, not by reducing it to a set of facts or propositions. The people I know who live most freely in the kingdom are those who are discovering it, not in seminars and classes, but in the circumstances of their own lives—a woman betrayed by her husband, a man who’s lost his job because of lies told about him, a mother whose son was convicted of murder, or a child tempted to betray his conscience for the approval of his friends. I am often asked if I have a discipleship curriculum I can recommend to others, or at least a resource to help them know the Lord better.

The curriculum for your journey is not in the Bible or some workbook based on the Bible. I know this gets me labeled as a heretic by some, but the curriculum for God’s work in you is in the Spirit himself. That’s why Jesus said that he would send the Comforter and he would guide us into all truth. He didn’t say he’d send us a book to follow, because you cannot follow a book. He didn’t entrust it to religious leaders. His Spirit alone can show us how to engage God in the reality you live every day.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m a Bible guy. All the wisdom we need is in God’s revelation of himself, but it is the Spirit that helps us make sense of his words as they fit into our experience. I know people well-learned in the Scriptures, who can argue theology with precision, but who have no life flowing in them. And, I know people who live by their feelings, thinking their every whim is the Spirit’s direction. They both flounder because in the end, we are still interpreting our own journey, instead of learning to listen and to rely on his indwelling Spirit.

Jesus didn’t tell us to live by our intellect or feelings alone, but by a growing sensitivity to the leading of his Spirit. And where does he make himself known? In the unfolding events of your life. Look no further than in the circumstances that already surround you and the internal thoughts you have in dealing with them. How can you love the people around you the way Father wants them loved? What is he showing you about the things that perplex you, cause you anxiety, or distract you from the life you truly want to live? I’ve come to conclude that the best way to learn how to live in the Father’s kingdom is by exploring it one day at a time.

How is he revealing himself to you today? What is he asking of you, if anything? Ask him to show you. Carve out time regularly that will take you away from the hustle and bustle of life to listen for him and look for him, letting his thoughts percolate to the top of your own. Seek him in prayer, not as a ritual to be rewarded, but learning to converse with One who loves you deeply and wants to show you the best way to navigate the circumstances in your life. This is where Scripture becomes incredibly valuable as you probe God’s thoughts with his words. Then, follow him as best you see him, learning by trial and error what is the voice of the Spirit and what are your own ambitions.

Taste and see that the Lord is good, that his ways are far better than ours. Come and learn that the impressions you so quickly reject, because they don’t make sense, are actually his nudging you into greater freedom. Discover just how loved you are. You can hear it explained until your mind is numb, but you can only discover it when you explore it, even entrusting your unresolved questions to him.

Embrace that, not only for yourself but in helping others with their journey as well. Rather than trying to explain it all to them, coach them on how to explore it with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Upcoming Travel

March 29-30 – Morgantown, WV
March 31 – Trafford, PA (Pittsburgh)
April 26-28 – Tjome, Norway (Tonsberg)
April 29-May 3 – Pescara, Italy
May 3-5 – Dinhard ,Switzerland (Zurich)
May 6-8 – Vallorbe, Switzerland

I am also planning on going to Kenya and Uganda this summer as well as in discussions about visits to Florida, southern Illinois, Atlanta again, among other places, You can keep checking my Travel Schedule, or if you’d like to be notified if I’m planning to visit your area, you can sign up on our email listand include your address <http://eepurl.com/bJ43Ar>.

 

In Case You Missed it…

Here are some of the podcasts and blogs that have generated the most interest over the last couple of months.

Podcasts at TheGodJourney.com:

Wayne’s blog at Lifestream.org

 

Lifestream Update – Fall 2016

Does God Enjoy You? 

The Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1646 said that the chief end of man “is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” What a great statement and those words have resonated with many believers in the ensuing centuries.

The God most Christians know, however, is not one to be enjoyed.  Most people associate fear or reverential awe with God’s presence and usually try and to please, appease, serve, or surrender to him without even thinking of enjoying him.

The fact is that none of us can truly enjoy him until we know how much he enjoys us. Now, that’s a mind bender for many.  Even if we are to enjoy God, they think it is something we have to make ourselves do in spite of how holy and demanding he presents himself to be. And yet, Jesus wasn’t like that when he came in human flesh. He seemed to enjoy being around his creation, even those still lost in sin.

Now, I used to believe he could enjoy me when I could finally get my life together and do all the things he desired that would bring glory to him. I’m 63 and that hasn’t happened yet, even if I did pretend back in the day that I was at least doing more than most others I knew, so he must have thought himself fortunate to have a son like me. His love and freedom has allowed me to see my life in more honest terms, knowing the cracks and frailties I still have.  And yet he seems to enjoy me, much like I enjoy my grandkids.  I don’t think they’re perfect, and even when they are being completely obnoxious, I still love the little dears with all my heart. I may not enjoy what they are doing at any given moment, but I am no less delighted in them as people learning to find their way in a difficult world.

These days I hear many authors and sociologists using a new definition for friendship that includes enjoyment.  Your friends are those you enjoy being with. When you know you’re going to meet them, your heart anticipates that time with joy. And friendship is best defined where your friends enjoy being with you as much as you enjoy being with them. Doesn’t that make sense? Aren’t those the people you treasure most and bring the most joy into your life?

What if it were true that you delight God’s heart even more today than I delight in my grandkids?  What would it change in you if you truly believed it.  Somehow God finds us humans quite endearing, even when we are lost in the pain and brokenness of a fallen world. He delights in you even in the midst of your doubts, fears, temptations, and failures. He does not see us as the summation of our brokenness, but as the person he made you to be that is being swallowed by those other things.

He delights in you, not in what you do! And he knows that the more you enjoy him, the more you’ll find freedom from the things that twist you. Transformation grows out of our knowing that God enjoys us and that we can enjoy him as a gracious Father.

(I sent this article out a few days ago to my mailing list and have had a number of fascinating responses.  Some were greatly encouraged, others wrote me to tell me they didn’t believe it was true for them, that God cannot enjoy them.  In a day or two I’m going to follow this up with some thoughts for those who feel as if God does not enjoy you. It is the greatest lie in the universe.)

 

News Briefs:

Join Brad and I for TheGodJourney Tour of Israel. We had a couple of people drop out, so we can smash in a couple of more. We are headed to Israel January 25 through February 4, 2017.  The pre-trip to Petra will be on January 22-25.  If you’re interested in joining us you can get all the details here.

Getting the Latest Updates from Lifestream, whether you want to subscribe to our blogs or get updates via FaceBook, here’s the way to do it.

The on-line book discussion of Wayne’s Finding Church continues in our new forum.  Come join us if you’d like to discover how to embrace the church that Jesus is building in your own corner of the world.

Upcoming Travel:  I will not be traveling as much to get to some writing I’ve been wanting to do, but still praying about the possibility of going to Eastern Tennessee, Michigan (near Flint and in the U.P.), Wisconsin, and the central Coast of California.

 

Upcoming Travel

We are still working on some details for this fall, but this is how it looks like it’s shaping up so far.  These could change. Check our Travel Page to make sure or sign up for Travel Updates sent to your email here.

  • California Central Coast – September 22-24
  • Evansville, Indiana – October 7-9
  • Louisville, Kentucky – October 9-11
  • Eastern Tennessee – October 21-30
  • Appleton, Wisconsin – November 11-12
  • Escanaba, MI  – November 13-16
  • North Branch, Michigan – November 18-20

In Case You Missed it…

 

The Phenomenon of The Dones

Living Loved • Winter 2016 Current Issue

The Phenomenon of The Dones

By Wayne Jacobsen

This article is also available in Spanish:  El fenómeno de los hasta aquí (the dones)

Sixty-five million Americans who were once regular attended a local congregation no longer do.About thirty-five million of those no longer self-identify as Christian, but over thirty-one million still do.This last group has been tagged “The Dones”, those who still seek to follow Jesus and find real community but have given up hope that the local congregation is still relevant to that journey.

What do we make of this phenomenon?As one who has spent twenty years helping people explore the life of Jesus beyond our conformity based system, here are some of my thoughts about helping people explore relationship with God and his people beyond our conformity based systems and how we might participate in this conversation in a way that champions the unity of all of God’s family.

The Secret is Out!

It won’t be a secret much longer: You don’t have to participate in a local congregation to live out a transforming relationship with Jesus, experience the wonder of Christian community, or to find meaningful ways to extend his kingdom in the world.

We’ve known for some time that people are leaving traditional congregations in droves.The statistics are irrefutable. Popular wisdom, and no small number of sermons told us that people who were not part of a congregation are not part of the church.Their salvation is suspect and they will whither away spiritually either because their spiritual passion would wane or they would get lost in the weeds of false teaching. And while that is true of some, researchers have now identified a large group of people who are thriving in their faith beyond the walls of any local congregation.

Dr. Josh Packard, calls them “The Dones,” in his book Church Refugees, The book is subtitled, “Sociologists reveal why people are done with church but not their faith” and helps us understand this heretofore unidentified group of believers. He describes the Dones as high-capacity people, who were deeply involved in their local fellowships until they become stifling to their own journey.For years they sought to help reform it, only to find their efforts and their passion stifled by a bureaucracy that resisted change.Finally, seeing no other way for their faith to survive, they made a conscious decision to leave the congregational model and find growth, fellowship and mission beyond it.

While many will celebrate the discovery that the church of Jesus Christ is broader and more robust than our local institutions can contain, others find the news disturbing and prefer to reject or ignore the study. In a recent webinar with the Dr. Packard much of the chat messages to the moderator expressed displeasure that they were giving voice to this research.Already one denominational bookstore chain has said they won’t carry the book, fearful of its influence on its congregations.

They either don’t believe its conclusions or want to ignore them as a threat to their own future. Because they define the church institutionally they can cast aspersions the faith of anyone who does not belong. That’s why many have responded to declining attendance by doubling-down on obligation to keep attending. Some religious leaders have a lot invested in marginalizing those who no longer participate in a local fellowship lest others follow them out the door.

Interestingly, Dr. Packard is not encouraging people to leave their local congregations.In fact, he attends one and hopes that this study will help pastors to innovate ways to engage their most capable members so they won’t feel the need to look elsewhere. Traditional congregations serve a valuable purpose where they teach people to live out their faith and where they incubate authentic community.

Twenty-five years ago I would have been shocked at this research myself. As a pastor, I thought our program essential to faith and saw people outside of it as bitter, lone rangers who were just miffed that they couldn’t get their way. One day through the betrayal of a close friend, I found myself for the first time outside the congregation. Of course I could have gone elsewhere, but found my heart hungering for a more authentic journey than any fellowship I’d been a part of was able to foster.And I discovered I was not alone and the others were not

That’s why Dr. Packard’s research does not come as a surprise to me.For the past two decades I’ve been living among those who have found a vibrant life in Jesus as well as community outside of any religious institution. They are passionate, caring, committed disciples who want to see the kingdom of God grow in the world. They have been scorned, condemned, and maligned by those who reject their faith simply because they stopped attending Sunday services.

If you care about the future of the church in the Western world, you’ll want to avail yourself of this book. Whether you are one of the Dones, or concerned about people leaving your congregation you’ll at least want to be understand why. My hope is that we will come to celebrate all the ways that Jesus is inviting people to himself and recognize the life of the church in its more informal settings as well as more formal ones.

The Labels that Divide Us

In a study called The Rise of the Nones, Pew Research put out their discovery a few years ago of a growing segment of the U.S. population that checks “none” as their religious preference instead of one of the historic faiths that people have identified with for centuries.

It was perhaps inevitable then that the rise of the “Nones” would give rise to the “Dones”, when it was discovered that there is a an increasing number of people living outside traditional “church” institutions who continue to grow in a relationship with Jesus and connect in meaningful ways with others.The Dones is the most recent label attached to them.They have been called revolutionaries, outside the box, free-range Christians, or the dechurched. Such labels serve the media’s need to talk about trends among specific groups and to market products inside those trends, but they really aren’t helpful to the work Jesus is doing in the world.

Our fallen nature constantly seeks to find identity and safety inside a tribe and labels are important to keep “my group” separate from “their group”.It works for sports teams, gangs, and even religious groups. Labels so easily polarize humanity into adversarial groups and especially with religious ones where we conclude that our group is not just different, but better.

So it’s not surprising that labels either flatter or denigrate depending on which tribe is talking. Sadly, most of this conversation about the Dones is either insiders talking to insiders about outsiders or outsiders talking to outsiders about insiders.For insiders terms like “dechurched”, or “church refugees” may seem fair but actually perpetuate the myth that religious institutions are the only reflection of Jesus’ church in the world. That is as unfortunate as it is untrue. Using “church” only for religious institutions is no minor slip. Most religious leaders want people to believe it so they won’t consider leaving too. Even many of the so-called Dones talk about having “left the church.”

Likewise those outside want to claim the titles that make them seem freer, more grace-based, or more powerful than their counterparts in more traditional settings.After George Barna published Revolution in 2006, those outside of traditional structures quickly latched on to it as evidence that they were more spiritually committed, and instead of opening a dialog for the whole family it only expanded the divide. I’m afraid “The Dones” will do the same thing if people wear it as a merit badge of deeper spirituality while others us it toquestion the sincerity of their faith.

Any title you wear be it pastor, best-selling author, or Done will do more to separate you from others, than it will help you recognize the incredible family that Jesus is building.Claiming a label works against his prayer that his Father would make us one. The community of the new creation levels our humanity—from hierarchy and from our narcissistic notions of being in a better group than others.We are all sons and daughters of a gracious Father and that’s all the identity we need. (Matt. 23)

But once again, we risk being divided into innies and outies as people and falling into the false dichotomy our flesh so craves.Whether you go to “a church” or whether you don’t is a distinction without a difference.What matters is whether people are following Jesus and being transformed by his love. What I hope comes out of this study of The Dones is those inside and those out recognize that the church is bigger than most of us would dare to believe and that his church takes expression wherever people engage each other with his love and purpose.

For those who claim that attendance at a local congregation is mandatory to be part of his church I hope they reconsider that false idea. Being part of his family is about following him not belonging to an institution. Over the last twenty years I’ve found incredible followers of Jesus both inside them and outside. I hope this research draws all those into a conversation where in and out becomes less important than loving and affirming his kingdom however it takes shape in the world.But it will take a significant number of voices across the Christian landscape to fight for a better conversation that include those.

Imagine my joy last week when I met with 25 pastors in Riverside County who wanted to discuss my book, Finding Church, and Dr. Packard’s research about “The Dones,” which will be profiled in his book, Church Refugees.Not only was I surprised that many were wiling to have the conversation, but also grateful everyone there approached it with graciousness and a desire to understand the trends we’re confronting today. There was no hostility for those differences, but a generosity to understand those who have left and appreciate their journeys as well.

I am convinced that people who truly know Jesus will want to reach across this divide, not exacerbate it. We don’t need identifying labels, especially ones that make us feels superior to others in the family. When Jesus becomes more important to us than finding identity in any particular tribe of it, then the conversations that most express his kingdom will grow in the world.Instead of demanding that others conform to our view of the church we will recognize her in the most surprising places as we find connection and fellowship with those who know the Jesus we know, even if they don’t follow the rituals we follow.

Then we won’t need labels to divide us.Brother, sister, and fellow saint will be more than enough and loving each other in a mutual celebration of Jesus himself will allow his church to flourish where we live.

Church Refugees is a Game Changer

If you read one book about the church this year, you’ll want to read Church Refugees. Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope are sociologists and while researching the current trends of people’s church attendance made a surprising and unexpected discovery. They identified a significant number of Christians who no longer attend church services and yet are thriving in their spiritual life. They call them “the Dones” because they are done with the traditional congregation having felt it was stifling to their own spiritual journey.

To their surprise they discovered that most of them had not lost interest in their faith, faded out the back door, or preferred to watch football on Sundays. Instead they discovered them to be high-capacity Christians who were committed givers and deeply involved in leadership. They didn’t leave quickly or easily, having spent years trying to encourage change or simply find a way to get along. They eventually left because in all conscience they conclude that the way things are being done in their congregation threatens to compromise their faith. They sought community over judgment, mission over machinery, rich conversation over pat answers, and meaningful engagement with the world beyond moral prescriptions. While leaving is not easy as they suffered the judgments of former friends and colleagues they soon discover that there are plenty of resources for growth, meaningful connections with others on a faith journey, and ways to touch the world beyond the congregational system.

This book is a game-changer for how we perceive the church and understand those who no longer find our institutions helpful to their journey. It has the potential to obliterate the myth that our local institutions are the only or even the best way to engage the life of Jesus and his mission in the world.That’s not what the authors have in mind since they are both avid attenders themselves. They simply wanted to explore the phenomenon and seek to help congregations understand why these people are leaving and perhaps reconsider how to revitalize their institutions so they wouldn’t have to leave.

This is a compelling read that is hard to put down. The researchers mix their findings with first-hand stories from their respondents that will challenge whatever view you hold of the church. No doubt many will find it difficult to admit that passionate followers of Jesus are thriving outside our institutions, preferring the narrative that you can’t be a true Christian if you are not connected to a local congregation. The hungers, however, are real and if they won’t be served by our existing congregations people will look elsewhere. Obligation alone will not save these institutions.

For those who have already left you’ll find encouragement that you’re not alone in your desire for a more vibrant experience with God and his church and that it is possible to fulfill it in other ways. However, the terminology the authors use will make you cringe at times. Even the title, Church Refugees, is more than a little condescending to those who are no longer part of a traditional church. Calling them “The Dones” or the “Dechurched” doesn’t help either and you’ll find that language on almost every page.Just keep in mind this is a book by insiders, for insiders, about outsiders. It only uses “church” for institutional gatherings and posits those outside of such institutions as the “dechruched”. But it doesn’t dismiss them or the sincerity of their faith. I’ve not been an active participant in an institutional church for over 20 years, but I don’t consider myself a church refugee or that I am dechurched. I have never been more alive and engaged with the church Jesus is building in the world in so many expressions outside our traditional congregations. The church in Scripture was never a religious institution with weekend services and top-heavy bureaucracies. The church is the family Jesus is building in the earth and it cannot be contained or managed in any human organization. While it can take expression there, it can also take shape in many ways beyond it.

This may be the most important church book written in this decade. Whether you like what their research shows or not, Packard and Hope have done us all a service by giving us an accurate picture of the religious landscape rather than relying on our biases or experiences. What we do with them will have great impact on our engagement with the church.

If you share the hunger of the Dones but still hold hope for our Christian institutions, it will help you be a voice for change so those hungers can be served instead of frustrated. If you’ve found it necessary to leave you’ll find great encouragement in knowing there are others finding opportunities for growth, deep fellowship and mission beyond the programs of our congregations.

Hopefully it will help us all see the church as a bigger reality than our human conventions can contain, and affirm that what’s most important is whether or not people are following Jesus, not which building they go to on Sunday morning, or even if they go to one at all.

Why People Are Leaving

What does it take for someone to leave a congregation of people they have loved and served alongside often for decades?Why would they suddenly break away from close friends and lifetime traditions to wander into a lonely and uncertain future only to be accused of being selfish, bitter, or rebellious?

Except that it generally isn’t sudden at all, and not at all what they had hoped for.Yes, there came a time when they stopped attending, but none of “The Dones” I’ve met over the past twenty years left easily or suddenly.In fact most have wrestled with the decision for years in the face of some concern or unmet hunger.Initially they thought others around them would resonate with their passion, or be grateful if they identifie a problem that needed attention. To their shock, they found their repeated attempts to discuss their concerns or hopes fell on unsympathetic ears.

Try as they might to bring positive changes, they only meet resistance and eventually disrespect and frustration.“That’s not the way we do things around here.”Many give up trying to convince others, but their hunger continues to until sitting in the congregation becomes painful.After years of struggle they finally feel they have no other choice but to follow their hunger instead of quietly going along.As much as they want to stay with people they care so much about they find they can no longer participate in meetings that have become a detriment to their spiritual passions.

While the process is similar for most that I know, the reasons can be quite different.Recently I asked people on my Facebook page what it was that finally made it clear that they needed to leave their congregation.I got over a hundred responses from people that were consistent with the thousands of stories I have heard over the last two decades.

  • Forty-two percent said they were worn out by the machinery and the need to serve it.Some of that is burn-out from having to do more than they had time or energy for, but for most it means that the cost it exacted wasn’t worth the fruit it produced. Rarely does anyone say the congregation was all bad except in the most abusive cases.Mostly they say the demands of the congregation began to displace their passion for Jesus and that scared them.
  • Twenty-three percent said they no longer respected the leadership, either because they were dishonest, demanding or manipulative. This didn’t result from a bad confrontation or two, but a series of experiences that consistently eroded their trust and respect.
  • Twenty percent they simply hungered for more authentic relationships, feeling the ones they had were too superficial or governed by pat answers instead of people really getting to know them and wanting to walk alongside them in their joys and struggles.
  • Twelve percent wanted more of Jesus and his life than their congregation offered.The focus seemed to be on things other than helping people learn to experience the fullness of life in him.
  • Three percent reported no dissatisfaction at all, but simply felt led by the Spirit to move onto a different stage of their journey.

Of course my pool of respondents did not include those gave up on God when they gave up on their church. Many do, seeing the failures of their institutions or its leaders as proof that God doesn’t exist, or if he does, at least isn’t engaged with them. It’s a tragic legacy of systems that often do more to perpetuate programs than demonstrate Father’s affection.

But for every person that has left, be they pastor or parishioner, there are others who are thinking about it and second-guess that decision every time they sit through another meeting that doesn’t address their deepest hungers.Many stay because of the relationships , others out of obligation no matter how painful it becomes. Actually they are “done” too, attending in body only and with decreasing frequency and it is only a matter of time before they stop as well.

Simply put, most of “The Dones” left because their spiritual passion could no longer be fulfilled where they were.So what may look like someone just walked out one day isn’t true.It is almost always a long, protracted process that even they resisted until they could do so no longer and still be true to the Spirit’s call inside them.

The process is hard on everyone. In the first few months many of those who leave are racked with guilt and second-guess their decision frequently especially if it is difficult to find others on the outside who share their hungers.And it’s hard on those they leave behind, who often feel rejected by those who leave.Harsh words and judgments are exchanged as each side seeks to convince themselves they are doing what’s right and want to convince the others for their own validation.Nothing will destroy friendships faster and lead to animosity and hurt that will spread throughout the community.

Those who have left are not your enemy. If they were your friends before, wouldn’t they still be your friend now even if you think are concerned for them? Wouldn’t loving each other be vastly more important than how we gather or don’t gather on a Sunday morning?Maybe if we were less threatened by their hunger we could celebrate their to find an environment more meaningful to their faith.

Certainly some who leave find their way back when they can’t find the community they are looking for.Most, however, after a year or two begin to find themselves connecting to others who share their hunger for more authentic and generous community in small groups or growing friendships without the need or expense of sustaining the machinery. They spend more time in conversations that nurture their faith and less time planning meetings and maintaining structures.

People who lose hope that the institutional model can provide a lifetime environment for community and growth may not be the death knell for the vitality of the church; maybe they are the hope that there’s more than one way the church takes expression in the world.

Your Attendance Is Not Required

I’m growing convinced that much of Christianity has become a human religion loosely based on the teachings of Jesus, while missing the point of them all.

Every week now I get links to blogs and articles of various pastors giving the 5, 8, or 12 reasons everyone needs to attend a local church each week. To prove their point, however, they have to make some of the most ridiculous statements that have no grounding in the life or character of Jesus. These conclusions are not just misguided, but actually destructive to people who want to grow in his life and joy.

This is not a personal judgment against them. I’m sure many of them are fine people, only trying to do what they feel called to. I also appreciate that this is a scary time for them as so-called church attendance is on the decline. The idea that someone can actually grow in their relationship with God, experience the life of the church, and share his mission in the world without being part of their congregation has to be a scary reality. Many don’t even want to acknowledge it is even possible, so they double down on the language of obligation and accountability. In doing so, however, they twist the Gospel so that it is no longer recognizable and all that’s left is for people to obey what they are told by leadership whose success and livelihood depend on that obedience.

There are many good reasons to gather regularly with other believers and share the journey of faith. It’s just that all those gatherings are not going on in Sunday morning services shackled by the bureaucracy of a religious system that often does more stifle spiritual growth rather than stimulate it. Many have found more engaging ways to share the life of the church beyond the walls of traditional congregations and telling them they must attend a normal service, falls on deaf ears once they’ve discovered that it isn’t true.

So if they hope guilt and obligation will win these people back or scare the ones they have into remaining, they are not only fighting a losing battle but disfiguring God and distorting the Gospel to do it. The life of the church is not found in obligation but in the joy of affection and transformation. Trying to discount the salvation of those who leave in hopes of reigning back in the faithful will continue backfire.

In the latest article I read Nathan Rose, a Missouri pastor in the Southern Baptist denomination says that skipping “church” meetings is dangerous to your health. He gives five reasons why in a recent article he wrote, Five Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church:

  1. “You will miss out on God’s primary design for your spiritual growth and well-being.” What in the ministry of Jesus leads him to the conclusion that God’s primary means to grow to spiritual maturity is to attend a church service weekly, when he never conducted one himself, never taught his disciples how to do so, and assigned the task for our growth to the Holy Spirit who would dwell in us and guide us to all truth? When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where she should worship, he made it clear that location is not the issue.What matters is that we do so in spirit and in truth. Living in the Father’s affection and responding to his Spirit within us is God’s primary design for our growth and well-being, not sitting in a pew on Sunday morning.
  2. “You disobey God.”As many do, Rose pulls out Hebrews 10:24-25 saying that the counsel “not to neglect to meet together,” is a command that can only be fulfilled in a weekly church service.It’s dishonest on the face of it. This is the only Scripture pastors have to seek to compel “church attendance” and it is misused at that. This passage wasn’t written to believers skipping out on church services, but to people under persecution who were wondering if avoiding association with each other would make it more difficult for the authorities to find them. The writer is telling them they have more to gain by the encouragement they have from each other than going it alone. Most Sunday services don’t even allow people to encourage each other, since the focus is on the platform. Hebrews 20 is not talking about attending a meeting; it is about staying connected to others and not trying to make it alone. Honestly many of our institutions today do more to inhibit that connection than encourage it.
  3. “You make a statement to the world that God is not worthy of worship…, which is the attitude and conduct of unbelievers, not God’s people.” So if you don’t come to “worship” you are no longer one of God’s people. The judgment here is frightful. Worship is not a song service or a sermon, but a live lived in God’s reality and his affection. How we see him and how we love and respect others either brings glory to him or disfigures him. Sitting in a pew on Sunday morning is not a statement of how important worship is to you unless that’s the only way you understand worship and then you are spiritually impoverished the rest of the week. Our lives worship him whether we’re on the job, enjoying his creation, or serving someone in need.
  4. “You can’t minister to anyone.” Really? All the ministry that God wants to do in the world can only happen under a steeple on Sunday morning? That would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Jesus never ministered in a “service,” but on the street where he encountered people. Real service is not sitting in a pew so others can hear you sing and you can show support for the pastor. Ministry is about loving and helping people you know or come across as you go through life. They can be in your neighborhood, at work, in school, or across the world.
  5. “You skip out on a foretaste of heaven.” If Sunday morning services were really a foretaste of heaven, no one would want to miss them and you wouldn’t have to obligate them to be there. In many cases it’s just a repeated formula often laced with guilt and condemnation, as was the entire piece written by Rose.

What bothers me most is not that they want people to come to “their church”, but that they see obligation as the reason. They make the same mistake the Galatians made.By turning the promise of God into an obligation they distort the gospel, twisting the joy of an invitation into God’s life into demands and threats. It has the underlying psychology of “misery loves company.”We are not here because we enjoy it and God works in us, but because God says we have to.Please!The kingdom is the pearl of great price, not the castor oil of spiritual maturity.

Paul, the apostle, encourage us to live in freedom and let “no one” defraud us by telling us where we should go, what we should eat, or what we should wear. People who try to tell you what you should do, rather than equipping you to live fully and freely in Jesus, have lost connection with the Head.

I honestly feel sorry for those who can’t see the reality of Christ’s church beyond their own congregation or the congregational model itself. They would perhaps do better to take an honest look why people who were committed members of their congregation found it necessary to leave. Badgering them with accusations and demands will never fulfill the work of the kingdom. Maybe it is time for them to ask just how much their gatherings reflect God’s nature and reality. Those congregations who honestly seek to help people live in the reality of Jesus’ freedom and transformation need not be threatened that Jesus is also working outside their borders.

In fact if they put his kingdom first, they will rejoice that he does.

I’m looking for 35 Million People

Nothing breaks my heart more than meeting someone who invested years of their life in religious service and for some reason never discovered how real God is and how deeply he loves them.

The latest research by Josh Packard, author of Church Refugees, shows there are thirty-five million Americans who have left their religious institution and abandoned their belief in God at the same time. I’m fine with them leaving. Religious institutions can often impede our spiritual growth rather than encourage it. Nearly thirty-one million other Americans have left their religious institution and continued to explore what it means to know God and share his life in the world.

But for those who left not knowing a God worth loving, my heart goes out to you.That means despite all the all the meetings you attended, prayers you offered, and good deeds you have done, you never came face to face with the most endearing Presence in the universe. You never recognized his voice wooing you, or recognized his hand at work in your life.

I understand why you would miss that. Insecure religious leaders who try to rule with an iron fist or simply don’t know him themselves, and legalistic religious traditions that substitute rules and rituals for helping connect people to the transcendent God, can be barriers to the very faith people want to explore.Some say you can’t have God without religion; it’s a package deal. If you want to be one of his you have to jump through someone’s hoops to prove your sincerity.

But those who say so are usually trying to build or sustain an institution for their own purposes. It isn’t true. While some congregations can be very helpful in helping people discover God’s reality, many others are a deterrent. Jesus didn’t start an institution, or a religion, for that matter.He came to reveal to us what it would be like to live in his Father’s reality—how his love would change us and how our loving others in the world would let his kingdom unfold around us.

That’s why the Apostle Paul didn’t try to win people with “wise and persuasive words”, because he didn’t want peoples faith to “rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” If your spiritual passion was only based on following someone else’s teachings it wasn’t meant to last anyway. It was always going to fail you.

So I’m looking for you

If I could sit down to lunch with any of these thirty-five million people, this is what I would want you to know:

  • Realize religious obligation is a conformity-based system that operates by fear and manipulation and that’s why it could not promote the love of God growing in your heart. But don’t give up. Look elsewhere, mostly with someone who already knows him.Walking with God as he really is, is the greatest treasure life offers.
  • Separate the failures of religion and religious leaders from the reality of God. Jesus did. The Pharisees had God wrong, which is why they didn’t understand his love for sinners, or his refusal to conform to their traditions. It is why they killed him.
  • Consider the possibility that you were given a disfigured view of God especially if you’ve come to see him as an angry tyrant wanting to rule the world through terror. He is actually a gracious Father who loves you more than anyone else on this planet ever has or ever will.
  • Recognize where God is already reaching out to you. That voice inside your head that invites you away from the anxieties of this life is his drawing you to himself. Those transcendent moments when you knew you were not alone in the universe and that Someone endearing holds you and this world in his hands were his doing, nudging you toward the relationship he desires with you.
  • God has not been the cause of your best friend dying, or financial difficulties, and your disappointments in life.He wasn’t punishing you or them for some broken place in their lives. This world is out of sync with its Creator and the effects of that touch us all with sin, sickness, and pain.God is not its cause. He’s the rescuer in the story, inviting us away from the mayhem and into the knowing of him.
  • Ask him to reveal himself to you and to send you someone who can help you learn to follow him.

All that Jesus said was true. There is a place for you to be at home in God, and for God to be at home in you.

Seven Markers That Will Help You When You’re Done

A Thrival Guide for Those Who Find Themselves Outside of Conventional Congregations

According to the latest research people are leaving the local church congregation in droves. Many do so questioning whether God even exists, but many others continue to passionately follow Jesus convinced that the institution they belonged to was at odds with the spiritual passion growing in their heart. They may not have even understood why, but something inside continued to draw them toward a more authentic relationship with Jesus and a freer environment to share his life and love with others.

Many who have given up on the traditional congregation were once leaders, volunteers, and major contributors. They grew weary of the programs and expectations that neither encouraged their journey nor cultivated the kind of community they sought.Leaving is never easy and most do it only when other options are exhausted.

Finding yourself outside the congregational model can be incredibly disorienting for a season.Family and former friends question your faith or make you feel guilty with accusations of bitterness or selfishness.All the markers you used to gauge your spiritual health no longer make sense. Some question their own sanity and even more so as they are increasingly isolated from the only friends they’ve ever had.

If you’ve left your congregation for similar reasons, what do you do now? As I’ve watched people go through this transition the ones who navigate it most freely begin to embrace a different set of realities, which not only allow them to survive outside a local congregation, but actually thrive in learning to follow him, in sharing fellowship with others, and in being part of God’s purpose in the world.

First, take your time. You’ve been invited on an amazing journey that will take years to sort out. Many people rush to join another congregation or start their own house group to fill the void but only end up recreating what they had left. Resist the urge to find another group right away or create one. This is a season to draw closer to God and let him fill the void. There will be time for more connections later when it’s not a response to a driven need, but a freedom to embrace the gift of community that God wants to give you.

Second, don’t force your journey on others.You don’t have to tell people, “I’ve left the church” or judge as less spiritual those who still go. This isn’t about judging others or making outlandish conclusions about the future you can’t begin to sort out yet.Simply follow Jesus however he leads you and be gently honest with those who ask you why you’re not doing the things you used to. Remember, you’re the one whose changed here, they are just doing the things you’ve always done, believing they are obligated to do so.They will be threatened by the change you’re making, and you can help disarm that by letting them have their own journey. Don’t try to change them, or to fix them. You can’t until the Spirit awakens the same hunger in them that he has in you.

Third, lose your need to be validated by others. Religion works by establishing a set of expectations and rewarding those who conform and punishing those who do not. The greatest freedom in this journey is to let Jesus to break that cycle so that you can find your identity in his love for you. Trying to convince others how right you are will only harden them and destroy your friendship with them. Trying to justify yourself will not allow you to love others nor will it lead you to the freedom from the tyranny of other people’s opinions of you.Be gracious to all and let his affirmation of your life and experience be all the validation you need.

Fourth, learn the beauty and rhythms of love.Following ritual and rules that others demand of you is still following law, even if we call them “New Testament principles.” God doesn’t transform us through obligation or meeting the expectations of others. The reason why many of us grew frustrated in religious settings is because they made promises to us they couldn’t fulfill. The harder we tried the emptier we felt. God has been inviting you to live in a new creation where his love transforms us in the deepest part of our soul. Over this season you’ll learn to see through the manipulation of obligation, accountability, guilt, and fear and into a different rhythm that will allow you to live more at rest, aware of others, and free from the pressures of this age.Instead of doing what others think you should do, you’ll be freer to discern his work in you and find yourself embracing the realities of grace, forgiveness, freedom, and generosity. It all begins as you ask him to show you how deeply loved by God you are, then let him show you. This is the trailhead that will lead you to greater freedom and fullness.

Fifth, watch your trust in him grow. Many are surprised to discover how much of their religious life was driven by fear—of God punishing them, of going astray, of what others will think, or of failure. As you are more in touch with his love and delight in you, even when you’re struggling or doubting, you’ll find that your trust in his goodness will begin to grow. You’ll realize he’s for you, not against you and that your own efforts were never going to produce his life in you. Now you’ll discover the joy of cooperating with his work in you and find yourself more relaxed, more aware of his nudges and insight, and less inclined toward destructive and hurtful actions. When Paul talked about the righteousness that comes from trust, this is what he was talking about. Where we trust him we won’t try to save ourselves or force our way. Now we can know what it is to be content in him whatever life brings to us because he is walking with us through it.

Sixth, cultivate friendships with others. God’s love working in you will free you to love each person God puts in front of you. Take an interest in them, whether they already know God or not, and watch as they begin to pen up with their concerns, struggles, and joys. Look for ways to encourage them as God gives you insight to do so. Get to know people you already know from work, school, or your neighborhood. Contact people in your address book and take them out to lunch. Where the relationship becomes relaxed, authentic and mutual, make time for those friendships to grow so his community can take shape around you.

Seventh, let God expand your view of his church. Most people think of the church as a specific group or meeting at a set time and place and if you’re not there you are not part of his church. They are made to feel guilty and isolated as others withdraw from them. It’s easy to feel as if you’re the only one weary of the religious institution. But you’re not. The latest research shows you are one in about 31 million adults in America who do not belong a local congregation but are still actively looking to follow Christ, which is about the same number of people who do belong. That means one in every seven adults are on a similar journey to yours and there are 7 million who are “almost dones” who still attend but are there in body only. Does that mean the church is failing?Only if we look at our human attempts to manage it. What you’ll discover is that Jesus’ church was never meant to be an institution, but a growing family who are learning to walk with him and who are learning to share his life and love with others. Real community flows from friendships not meetings, which is why Jesus spent time with the people in his life in more informal settings. As we come to see his church as a reality outside of human control, then you can embrace her reality however she takes shape in the relationships and connections around you.

Learning to live in his freedom and joy is the fruit of a process that takes a significant period of time in our lives. Don’t rush the process.Learn to embrace him and relax in the process and you will discover that “something more” that your heart has been seeking.You’ll find yourself in meaningful conversations that will deepen your own faith and encourage others to find more reality in theirs.

It is my hope that those who are done with religious institutions, don’t go off and create their own, but learn to live differently in the world and then be able to see the church Jesus is building taking shape right around them.

The Narrow Road

Living Loved • Winter 2013        Current Issue

I had just spent the weekend in a country home talking with a group of people about living in the Father’s love. Afterwards two of them drove me to the airport nearly two hours away. The questions continued until we were close to the airport. Finally, a twenty-one year-old medical student in the back seat made one of the most insightful observations I’ve ever heard, “You know what I’m beginning to think, Wayne? Maybe the reason this journey seems so difficult is because it is far easier than we dare to believe!”

Read it again. Having written about finding a real relationship with God for 25 years, I get lots of email from frustrated people. Though they’ve read my books and listened to most of my audio they still feel as if they have little or no connection with God. Many feel forsaken, others wonder if he even exists.

The reason this journey seems so difficult is because it is far easier than we dare to believe!

I know it isn’t easy for people to find their way into a loving relationship with the Father. Everything we’ve learned and believed before runs counter to the dynamics of recognizing and resting in his love. However, it isn’t difficult because God makes it complicated, or because it takes a certain skill set or sensitivity, but because we look in the wrong places for how his life takes root in us.

But Jesus knows that too, and is still up to the challenge of engaging us in a fruitful relationship with his Father.
Uncomfortable Scriptures

In this article I want to look at several Scriptures that make some people nervous, because they seem judgmental and threatening. Most have only heard them in the context of religious performance and thus dismiss them as inconsistent with his love, but in doing so they toss aside some of the most helpful insight Jesus gave people to embrace this journey.

For instance, Jesus warned us that the road into his life is a narrow road. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matt. 7:13-14).

I know this has been preached to fill people with fear, but what if Jesus didn’t say this to push people harder on the religious treadmill? In fact, I don’t think his words are about eternal destiny at all, but rather an encouragement to a different way of living in this age. Salvation for Jesus was not giving out a get-out-of-hell-free card, but opening a door for us into a relationship with his Father.

Only the religious would twist them either to take pride in thinking they practice the right doctrine or ritual, and delight in the fact that those who don’t will get what they deserve. Jesus didn’t want to provoke exclusivity or fear with his words, but rather to equip hungry hearts to know how to know him. Following the broad way of self-interest will devour us, but there is a narrower path that will lead us to life.

I used to think that people were transformed by hearing the truth of Scripture and then applying those principles to life. Except that it never worked. People can listen to thousands of sermons and read hundreds of books and still feel like they don’t get it. No wonder Jesus didn’t preach sermons with application points at the end, but walked with people, answering their questions and stimulating their better hopes. In the face of those realities, he pointed down the road his Father would have them go, where they could know him and live freely in his life.

God writes his will in our hearts and minds, not in sermons and books. Until we learn to follow him in the simplest choices of daily life we’ll continue to miss out. I’ve had many people tell me, I’ve been pursuing God for years, and I am no closer to him now than when I started. My heart breaks for them. I’m sure they are genuine, but I also know they are missing him somehow. It could be that they keep following a broad way and miss his invitations to a narrower road.

That’s why Jesus contrasted the broad road with the narrow one. His way is not obvious to our natural inclinations. It may not look as satisfying at the outset, but that’s because true joy and freedom don’t lie in the things we think we want, or what the crowd tells us we want, but by embracing what God knows is best for us. That’s why he also warned us, Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Matt. 16:25). He knew the way of destruction puts up an attractive facade that appeals to our selfish desires and the illusion of an easier way.

Every day we make dozens of choices about how we live our lives and how we treat people around us. In these moments we’ll be confronted with a number of options. Many will be obvious and fit into our self-satisfying cultural and religious norms. But those roads won’t lead us to life in him.

The doorway to his life runs through narrow doorways, not grand ones. In our daily choices we have the opportunity to merge off of the broader way and find a more gracious home on a narrower path. I know that isn’t glamorous, and some would prefer a spectacular revival service or rigorous discipleship school. But the life of Jesus is about learning to listen to his impulses in the next choice before you.
The Broader Roads

So at moments of choice, what determines the path you take?

Sometimes it’s as simple as following the flesh’s desire, either to maximize our happiness, or to minimize our pain in whatever circumstance we are in. Simply doing what’s easiest, what makes us feel good, what soothes our ego, or what is in our financial or personal self-interest, will work to our destruction. We can easily lose ourselves just going along with the distractions of this age, be they too much entertainment, political arguments, or the mundane chores of life.

At other times it can be far subtler, the still lingering coping mechanism that helped us survive childhood trauma, but now leads us to harmful routes. Religious obligation provides a compelling voice in most situations, especially since we’re doing what we have to do, not what we want to do. But it is all the more dangerous because it appears to be righteous even as it draws us into the appearance of self-denial. Even trying to build a ministry or an income stream from it, instead of simply making God’s gifts available will drive us to choices that will prove more hurtful than helpful.

Almost all of these pathways were sculpted in our youth or in our religious training and they come so automatically to us, we may not even be conscious how much they shape us. But, when God begins to invite us into his life, he does so in the simplest places. It often has far more to do with how we treat the next person before us with love and forgiveness, or doing something he’s given us to do.

Making space for him and his thoughts and following them is the only way off the broader road. We find the narrow road when we find rest in his love for us and then recognize his leading as he offers us a different way to see what’s going on around us. We often don’t even see a new trailhead until he nudges us towards it.

At first, everything in us wants to resist his nudge. No, it can’t be that way. I could get hurt. I could make a mistake. What if it goes wrong? But if he’s the one inviting us, we are safer doing what he asks than anything we do to save ourselves. We are not asked to indulge our preferences or live in resistance to them. We are simply called to follow him, in the simplest of choices as best we recognize his invitations. As we do, his life will unfold in us with ever-increasing reality.
How Do You Know?

God speaks to all of us. You don’t have to be a spiritual giant or a gifted seer. You only have to have a heart that wants to follow him and he will teach you how he speaks to you and invites you into life.

Many think they’ve never heard him, but that may only be because they have not yet learned to recognize how he speaks to them. I’ve no doubt he’s speaking, but they may be looking for a voice instead of a nudge or wanting him to say something different than what he is saying. Listening to him is not living by feelings, but by recognizing those impulses he brings to your mind and following them. Initially they will encourage you to rest in his love and to be more gracious to people near you. In time, he will show you more of his wisdom to guide your life.

You will only learn by practice. Yes, you will do some things you thought God was leading you to do, only to find out by the fruit of it that it was more your thought than his. That’s part of the process. How else will you learn? But you’ll also get some things right and the joy of that will help tune our heart to his. In the process, you’ll be drawn closer to him and come to recognize your more selfish aspirations, and the misplaced trust you have in your own wisdom or abilities.

I know there are many examples of those who claim God told them to do the most bizarre things that are hurtful and destructive to themselves and others. You can usually tell if someone’s listening to Jesus by how open and relaxed they are. If they are closed and defensive when someone questions them, be careful. I walked away from an encounter recently with one such person and commented to a friend, “That’s the kind of person that gives listening to God a bad name.”

One thing I know about people who listen to God, they don’t act destructively and they aren’t arrogant about what they think they hear. Learning to listen to God is a humbling process. You’re never one hundred percent sure of what he’s asking. You just have an impulse in your heart you can’t explain. It grows over time, but he is never forceful or manipulative, and that is also true of people learning to listen to him. They can be firm, but not defensive and are always willing to sacrifice for others, instead of asking others to sacrifice for them.
Choices Matter

God does love you, but that love only transforms you to the degree that you can trust his love enough to follow him on to the narrow road. His love doesn’t mean that everything will work out the way we want, nor that we won’t be the victims of other people’s hurtful and destructive choices.

But he wants to be with us in those moments to help us navigate our experience in a broken world and be transformed through it. He invites us to participate with him, which is why love and obedience go hand in hand in the Scriptures. As you grow to trust his love you will want to obey him, and it’s in following him that you get to live in the fruit of his love.

Jesus repeatedly made clear that our actions matter. Scripture often invokes the reality of sowing and reaping to express this truth. How we live either leads us more into his life, or draws us away from it, whether we’ll contribute to his redemption in the world, or be part of its destruction. That’s what Jesus meant when he affirmed those who followed, Well done! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt. 25: 21)

Many find verses like this disconcerting, especially when Jesus warns the faithless that even what they have would be taken away. It sounds like those who have, get more and those that don’t have, are left out. But Jesus was not talking the language of reward and retribution here; he was talking about the unseen consequences of our choices. If we follow a bit, the road will get clearer. If we follow our own way instead, we’ll lose sight of him.

That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect for God to work in you, or that you can’t reverse the trend any day you want to. He is always ready to lead you one simple step at a time and never asks for what you cannot give. Following in small things today will open more doors tomorrow. If we’re indulgent and dishonest in little things, we will be indulgent and dishonest in larger things. If we can learn to follow him in simple ways of loving others and being true to our word even when it hurts, his work in us will grow in ways we’d never conceive.

This is not about earning his life by our obedience, but participating with him as he transforms us. Everything I get to experience of God today began with simple choices years ago. They set off a chain of unforeseen consequences that opened doors to where I live now. The simple nudge to go to public schools with our children and volunteer to help began a series of opportunities that eventually led to twenty years of consulting public schools on religious liberty conflicts. Listening to Jesus say, “I have more to teach you if you walk away,” when my former co-pastor wanted to force me out of the fellowship we helped build together, opened a trailhead into personal transformation I adore and opportunities for growing and sharing I would not have found without him.

At the outset, all these choices looked more difficult than other options I had in mind. I’m glad he won me into following him and the choice to do so now is far easier. I don’t even trust my own desires anymore because following him, even though painful at times, has always yielded better fruit.
It’s A Process

If you view the life of Jesus as a performance treadmill, what I’m writing will only create anxiety and pressure for you to work harder. That will lead you to despair and hopelessness, which is the opposite of what Jesus intended. Learning to merge off of the broad way and onto the narrow road is a process that he wants to work in you, not a requirement he’s made for you. It’s simply a matter of learning to lean into him a bit more each day and leaning away from what draws you down the broader road. You can’t do this alone.

And this does not mean you have to carefully listen to Jesus at every moment and try to figure out what he wants so you won’t miss out. Doing that will leave you frustrated and exhausted. We find his way much more simply than that. In fact, the anxiety of having to hear him will make it more difficult to do so. Instead go through your day with a growing awareness that he is with you. Whenever you have it, follow that inner sense that seems to encourage you one direction or checks you from going another. When you come up against choices of significance, ask him what he has in mind. Let him show you in his time. You don’t have to hear something every day or in every circumstance. Relax in him as he connects your heart with his.

Learning to live out of your spirit, rather than your intellect or emotions alone, will take some time. Ask him to show you the next step ahead and relax in a growing trust that he will. The Spirit makes his direction clear in a variety of ways–it might be that stray thought in your mind, affirmed by something that you read or hear, perhaps even a lyric of a song in the background that resonates with your heart. Don’t look for a “voice” per se, but a growing awareness of his thoughts in your mind. Of course, familiarity with his words in Scripture and conversations with others on a similar journey will also bring clarity to what he’s showing you.

As I go about my life, I become aware of options that are better than my own, especially in helping someone near me, or drawing me into a quieter space with him. At first, I don’t always like where these nudges would lead me, which is why Jesus saw this journey as a narrower road and why most people miss it. Our flesh so easily dismisses what it doesn’t want to consider. And, no, you don’t have to always get it right. No one does.

As you make a few choices down the narrow road, you will find yourself becoming more relaxed and able to live in the moment instead of trying to manipulate your circumstances. The questions you’ll find yourself asking might be these: What does he want to show me about himself today? What might love lead me to do in this situation? How does loving others, even at the expense of my self-interest perpetuate the kingdom? How does my forgiveness or service to someone else today, make the world a better place?

But even when you miss him and find yourself on a path of your own making, he is there, too, still nudging you toward a better road. Don’t be hard on yourself, just keep coming back to him over and over. You are loved, even in your brokenness. Today is the day God cares about. As they say, the best time to plant an oak tree was twenty years ago, but the second best time to plant it is today.

As you learn to live more on the narrow road, you’ll have a better idea just how destructive the broad way was, to yourself and others. Rather than be embarrassed by it, embrace that new reality. One of the most redemptive things we do on the narrow road is to go back to people we’ve wronged, seek their forgiveness and offer restitution where we can. Such moments bring great healing and clarity to all involved. Yes, it may not be easy, but that’s exactly the point of the narrow road–most fruitful things aren’t fun at the outset, but yield great joy later on.

Learning to follow him in the reality of daily life will have far-reaching consequences that will open up possibilities you would never see coming. That’s why Jesus warned Nicodemus that if he couldn’t believe him about earthly things, he’d never grasp what Jesus wanted to show him about heavenly things.
True Discipleship

The room was filled with a church planting team that gathered weekly in a coffee shop. But every year they don’t meet during the last month of summer to give everyone a break. They had just completed that month and told me that it is always their best month of community and growth. More fellowship, outreach, and interaction took place in that one month than the other eleven. They wanted to know how they could capture the spirit of that month in their meetings.

“Why try?” I asked. “If that’s your best month, maybe what you’re looking for is down that road?” I could tell the thought had never crossed their minds. They were having trouble grasping it now. How could they be “a church” without their meeting?

But the choice was so clearly before them and what they’d learn down that road would transform them in ways the status quo never would. That’s why Jesus encouraged us to look past how everyone else is doing things, and find out what he is asking of us.

Perhaps the most effective form of discipleship is not teaching a curriculum, but simply being alongside others when they are at a fork in the road and being a cheerleader for the road less traveled. We don’t have to manipulate or pressure them, but simply through a question or observation give them an opportunity to make a choice that matters. And if they make it, lend them our support and encouragement. That’s how people find their way onto a journey that will be full of his life.

The only reason why his way may seem difficult is because we’re so busy following the crowd that we miss his invitation to a narrower road. But once we learn to believe him, it becomes far easier than most think possible.
And though you’ll find yourself on a road most others can’t understand, it will change the way you think, live, and how you treat others. You’ll find yourself on a transformative journey that you will never regret.

 

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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

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Betrayal, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

By Wayne Jacobsen

Living Loved • Spring 2012

The world does not need one more example of people who claim to be Christ-followers while they blow up close friendships for whatever personal gain they may seek. We have too many already.

Unfortunately, Christians have a far greater reputation for self-serving than they do for self-sacrifice. Church history is littered with successions of church splits, doctrinal distinctions that allow one group to look down their noses at another, gossip, and dishonest business practices.

What a sad heritage indeed when the only thing Jesus asked of us is that we would love each other in the same way he loved us so that the whole world would know who he is! We failed that mission miserably. We failed it early. And we continue to fail it often.

Paul and Barnabus couldn’t even find a way to go on a second journey together to spread the gospel in the world. They ended up in a “violent disagreement” over John Mark that shattered their friendship and unfortunately set a tone that has endured for 2000 years. There are even numerous examples in history of both sides in a war praying to the same God to help them slaughter their enemies.

If you wonder why authentic, caring community with other Christfollowers remains so elusive, it’s because Christianity, as a religious system, merely offers humanity another tool to serve their own ambitions. Many, especially so-called leaders, have never learned to live with the same selfsacrificing love that allowed Jesus to engage others beyond his own personal needs. They view people around them either as those they can exploit if they are cooperative, or must subvert if they dare challenge or question.

We will love well in the world only when we learn that the essence of love is in laying down our lives for others, not using them for our own needs. We will never understand that freedom until we know how loved we are by God.

Valuing Relationships

I’ve met a lot of people who want to be famous writers, artists, or musicians, others who want to change the world through media, political action, or power encounters. But I don’t recall ever meeting anyone whose life ambition was to be a good lover of people. And yet, that’s how Jesus seemed to live his life. He didn’t start any projects, rush around to planning meetings, or plot world-altering strategies. He simply loved the people his Father put before him and the kingdom of God made its way into the world.

Maybe that’s why he told the disciples that if they would love like he did the whole world would get to see who he is. It’s the one thing Christians haven’t done for 2000 years. It’s amazing how easily Christians discard personal relationships in the pursuit of other things they consider more critical. Whether it is doctrinal purity, political power, personal acclaim, or behavioral conformity, anything we put above loving the people God puts before us will only make us more a part of the world system that offer human sacrifices to the god of our self-expedience.

Why do we do it? Because we have no idea how deeply loved we are. One can even teach the so-called “love message” and yet still throw someone under the bus at the first sign of trouble. If you’re willing to do that to someone else to save yourself, you don’t know Jesus well. Learning to live loved is the fruit of a growing relationship with him. It seems to take significant time, and most of our theological studies and religious efforts are not helpful in that process. I was a passionate practitioner of a religion called Christianity for over forty years before I had an inkling of how much the Father loved me. I was so busy trying to accomplish something great for him that people were often a means to my ambition, not the object of my affection.

As I grow in my understanding of his love for me it changes the way I see others around me, including complete strangers. I’ve come to appreciate that the greatest gifts we are given in this life are the people we know and the friendships that grow out of those relationships. Ask any person on the verge of death and they will swear it is so. Everything else is secondary.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares the same passion for relationship, and if you’re going to love deeply in this world you will also get hurt often. You will be taken advantage of. You will be mistreated and often used. Our world is relationally challenged, which is why there are so many Scriptures that help us deal with relational breakdowns.

If you want to love like he loves, you will have to learn how to negotiate the painful realities of broken relationships and even find joy even in the process. Living loved by him and loving others freely around you is the greatest adventure you will ever know.

Handling Betrayal

We learned at a very young age that the same people who might praise us one day, can easily reject us the next. I wonder how many people who shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, also shouted, “Crucify him,” only five days later.

Jesus knew that for many love would often take second-place to self-interest. I’m not talking here about momentary failures or misunderstandings that can temporarily derail a friendship. We all see things differently, and can disappoint each other without knowing it. But people of honor will work through those moments to find a mutually satisfying resolution with love and respect. Betrayal rises out of consistent patterns of exploitive, deceptive, or destructive behaviors.

For the past ten years I’ve begged every friend I’ve done business with, to resolve whatever difficulties might arise inside the friendship. I promised if they were unhappy, I’d make sure they walked away with a smile before I did. People easily agree to the concept, but at the first sign of conflict some will betray the friendship and seek whatever means they can to force their will. And almost all of them claim God’s leading even when it involves outright lying and gossip. When I’ve asked them to submit their concerns to other believers of their choosing, they refuse. That’s when you know they are not concerned with a fair solution, but only one that serves them.

Feeling used by another human being is one of the most painful realities of living in a broken world. I’ve been surprised by it on more than one occasion and am left wondering why people can’t put affection and truth ahead of duplicity and greed.

Perhaps it simply asks more of people than they have to give. In his book, His Excellency George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis tells us that our nation’s founders rejected the idea of a pure democracy knowing it would ultimately fail. “During the war Washington had learned, the hard way, that depending on a virtuous citizenry was futile, for it asked more than human nature was capable of delivering.” And what was that? “Making voluntary sacrifice the operative principle of republican government had proved to be a romantic delusion. Both individual citizens and sovereign states required coercion to behave responsibly.”

Without Christ that is certainly true. Often with Christ it is still true. I’ve spent a lot of time of late with people who have been through incredible acts of betrayal, whether it is an unfaithful spouse, abusive pastors, or even dishonest business associates. There’s nothing worse than finding out that a close friend has decided they have more to gain by betraying you than by remaining faithful.

Rather than be overrun with pain, however, Jesus told us to consider ourselves blessed when we’re lied about or excluded. And if we don’t appreciate it, we will only treat others the way they treat us and perpetuate the cycle of pain. No, that isn’t easy, but it is nonetheless the truth.

One thing that helps me is not to take it personally. No one deserves to be betrayed by someone who postures themselves as a close friend. Betrayal at its heart is not about you, it’s about weakness in the other person’s soul. Hurting people, hurt people. That’s as true a statement as I know. Betrayal is an assault against love itself and only shows how lost the betrayer is in his own pain.

Of course, none of us can endure betrayal on our own. We have to land squarely on the lap of a loving Father, pouring out our hurts and disappointments, knowing he is able to care for us even beyond the unfaithfulness of others. As we find healing and rest in his love, which may take weeks or months, then it will become clear how he wants us to respond.

Sometimes he wants you to stay in the relationship and love them past it. At other times he will want you to distance yourself from destructive people, especially those who violate your boundaries. Loving others doesn’t mean you have to let them walk all over you. He will show you how to lay down your life in trust that he will resolve things in far better ways than you can.

Finding Forgiveness

“Unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison while waiting for the rat to die,” is a common, but wise expression.

Our unforgiveness does not impact those who have hurt us. It doesn’t even protect us from further hurt. It merely leaves power in the hands of those who cause damage in the world. Forgiveness is the healing salve in broken relationships. It does not excuse someone else’s behavior; it merely frees their victim from the ongoing pain of their actions and the desire to pay them back. By doing so it opens the opportunity for us to find healing beyond the pain, and the freedom to move on with God’s further work in our lives.

But forgiveness is not just a choice of our will; it is a process. It begins by bringing our hurt and pain to Father so that his love can heal us from what others have done to damage us. This may take a few weeks or even years, depending on how deep the betrayal, but don’t stop short until his freedom comes to reign in your heart. Somewhere along the way, as he untangles the pain and leads us out of it into greener pastures, you’ll find yourself able to release the other person from your judgment and entrust them to God.

You’ll know forgiveness has had its work in you when you no longer feel the angst in your stomach when you think of the one who hurt you. You’ll find God’s love more powerful than the most destructive intentions of others. In the end, we learn to forgive as we understand how much we need God’s forgiveness ourselves. When I have a difficult time forgiving someone else over a long season, it has helped me to ask Jesus what it is about his forgiveness that I don’t yet know for myself. The more I understand his forgiveness for me the easier it becomes to give it away to others.

What I love about forgiveness is that it is a unilateral process. It doesn’t depend on the other person owning their failure or asking me for it. My forgiveness of others is transacted with God alone. I free them to God. And, as much as God allows, I take my liberty from their continuing influence on my life. Forgiving can allow an amiable relationship, but it will be a distant one. You can keep the peace with them by not bringing up the past, but the friendship will not heal.

Nothing in forgiveness heals the relationship, nor does it give respect back to those who were hurtful. Many have been taught that true forgiveness erases the past and lets us start over. It does not. While I remove my judgment from them, their actions may still expose their true nature. While I can continue to love them, it is love with eyes wide open, aware of the deep inner torment that they live with and their willingness to thrust it upon others in an instant.

A Heart for Reconciliation

Forgiveness alone, however, does not fulfill the Father’s greatest desire. Broken relationships in his family break our Father’s heart. It results from sin twisting us and our competing for things he has not given. Redemption always holds out hope for reconciliation– even with those people who have wronged us most. God’s ability to restore friendship between estranged children of his, is one of the greatest fruits of his work in humanity.

In the past four months I’ve had the blessing of being part of two reconciliations of important friendships that were cut off in days of pain and betrayal. Both separations lasted over 15 years and have now been healed. I wish it hadn’t taken so long, but this isn’t a process we control. What absolute delight it was to work through the pain, misunderstandings, and confusion that caused the separation, and celebrate the grace of God that triumphs in all of us, even beyond our own brokenness and failures!

While forgiveness is a unilateral process, reconciliation is a bilateral process where the relationship is healed. This can only happen when both parties are ready to sit down and honestly explore each other’s story with a spirit of compassion and humility. It cannot be forced and can only happen when all parties truly value the relationship over any other agenda. Reconciliation embraces a love greater than our need to be vindicated.

This, too, is a work of Father we respond to, and not our responsibility to make happen. Until each heart is prepared to truly listen to the other’s story, laying aside own assumptions and judgments, admitting mistakes, caring about each other’s pain, and mitigating any way we can the damage we caused. That’s what allows friendship to be renewed.

Do I Trust Them Again?

Does reconciliation restore trust? I’m asked that question almost every time I discuss it. Of course not!

Reconciliation does not require us to trust again. That’s a different process. While it will allow us to love them again, reconciliation does not restore trust. The sad truth is that while it takes years to build trust it only takes a minute to destroy it. Once destroyed by abuse or betrayal, trust has to grow again even after the friendship is renewed. You can forgive a spouse who abuses you, and even find reconciliation as he owns his failure, but reconciliation doesn’t change people. If we simply trust someone who has not yet changed, we only set ourselves up to be exploited again.

Reconciliation doesn’t make you stupid or gullible. Cheap promises are not a substitute for transformation. Trust, once violated, can only be won back by the demonstration over significant time that God has dealt with their inner darkness, and they have come to value the relationship above their own self-interest.

You don’t trust a stranger, and you don’t re-trust someone who has betrayed you even after you’ve been reconciled. We are never told to trust someone beyond our assurance that they will lay down their life for us. Trust is the fruit of an ever-deepening relationship of mutual love and respect. One of the greatest joys in human relationship is to engage relationships of love and growing trust that endure the test of years of shifting circumstances. It is a journey worth cultivating, and one worth protecting. Why anyone would trade that joy for any temporal gain is beyond me. They are giving up more than they know.

The Sweet Smell of Death

I recently spent some time in New Zealand with a friend of mine named John Beaumont, he challenged me to look at a Scripture differently than I’d ever interpreted it before. He told me that a passage in Second Corinthians that has been misinterpreted for centuries. This is where Paul writes that we are a fragrance to those being saved, and to those that are perishing. “To the one we’re a smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life.” (2:16)

John explained that most people think that we are a smell of death to the world and fragrance of life to the church, but the construction of the verse won’t support that conclusion. We are actually a smell of death to those being saved, and a fragrance of life to the world. How can that be? My confused look caused John to go on.

“The smell of death for the believer, is one where someone has been crucified with Christ and their ‘life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3),” John concluded. Is there any greater fragrance than someone whose wounds, ambitions, preferences, and agendas have been swallowed up by God and who now lives in the simple power of loving and caring for others? The aroma of a life that no longer needs to find its own identity, force its own will, or prove itself, offers a garden of rich possibilities in their daily interactions.

Those who are loved well by Father, will love well in the world. To be a lover of people is the one thing every one of us can do each day that will do more to change the world than any personal achievement we aspire to. Loving those whom God puts before–our spouse, children, co-workers, neighbors, and even strangers–is where real joy is found and where the kingdom work is really done.

Each time you offer a greeting, show an interest, serve a need, offer a listening ear or a shoulder to weep on, or any other way you simply care for another human being, you become a reflection of his glory. And every day you treat people with compassion, dignity, and respect, refusing to put your interests above theirs, forgiving freely and seeking healing, the life of Jesus shines a bit brighter in a broken world.
Nothing else you can do today will matter more.


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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries

Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

Articles in Chronological Order | Articles by Content

The Church Jesus is Building

By Wayne Jacobsen
Living Loved • Winter 2011

“What do you think the church is going to look like ten years from now?” I get asked that question almost everywhere I go. People assume that my travels and correspondence give me a wider view of God’s work in the world. And while it may be a bit broader than some, in the grand scheme of things, I interact with a very small slice of Jesus’ followers and even that is a very specific subset drawn by the content of my books and websites.

Nonetheless I find it a fascinating question mostly for what it says about us. Our religious training has put our focus in the wrong place, asking the wrong questions, and leaving people feeling adrift when they have no need to be. No one can answer it with any degree of certainty and the question itself assumes a standardized answer that ignores Jesus’ immense creativity in the world across differing cultures and local realities.

The question does admit, however, that we are in a time of transition, where the old congregational forms based on centuries of worn-out methodologies and compromised hierarchies no longer work. People are leaving their congregations in droves. Certainly many of those have abandoned God either believing he isn’t real, or not worth knowing if he’s the demanding busybody religion often presents him to be. But a significant number are leaving because their congregations were having a negative influence on their desire to know God and find real community. The reasons are numerous–empty rituals, irrelevant programs, messages provoking guilt or demanding performance, misplaced priorities, authoritarian leadership, superficial relationships, or simply the inability to honest friendships sharing a journey of spiritual growth.

It’s easy to point fingers at those leaving. But even if you love the traditional congregation, you might want to look beyond it and ask why do we spend so much energy propping up a system that alienates so many wonderful people, instead of concluding that the people must not be wonderful because it no longer works for them.

Scattered?

For those who have given up on the congregation they were a part of, what do you do now? If you found your identity in a task you did for God or group you used to belong to, finding yourself outside of it can be incredibly disorienting. Even if your mind knows better, your emotions are still tied to the approval you received by being visible and active in a local fellowship. The same people who used to love and applaud you, now look down on you for “forsaking the assembly” and question your relationship with God.

Many feel like scattered sheep battling the guilt of their inactivity rather than using the time to deepen their own relationship with the Shepherd. Some seek another group of like-minded believers or try to start one of their own. If they do, they find themselves relapsing into that same feeling of superiority that comes from being in a group that is more committed to Biblical principals than the one you left, or at least thinks they are. But soon you realize that even a house church or an organic group can be as empty, or as abusive, as the congregation you left.

All the while, the question that nags you is, “What should the church look like?” The underlying premise is that if you just knew what it is supposed to look like you would know where to look or how to form one. That’s why so many end up in the unending struggle to find the right church model to copy. In doing so they never realize that their own pursuit is keeping them from the very reality they desire.

If your connection to Jesus is growing, you are not scattered at all. You are simply finding that the voices of religious performance no longer hold the same weight and you are no longer getting the same validation you became accustomed to. Your passion to live inside his affection is drawing you to a greater gathering of believers tha you cannot yet see. Don’t be afraid. You are not alone. Jesus is building a people in the earth who can live as his body in these days. You won’t miss out. You are simply transitioning from religious obligation to a relational reality, and no one I’ve met on this journey has ever regretted the cost to do so.

So while I am not able to answer the question directly, I want us to look at how we can embrace the church Jesus is building in the world. I won’t pretend my observations are complete or authoritative. They are simply the way I see it at this vantage point of my journey. Admittedly these thoughts have also been shaped by insights I’ve gained over the past fifteen years by tasting real community at home and in distant countries, and sitting at the tables of brothers and sisters around the world who have wrestled with these same questions, many of whom have lived outside the distractions of religious performance longer than me.

He Is Shaping A Bride

Jesus is building his church with the same passion that he has demonstrated through the ages. It may be hard for some to see, because they have used the term “church” to describe buildings and institutions, and thus have failed to recognize the church as she really is. Even if you attend a so-called church meeting, the church is not the meeting you attend or the organization that sponsors it; it is the network of Jesus-centered friendships that you enjoy in those institutions and beyond them.

He builds that church by first shaping people who can walk with him. I am thrilled with the stories I hear of people who are breaking out of religious molds and learning to live in the reality of the Father’s affection. This draws them out of religious performance and obligation, which relies on human effort and ingenuity. They are learning to follow him instead of finding security in a specific group, doctrine, tradition, or ritual.

The words of Isaiah may even be more timely for the religious contrivances we have designed today:

“Who talked you into the pursuit of this nonsense, forgetting you ever knew me? Because I don’t yell and make a scene do you think I don’t exist? I’ll go over, detail by detail, all your ‘righteous’ attempts at religion, and expose the absurdity of it all…. They’re smoke, nothing but smoke.” – Isaiah 57:11-13, The Message.

There’s no doubt Jesus is exposing the absurdity of our religious self-effort. None of our activities matter if they are not drawing us into a meaningful relationship with him, where each one learns to hear his voice and follow him. As well intentioned as it may be, our work for him may be the greatest obstacle to actually knowing him. The New Testament is clear: the only thing more dangerous than unrighteousness is self-righteousness.

And let’s not blame the institutions. Religion is not something we get from them; it is what those institutions provide to satisfy our fleshy inclinations. I know many who have left religious systems but are still living in religious ways of thinking. And I also know those who attend a local congregation, but they are not caught in the performance trap. Instead they are learning to love God and the people around them. They may have to ignore the guilt-inducing messages, or the manipulative tactics of those who seek to lead, but because they are free on the inside they can still be there to love beyond it all.

The church Jesus is shaping is one not driven to performance by fear, shame, or guilt. She doesn’t respond to obligation or ritual or the absence of them. She is learning to live at the pleasure of the Head and that makes her radiant with his glory wherever she appears on the planet.

Living at Home

Our old religious inclinations tell us that what we need for a vibrant spiritual life is “out there” somewhere. Find the right group, movement, author, plan, or revival or you’re going to miss out on what God is doing in the last days. That simply isn’t true. Jesus told us not to buy into the notion that the kingdom of God was somewhere else. “The kingdom is within you!”

We all know how to live in our fears or anxieties. We know how to conform to the world’s demands or religion’s dictates. What Jesus wants us to teach us is to live at home in his Father, the same way Jesus lived in him. This is not a theology to subscribe to, but a way to live all day, every day. Living in Christ has absolutely nothing to do with where you are on Sunday morning at 10:00 and everything to do with following him through each day. Jesus did not come to create sacred space for us in religious services, or even in our daily quiet times. He made all of life sacred by coming to live in us and becoming a part of every thing we do.

This is not as complicated as many fear. The reason people have trouble discovering this reality is because they don’t believe it is as simple as it really is. Living in communion with him is what he shapes in a wiling heart as we learn to relax in his love. Right where you are he can show you how to live at home in the Father, confident in his love, and at peace even in times of trouble

The loneliness some feel when they find themselves outside religious systems is really not a cry for more people; it is a drawing to God that we have tried to fill with other people. If you are not at rest in God’s love for you, no amount of human contact will fill that void; it can only mask it. Let your loneliness draw you into a greater depth of relationship with him and then a new way of relating to others emerges.

Resist the Urge

It’s often been said that the greatest enemy of the best is the good. It often is. The greatest distraction to being a part of what God is doing in the world is to be focused on human efforts, especially what we try to do for him. Nothing disrupts God’s work around us more than when the arm of flesh asserts itself to try to do for God what we think God cannot do for himself.

When we feel unattached, unproductive, or insignificant this growing urge will prod us to “at least do something,” as if misguided activity is preferable to a quiet, listening heart. If that doesn’t spring from our own flesh, then it will from someone’s near us. Many of our fellowship groups, Bible studies, and outreach efforts have begun with the perceived guilt that we are not doing enough for God. More time-consuming and irrelevant religious activities have been generated from that distorted impulse than any other. Authors manipulate it to sell books, and would-be leaders exploit it to get us to embrace their programs and contribute to their income.

The fruitfulness of God rises out of rest not anxiety, out of the gentle nudge of his Spirit not the vision of a charismatic leader. In truth, God is not asking us to do anything for him. He’s already doing the best stuff in the world and as we learn to live inside of him he will invite us to be part of what he’s already doing. One of the things I notice about the life of Jesus is that he rarely created the environment, or planned meetings for other people. He simply joined them in the environments in which he found them.

When we get so involved with our own planning we easily miss the moments Jesus puts right in front of us. They are always far simpler and yet more magnificent than what we conjure up. At the beginning they never look as flashy as our plans or appear to be as far reaching. Usually he’s just inviting us to love someone. We have no idea how simple acts of obedience can snowball into consequences we never considered.

As long as you have any confidence in your flesh’s ability to work for God, you will confuse the urge to be productive with the nudging of the Spirit. And the more capable you are in your own efforts and intellect the greater danger you’re in of substituting the arm of the flesh for the breath of the Spirit.

Being part of his church happens by simply loving the people God puts before you each day.

A Different Kind of Gathering

God’s voice isn’t in the passion to create new church movements, nor is it in the cry for revolution. Those appeal to our own self-need for significance by belonging to the most cutting-edge group. God’s invitation comes from within–that deep drawing into the Shepherd’s care, and learning to love as he loves, to think as he thinks.

What the church will become in ten years isn’t going to be unveiled in the next ecumenical conclave in Geneva or Hong Kong, nor in the latest how-to book on church life. What the church becomes in the next ten years will be the fruit of millions of simple decisions made each day by people like you who are learning to live loved by the Father. There is no model to copy, no method to implement.

The early church focused on Jesus and its life was merely the visible expression of how people who are alive in Jesus treat each other. It was not perfect, but it was full of life because their life was in him, not each other. The church was the joyful network of relationships that living in him spawned and its visibility in the world came simply from doing together those things he put on their hearts.

The church of Jesus gathers like a family, not with orchestrated meetings, but a celebration of relationship and sharing with each other. With the Father’s love as the source of church life, not it’s objective, a new range of possibilities as to how the church might gather will become clear. I already see God connecting in unique ways brothers and sisters across this world who live unencumbered by religious performance and seek simply to love as they have been loved. They are less concerned with getting church right than they are seeing Jesus reveal himself. Connections happen easily among such people as a friend of one quickly becomes a friend of others, and the body grows!

What will happen as that continues to spread? I don’t know and don’t need to know. I do expect, however, that this church will take more more visible expression over the next ten years than we can conceive. The forms that takes will uniquely fit the locale and the season of God’s working, but in the end may not be all that different from ones we have already known. I’m sure it will involve meals together with lots of laughter and at times tears, insightful sharing, caring about each other, and listening to God together.

In the end, what forms that takes is far less significant than having authentic, caring friendships that put Jesus first. What we can do is learn to live in him and open our hearts to the connections he wants to make with us.

 

Live Connected

Being part of his church happens by simply loving the people God puts before you each day. Be intentional about cultivating friendships, especially with new people. Some will be temporary; others will connect at a far deeper level. In our human nature we mostly gravitate to people we already know who make us happy. Those relationships, however, are still focused on our needs whether it is to combat our loneliness or find an audience for our gifts, and won’t lead us to the authentic friendships that radiate Jesus.

When you know you are loved by God, you own’t have to use others to get what you want. Then watch what happens out of those relationships. You won’t have to look far and wide for people of like mind. You won’t need to find a group that believes what you do. Just take an interest in the people around you and let the results of that caring bear fruit over time. Some relationships may not go far at all. Others may be only a fruitful moment while others will become deep and enduring friendships.

Simply loving those around us will open whatever other doors Jesus needs to build his church. I am convinced that everything God wants done in the world can happen as the simple extension of growing friendships. That will provide fellowship enough, outreach enough, and work enough to let God’s life flow to the world. He said so himself. If we will simply love others like he loves us the whole world will come to know him. (John 13:34-35) Because we don’t believe that the world can be touched through simple, loving relationship we keep creating machines that we hope can do it for us.

I am often accused of being anti-structure. I’m not. I’m against structure as a substitute for relationship. I’m all for structure that facilitates whatever God asks us to do together. There is a huge difference. Over the past few years I’ve been part of some international efforts that have had widespread impact just because some friends cooperated together and God has continued to open some amazing doors.

Out of friendship we’ve been able to send over $100,000.00 overseas to help with relief in Kenya without overhead costs or administrative fees. I’m grateful for that, but I am also well aware that the best way the gospel spreads in the earth is by each one of us just loving the next person God puts in front of us.

If you don’t know how to do that, ask for help from others who do. But be careful of those who try to herd you into their program or draw you into their vision. I’ll probably share more about this in the next issue, but real elders in the family don’t gather people to their vision, but help equip and free others to the vision God has for them.
And above all, relax. Building the church is Jesus’ assignment, ours is to learn to live loved by the Father and then to love others in the same way. When we focus on our task, it is far easier for him to do his!


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OTHER TRANSLATIONS


Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries

Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

Articles in Chronological Order | Articles by Content

Quiet Lives of Profound Consequence

By Wayne Jacobsen
Living Loved • Autumn 2011

They are all over the world. I’ve met them everywhere–men and women who have been seasoned with the joy of living loved and are capable in the simplest of conversations to encourage others along that journey as well.

You can sit in their homes and be at rest, knowing you are cared for–not because of what they want out of you, but simply because you are one of God’s kids. They live quiet lives, neither pressed by their responsibilities. nor engaged in self-promotion or the advancement of their personal agenda. They do not manipulate others to get what they want. You never have to guess what they are thinking. They are honest with others, but gently so, and patient with those who struggle.

These are the things living loved wins in the human heart over a significant period of time. These are not principles to live by, or traits to emulate. They cannot be faked. The weight of words of people like this rises out of the depth of their character. They don’t play to the spotlight, but give their lives freely to others as God leads them.

I am often asked what other authors or books have shaped my thinking. I can list many because I am a reader. But that which has most shaped my life has not come from books. It’s come from people, just like those I described above, whom I’ve had the opportunity to walk beside for various seasons of my life.

The people I know who have the most impact on the planet are people who live quiet lives of profound significance. That significance isn’t measured by book sales or followers, but by the free sharing of their lives in face-to-face engagements. Few of these have ever written a book or host a website or podcast. They are not clamoring for the stage, nor do they bask in the adulation of others. Their one overriding passion is to enjoy God as their Father, and to help others find that joy as well.

 

Elders

These are in the truest biblical sense of the word, elders. There, I’ve said it even as I know the term itself will grate on many. It’s an awkward word in our day. Our society doesn’t use it much any more, at least in respectful tones. We may use it of the elderly, but only when we talk about caring for them.

Congregations use it to denote those who manage the affairs of the corporation, making the weighty decisions, and sometimes demanding to be honored by those not so anointed (or educated, or well-heeled). One of the things I noted late in my last pastorate was that those who most wanted the position of ‘eldership,’ weren’t really elders–at least not as the Bible describes them. And those who most demonstrated the maturity and compassion of an elder refused the position when we offered it to them. That confused me at the time, when it probably should have educated me.

When Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus, it was clear he saw elders as a very different reality than what the title conveys to us today. In fact, he didn’t see it as a title or position at all. It was the reality of one’s relationship with Jesus–won on the painful battlefield of human experience and resulting in a life filled with God’s wisdom and a deep compassion for those who struggle. They weren’t elders of an institution, but simply older (not necessarily in age) brothers and sisters who could easily encourage others on their journey.

Even at the end of the New Testament we discover that not all those who called themselves elders were true elders. Some, who were regarded as elders for a season didn’t continue to live in that reality. Others became puffed up in their desire to have first place in the body–a place reserved for Jesus alone. Those who lorded over others were roundly rebuked. Those who pushed others into unsound doctrine were openly exposed. And those who led people after their own desires were confronted.

But just because the term ‘elder’ has been misused, doesn’t mean that there aren’t true elders among us today and a crying need for many more. These are not people you’d want to hide from, but those you’d want to be near because they bring such wisdom and encouragement to our own journeys.

What it takes to help others live loved is one of the most engaging conversations I have of late as I travel around the world. When people are settled enough in their own journey of living loved by the Father, they want to know how they can help others to a similar journey. I hope to do more retreats like this in the future, so those with the passion to help others live loved won’t fall victim to old methodologies, which simply can’t work in this environment. It might be helpful for us to rethink what elders are in this family.

Looking In the Wrong Places

Today those who pretend to lead in the body of Christ, or speak for her in the world, do so by power of their influence measured in a position, congregational size, book sales, celebrity status, or academic pedigree. Just because someone can write a good story, or hold a crowd spellbound with a word or a song, does not mean they are living out the truths they talk and sing about. I meet many people who seem to understand the theology of God’s love and grace, but cannot seem to live it out practically. It is still only a conviction in their intellect–not a rising reality in their heart.

God has put the biggest and deepest treasures in the smallest places. I’m convinced of it. Our world, even the so-called Christian world, values all the wrong things–money, fame, success, scale and influence. We think those whom our media interviews as spokespeople for Jesus must be more spiritual, more favored, or are being rewarded for something good they must have done. Nothing is further from the truth.

When we value what the world values we can be pretty sure we’ve lost our perspective. Jesus confronted the Pharisees for their love of money and position over people. “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:14) He wanted us to know that doing things to be admired by others and manipulating people after our own programs or agendas not only distorts the treasure he has put in us but it also destroys the treasure he put in them.

Every month I meet people who want to be famous for their writing, their teaching, their music, or their art. Their frustrations fill my inbox every week as they fight to serve their need for significance even as they deny doing so. I know what it feels like. In the early days of this journey I remember lamenting, “I never had so much to share and so few people to share it with.” Now I know that this season was inviting me into living the truth instead of just teaching it, and sharing it in personal conversations rather than in lectures and articles. Living out the truth there is so much more fun and far more effective.

Reality television has introduced hoards of new people to celebrity status and has become the coveted ring for so many carousel riders who stretch from the up and down beat of their fake horses hoping they can find their way into the spotlight. It is an obsession and it runs askew of what Jesus taught us. Yet so many people end up falling off their horse never realizing it was God’s mercy that protected them.

Amongst all those searching for celebrity or trying to push movements, I want to put another voice into the consciousness of the community or believers: The people I know who most profoundly affect kingdom culture around the world aren’t often known broadly beyond the local people their lives touch, and yet surprisingly they have connections all over the world as the Spirit has linked men and women of common ilk together.

If you want to know what true eldership is, consider their way of life. This is what I see in those who have allowed Jesus to shape them so that they can encourage others in living loved.

Authentic Lives

My last four years living in the shadow of The Shack has only confirmed my convictions. The more “known” someone becomes, the less impact they have on individual lives. People view them as something other than what they really are, and put them at a distance. There is nothing about my growing notoriety from my involvement with that book that made doing what Jesus has asked me to do in the earth any easier. Image always distorts reality.

Didn’t we all learn early on that if you wanted people to like you, you had to conform to their expectations? That’s how we became so skilled at pretending so we’d be approved by “the right kind of people.” Life in Jesus untwists that in a beautiful way. The more you live loved the more comfortable you become with who you are and with the process of God’s work in you. You no longer feel the need to impress others and you certainly know there’s no value in others pretending around you.

So while they are not perfect and won’t pretend to be, people who live in love are honest to the core. They are at peace with God’s process of transformation, knowing he has done wonderful things in them, and yet, they are fully aware that his work is not done. They are honest in weakness and the same people in private as they project in public.

So they are compassionate with the journeys of others even as they demonstrate a vast integrity in their own lives. They are true to their friendships and faithful to their word even when it creates greater hardship than they knew at the time. They don’t seek to be in control of events around them because they’ve learned to trust God’s purposes in their unfolding circumstances.

And because they are at ease with themselves, they set other people at ease around them. They don’t withdraw or get defensive or angry when challenged. They will let you notice what you need to notice, question what you need to question, and be honest about your own struggles and doubts without feeling diminished. They know loving someone and agreeing with them are two very different things.

Horizontal Friendships

Those who are learning the joy of living loved by the Father realize that love transmits in twos and threes and the kingdom grows by loving the next person that crosses your path, not by becoming another loud voice on an overcrowded stage. They serve in the simplest of places–at home caring for young children or infirm parents. They offer a shoulder to a distraught stranger, or an evening of conversation with a struggling pilgrim. They live in huts and homes in far off lands loving the people God has put near them.

They will have a number of healthy relationships around them, including with their spouse and children. They are not perfect relationships, but they are healthy with mutual respect and affection. That doesn’t mean everyone likes them, of course. They can be threatening to those whose agenda runs counter to their simple approach to God’s love.

They won’t seek to control or force others into a group or program. They have a heart for the unity of the whole body and resist being drawn into “us versus them” conversations, whether it is over matters of doctrine or church styles. They’re not looking for another strategy to change the world, nor ways to make people dependent on them or their gifts. They simply enjoy helping others learn to trust Father more, knowing as people learn to live in that reality Jesus will put his church together in amazing ways.

They live alongside people always avoiding the pretense of being above them. They don’t seek to be “leaders” in any traditional sense, because they know they can have far better input as your brother or sister than by being put into some kind of false leadership box. They are not looking to be spiritual mentors or fathers; they simply want to be accessible to help others discover the joy of their own relationship with the Father.

Being this kind of person is not a matter of learning a new theology or ministry technique. Unfortunately there are many who teach a theology of love or a message of grace who don’t yet understand how to live it in their own relationship with God or with others. They are still looking for a name, a following, or a ministry for themselves. They have a meeting for you to attend, a program for you to follow, or a book for you to buy.

False elders will often demand that you trust them or commit to their program, and not care for you beyond how you benefit them. If you challenge them, or ask a difficult question they will get defensive and angry. They have to be the expert–always above you and wanting you to serve them or their vision. If you stop serving them, they will reject you and will seek to destroy your reputation by calling you bitter or rebellious.

Not even the Holy Spirit acts that way. Jesus called him the ‘Paraclete’– or, ‘the one who is called alongside to help.’ If anyone had the place to take authority over us and command our obedience, it would be him. But the Spirit comes alongside to help us in our growing journey with Father. He never demands and never pushes. He gently asks the questions or makes the observations that have the potential to open our hearts in a greater way to the Father. If we choose to walk away from that, he will still come with us in hopes that we will yet turn our hearts his way.

Hospitable Hearts

In former days if you wanted to help people live loved you had to pastor a church or be a missionary. In more recent days you have to start a ministry by writing a book, forming a house church, or doing a podcast and trying to find a way to promote it. Real ministry alongside people, however, grows more organically than that–and if it doesn’t, it will destroy you in the end.

This isn’t about using other people for your purposes, but helping others just because you care about them. Certainly I wouldn’t discourage people who feel they have something to share at a wider level that will encourage others. By all means, write and podcast and do whatever God has put on your heart, but realize that the best way to encourage and equip others on this journey doesn’t come by strategizing your next project, but by following the nudgings he puts on your heart. That will mostly involve loving the next person he puts before you. When I travel the most significant moments don’t happen when I’m in front of a roomful of people. They happen in conversations during breaks, over meals, and in the homes that invite me to stay.

That’s why Paul listed hospitality as one of those critical attributes of an elder. In the old system, hospitality was never crucial. Finding my place in a program and getting others to do the same doesn’t require hospitality. Even organizing a class or seminar doesn’t demand that. That may be why we were comfortable in the old programs, because someone else set the times and places, all we had to do was show up.

But if real encouragement happens in twos and threes, across tables and sitting on back patios, then hospitality is critical. Opening my heart as well as my home puts me in the kinds of conversations where real life is conveyed. If you want to help others on this journey let Father cultivate in you an open heart and an open home. Make room for others. Take the initiative in inviting people into your life and in facilitating connections with other people.

What Love Wins

Authentic lives, horizontal friendships, and hospitable hearts are what love wins in us. If you want to help others live in the reality of God’s love, let him shape these things in you. Don’t force them to happen. Just know that the more secure you become in his affection, the freer you’ll be to love others in a way that will bring life and transformation to them.

I didn’t write this article so that you would go out and seek an elder to follow. They wouldn’t let you follow them anyway. I wrote it to encourage the conversation of what eldership really is, so you won’t be manipulated by anyone under the guise of their so-called leadership mantle. If they are not helping you follow Jesus, even when you make mistakes, they are not elders in his kingdom. If they are not encouraging you to greater trust in Jesus’ ability to manage your life, don’t listen to them.

Furthermore, I want to encourage those who do have a heart to help others learn to live loved. How do you do that? By learning to live in his love yourself. If you want to grow in these freedoms, simply let him teach you how to rely more on his love each day–that will transform everything about the way you live.

And for those learning to live in the Father’s love, I want to encourage you to make yourself available to those around you–not by starting a ministry, but by simply engaging friendships with people as God makes connections. When someone is on your heart, seek him or her out. Spend time with them and see where God takes it. Look for ways to encourage their journey.

It’s not the loud lives that have consequence in the world, but those who live behind the scenes loving those God puts before them. You’ll notice they don’t need to form a group and get people in it to have impact. Just being with people is enough. Jesus never created an environment and invited others into it. He joined people in the environments they were already in and by loving them there they were changed, sinners as well as believers.
If enough of us do that, all that God wants to accomplish in the world will be done.


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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries

Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

Articles in Chronological Order | Articles by Content

How Do I… ?

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • March 2010

“How do I…?” Probably 80% of the questions I get begin with those three little words. I shudder now when I hear them, though I don’t always show it. Believe me, I understand well enough. It used to be three of my favorite words, too.

  •     How do I get the relationship with Jesus I want?
  •     How do I find other like-hearted believers near me?
  •     How do I get my spouse to see what I want him or her to see?
  •     How do I get my book published, find an agent, or launch a bestseller?
  •     How do I find my ministry?
  •     How do I start a house church?
  •     How do I find an audience for the things I want to share?

The list goes on and on. But I must warn you at the outset that similar questions asked of Jesus didn’t get the answer most were looking for. This article probably won’t either because the question itself begins with the wrong focus. It already buys into the lie that if we don’t have something we want, there must be something we can do to get it.

We’ve been pressed by four thousand years of religious indoctrination into that conclusion. The life you want is a few good decisions and a lot of hard work away. Fifty years of self-help books have underlined that same self-deifying approach. Give me three steps, five rules or eight keys and I can do it. Except we can’t, and when our efforts fail we only have ourselves to blame with some form of, “I didn’t do enough, I didn’t do it right, or I didn’t have the right steps.” Thus we are left to either find better answers or work even harder.

Now I’m not saying hard work won’t be rewarded in this temporal world. It will–much more than lying on a couch hoping to win the lottery. But in the kingdom of God human effort and our confidence in it are two of the greatest obstacles to living in his joy.

Religious lie #212 is, “If we won’t, he can’t,” and it underlies so many of the ways we motivate people and make them feel responsible. While that may lead people to work hard to do something great for God it only leads to the disillusioned hopes of self-effort, especially when we think ourselves successful.

Jesus described a very different Father, one who was working every day in the world inviting us to come alongside him. That’s how Jesus lived. He watched what his Father was doing and joined him there. Paul admonished us to do the same. “Watch what God does, and then you do it.” (Ephesians 5:1, The Message)

One of the signs of his working in us to take us beyond the good intentions and failed hopes of religion is that we are no longer concerned with doing things for God, and instead learn to do things with him. And that begins with the simplest of opportunities.

Hounded by Luke 14

I’ve slaved under the lie of self-effort and the frustration it engenders for most of my spiritual life and when you combine that with spiritual passion, the results are disastrous. It wasn’t that God didn’t try to warn me, but that his nudges were not nearly as compelling as the internal drive to climb the ladders that would make me feel more significant and important than others around me. There was so much God wanted me to do for him, or so I had convinced myself. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that I didn’t even notice that the things I thought God wanted of me and the things that would make me successful and important were synonymous. That should have been my first clue.

God wanted me to write and teach, and I needed an ever-expanding audience to validate that calling and the truth of what I was sharing. I was so driven to find myself an audience worthy of my imagined calling and spent endless nights in frustration and anger that God wouldn’t bless my efforts the way I thought he should or that others wouldn’t help me the way I thought I needed. Oh, how naive I was.

During this season of my life I had a number of people approach me saying they had a Scripture on their heart for me. After three or four times over a period of five years, I would just look at them and say, “Luke 14.” Their eyes would get wide and I knew I was right. “The story about the banquet,” I’d add and they would nod with a bewildering look on their face. “You’re not the first,” I’d reassure them.

The story is found in Luke 14:7-11. Jesus attends a Sabbath feast and notices how everyone comes into the room jockeying for the most honored seats. He warns them not to. Better to take the last place and be invited up, rather than presume the honored one and have to be moved down. He finishes with one of his favorite lines, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Over a twenty-year period in my life I had different people bring up this story at least a dozen times. Each time grew more frustrating, as I wondered why I hadn’t yet learned whatever lesson he wanted me to know. Just how humble do you have to be to merit a wide-ranging ministry?

But that really wasn’t the point of the parable or what God wanted me to know. Whenever we set ourselves to be honored above others, or promote our own influence, people only become a tool to our own ends and real life and real love cease. Why did God bring this story to me so many times? I find that he confirms in extraordinary ways the lessons we have the hardest time learning, and this one answers the how-do-I question better than any other I know.

The Fight For the Top

They came into the party with their eyes glued on the head-table. Who wouldn’t? Banquets are designed to draw attention to the front of the room and celebrate the most-honored guests. And few people walk in without wishing they could have that place of honor so that others would know how important they are.

If you’re talented enough, or have the right contacts, you can claw your way to the top at someone else’s expense, but Jesus warned us here that the wake-up call from our contrived posturing will be painful indeed for those who think of themselves more highly than they ought to think.

Celebrity is one of the sickest realities of the human family–we stratify ourselves in terms of perceived relative value usually based on someone’s talent, looks, or success, and then believe the lie. Those who sit at the head of the table bask in the perception of their own self-importance, and those who don’t wish they were. Jesus let his disciples know that his kingdom works very differently. He was confronting fallen humanity’s need to find our significance in comparison to others. It is a trap, and all the better if you get there and still believe the lie.

And yet, there is a dysfunctional drive in broken humanity, especially those with creative gifts, to be the next celebrity. You see it at American Idol auditions and hear it in the voices of would-be artists and authors. They think all their dreams will be fulfilled if someone will just “discover them” and offer them the platform they haven’t found for themselves.

But it is often true that those who make such big jumps often get twisted by them, and end up crushing others when their influence exceeds their personal character. Perhaps that’s what Paul meant when he warned us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, whether we aspire to a place of influence or already have it and think it gives us a place above others. Do you know how many people approach me, certain that my work with The Shack proves I have the key or the audience to promote their project into the stratosphere? What happened there was the result of three men God brought together along with a lifetime of experiences, pain, work, and relationships to do something that was beyond each of us.

We didn’t have a formula to work then and we don’t now. We learned that God opens doors as he desires. To be honest, that whole project was far more fun and far more impacting when we’d only sold a few thousand and people felt like they had stumbled upon a hidden treasure. The bigger it got the less it seemed to impact the people reading it. The book became the star instead of the God we wanted people to engage through the book.

Head Table Wannabes

They are not hard to recognize. They always draw attention to themselves, and scheme for favors to advance their ministry. Most of the ones I meet really think this is what God wants for them. I did too. But that still makes you a user. Their friendships last only as long as the benefit they derive and they easily discard people when their benefit is used up. Those who make it into the limelight become quite different people, enamored with themselves and their famous friends. They treat common people as if they are beneath them and if anyone challenges them, they counter with whispered accusations, or cutting off the relationship altogether.

Interestingly enough, the men and women I know in the world who most live loved by Father and demonstrate that love to others around them, are not household names nor are they people who seek the stage. Most have not written books, nor are they frustrated with the sphere of their sphere of influence God has given them. But they have more impact on the world around them than those with more recognizable names and larger platforms.

I wonder if that is why Jesus never wrote his own book, or started an organization? He knew the limitations of both and that they would distract from his real mission of shaping lives to live loved by the Father. He would rather have left the world with a hundred and twenty men and women on the road to living loved than anything else he could think of.

But what I don’t wonder about any more is what table I’d prefer to sit at. I’ve sat at head tables. They are false space indeed. There’s not much real conversation there, since people are facing away from each other in more ways than one. Those people are caught up in appearances and posturing and making the next connection to advance their own agendas.

That’s why I don’t think Jesus’ point was to take the last place as a way to get to what you think is first place. Maybe his point was that the last place in a room is really the best place to enjoy him and love others in a way that is meaningful and transforming. Maybe that is why he washed the disciples feet as the greatest demonstration of his affection for them, and encouraged them to do the same.

The Organic Growth of Service

I don’t know of a story that better answers all of our how-to questions. How do I find relationship, fellowship, or an outlet for my creative expression? Instead of looking for what we don’t have, Luke 14 invites us into the space of responding to God’s working right where we are. Rather than having to make something happen by our own wisdom or ingenuity, the path to God’s life comes by loving the people he has already put before us, applying our gifts to their needs. I’m convinced that will create opportunity enough for whatever God wants to give us and what he desires us to share with us.

Most of our how-to questions focus on our abilities, wisdom, or connections and trying to find what we don’t have, rather than allowing us to live freely in what God has already given. It’s easy to miss his gentle nudges when we’re more focused on our desires or ministry. He knows how to draw us into relationship with him and, it’s not by following someone else’s steps.

And He knows how to connect us with others near where we live. Most think they have to find an existing group of like-minded people. While that is a wonderful gift if you come across one, it doesn’t often happen. What if you just began to love the people that God has already put around your life–neighbors, co-workers, other parents at your children’s activities, and even strangers who might cross our paths on a given day? Caring about them would lead to conversations and conversations to relationships and you would soon find yourself a caring part of people’s lives instead of attending a group.

As for ministry, trust that the slow reality of organic growth has far more value in this kingdom than flash-in-the-pan promotion the world exalts. As you simply do what God puts before you and let him be concerned with how far it travels and whom it touches. If your life is encouraging others on this journey, opportunities will come to share that with others. But keep your eyes focused where it counts the most, not on high-visibility opportunities, but occasions to help others. Serving them, rather than getting others to serve you, will open more real doors than the false promises of hype and promotion. It probably won’t be as fast as you want, but it will be real and your focus will be more on the people you’re touching than the “ministry” you want to grow.

In the Scriptures we read about a God that transforms over time–of a seed growing into a plant, of Abraham wrestling with the promise of a son for 25 years before Sarah got pregnant, of Jesus spending 30 years as a carpenter before he ever performed a miracle, or Paul, the former Pharisee, sorting out who God was over 17 years in a wilderness before he ever taught anyone else. Why, then, do we keep looking to build a name for ourselves or create a following others will notice?

God is less interested in helping you reach a place of honor, as he is teaching us how to honor the people he has already placed around you.

Live, Love and Listen

I often meet people who want to live the way I do, writing and traveling to encourage others on this journey. I get that. I love living where God has placed me, but most have a distorted view of what that is. They don’t see the cost and pain that underlies a lot of my journey, or the constant barrage of those who want to use me for their own purposes. And most have no idea that what I live now I did not find by my own scheming, but unfolded organically over years of simply following the gentle nudges on my heart where the consequences were unseen and the impact seemingly insignificant.

In the end, we are only asked to follow him, not to build an audience or to produce our own transformation. I wrote my first book, The Naked Church, back in 1987. That book was not successful by any publishing standards, and I was incredibly frustrated at the time that that book didn’t have the sales arc of a bestseller. I wrote it to change the course of Christianity in the west and it failed that hope. In spite of my distorted agenda, however, God knew how to take it to all the places he wanted to take it. I still get email from people who were deeply touched by that book way back then, some of them in very remote corners of the planet.

I look back now grateful for what God did with that book, knowing that if it had fulfilled what I wanted at the time, I might well have been destroyed in the process. I now know what those emotions preyed on and if God had satisfied them then, I am fairly certain I would not be on the road I am today. And I wouldn’t trade this road for any other. And so much of what I’m a part of today spilled out of that little book and the unintended consequences of it.

Whenever you are frustrated at God for not opening better doors for you, that might be a sign that you’re focused at the wrong doors. I have come to trust the organic growth of simple relationships over the substitutes of self-promotion, manipulation and begging favors from others.

So how do you find ministry, find fellowship or live transformed? Simply accept the invitation to live deeply in him, love those around you the way you are coming to understand how he loves you, and then simply listen when he nudges your heart. If you live in that space you will find his power transforming you, his Spirit connecting you to others and everything he wants to do in you will be fulfilled by him.

That’s what Jesus wanted his disciples to know. If they had set out to change the world, they would have failed miserably, lost in their own ingenuity and wisdom to accomplish so large a task.

This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest acts of giving or receiving make you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.” (Matthew 10:41-42, The Message)
Jesus knew the most amazing things could begin with a cup of cold water.


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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries

Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

Articles in Chronological Order | Articles by Content

Bait and Switch

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • May 2009

Trading the Vibrant Life of Jesus for a Ritualistic Religion Called Christianity.

I saw the sign a year ago in Georgia: Live Free for Three Months. It was a developer’s marketing strategy for a declining housing market. When I saw it, however, I wasn’t thinking about houses. I thought about Christianity and how we invite people to live free in Christ and then soon after saddle them with all the obligations of being a “good Christian”. We generally don’t even let them have three months.

When the early believers were first called Christians, we don’t know if it was a complement or a mockery. We do know that they didn’t invent the term for themselves. The culture called them “little christs” because they had found so much identity in following Jesus. Whatever spawned the term, those early believers adopted it for themselves and for 2,000 years it has been the dominant identifier for those who claim to follow Christ. But that might be changing.

Recent surveys show even believers are becoming uncomfortable with the term. At least in the United States it is increasingly used not for people who reflect the passion of Jesus in a broken world, but for adherents of a religion that has been built on a distortion of the life and teaching of Jesus, not necessarily it’s reality. The results can be confusing.

“Are you a Christian?” I used to love it when someone on a plane asked me that question. “Absolutely,” I’d answer, proud to be on the side of all that’s good and right in the world. But over the last fifteen years, answering that question has become far more difficult. Much of what has been done in recent years in the name of Christianity embarrasses me and disfigures the God I love. Some of it even horrifies me.

So now when I’m asked the question today, I hedge a bit. “It depends on what you mean by ‘Christian’,” I often respond. If they are asking whether or not I am a faithful adherent of the religion called Christianity, I have to confess that I’m not. I’m not even trying to be. But if they are asking me if I am a passionate follower of Jesus, the answer would be an enthusiastic yes.

In a few short years those realities have diverged significantly. Perhaps there has not been a time since the Middle Ages, where what it means to be a good Christian and what it means to thrive in a relationship with God, couldn’t be more at odds. You can do everything required of a ‘good Christian’ in our day and still miss out on what it means to know him and be involved in a meaningful relationship with him that transforms you to love as he loved.

How many people endure repetitive rituals certain that doing so endears them to God? How many embrace a slate of ethical rules or doctrinal propositions thinking that doing so ensures God’s blessings? Jesus offered us a vibrant life of relationship with his Father, and we ended up creating a religion that often disarms that very Gospel of its glory.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Mark 7:6-7) These words are as true for us today as when Jesus voiced them to the religious captives in his. His warnings in Matthew 23 about the pitfalls of religion, are more applicable in our day than they were in his. When is the last time you heard a sermon from that text? Read it. You’ll know why.

Something Is Broken

For the last few months I’ve done numerous radio interviews for people concerned about what’s being called the collapse of Christianity. Newsweek did a cover article in April about the collapse of Christianity’s influence in America and that fewer people identify themselves as Christian or are a committed part of a local congregation.

There’s a lot of handwringing going on about those statistics, most of them blaming the culture. But the problems in religion itself have never been greater. Conservative Christianity aligned itself with a political agenda and a party that turned out to be as corrupt as it blamed the other party for being. More and more believers I know are embarrassed at the anger and arrogance of many so-called leaders who speak to the press on behalf of Christianity. So it’s no wonder to me that last year 4000 churches closed in America, 1700 pastors left the ministry each month and another 1300 pastors were terminated by their church, many without cause, and over 3500 people per day left their church last year.

Clearly we have a problem that cannot be blamed on the secularization of our culture. The kingdom is no longer a pearl of great price, and knowing Jesus is no longer the fruit of our religious activities. And people who are beginning to see that, are often marginalized as rebellious or unsubmitted for simply wanting what Jesus promised them.

Many people giving up on local institutions are not doing so because they’ve rejected Jesus, but finding that the culture of Christianity is actually diminishing their faith not enhancing it. In an email I got the other day, from a frustrated pastor trying to help people follow Jesus, and is just coming to realize that his own job may be at odds with his greatest passion. “Church has become a hindrance to building relationships and loving others.”

He’s not alone. Many of us came to faith enamored by the life and teachings of Jesus. We were promised a relationship with God but were handed a religion of doctrines we had to believe, rituals we had to observe, obligations we had to meet and a standard of morality to adopt. While most of those were true enough, many found that their attempts to follow them did not produce either the life of Jesus it promised, nor the reality of true, caring communities of faith.

We have traded the simple power of the Gospel for a religion based on human effort. We were invited to relationship and ended up with a host of irrelevant dogma and burdensome obligations. Fortunately people from all over the world are waking up to a fresh hunger to shed the dictates of religion and embrace the wonder and power of a love-filled relationship with the living God.

Was Christianity Ever Meant to Be a Religion?

I guess all of this begs the question, did Jesus intend to start a religion called Christianity, or did we do this to ourselves? I suspect the latter. I am wholeheartedly convinced that he came to end all religions, not by lashing out against them, but by filling up in the human spirit what religion promises to fill but never can. Religion seeks to manipulate human effort to earn God’s approval, when such approval can never be earned.

Abraham, a Jewish man, lead the tour portion of a trip to Israel I was on fifteen years ago. Some of those on the tour had been rude to his faith as they tried to “help” him embrace Jesus as the Messiah. On the last morning, I found him alone by the bus and had the chance to ask him if he’d been offended by some of the remarks.

He smiled. He told me he’d been guiding tours for 30 years and someone is always trying to convert him to their faith–Christians, Reformed Jews, Muslims and Mormons. Then he asked me, “Do you know why it makes no difference to me?”

I shook my head. He led me out to the street and pointed at a building, “Do you see that synagogue with the star of David? That’s our building. The one over there with the cross on it is yours. Further down, do you see the dome? That’s theirs. On the surface they may look different, but underneath they are all basically the same. You would think that if one of us was serving the Living God, it would look differently.”

I still remember how much his words impacted me. Religion is the same all over the world. It is a prescribed set of doctrine, rules, rituals, and ethics. It celebrates sacred space, exalts holy-men as gurus and tries to muscle its way into the culture. For 2000 years many have practiced Christianity as a religion, essentially no different than the others, except in who it claims to follow. But if one of us was serving a Living God, wouldn’t it look very different?

When we cram the life of God into a box, we rob it of its life and power and only distinguish it from other religions by claiming a more truthful doctrine. Could that be why Jesus didn’t teach his disciples how to gain a following or build institutions. He didn’t teach them how to meet on Sunday mornings at 10:00 with a worship band and a leader to lecture the others. He didn’t give them a prescribed set of behaviors that people were suppose to follow as the means to serve God.

No, he invited them into his Father’s house, and a reality of relationship with his Father that would transform them and opened the way for them to share that love with others. That you can’t put into a religion and trying to only chokes out any hope of relationship. Putting creed and doctrine above a growing friendship with him supplants the reality he offered us, no matter how correct our doctrine or moral our ethics.

Don’t get me wrong. Truth is vital, as is righteousness, but without love they are also empty. Learning to live as a beloved child is far more transforming than the greatest principle you can follow. The life of Christian community isn’t found by sharing religion together, but by embracing a journey of growing relationship with him that transforms us by his grace and power.

Losing Your Religion

What does this mean for us? Should we stop calling ourselves Christian or judge those who do? Should we come up with a new term to franchise so we could separate the ones who live it relationally from the ones who are caught up in religion? If we did, we’d only be making the same mistakes that have diminished our life in Jesus over the centuries.

The truth is that Christianity as a religion is a dangerous disfigurement of the God of the Bible. But not all who call themselves Christians live religiously. Given all the excesses and failures of Christianity, I am delightfully grateful that the Gospel of Jesus is still relatively intact inside its doctrine. Unfortunately it only lets new believers live free for so long before burdening them with religious obligations.

And I meet many believers and leaders who have a profound faith and are seeking healthy ways to communicate that journey with others. I rejoice in that, as I do the amount of compassionate aid that such groups share with the world in need. But too many people miss out on the life Jesus offered them by practicing it as a religion instead of growing to know him.

Ultimately the transformation from practicing religion to living inside a relationship with God is not an institutional battle; it is a personal one. We could tear apart all of our religious institutions today and nothing would change. I’ve been in many a house church filled with people who see the institutional church as the problem and are oblivious to the fact that they’ve just moved their religion into a home, where close fellowship only makes it more oppressive.

So how do we know if you’ve been tricked into religion?

  •   When God is a distant concept to you instead of a real presence.
  •   When you find yourself following another man, woman, or a set of principles instead of following Jesus.
  •   When fear of eternity, not measuring up, or falling into error drives your actions.
  •   When you find yourself in empty rituals that do not connect you in a real way to him.
  •   When you are burdened by the expectations of others and feel guilty when you can’t do enough.
  •   When you look at others who struggle with contempt instead of compassion.
  •   When the approval of others means more to you than remaining in the reality of his love.
  •   When you hesitate to be honest about your doubts or struggles because others will judge you.
  •   When you think of holiness as an unachievable duty, rather than aglorious invitation.
  •   When you think righteousness depends on your efforts instead of his grace working in you.
  •   When following him is more about obligation than affection.
  •   When correcting someone’s doctrine is more important than loving them.
  •   When God seems more present on Sunday morning, than he does on Monday.

If you have only known Christianity to be a set of doctrines, rules and rituals, I have great news. Jesus came and died to open up access between you and his Father. Religion supplants that, distracting us with discipline, commitment and hard work that never yields the fruit it promises. If you’ve been worn out by religion, don’t think you’re alone. Others are just pretending, afraid they are the only ones, too. Life is only found in him.

Switching Back

There’s something about our flesh that craves the illusion of safety that religion affords. Anyone of us can find our heart easily turned toward following rules instead of engaging him. When we recognize that happening, we can simply turn our hearts back to him and choose to move away from the religious traps and connect once again with God as our Father.

Living the Gospel means we live in his love. We come to know the Father’s love for us and then sharing that love with him, and with others he puts in our path. (John 13:34-35). No other motive will suffice; no other is necessary. This is where the journey begins and this is the only place it can continue.

Returning to our first love isn’t as difficult as we like to make it. For me it just means finding a quiet place and talking to God. When you find yourself caught in religion, tell him you’re tired of chasing a religion that isn’t working and you want to know him as he really is. Then, wake up each day with a similar prayer on your heart. Watch how he makes himself known to you in the simple reality of living each day. Follow the nudges he puts on your heart instead of the obligations and rituals. Find others who are on this journey and find ways to share the reality of a growing relationship and help guard our hearts about following into empty religious practices.

If you’ve been steeped in religion for a long time, you’ll find yourself going through a very disorienting time. One woman I met called it a Pharisectomy, which is simply having your inner Pharisee removed. You might feel guilty, lonely, lost, or fearful in the process. Your former religious friends may feel threatened that you’re no longer doing the things they do. But in time you’ll find yourself sliding into the reality of relationship with him that is as increasingly real, transformative and engaging.

Among It, Not of It

So let’s not go to war with religion, railing against its failures fighting against its dictates. Instead let’s do what Jesus did–let’s live beyond it. Let’s find a reality of freedom and authenticity in him that can walk alongside anyone with patience and gentleness. Religion is what people crave when they haven’t found life in him. Taking their religion away won’t fix that. The only thing that will is helping them see a reality of relationship with God that makes all our religious activity unnecessary and unattractive. Jesus could be in religious settings and not be captured by them. He could care about a Pharisee as much as a prostitute.

Live among religion if he asks you to, loving toward those mired in it but you never have to be of it. The Gospel opens the door for us to re-engage the transcendent God, to know him as our Abba and to walk with him through the twists and turns of life, sharing his affection with others.

Live in the reality of that relationship and you’ll find it quite naturally finding expression through you as you love and treat others the same way God treats you. People who refuse to live to fear, conform to ritual or put doctrine above love will find themselves having ample opportunity to help others on this journey as well. A dear friend wrote me recently who was feeling a bit swamped by all the people seeking out his help these days, “You didn’t say anything about being safe is like hanging up a “counseling available” shingle.”

We live in a great day. The emptiness of tradition is being seen for what it is and people are hungering for the reality of relationship. Live there each day and there’s no telling where that will take you or who you’ll end up walking alongside as Jesus becomes your life.

Then you can live free, not just for a few days or even three months. He came to set you free eternally!


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The Power of Living In Love

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • June 2008

Life has taken some crazy turns for me since the last one I wrote in September. I will still continue to do these from time to time, but they will not be often or regular. This one is a bit different as well. Here are three related snapshots of what it means to live in the love of God.

Live Where Love Leads You

So, I ended up with a publishing company. I’m not sure how it happened. I was helping a friend with a book he had written. I helped rewrite some of it with another friend, then represented it to the publishing industry. I wasn’t a very good agent. I couldn’t find anyone in the industry who thought it was worth publishing. So the author, another friend, and I decided to publish it on our own.

And we did. Then The Shack started climbing the best-seller lists and other companies wanted to buy it from us. To our surprise one of the largest publishers in the world approached us to enter a partnership with them, not only to help us get The Shack to a larger audience but also help with my books and others we think are worthy of publishing in years ahead. They bought into the vision of what we were doing and thought there was a significant space in the reading public for that vision.

So we formed a partnership with the Hachette Book Group, where we maintain our unique identity as Windblown Media. We can do just as much publishing with them as we want to, and yet are not obligated to put everything we do through the Hachette machine. They made it clear all along that they wanted to help us not hinder us. And while we were working things out with them, The Shack rose to the very top of the New York Times Best Seller List.

How did all this happen? Believe me, we have had some amazing laughter about it all. No one saw this coming and yet simply responding to him each day has brought us into a place we could not have conceived or conspired to get to.

But that’s true about everything I’m involved in at the moment. Nothing I’m doing today, I set out purposely to accomplish. My plans for my life were very different than how things have turned out. Funny how that is! As a twenty-two year-old, freshly graduated from college, and newly married I had so many dreams and visions of the things I thought God wanted me to accomplish. I had confused my ego with his calling, my dreams for his and had assumed I knew what outcomes God had in mind. My first twenty years on that course proved horribly frustrating as I could not convince God to honor my agenda. The last 14 years have been filled with ever increasing joy and gratefulness as God’s purposes have overrun my own. And in every way he did something immeasurably beyond anything I could have asked or imagined.

BridgeBuilders began because God asked us to go love people at my children’s public school. That one decision started a chain of events that has allowed me to sit in rooms at the most incredible gatherings of deeply conflicted people and help bring about peace. Lifestream started as a way to encourage people to experience a closer walk with Jesus and more relational engagements with others. That led to books, travel and website resources. Windblown Media resulted from simply helping a friend to tell a story God had put on his heart.

Perhaps being fruitful isn’t a matter of starting something, following a five-year plan, and achieving it. Perhaps it is a matter of simply being able to respond to the people and situations around us with his love in our heart and his voice in our ear. For most of my life I have drawn too direct a line between what I think God wants and what I must do to get it. It seems Jesus warned us about that: If you try to save your life you’ll lose it. If you try to be first you’ll end up last.

He only asked us to love, one day at a time, whoever is before us in whatever circumstance we meet them. Everything else he wants to do will flow from that simple reality.

We have filled the world with ministries people have started to accomplish some great thing for God. Many of them never go anywhere. There are a lot of people who come to Hollywood to be a chaplain to the stars. They set up a ministry, beg for money to fund it, and then try to find a way to connect with those people. We do the same with missions and youth ministries. Start a program, fund it, then try and try to get people to take advantage of it.

What if we just started loving the people God puts before us each day, can you imagine what would spill out of that in terms of opportunity, ministry and even growing fellowship?

I think we have it all backwards. Jesus didn’t ask us to start ministries. He didn’t ask us to accomplish great things. He simply asked us to love others the same way we are loved by him and that will be enough for the whole world to know that we belong to him and that they can too.

People ask me all the time how they can start a house church or connect with other brothers and sisters on a similar journey in their region. Many are frustrated at past attempts that haven’t worked out. While I think we can take advantage of Internet forums, email lists and directories to see if we can find people in our area growing in the same realities, that may not be the best way. I now encourage people just to listen to Father every day and live in love toward the people right in front of you. This has worked for Sara and me in our two recent moves and has brought a wealth of relationships locally that have just grown out of taking an interest in the people around us and discovering others who are passionate for the God we love. We don’t have to start or join anything for that, unless of course he asks us to.

I am more convinced than ever that every thing God wants to do in the world will flow from us learning to live in his love and listening to him as we walk through life. This allows the opportunities in our lives to grow organically, rather than through the artificial means of organizing, promoting, and manipulating others. That may be why he told us his new command would simply be to love like we’ve been loved.

I Couldn’t Let You Go Through This Alone

Adapted from the Lifestream Blog

This may just be the essence of community: “I couldn’t let you go through this alone”. The first time I heard those words it was from a good friend who walked beside me through the most painful experience of my life. We had shared some wonderful times together, but then he withdrew for a season from our relationship. I was so blessed when we reconnected in the midst of my trial. One day I asked him why he had disappeared for so long. His answer? “I could see that you were going to get hurt badly and I just couldn’t bear to watch it.” I understood his comment. He had been through something similar and I knew how painful it was for him to walk with me through mine. I laughed, “But you’re here now at the worst of it.”

“I know,” he grimaced. “I couldn’t let you go through this alone.”

I don’t know a better definition for community. It isn’t always fun and games. Love will also not let people go through their darkest days alone. As painful as it may be to watch people we care about suffer, love won’t let us be anywhere else.

I was reminded of that recently as I read Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. It’s an old book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. It’s about a professor dying of ALS, and a former student who shows up for the last chapter of his life. It offers lessons from the brink of death and many of them are breathtaking. Even though this man was not a passionate believer, he’d come to believe some things that are pretty consistent with the life of Jesus:

“So many people walk around with meaningless life, they seem half a sleep, even when they are busy doing things, they think they are important, this is because they are chasing the wrong things, the way you get meaning in your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you and devote yourself to something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

And this: “Love wins. Love always wins.”

I loved this book, enjoyed the lessons, but was most touched by this former student who would come and spend every Tuesday with his former professor in the last stages of his disease. He learned a lot, but also gave a lot – friendship on the brink of death.

At my brother’s funeral a number of years ago one of his best friends stood up at his funeral and said that he couldn’t bear to visit my brother as he suffered the final stages of multiple sclerosis. He wanted to remember him as he was, not in his weakened condition. When he was needed the most he couldn’t bear to go. How sad!

The meaning of compassion is right in the word itself: “come to passion”. Passion in the old English meant suffering. Thus compassion means “to run to suffering” – to be there at the worst moment because someone we love needs us. I love that. A good picture of this are the 9/11 rescue workers who were running into the World Trade Center when everyone else was trying to run out. Compassion means being there when it’s incredibly difficult, not because we enjoy the circumstances, but because we love the person in them.

No one enjoys walking people through dark valleys or through painful reactions, but love says, I’ll be there for you. I may not know what to do or what to say. But I just can’t let you go through this alone!

A Plea for Love From the Sudan

By Michele Perry

Michele Perry was born in Florida with only one leg. After getting involved in the house church movement for some years, she sensed God calling her two years ago to the Sudan to care for children orphaned by violence. She rented a home and started taking in children. She now has 80 children she cares for around the clock and another 150 who come to her school each day. She also has an infectious passion for all things Jesus. You can find out more at: Iris-Sudan.org. After she read a copy of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore she wrote me this email. Please hear her words. They are as direct from our Father’s heart as anything you’ll read:

My day got interrupted with your book! A long-time friend told me I should download it, which I did in the London airport on my way home back to the bush of Southern Sudan. Three weeks later I got caught up in your story and my tissue box became my friend. I am a simple little white, city girl from Florida who is now in Sudan taking in orphaned children.

I was really relieved when Jesus called me to move to Sudan out of the west. When I got here I realized it was ten times more religious than anything I have ever seen. Leaders who actually know Jesus estimate maybe only three percent of people here actually know Jesus, really. The spirit of religion is so strong it feels choking at times – totally empowered by a spirit of fear. It is only Jesus as He truly is and His life that will draw them. He is the only one that can fix this mess.

When I was in the simple church movement I came to realize I was training people how to plant churches so nicely they could do it with out God. We were reproducing another box in which we were trying to contain God and saying that our box was better than the other boxes. Now, after nearing two years in the war torn bush of central Africa I don’t really give a rip whether it is house church or legacy church or cell church or open church, a sitting room, a sanctuary or a stadium – if people are growing in Jesus, walking in love with one another and being the face of His love to the world around them.

I don’t want to have to figure out whether I should embrace, conform, reform or vacate the system. I don’t have the time. Other things are too precious. I just want to do what He is doing and love people. I don’t want to debate what is the right way to have church, because it all can become a box and a prison if not filled with His life. Why can’t we all just focus on Him and fall in love with Him and love the people around us?

I don’t want to figure it all out – I can’t. I was just holding a dying woman in my arms in the hospital here whose family will not feed her or help her because the stench of rotting flesh is too bad and she soils herself and people are arguing if they should meet in homes or buildings. Last week a blind woman saw, this week a woman lay dying in my arms. I cannot figure it out. I don’t even want to try anymore. If I can’t embrace His mystery and love Him beyond my little understanding, I will limit the place I give to His majesty to be revealed in and through my life.

Meet under a tree, rent a cathedral, go on a hike with your family- but love people – learn about love.

Learn of him.

Live in him.

Have an encounter in him.

Live in encounter with him.

Be his encounter to those around you.

That’s what he said to me last night. Can’t we just do that? I don’t have any answers or anything except a heart cry to love each person he sets in front of me and stay in his presence because I love Him more than I love anything. He is my life.

Thank you for describing the One I love more than life, so beautifully and accurately. It means a lot. I met him face to face when I was seven and He walked into my room. I have read or heard very few who actually describe the One who captured my heart as a little girl.

You have!

* * * * * *

Jesus couldn’t have said it with any greater simplicity or clarity: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Would we dare to believe that his instructions would really be all that we need to accomplish his purpose in the earth, influence the culture the way he desires, find freedom from our own failures and bondages, and find the fellowship that would most glorify him in the earth? I do.

The reason we don’t experience his fullnes in our unfolding lives is because we live as if we are not loved. Fearful he won’t take care of us, we believe the lie that says God only helps those who help themselves. The most important thing we can discover is that the God of the Ages wants nothing more than for you to know him as the Abba – the tender Father who wants to sweep you up in his arms and transform you by winning you to the simple reality that no one loves you more than he does.

This is not just an intellectual conclusion; it is a revelation at the core of our being. Ask him to give you that. Pray that he will show you with ever-increasing clarity how much affection he has for you. Only then can life truly unfold!


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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries
Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

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Windblown: What Life in Him Looks Like

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • February 2007

He was a religious leader who sought Jesus out in the dark of night. He knew Jesus’ miracles were proof that God was with him and he wanted to be part of his kingdom. But he had no idea what it would demand from him.

Perhaps Nicodemus wanted some instructions to follow, new rules that would let him in on the life Jesus lived. But Jesus didn’t offer any. He simply told him that he needed to be born all over again. The idea sent Nicodemus’ head spinning as he tried to conceive how he, an old man, could be born a second time. Jesus must have smiled at the thought. It was not a physical rebirth that Nicodemus needed, but a spiritual one. He already knew all too well how to live as a human in the world. If he was going to see into the reality of this coming kingdom he needed a rebirth of the Spirit. Why? Because nothing in this kingdom can be seen, embraced or pursued by the flesh no matter how well intentioned. It runs contrary to every way our flesh sees and acts.

What’s surprising here is that there was no conflict between Nicodemus’ flesh and being a religious leader. While his religion at one level sought to restrain his fleshy appetites, it also provided a way for it to satisfy others, such as a lust for power or spiritual status. But the kingdom Jesus was bringing was different. It offered Nicodemus not another performance standard but a completely different way of living. To embrace that would take a rebirth of the Spirit that would open his spiritual eyes. And that’s when Jesus drops the bombshell. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

I could understand how the Spirit was like the wind that we can’t define or control, but the thought that those who are born of him are like that as well captured my heart the first time I heard thes words as a young man. I don’t even remember who was reading them or where I was, but I remember to this day how those words filled my heart with an irresistible call of mystery and adventure. Every time I’ve read John’s gospel since, those words re-ignite that same passion of living that religion at it’s best could never produce.

Born Again

We have certainly cheapened this passage in the past 50 years by applying the term ‘born again’ to those who have said a sinner’s prayer, been baptized, or those who go to a ‘Bible-believing’ fellowship as opposed to a more liberal one. The term ‘born again’ is often used today synonymously with the term ‘evangelical’ to validate a conservative brand of Christianity and question the faith of others who don’t use the same label. We have turned a term Jesus used to invite people into his kingdom into the most divisive term in Christendom, proving that we missed his point entirely.

If Jesus were going to define his kingdom by a creed, this was his time to say it. If Nicodemus could see the kingdom by participating in certain rituals or sacraments or ascribing to the ethics of a Godly life, Jesus would have told him here. Jesus was not refining the religion of the Old Covenant; he was offering a new way of living that was indefinable and incomprehensible to the natural mind.

Nicodemus didn’t need new principles; he needed to start his spiritual journey all over again. The religion he knew so well could never evolve into a life-transforming faith. Being born again meant that in spiritual things he needed to lay down everything he thought he knew and learn a life based on the Spirit. Jesus knew that would be difficult for a man so steeped in religion, and Nicodemus’ ensuing struggle over Jesus’ words demonstrated how right he was.

And so it is with us. The more we have been schooled in religious activity, the more difficult it is to see this kingdom for what it really is. We have millions of people on the planet today claiming to be born again who don’t have the foggiest idea who Jesus is or how to live in his reality. They may subscribe to Christian beliefs, follow Christian ethics and practice Christian rituals, but they do not know how to ride the wind of his Spirit and be transformed by him.

Being born again is a real process that opens our eyes and heart to participate in a kingdom that supersedes the material world we’ve all been taught to live in.

Riding the Wind

To illustrate this rebirth Jesus turns to the wind as a metaphor and describes three things that are true about it.

It blows where it wills. No man controls the wind. Even with our increased technology it is controlled by forces larger than humanity can influence. There are times we might like for it to stop or blow a different direction, but there isn’t a blasted thing we can do about it.

You hear its sound. While the wind is invisible, we can hear it, feel it on the skin and see its effects on the world around us. We’ve just endured about a week’s worth of Santa Ana winds that consistently blew 25-30 miles per hour and often gusted up to 50. One morning our street was filled with garbage as trashcans had been overturned on collection day.

You cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. Haven’t you ever wondered where all that wind comes from and where it ends up? I know it swirls around high and low pressure areas, but I don’t know where the wind swirling around my face began that morning or where it will end that evening.

What an excellent metaphor to describe the working of the Spirit. He is like the wind, blowing where he wills, unseen but not knowable and it is true that we mostly have no idea what he’s up to on any given day. And while all that may be true, that’s not what Jesus was saying. He compares the wind to everyone born of the Spirit.

That’s you and me! Those born of the Spirit move in this world just as Jesus described the wind. They live out of different motivations. You can see the impact they have, even if you can’t figure out why they’re doing what they do.

People like that used to drive me nuts. When I was a pastor, it bothered me that some of the most spiritual men and women I came across, wouldn’t fit into the program the way I wanted them to. They were uninterested in staff positions I dangled before them, and they declined invitations to join our elders. Maybe they weren’t as spiritual as I thought.

I came to find out, however, that they were tuned to a higher frequency. When I expressed my frustration to one of them, he answered. “I don’t know that I can explain it, but one day you’ll know.”

I didn’t like his answer at all until I heard myself saying almost the exact same words five years later to a group of elders courting me to become their next pastor.

Blown by a Different Wind

Unfortunately most believers have never been exposed to life in Christ like this. They have seen Christianity only as a religion with truths to learn, rules to follow and rituals to observe and have missed the beauty of what life in Jesus can be.

I love the way Paul expressed this to Timothy in warning him to keep the main issue the main issue: “The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love – love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God.” (1 Timothy 1:5 – The Message)

This is a life of love, not obligation. It is not what we know about God that matters as much as knowing his affection for us, and loving others in the same way. Timothy needed to keep that in mind especially where believers had become more enamored with doctinal controversies of doctrine, rather than living in love.

Notice that this love is uncontaminated by self-interest. We all know what it is to live to our own self-interest, looking to maximize our benefit or to minimize our pain in the circumstances we face. We learned to survive that way in the world. But the wind Jesus was revealing to Nicodemus doesn’t operate on self-interest, but the self-giving love of God. That’s what will mark his people in the world. It’s not hard for us to understand people controlled by self-interest, even when they use their religion to advance their personal goals or say it is in love. But we don’t understand people who live by the laying-down-their-lives kind of love that only Jesus can shape in us. Those who are well loved will love well.

I used to think that Christian growth came by learning new truths and putting them into practice. While that can be helpful, more often than not it doesn’t work. How many of us have heard a powerful sermon or read an inspired book ready to embrace its message and committed to living it out, and then failed to follow through? Then we blame ourselves for not trying hard enough and only ended up with another standard by which to measure our failures.

That’s why he said the Spirit would lead his followers into all truth (John 15). This was not something we could do on our own, like studying algebra or Latin. Jesus challenged Nicodemus not to think of his life as learning a new catalog of information, but to learn to live in love. That would so change the way he lived other people wouldn’t recognize him or be able to explain his actions.

A Genuine Trust

Every time I think I’ve figured out the way God works he’ll amaze me yet again – zigging where I would have zagged, giving strength in the face of circumstances I would have cured, or suddenly and conspicuously absent from the plans and routines that I hoped would contain him.

That used to frustrate me. It doesn’t any more. I am finally settled in the reality that he wouldn’t do anything the way I would. I’m convinced of the fact that he does all things well, even if he doesn’t do them for my comfort or convenience. And I am convinced that following him is the only real way to live, circumstance by circumstance, task by task, obedience by obedience. And I have come to love it that way.

The pursuit to find any formula that can be applied to produce his righteousness, provide me New Testament church life or even grow my trust, is a fool’s errand. It will fail time and time again until in the end I come to realize that this reality only comes through a growing friendship with him. The more I know him amd the more I see his hand at work the freer I will be to trust him and live in his kingdom.

I am convinced that wind is his Spirit, and my need to be born again is not a one-time experience but a daily choice to shed my expectations about the way things should be, to mistrust my own desires and agenda, and to tune my mind to the breath of his Spirit and the truths of his word. Where I live born of the Spirit today, I will ride that wind with increasing joy and freedom. I will see his fingerprints in the jagged places of life and be able to cooperate with his purpose in me.

Where I live out of my own selfish-ambition, religious performance, or natural wisdom I will struggle with unanswerable questions and act in ways that are hurtful to others. I’m so tired of that. And though I’m a long ways from living it perfectly, I want to live no other way – more today than yesterday and more tomorrow than today. And the only way I can do that is continue to live deeply in him, watching for his wind to blow and riding it, even if some of the most significant people in my life can’t understand what I’m doing or why. Jesus warned us that would be so.

Following Him, Not An It

Any time we choose to follow a model of spirituality, someone else’s formula for success, or an agenda no matter how well intentioned, we will end up walking by our own limited wisdom. The invitation to this kingdom is to follow a person. Jesus doesn’t give us the way; he is The Way. He doesn’t have life; he is The Life. He doesn’t just speak truth; he is The Truth itself. Everything about his kingdom begins and ends in him and we experience that through a growing friendship with him.

That’s often the hardest thing for people to see when they have been disillusioned by church life as many define it today. Immediately they begin to look for another way of doing church and jump right back into a different form of religious performance, rather than learning how they can simply follow him.

Part of what Jesus was encouraging Nicodemus to do was to stop trying to put boxes around the life of his Spirit, which can never be contained. Have you ever tried to stuff the wind into a box? Have you ever tried to stop it, or make it blow a different direction? How futile! So is trying to control God’s working by boxing it into forms we prefer, or trying to control the outcomes we want from him.

He is the wind. He blows where he wills, and we can follow if we want. The person who is born of the Spirit loses his moorings in the temporal world where the cravings of safety, security and stability must be satisfied. And in doing so we too become like the wind, available to him at each moment to do what he would ask of us.

Obeying the Nudges

Faith doesn’t flow from theology; it flows from relationship. From our earliest days he wants to show us how to embrace his unfolding revelation in our lives and teach us how to follow him. I don’t know any other way to describe it than to simply be obedient to those nudges he puts in your mind. He might be revealing something about himself, inviting us to some time with him, drawing us to the Bible, or leading us to serve or encourage someone else. Learning to recognize those nudges and follow through on them is what teaches us to distinguish between our deisres and his. Those nudges almost always begin not by calling us to grandiose ministries, but teaching us to live outside our self-interest in the mundane ways we can serve others around us.

To many people this may sound like emotion-driven, touchy-feely spirituality. I hear those objections often by those threatened with a life in God they won’t be able to control by their disciplines and doctrines. But they couldn’t be more wrong. This is a dance of head and heart together discerning God and his ways. The heart without the head can lead to well intentioned disaster, and the head without the heart will exalt doctrine over love and destroy others with its arrogance.

To grow in this life, I am continually cultivating my relationship with him. I intentionally spend time with him as I grow in my awareness of his working throughout my day. I have a running conversation with him about everything in my life and express my desire to follow his will at every turn. I immerse myself in the story of Scripture, learning how he thinks and acts. I have a steady diet of what God is showing others by what I read and listen to, and the conversations I have with others on this journey.

So how do I sort out his nudges from my own thoughts? Most nudges I get from his Spirit are simple ways of loving and serving people around me. I am not too worried about getting those wrong. There aren’t many downsides to serving others. But to have some measure of confidence to step out in a larger action he may be asking of me, I look for four things to to come into agreement:

1. An intuitive, growing conviction of his leading over time.

2. Affirmation in the truth and example of Scripture that this is how God works.

3. Confirmation from other brothers and sisters as I discuss it with them.

4. And the reality of unfolding circumstances.

When those voices are in synch, I have greater confidence that I am following him. But you know what? Sometimes all of these line up and I still get it wrong. That’s why people born of the Spirit rarely use language like, “God told me to…”, and will instead talk in terms of what they sense. They’ve been wrong enough times not to be so presumptuous, even when they’re most certain. I’ve forged God’s name on my agenda a number of times, only to find out later that it was my penmanship all along. But I’m still ready to get up the next day and learn to keep following him. And while I’m willing to pay the consequences for being wrong, I also know he can weave my mistakes into his purposes.

Taking Wing

This is what it means to be born of the Spirit. It has nothing to do with a sinner’s prayer or speaking in tongues. It means we’ve taken wing on a breath of wind that comes from the Father himself and learn to trust his words over our human reasoning and justifications.

It means we lay aside the lies of shame and the demands for performance that drive us from him and find our security in his affection for us and let that transform us. It means finally realizing how our selfish ambitions work against his purpose in us and others around us and laying them down in our growing trust that he knows better than we do and he does all things well.

It means we don’t have to have everything figured out to take the next step he’s put on our hearts and we no longer have to play for the applause of the crowd. It means we’re finally free to surrender our need to think we’re in control and know his plans are far better.

What great freedom to realize that I never had the power or wisdom to accomplish God’s purposes in my life and how losing confidence in my flesh only frees me to live more dependent on him and more grateful for his working. What a joy to wake up in the uncertain adventure of life and not be distressed at what might happen today, because he is with me!

How could human effort ever produce this? It is the work of his Spirit responding to our desire to know him. My prayer for you in these things is the same one that Paul had for the Thessalonians:

May the Master take your hand and lead you along the path
of God’s love and Christ’s endurance.
(2 Thessalonians 3:5)


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So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore? by Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman

The Language of Community

By Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman
BodyLife • September 2006

I’m currently reading So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore into audio files for a soon-to-be-released CD. [Edit: We have finished the audio book. You can find more information here.] It has been fun to re-visit the language that has been such a part of my own journey. One of the things Dave and I wanted to accomplish in the Jake story was to let John be an example of what it means to disciple someone. He never tells Jake what to do and never pushes him.

He simply asks questions and makes observations that relate to the circumstances and issues Jake is facing at the moment. We put into his mouth the most encouraging and enlightening statements we’ve ever heard from others or discovered ourselves. Since we decided against highlighting them in the book in any way, I thought it might be helpful to make a collection of them here as examples of the kind of things we can say that builds others up in the life and freedom of Jesus. Enjoy!

“God’s plan of redemption from the days of creation to the day of the Second Coming was designed to bring people into the relationship of love that the Father, Son and Spirit have shared for eternity. He wants nothing less – or nothing else!”

“This is no distant God who sent his Son with a list of rules to follow or rituals to practice. His mission was to invite us into his love – into a relationship with his Father that he described as friendship.”

“The fact that you don’t feel him holding you doesn’t change the fact that he still is.”

Transformed by His Love

“Walking toward him is walking away from sin. The better you know him the freer from it you will be. But you can’t walk away from sin, not in your own strength! Everything he wants to do in you will get done as you learn to live in his love. Every act of sin results from your mistrust of his love and intentions for you. We sin to fill up broken places, to try to fight for what we think is best for us, or by reacting to our guilt and shame. Once you discover how much he loves you all that changes. As you grow in trusting him, you will find yourself increasingly free from sin.”

“Isn’t it sad that we thought we could press people into spiritual change, instead of helping them grow to trust Father more and find him changing them? You can’t press a caterpillar into a butterfly mold and make it fly. It has to be transformed from the inside.”

Growing Trust

“The church Jesus is building transcends every human approach we’ve tried to use to replicate or contain it.”

“If we could control God, he’d turn out like us. Wouldn’t it be better to let him have his way with us so we become like him?”

“God will provide for you. He always has, except you don’t know that. The fact that you don’t have insurance or a job to lean on doesn’t mean he will forsake you. The fact that others are destroying your reputation doesn’t mean they’ll have the final say. God is not a fairy godmother who waves his magic wand to keep you happy. You won’t get far if you question his love for you whenever he doesn’t meet your expectations. He’s your Father. He knows far better what you need than you know yourself. He is a far better provider for you and your family than you yet know. He is bringing you into his life and rather than saving you out of these things he has chosen to use them to show you what true freedom and life really are.”

“When you can trust his love in each moment, you’ll really know how to live free.”

“So much of what we do is driven by our anxiety that God is not working on our behalf, that we have no idea of the actions that trust produces. Trusting doesn’t make you a couch potato. As you follow him you’ll find yourself doing more than you’ve ever done, but it won’t be the frantic activity of a desperate person, it will be the simple obedience of a loved child.”

“It’s much easier for us to find his will when we live contentedly in God’s provision rather than being anxious for what we don’t see.”

“If we don’t learn to trust, we will only interpret every event from our own self-centered vantage point, which is invariably negative and undermines our relationship with God.”

“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.”

“Increasing trust is the fruit of a growing relationship. The more you know him and his ways the freer you’ll be to live beyond the influences that tie you down to your own flawed wisdom.”

“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 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.

“I’m learning the joy of resting in him, doing what I know to do and not doing what I don’t know to do. It’s been one of the hardest lessons to learn, but also the most freeing.”

Misunderstandings

“When are you going to get past the mistaken notion that Christianity is about ethics?”

“We’re just not bright enough to control the ways in which God works.”

“Discipline holds great value when your eye is on the treasure. But as a substitute for that treasure, obligation can be a real detriment when it gives you satisfaction just for completing a task.”

“It’s not about teaching; it’s about living. Learn to live this life and you’ll find no end of folks to share it with. Teach it first, however, and that will be your substitute for living it.”

“Every time people see God moving, someone has to build a building or start a movement. Peter was that way at the Transfiguration. When He couldn’t think of anything else to do, he proposed a building program. If you’re going to walk this way, you’ve got to find freedom from the overestimation of your own capabilities.”

Living For the Approval of Others

“You’re so busy seeking everyone’s approval around you, that you don’t realize you already have his.”

“He’ll make the choice clear to you if you don’t complicate it with any attempts to protect yourself – not to keep your job, not to be liked by others, not ev

“As long as you need other people to approve of what you’re doing, you are owned by anyone willing to lie about you.”

“It’s a lot easier for you to get out of the system than it is to get the system out of you. You can play the game from inside or outside. The approval you felt then came from the same source as the shame you feel now. That’s why it hurts so much when you hear the rumors or watch old friends turn away embarrassed. They’re not bad people just brothers and sisters lost in something that is not as godly as they think it is.”

“You can’t love what you’re competing against and if you’re keeping score you can be sure you’re competing.”
The Illusion of Religious Systems

“We are so quickly captured by a work-driven religious culture that it devours the very love it seeks to sustain.”

“That’s the problem with institutions isn’t it? The institution provides something more important than simply loving each other in the same way we’ve been loved. Once you build an institution together you have to protect it and its assets to be good stewards. It confuses everything. Even love gets redefined as that which protects the institution and unloving as that which does not. It will turn some of the nicest people in the world into raging maniacs and they never stop to think that all the name-calling and accusations are the opposite of love.”

“…If you do what we want, we reward you. If not we punish you. It doesn’t turn out to be about love at all. We give our affection only to those who serve our interests and withhold it from those who do not.”

“The problem with church as you know it, is that it has become nothing more than mutual accommodation of self-need. Some need to lead. Some need to be led. Some want to teach, others are happy to be the audience. Rather than become an authentic demonstration of God’s life and love in the world, it ends up being a group of people who have to protect their turf. What you’re seeing is less of God’s life than people’s insecurities that cling to those things they think will best serve their needs…

“Religion survives by telling us we need to fall in line or some horrible fate will befall us.”

“Institutionalism breeds task-based friendships. As long as you’re on the same task together, you can be friends. When you’re not, people have to treat you like damaged goods.”

“Any human system will eventually dehumanize the very people it seeks to serve and those it dehumanizes the most are those who think they lead it. But not everyone in a system is given over to the priorities of that system. Many walk inside it without being given over to it. They live in Father’s life and graciously help others as he gives them opportunity.”

“The groupthink that results from believers who act together out of their fears rather than their trust in Father, will lead to even more disastrous results. They’ll mistake their own agenda for God’s wisdom. Because they draw their affirmation from others they’ll never stop to question it, even when the hurtful consequences of their actions become obvious.”

“I want to expose the system of religious obligation in whatever ways it holds people captive, but that’s not the same as being against the institution. Don’t let the system threaten you. As long as you react to it, it still controls you.”

“Jesus didn’t leave us with a system he left us with his Spirit – a guide instead of a map. Principles alone will not satisfy your hunger. That’s why systems always promise a future revival that never comes. They cannot produce community because they are designed to keep people apart.”

“I’m convinced that most Christian meetings give people enough of God’s things to inoculate them against the reality of his presence.”

“Religion is a shame-management system, often with the best of intentions and always with the worst of results.”

“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. Institutions are like orphanages revolving around the convenience of the staff. 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 and brothers and sisters who can respond to you in the moment, not wait for a meeting or to schedule a seminar.”

“Not all structure is wrong. Simple structures that facilitate sharing his life together can be incredibly positive. The problem comes when structures take on a life of their own and provide a substitute for our dependence upon Jesus. When Jesus ceases to be the object of our pursuit, our touch with his body will fade into emptiness.”

Finding Real Church Life

“You have yet to see what body life can be when people are growing to trust God, instead of living together in fear.”

“Scripture doesn’t use the language of need when talking about the vital connection God establishes between believers. Our dependency is in Jesus alone! He’s the one we need. He’s the one we follow. He’s the one God wants us to trust and rely on for everything. When we put the body of Christ in that place, we make an idol of it.”

“We share body life together, not because we have to, but because we get to. Anyone who belongs to God will embrace the life he wants his children to share together. And that life isn’t fighting over control of the institution, but simply helping each other learn to live deeply in him.

“Any friendship that demands that you lie to save it probably isn’t a friendship at all.”

“If you really want to learn how to share Jesus’ life together, it would be easier to think of that less as a meeting you attend and more as a family you love.”

“The Scriptures tell us very little about how the early church met. It tells us volumes about how they shared his life together. They didn’t see the church as a meeting or an institution, but as a family living under Father.”

“Body life is not something we can create. It is a gift that Father gives as people grow in his life. Body life isn’t rocket science. It is the easiest thing in the world when people are walking with him. You get within twenty feet of someone else on that journey and you’ll find fellowship easy and fruitful.”

“No church model will produce God’s life in you. It works the other way around. Our life in God, shared together, expresses itself as the church. It is the overflow of his life in us. You can tinker with church principles forever and still miss out on what it means to live deeply in Father’s love and share it with others.”

“People who are growing in their relationship with Father will hunger for real connections with his family. He is the God of community. That’s his nature, and knowing him draws us into that community, not only with God himself, but also with others who know him. It is not our obligation. It’s his gift.”

“It’s valuable for the body of Christ to find each other and share his life together. Where people are doing that they won’t need commitment. They’ll bend over backwards to be with each other. Where they aren’t doing that, it does little good just to be committed to a meeting.”

“Sometimes that life is best expressed in a conversation like this. Sometimes it’s best expressed in a larger conversation that a meeting might facilitate. When you can only see it one way, you miss so many other of the ways in which Father works.

“Equip people to live in him first; then you’ll see how he brings his body together. I love it when a group of Christians want to intentionally walk together as an expression of community – listening to God together, sharing their lives and resources, encouraging and caring for each other and doing whatever else God might ask them to do. But you can’t organize that with people who aren’t ready. Discipleship always comes before community. When you learn to follow Jesus yourself and help some others to do the same, you’ll find body life springing up all around you.”

“Obligations are only necessary when the experience is ineffective or lifeless. When people are living in the life of Jesus, they will treasure every opportunity to connect with other brothers and sisters who are also on this journey. It will not be something they have to do, but something they wouldn’t ever want to live without.”

“Jesus is always gathering his flock to himself. People from all over the world are finding their hunger for him eclipsing their hunger for anything else and that every substitute they try only adds to their restlessness. As they keep their eye on him, not only do they grow closer to him with each passing day, but they will find themselves alongside others who are headed that way, too… That’s why you only hurt yourself when you look for people who want to meet a certain way or think like you do. Every person who crosses your path, be they believer or unbeliever, in an institution like this or outside of it, is a potential partner in this journey. By loving all of them to the degree that they allow, you’ll participate in his great gathering.”

Helping Others

“Follow him, even when it creates conflict. Always be gentle and gracious to everyone, but never compromise what is in your heart just to get along.”

“If you tell someone the truth before they’re ready to hear it, you can push them further away no matter how well intentioned you might be.”

“The more at peace we are with ourselves, the easier it is for God to use us to touch others.


Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries
Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

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Reveling in the Freedom to Follow

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • July 2006

To be honest, most of the mornings I lived bogged down by the demands and agendas of religion, I woke up defeated. I’d look at the clock dreading what the day might hold and wondering how I could get everything just right so God could do incredible things around me. Don’t hear that wrong. I loved God. I was as passionate for him as I am now, but I was also exhausted all the time. There were so many things to fix, so many people to see and so many meetings I had to prepare for.

I prayed hard each morning for God to bless this or save me from that. Most of the time my prayers didn’t seem to make any difference. It was horrible. No matter how well I did on any given day, I always fell short of my own expectations. On my best days I broke even, on most days I felt incredibly frustrated, either by my own failings or, conversely, how inactive God seemed to be. But I didn’t know there was any other way.

When I think back to those days now, they seem like a distant nightmare after waking up fully. It seems only a distant memory. Now I awaken every morning in the excitement of an unfolding adventure in the life of Jesus. (You have to keep in mind I’m a morning person!) Now my first thoughts in the morning are thoughts of wonder and excitement. I can’t wait to get to the day and see how this one unfolds. (I realize some of you don’t even wake up mentally until well after noon, so that’s when you might feel it.) And, as I lay my head down at night, I am not only overwhelmingly grateful for what God allowed me to experience that day, but also already looking forward to the one coming.

Some of you may chalk that up to the exciting life of a traveling author, as if this must be loads of fun. But honestly, that’s not what excites me, and my days are rarely easy or pain-free. The reason I’m excited to wake up each day is because I can’t wait to see who God might put in my path, or how he will sort out some unresolved thing in my life or someone I know around me.

Could this be what Jesus meant when he promised us the fullness of his life? He wasn’t talking about the ease of circumstance, or the fulfillment of our dreams, but the absolute adventure of walking through each day with him as his purpose slowly but surely unfolds in the circumstances and relationships around us. He is there in our simplest joys and in our most crushing circumstances, always inviting us closer, always transforming us so that we can live more freely in him. If this isn’t at least a piece of that abundant life, it is more like it than anything I’ve known to date.

 

Why Don’t We Want People to Follow?

The most incredible invitation Jesus made in his life among us was for each of us to simply follow him. For too much of my life, however, I thought following him meant that I subscribed to the principles and rituals of Christianity. Sure I had moments of knowing him even there, but they always faded away in the busyness of religious activity, which did more to wear me out than show me how to live in him.

As I read the New Testament, I’m blessed by how much the apostles reminded the early followers that they were not offering them a religion to observe, but inviting them into a living relationship with Jesus that would allow them to know his Father and participate in his unfolding grace in the world. “Our fellowship is with him!” “Believe what you hear.” “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

How is it that we have traded that adventure for services, doctrines and principles that promise a reality they can’t deliver? I regularly meet people who have been faithful elders, pastors, and participants in good religious institutions who grope around as if God does not speak to them and as if he is not able to transform them. They have no idea how to enjoy a relationship with a Father and his Son that gives them hope and direction in their darkest days and teaches them how live in his power instead of their own efforts. I’m thinking we didn’t make the best trade there.

If nothing else, that alone should make us question the religious activities and meetings that eat up so much of our lives and yet don’t equip us to live in the reality of the friendship he offered us. No wonder religion gets boring. The New Testament is replete with the invitation to follow him, not follow the dictates of a religious program. I even look back now and see how I discouraged people from trying to follow him. Sure they would make mistakes in learning to do so, but because I wanted to save them from those mistakes, I taught them to listen to me instead of continuing through the process of learning to listen to him. I didn’t mean to. I thought I was teaching them to follow him, but in the end, they only learned to listen to me. And that worked only as long as they liked what I said. When they didn’t, they just found someone else to tell them what they wanted to hear.

 

One Flock, One Shepherd

How much clearer could Jesus have been in John 10? He knows each of his sheep by name and leads them with his voice. That doesn’t seem too complicated. He connects with us; we follow him. That doesn’t seem like rocket science or something only a few gifted professionals could achieve. He went on to say that his sheep would know his voice so well that they wouldn’t follow a stranger. Is that ever true!

His sheep really do hear his voice; it’s just that they’ve been taught not to trust it. When they hear the voice of a stranger, it sounds wrong to them even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why. But that’s when they often get talked into ignoring what they know to be true inside. They are accused of independence, arrogance and rebellion to make sure they get back in line and don’t cause any trouble. Who are you to think you can know God? Do you have the training we have, or the anointing? Do you read Greek? Are you going to argue with the ‘wisdom passed down through the ages’?

As well meaning as some of that might be, it’s effect is to destroy people’s trust in Jesus as the one who wants to lead them, teach them, protect them and free them to live powerfully in his life. Leadership in the early church helped people learn how to walk with the living Jesus, not subvert that relationship by inserting themselves in its place. Doing so not only undermines spiritual growth, but also divides the body over the differing views of those who think they are leading his flock.

I love it when people tell me that something I read or said touched them deeply, not because it was new to them, but because it gave voice to something the Spirit had already been showing them for some time before. They were just afraid to believe it was true with all the religious voices telling them otherwise. The language of real fellowship will always make us more aware of his voice and less influenced by our desire to please people, especially leaders.

That’s why Jesus said we could be one flock with one shepherd. As long as we continue to have millions of people inserting themselves as the ones to follow, this family will continue to be fragmented. But that has been changing in recent years as an increasing number of people are simultaneously and spontaneously seeing through Christianity as the religion it has become and are learning again simply how to follow Jesus again, even when it goes against the grain of other people’s religious expectations of them.

I’ve been blessed to meet thousands of these people all over the world. They seem to be on the same adventure I’m on and when we connect our fellowship is immediate, deep and filled with life. And even though many of these people don’t fit into the traditional structures we’ve inherited in our day, they are not the independent or rebellious as others have described them. In fact, those learning to follow the Lamb have a deep desire for authentic fellowship with others and a desire to see the church emerge in our day as a true reflection of God’s glory in the world.

 

Spiritual Couch Potatoes?

Much has been written in national magazines over the last year about the growing disillusionment many are experiencing with institutionalized religion. They are reassessing their fruitfulness of the time, energy and finances that it takes to maintain buildings and sustain a staff that primarily runs programs for the faithful. Some are doing their best to help renew tired institutions, others are embracing new relational models hopeful that they will offer a better result, and many others are looking beyond all of that to find a dynamic life in Jesus and relationships with others that no model could ever contain.

Some have even belittled those they call the ‘out-of-church’ crowd calling them independent, spiritual couch potatoes. They say that without accountability to gifted leaders to keep them from error and to coordinate their efforts the church of Jesus Christ will end up weak and ineffective. Really? What does that say about Jesus’ ability (or should we say inability?) to raise up a flock after his own heart and release them to live and work together however he might desire? And why would we want to listen to those who have no trust in Jesus’ ability to change our lives?

These people have not seen the body of Christ that I have seen taking shape all over the world. Growing in dependence on Jesus rather than following programs crafted by a human leader, they are being powerfully transformed by his life and are making incredible impact in the world around them. And while the individual actions may not warrant magazine coverage, the sum total of the simple obedience of those believers is allowing God’s kingdom to be known in the world.

 

The Submitted Flock

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times political columnist wrote a book a few years ago, called The Lexus and the Olive Tree. In it he describes a fundamental shift in power from the political leaders of nation-states to what he called the electronic herd – the millions of individual investors who wake up every morning, turn on their computers and trade in stocks and currencies for their own financial gain.

They move millions if not billions of dollars each day to those places that the electronic herd trusts the most in returning a profit. Friedman asserted that this trend was so profound that power had already begun to shift away from governments and political leaders. In time nations will no longer be able to successfully manipulate their currency or economies, because when the electronic herd gets wind of it they will flee overnight to better investments.

I read that book years ago and found it shocking that people acting in their own self-interest could have such an impact on world events. Their power was derived from the sum total of their actions, not from any coordination between them, and yet they are economically restructuring our world. Lately that book has come back to mind as a parable of what is happening spiritually in the Father’s family. Jesus is raising up his own submitted flock – a people not making decisions every day in their own economic self-interest, but those who will simply respond to the Shepherd one action at a time, one person at a time, and in each situation as it comes.

Can you imagine the power of millions of individual believers from all over the world simply following the inclinations that Jesus would allow to grow in their hearts? I get a glimpse of that reality every day just by the folks I know. I hear incredible stories of lives being changed. I see Jesus’ hand as he connects people when he has a task for them to do together. I see a people more focused on doing what Jesus asks of them rather than building large programs or ministries to try to catch the attention of the world. They will go wherever he asks them to, link arms with other believers he invites to the same task and do it all without the need for power, self-glory or vocational provision. This is the picture Scripture paints, and those who aspire to work with him in this venture will not seek to replace him in people’s lives, but equip them to live it too.

I sit here today overwhelmed by what Jesus is doing in our world and almost laugh, thinking, of course it would be this way. He said it would. He would be the shepherd and all would follow him with his law written in their hearts. He never wanted us to follow the programs of men but learn to live in a growing trust in his ability to coordinate his body and love the world through us.

 

A People Like No Other

I realize some reading this article will be threatened by now that I would dare to encourage believers to follow Jesus as he leads them, rather than falling in line with one of the various institutions that claim to be preparing Christ’s body for the last days. They fear that if people are not obligated to join up, they will wither away in their own selfishness.

I understand why some people would feel that way. I know many who claim to be following Jesus and are only indulging their own self-interest. Instead of increasingly demonstrating his grace and truth, they turn out to be arrogant, isolated, and so filled with their own agenda they suffocate anyone near them. These are not those who are growing to know him, however. They are those who have reacted to religion by falling back into their own selfishness. God can rescue them, too, when they get weary of living that way.

But the fact that people can abuse the truth does not negate that truth. I’m not writing to those who want to use these words as an excuse to do whatever they feel like doing. I’m writing these words to encourage those who passionately want to know Jesus and be transformed by his life. Those people are finding that their freedom from religious activity is stirring them to a deeper passion for him and he grows more real in them with each passing day. And they also have an irresistible desire to connect with others who share that passion. They may not find them easily, but in time Jesus will connect them to others.

I see a vast group of people around the world learning to depend on him more each day. I am recognizing at least seven attributes that are increasing in them as they learn how to follow the Lamb wherever he goes:

  •     They live by the reality of love not by principles (John 13:34-35). As they respond to others with the same reality of love they have found in him for themselves, they know how to treat others around them in away that conveys the life of God to broken people and fellow travelers.
  •     They live with a growing trust in Father’s purpose and power, not out of fear (Romans 8). The more they live in the reality of God’s love the more obvious it becomes to them that God can be trusted with everything, and this freedom allows them to move through the world not looking out for their own good, but living by whatever Father gives them.
  •     They live at the Father’s pleasure not in the tyranny of fulfilling their own agendas (I Peter 4:1-2). Increasing trust means they no longer have to labor under the tyranny of what they think might be best. All they need to do is follow him, knowing that he will fulfill his purpose in them best when they are not trying to do it themselves.
  •     They trust in his power, not their own efforts (Philippians 3:1-14). Those who follow Jesus have given up any confidence they had in their own wisdom or their own ability to transform themselves or impact the world. The resultant humility allows them to speak the truth in love without being rude or pushing others to embrace their point of view.
  •     They live in the moment not in the anxiety of their imagined futures (Matthew 6/Luke 12). They know it is far easier to hear his voice in the moment and follow his lead when they are at rest on the inside. Most of our anxieties come from an imagined future in which God is not present. Having seen God time and again do the unexpected, they are confident that their whole lives are in his hands they do not worry about a future they cannot see. They know the best way for them to be where God wants them six months from now, is by following him today and see what doors he opens.
  •     They live in authentic expressions of community not in isolated independence or in prefabricated programs (I Corinthians 12-14). Their freedom in Jesus allow them to connect in relationships free of pretence and manipulation and find connecting with others of like passion to be an irresistible joy that encourages and inspires them to live more deeply in him.
  •     They live generously and graciously in the world, not seeking to exploit others with their own agenda (Mark 10:42-45). As they have learned to let God provide for them, they no longer need to use others, either to get what they want or to protect themselves from others. With a heart to help others openly God can make himself known through them in some fascinating ways and by doing so allow others to come to know who he is.

 

Live Free!

Like a field of wildflowers coming into their season, this submitted flock is blooming with God’s glory in the world. Every person can be part of it. Simply draw near to him continually and ask him to reveal himself to you. Take each situation you’re in and ask him to show you what it would mean for you to follow him in it. Then watch and listen over time as he makes his way clear to you.

If you know some other brothers and sisters near you who are learning to live this life as well, ask them to help you. Learn from them without making them a substitute for the walk Jesus wants to share with you.

Believe the growing convictions he puts on your heart and follow them as best you see them, being gracious to others as he shapes his image in you. Don’t worry about the mistakes you’ll make and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that any teaching or model of church life will ever replace his voice leading you.

That’s why I’m not on any bandwagon with those who claim they have God’s proven model for church life. When our focus is on following a model, even a good one, rather than following him, we’ll still miss out on how he is knitting this family together. If you’re pursuing house church, cell church or purpose-driven church instead of following him, you will miss those he might ask you to walk beside who are in more traditional congregations or in no formalized group at all.

The glory of life in him is not found in finding the best model to implement, the right principles to follow or even the most powerful rituals to observe. It is about knowing him as our older brother and friend, living in that relationship with His Father, and following him wherever you see him leading you.

Without that freedom, we’ll just be a group of Christians caught up in the boring and powerless religious activities that never bring life to us, much less help us touch the world around us. With the freedom to follow him with joy, Jesus can do anything he wants to do in us on any given day.

Isn’t that something worth waking up to?


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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

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Tree Town – A Parable For Our Times

By David Hebden* and Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • November 2005

There was a town much like any other town, except it had no trees. A disease had wiped them out so long ago that no one living today even remembered they had existed. They had grown accustomed to the barren landscape.

One day a young man went to the library looking for something to relieve his boredom and by apparent chance he came upon the book. The library had been built when the town was new and small, nothing more than a small outpost with a train station. It just so happened that the young man was walking through a dusty section of the library when the noon express train rumbled past vibrating every shelf in the library. The dust stirred and he sneezed as it tickled his nose. And there, sticking out of the bookcase ready to fall to the floor was the book. He reached out to push it back into place, thinking to himself that they should move the library away from the train station for a bit of peace and quiet.

Obviously it was a long-neglected book, which made him curious. He plucked it from the shelf and opened it. There were no pictures, and the pages were old and yellowed. It seemed to be a collection of stories about the life of a gardener. “I may as well have a look at it,” he thought. “I’ve nothing else to do.”

Later that afternoon as he sat outside his home sipping a cool drink in the shade of his porch he began leafing through the book and came across a chapter about trees. This fascinated him, since he had only heard of trees and had never seen a real tree. He knew what wood was, but it always came on the delivery train, not from trees.

As he read he became even more excited about trees and what they provided. Why they make shade and hold delicious fruit to be eaten! They offer windbreaks from the winter storms, and fuel for heat when they grew old and tired. “What a wonderful thing trees must be! Wouldn’t it be great if we had some around here?”

As the days passed he grew more excited and began to talk to his friends about the book and the trees it described. Soon he found others who had heard about trees and one or two who had actually seen them from a distance. The excitement grew in the town as people wanted to have some trees. A town meeting was held and the mayor asked the young man to read about trees from the book. A vote was called and the citizens decided to build some trees. Soon the quiet town was a hive of activity. Committees were formed to design and build the trees, to import the lumber and even to gather the fruit.

Soon trees began to spring up everywhere in that small town. Well, at least what they thought were trees! They stayed as true to the book as they could. For roots they dug holes and buried old rope because they sounded closer to roots than anything else they had. They nailed these roots into the large timbers they imported for tree trunks. They nailed ‘branches’ to the trunks and the ladies cut leaves out of their finest linen, painted them and glued them on the branches. They also gathered fruit and tied them onto the trees so they could pick them whenever they wanted.

Eventually the streets were lined with trees. Though they looked similar at a distance, up close you could see their differences. It seemed that different people had interpreted the section of the book on trees quite differently. The branches jutted out at different angles. The colors of the leaves were different colors and they only used the fruits they thought best.

Visitors came from far and wide to see trees for the first time in their lives and marvel at the hard work it had taken to build so many. By popular vote it was decided to change the towns name from Prairie Town to Treetown. The book that started it all was enshrined in the town hall under glass. A new industry sprang up to satisfy the growing number of visitors. The townspeople set up tours, opened gift-shops and Treetown T-shirts became all the rage in that part of the world.

But as time went by the excitement over the trees faded for many. They grew weary of building and maintaining the trees and wondered why they hung fruit on them at all, insisting that the fruit stayed fresher when stored inside. Some even began to question if these in fact were real trees. The experts – those who had memorized the chapter on trees – quickly attacked those with questions. Of course they are real. Look at all the time and money we’ve spent on them and how many people it drew to their town. Could so many people be so wrong?

And even when the spoiling fruit seemed to make people sick, the people themselves were blamed for not believing that the trees made the fruit better. Soon a law was passed to require that fruit could only be eaten straight from a tree and no one was allowed to store any in their homes anymore. People grew disillusioned and discouraged with the endless work that brought so little return. “We just have to work harder to make it better,” became the refrain of the town fathers.

Most people fell in line afraid that they would be shunned as troublemakers and ridiculed for not putting the town’s prosperity ahead of their own ideas. But there were a few who just couldn’t fit in. They stopped working on the trees and stopped eating their fruit. At first people tried to convince them how wrong they were, pointing to the phenomenal growth of the tree industry in the town. “Why we even send our experts to other cities and they too are building their own trees!” This worked with some, who had grown too tired to fight the status quo and decided it was just easier to fit in.

Those who continued to question the townspeople’s obsession with trees, however, found it difficult to stay. Some of those working on the trees would throw sticks or fruit at them in anger as they passed by. They called them ‘treeless ones’ and would tell them, “If you don’t like our trees you should leave our town. But then you’ll never know the joy only trees can bring.” Then they would look at each other and smile. “It’s for their own good you know. They need the food.” Finally a few moved out of town, rather than endure the continued abuse.

One day the young man who had discovered the book was walking by the resplendent, new city hall that had been built with all the money drawn to Treetown. He sat down on the plaza beneath the trees, gazing at the gilded glass case on the front of the building. Locked inside was the book that had caused so much division. He was heartbroken that what had seemed to hold such promise had caused such trouble, and he cursed the day that he’d pulled the book off of the shelf.

Soon he found a stranger sitting down beside him on the bench. “Are you okay?” the stranger asked. “You don’t look well.”

The young man looked up at the stranger and was captured by the caring look in his eyes. “I once was a ‘treefolk’ but now I am a ‘treeless one’,” sighed the young man. “I thought the trees would bring us great joy, but it all turned out to be more work and trouble.”

“What trees?” the stranger asked.

“Look around,” the young man said pointing to the trees that lined the plaza.

“Good heavens! Are those things what you’re calling trees?” the man exclaimed pointing to the towers of wood pieces, painted linen and apples hanging from string.

“That’s what they are. We built them using a book I found in the library and …”

“Wait a minute,” interjected the stranger. “What was the name of this book?”

“Uhmm… The Gardener and His Garden. It was an autobiography, I think… something like that anyway.”

“Ah, I see. So you have never seen a real tree?” questioned the stranger as he looked around the plaza.

Puzzled the young man looked at his new friend. “Aren’t these real trees? We built them as best we knew.”

“That’s not a tree! Just how much of the book did you read anyway?”

“Well just the section on trees actually. I glanced through the rest of it but it all seemed a bit boring, except the part about trees. We didn’t have any trees at the time and they sounded so incredible.”

Chuckling, the stranger stood up. “Follow me. I think I have some news for you.” Intrigued by the stranger the young man got up and followed him over to the glass case. “So you never really read the book, eh? No wonder this town is so strange.”

“What do you mean, strange?”

“The book was not about gardens or trees, but about the gardener who grows them. Real trees cannot be built; they can only be grown.”

“Grown?”

“Yes, you plant seeds in the ground, keep them watered and they will spring up into a tree that will really bear fruit.”

“Trees grow?” the young man sighed in shock. He’d never heard of such a thing. “I thought you had to build them?”

“I know my friend, but you have never seen a real tree. They cannot be built no matter how clear the description or skilled the craftsman. You can only grow them. If you had read the whole book you would have known that. You would have gotten to know the gardener and how he does his work to make beautiful trees out of the smallest seeds. There were even some seeds glued to the back of the cover so that you could plant them and watch them grow. Didn’t you see them?”

The young man had a very sick feeling in his stomach. “There were some little, round specks of some kind.”

“That’s them.”

“I thought they were just specks of dirt and cleaned them out before we enshrined the book.”

“Only those who would have taken time to read the book and get to know the gardener would have recognized them as seeds, since they were so small and look so insignificant.”

“I guess I’ve made a real mess of things.”

“Messes can be fixed,” said the stranger.

“But I’ve thrown out the seeds and now I can’t even read the parts about the Gardener.”

“Sure you can,” said the stranger, pulling a copy of the book out of his back pocket and handing it to the young man. “You see I know the Gardener who wrote this book.”

The young man took the book in his hands and his face lit up with a smile. “You do?”

“He’s my father, and I’d be happy to show you everything you need to know about him.”

“That would great!” Then flipping open the book he ran his hands across the inside of the back of the cover. “They’re here!”

“That they are! Now that you know what they’re for, let’s go plant them and watch what happens!”

“A real tree? Won’t the others be surprised!”

“That they will, my friend. That they will…”

_____________________

*David Hebden of Vancouver Island, BC helped write the last article in BodyLife and first wrote the tale that became Treetown.

Continue to our second article, Breaking Free


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Living Loved is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers.

© Copyright 2013 Lifestream Ministries
Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution.

Articles in Chronological Order | Articles by Content

Feasting on the Tree of Life

By Wayne Jacobsen with David Hebden and Paul Young
BodyLife • August 2005

For those who don’t think we truly died that day in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve chose the knowledge of good and evil over the Tree of Life, you only have to look at the human drive for personal fulfillment. Isn’t it a search for life itself? I don’t mean physical life that comes with breath and nourishment. I mean the deep, inner sense of peace and fulfillment that comes from a life well lived in the heart of God.

That’s what he created us for and everyone is looking for it in one way or another, even when they don’t realize that he is the only source of it. Many think they’ll find life if they could just find the ideal job, mate, or dream home, or circumstances free of pain or anxiety. Very few, ever get all of those to line up at the same time, and those who do, even if only for a brief time, have assured us that these things are no guarantee of true life. In fact, ideal circumstances can expose how empty our inner life really is. Just ask Solomon. All our temporal joys are fleeting and with each passing day we are all reminded by our aches and pains, both physical and emotional, that we are slowly dying and there is nothing we can do to change that.

Jesus warned us that life doesn’t consist of one’s possessions. It is not found in what one owns or controls. It doesn’t even come from finding the ideal church. True life, quite simply is the practical, knowable presence of Jesus in the reality of our days. It is an inner sense of safety and provision that our whole being is in his hands, and the fulfillment that comes from engaging his purpose in the world. This life isn’t derived from circumstances, and in fact supersedes them all. It endures the most horrendous situations and even uses them to transform us ever more to be God’s reflection in the world. I’ve watched people live in its beauty and serenity even in the most severe places of need and pain.

Jesus promised his followers again and again that his kingdom would flood their hearts with the abundance of life. He compared it to a spring of refreshing water flowing out of them and assured them that his words had in mind the fullness of their joy. These are the promises and assurances of the New Covenant – the joy of eternal life in this age with ever-increasing glory and its fullness in the age to come.

But not all believers find their way into that reality. Some do, most certainly, while others seem to search for it through a seemingly endless cycle of emptiness and frustration?

 

The Life that Really Is Life

This article is a bit different. I have two co-contributors* (some might say co-conspirators) on this piece and that’s because this is less an original article than it is an attempt to put into words something that is already coursing through the veins of the body of Christ. Over the last year I have heard numerous people from all over the world share a similar insight that has had a profound effect on transforming their spiritual lives. It has helped them find freedom from the flesh-focused attempts to please God or themselves, and allowed them to live simply in his reality. I’ve asked two of these to work on this piece with me so that we might blend our thoughts together.

Describing ‘life’ to one who has never tasted it is like describing color to someone who has been blind from birth. Even though something inside all of us searches for it desperately, it is not easy to actually define. It’s something you have to experience to appreciate and even then, it can vanish again overnight to the gnawing demands of this age. Some give up the pursuit, jaded by their disappointments. Others hope for better days, but live constantly frustrated that it eludes them. Still others pursue a relentless search to find it again. But many find that the harder they try to grasp it, the more surely it slips from their fingers.

But this doesn’t have to be. Jesus wants nothing more than to lead you into the fulfillment of an ever-deepening relationship with him. Nothing substitutes for this, not a good book, insightful teaching, doctrine or even expression of community life. Religion can’t produce it, which is why there is no correlation between someone’s religious zeal or activity and the depth of God’s life they experience.

Where is that life? It is in Him alone (I John 5:11-12), and only by learning to feast on him as the Life itself, will we ever know the reality that our hearts desperately long for. But that takes eating from a different tree than the one we’ve grown accustomed to.

 

An Independence of Painful Consequence

The drama of creation opened in a Garden called Eden where the physical creation was intermingled with spiritual reality in such a way that it was nearly impossible to determine where one stopped and the other started. The Genesis story of the Garden is dominated by the presence of two trees around which the destiny of humanity would revolve. Both trees had a spiritual essence and dramatic spiritual consequences would result from eating the fruit of either one.

The first tree was the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve were invited to eat of it freely and it would provide spiritual life that would make them immortal. But God strongly warned them about the other tree – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Though it would open their eyes to good and evil it would also bring them certain death.

Their choice to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ripped the fabric of the universe in two, separating the physical and spiritual dimensions. The consequences were immediate and fatal. They knew good and evil, but knowing they had partaken of evil flooded them with shame. No longer safe with each other, they sought coverings to hide themselves from each other and to hide from the God with whom they had walked with every day in the creation. Death had begun its work.

What had they done? Why did this one simple act rend apart the universe? How could the eating of the fruit of this Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil been so disastrous? To put it simply, this was their grand declaration of independence. Until that moment only God had defined for them what was good and what was not good (evil). Creation was good, very good. Man being alone in the garden was not good.

In one tragic act, they had taken it upon themselves to determine what was good and not good for them apart from their relationship to God. They had said, “It is good to eat of this Tree” even though God had said it was not good. And they were wrong. Though they now possessed the knowledge to determine good and evil, they had no capacity to choose the good. They could only live by their own perception of what would make them happy, not by God’s truth. The result truly was death – spiritual first, with physical death to follow.

 

Not By Principles Alone

What an unfortunate inheritance! Instead of living in God’s goodness they sought to establish their own, which turned out not to be goodness at all. Their selfishness and independence brought death into the world, the very fruit God said the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would bear. Living by our own desires and doing what we think is best for our own lives, no matter how well intentioned, will leave us bereft of his life.

Sadly enough that is not only true of our fleshy pursuits; it is also true of our spiritual aspirations. We may even think we know what God wants for us, but once we begin to use our own wisdom and preferences to get there, we often end up unwittingly working against him. Jesus exposed how easy it was for the Pharisees to use the law to subvert the law. Instead of honoring their parents by giving them what they needed, they would declare their possessions ‘dedicated to God’ so they could keep it for themselves with all the religious justification that made them look holy. (Mark 7).

That’s why we love following principles more than following Him. We can interpret principles in whatever way suits us. Even New Testament principles can be twisted to justify whatever we want and by doing so, death again works in us. How many people in the name of Jesus have exploited, and betrayed others, certain they were doing what was right? I’ve heard Scripture quoted to justify the most absurd desires – from building extravagant buildings, to treating others unjustly or pretending to withhold God’s grace to punish those that will not conform.

Subtly we are drawn into the mistaken notion that by gathering enough evidence from Scripture or the experiences of other believers, we can conclude what is good for us in any situation. However, failing to see how our own affections and desires shape our interpretations, we turn out to be wrong 90% of the time. Who of us would have confirmed Hosea’s obedience to marry the prostitute, Jesus’ surrender to his trial and execution, or Paul’s journey into Jerusalem and certain imprisonment?

We may believe that the Father only gives His children good gifts. Jesus said so, claiming his Father would never give us stones for bread or a snake instead of a fish. But if we take it upon ourselves to judge those gifts on our own terms, we’ll convince ourselves that the bread he’s giving is actually a rock that will hurt us. Some of the things in my own life which I most ardently prayed against, and was devastated when they unfolded, turned out to be the very tools he was using to carve his image in me.

Give Us A Model!

“But what does it look like?”

Whether I’m talking about personal intimacy with Jesus, or body life in his family, this is the most frequently asked question I get. And I always hesitate to answer. It’s not that I don’t know what it looks like. I do! It’s just that it can look like a lot of different things depending on the person or people involved. God’s creativity is limitless and though there are consistent underlying priorities to the way he works, those who want to know what it looks like instead of knowing him, will end up caught in someone’s model rather than following the Master himself.

Jesus didn’t leave us with models and that with good reason. He knew that any model could be easily exploited for personal gain. Instead he left us with his Holy Spirit who would guide us into all truth.

If our focus is on implementing models, no matter how Scriptural we think them to be, instead of living by the Spirit we will miss out on the fullness of his life. Don’t get me wrong. Using the Scriptures as an objective compass certainly is a significant factor in knowing how God thinks and how God works in the world. But it does not begin to cover every situation with a principle or every task with a model. It invites us to know him, and only by following him will we find the life that really is life.

In our best efforts to apply principles or implement models we will end up judging good and evil for ourselves. Though we think we’re following Scripture, we won’t realize when we are only following our misguided interpretation of it. We will still seek to please our flesh on religious terms while convincing ourselves it is his leading. Meanwhile our mindset is still on the flesh and what is most comfortable for us, and that can only lead to death. As long as I am judging what is good and evil for myself, even the most well intentioned of us will end up marooned on the beach of our own reason.

 

A New Covenant

I know many cringe when I encourage individual believers to listen to Jesus and follow him. We all know people who claimed to be obeying Jesus as they divorced their spouse for an illicit love or started some outlandish ministry to their own ego. But don’t let the abuse of something rob you of its reality. One of the greatest bondages perpetrated by religion is that Jesus is not able to make his way clear to each of us who want to follow him.

Isn’t that what Jeremiah prophesied and the writer of Hebrews said that the death of Christ fulfilled?

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And                                   they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me,                                   from the least of them to the greatest. (Hebrews 8:10-11)

How often do teachers tell us we don’t need them or that we each have an anointing from the Spirit to discern truth and error? The New Testament underscores it multiple times. That’s not to say teaching can’t be a blessing to us, but if that teaching does not equip us to cultivate our own relationship with Jesus, it robs us of what he desires most. The life of Jesus cannot be lived second-hand. You can’t find it by following guidelines and principles laid down by others, even the most gifted teachers. We experience his life only in a personal relationship where we learn to live in his purpose with his wisdom. That’s a daily reality each of us is invited to live. Do I really trust people to live like that? That’s not the point. I trust him who is able to lead his sheep, even the least of them, because they will know his voice.

He can make his way clear to you by the growing convictions that nestle in your heart as you draw close to him. Don’t worry. Following Jesus as he writes his words on your heart will not take you further from the reality of Scripture, but closer to it. He will not serve your agenda, but dethrone it as he invites you into the fullness of his life. For there is no resurrection life unless we first die to our own ambitions, our own demands and our own wisdom.

 

Dieing to the Right

Those I meet who live deeply in the life of Jesus have one thing in common: they are not using Christianity to get their way, but have abandoned their right to decide what is good or not good for themselves. That was the independence of the Garden and it will betray us every time. Even Jesus refused to do it. “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (John 5:30)

If Jesus didn’t trust his own judgment, how can we? To live in his life we have to die to the right to judge anything on our terms and learn to live out of our relationship to Father. To think we can figure out the great puzzle he is putting together, not only in our lives, but also in the lives of others around us and the church around the world, is to assume intelligence none of us possesses.

Imagine how our lives would change if we stopped wasting the energy we spend frustrated over past events or worried about future ones and used it instead to draw near to him and learn to listen to his heartbeat? He wants to lead us and for us to trust him even through the most brutal circumstances. Clearly he is capable of using even horrendous evil to advance his purpose in us. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever celebrate evil, or even that God orchestrates it, but neither will we ever give up in the face of it. Joseph was a great example here. He recognized that God was using the great evil his brothers had plotted against him to put Joseph in the very place that would fulfill his wider purpose.

The decision not to judge anything has for me been a very conscious decision with deep and profound ramifications. While I am constantly tempted to decide what is good or evil I don’t have the finished picture nor do I have all the puzzle pieces. I am only one piece in the puzzle myself and my place is not to move other pieces around but to simply rest in His hand and let Him put me where He will. I don’t even have to seek out my place in the puzzle!

 

At Rest in His Work

I’ve thought a lot lately about Peter walking on the water. What if Peter had not let the sea and wind distract him from Jesus? He might have ended up standing beside Jesus, surveying the roiling waves and tossed boat, ready for whatever Jesus wanted to do next. Yet I have more often been like Peter, crying out to him in the midst of the tumultuous seas that I ‘know’ are dangerous. Once you give up deciding for yourself whether or not the seas and the wind are dangerous you will find yourself beside Him surveying the scene secure that it is in his hands. He may see it as good and that what is ‘not good’ he will take care of anyway.

I am learning albeit, very slowly, to simply be thankful in everything including the tumults that rage in my own mind and watch in awe as He uses them as opportunities to teach me to walk on water. As long as we live to our own agenda, even what we think God might desire for us, we will miss out on the very life he is giving to us. I find my prayers changing from “God, change this!” to “Father, how are you working in this for your glory?”

When we die to the right to determine good and evil for ourselves we find the freedom to feast on the tree of Life. No longer growing frustrated when our comfort zones are breeched, we are free to see his purpose unfold and not be bogged down by our agenda. Now we are free to live in his life, not be plagued by our own agenda. This has a three-fold effect:

Freedom from our Unresolved Past: Instead of whipping ourselves with blame, or remaining paralyzed as a victim of someone else’s bondage, we can see him draw a line of purpose through our past. There is nothing so heinous that he cannot work into his plan for our lives. There is no failure that his mercy cannot overcome. In Father’s hands, even the most painful events in our past become places where he transforms us and builds his compassion for other wounded lives into our hearts.

Freedom from our Imagined futures: Jesus warned us to, “Take no thought for tomorrow” and “Be anxious for nothing.” How much of our energy for living is sapped because of our fears and anxieties about the future. But God does not live in our imagined futures. When we do, we live apart from him, which is why stress overcomes us there. By determining what good we want or what evil we must prevent, we end up manipulating everything and everyone around us.

Freedom to Live In the Moment: Jesus had the amazing ability to live in each moment with his eyes and ears on his Father. By living in each moment, free of the past, unharried by the future and divested of his own agenda, he could live in the middle of Father’s life and purpose as circumstances unfolded around him.

This is the tree Jesus wants you to feast from and the power of his cross makes it possible. As he reveals his love to you, you too, will find yourself increasingly skeptical of your own agenda and preferences. Instead of wasting all your efforts trying to sculpt your life the way you want it, you’ll find the joy of living in the middle of his purpose working out in you. You’ll be able to embrace him and his work in you as easily in times of trouble as in times of ease. And by standing in his unfolding purpose you will know the truest joy of being his son or daughter in the world.

 

*Other contributors to this article:

David Hebden and his wife, Mary, live in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and their husky, malamute and three geese. He is the father of two grown boys.

Paul Young is the blessed father of six and lives with his wife, Kim, outside Portland, OR in Eagle Creek where they have recently discovered the presence of poison oak – decidedly a part of the curse.


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Sexual Struggles on the Relational Journey

couple_silhouette_0Sexual Struggles on the Relational Journey

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • April 2005

Shocked!?!?! I hope not, some of you probably are and there’s no doubt not everyone will see these sensitive things the same way I do. I know how hard it was for me to write this and to decide to make it the subject of a BodyLife issue.

Dealing with sexuality in the context of our spiritual journeys can be a bit jarring and that is no accident. Religion doesn’t teach us how to deal with sex. Rather it prefers to keep our sexuality and our spirituality in two separate worlds. It tosses sexuality into a dark closet, slams the door and posts the rules for everyone to keep. Some can, others can only pretend to.

A few months ago, I received this desperate plea from a young mother:

“Have you any resources that you would suggest or could you address pornography addiction somehow on your site? I am struggling with hurt and I do not know who to go to. My father has struggled with this, I think my brother has, and my husband is struggling. I don’t understand it and it hurts…” (You can read my answer to her here.)

And I didn’t have anything to point to on this site. I found that incredible and sad. Sexual pleasure and sexual brokenness are common themes in our age, and they come up repeatedly every day. Why is it, then, that we rarely talk about sexuality in the context of our spiritual journeys? Scripture does not share our reticence. Sexual themes permeate its stories and teachings, highlighting not only the glory of sexuality in God’s creation, but also its power to destroy those who misuse it.

So maybe it’s time we think through sexuality and our spiritual journeys. I’ll admit that I haven’t got the final answers on any of this, but I do want to begin a discussion that will allow Jesus to bring greater freedom into this area. My observations are derived from helping a variety of people through these issues over the last 30 years.

And feel free to read between the lines here. What we learn about sexual struggles will also be true of other sins, how it is that God takes us from captivity into freedom, and how religious thinking unwittingly makes that journey more difficult.

An Incredible Gift

Some have said that God’s command to be fruitful and multiply is the only one humanity has obeyed.

Look at the incentive it took to get us to do that!

The excitement and pleasure of a husband and wife sharing themselves physically in an environment of growing love and trust is an incredible gift. It begins in the yearnings of youth and grows when held in trust for a future spouse. It grows greater through the early years of marriage as a couple shapes a sexual life together with a passion to please each other and to celebrate their love with the deepest connection and greatest joy two people can experience.

So it would be no surprise that sin would twist that gift into a weapon for our own destruction. The quest for immediate sexual gratification will always be at odds with our ultimate freedom to celebrate this gift in its most valued fashion. In a Carl’s Jr. commercial last year Playboy’s Hugh Hefner extolled the virtue of having a different kind of hamburger every night instead of the same old thing. The double-entendre was clear – sex is best with a line of ever-changing partners. How wrong he is! Mr. Hefner will never know the heights of ecstasy that can only come from growing in an exclusive, healthy and vibrant sexual relationship with the same woman over the course of a lifetime.

Sadly, many have bought into his philosophy that we can disconnect the act of sex from relationship and use it for our own amusement without any lasting damage. I am amazed how easily even teens today talk about hooking up for one-night sexual adventures, or designate ‘friends with privileges’ for those they’ll satisfy sexually with no enduring commitment. Only when our society has to pick up the pieces of sexual abuse, a marriage destroyed by an affair, young lives shattered from being sexually used and discarded, or the trauma of sexually-transmitted diseases or an unwanted pregnancy, does it really pause to reflect that maybe God knew what he was talking about.

And here our culture gives mixed messages. Almost every celebration of love, even in secular culture, expresses its yearning to be exclusive and eternal. I will love you only, and love you always. I have never performed a wedding ceremony for a couple who had held themselves abstinent until marriage, who regretted doing so. And they reap the benefits of that in the early days of marriage, discovering the joys and techniques of growing sexually together. The fact that they valued this gift and their future partner enough to save themselves is a powerful foundation upon which to build the trust in which relationship thrives.

What If I’ve Already Missed It?

Of course not everyone knew enough in their youth to make this choice, nor had strength enough to resist the temptations they faced. Others may have gone through divorce or the death of a spouse. What do we say to them?

We tend to view God’s ideal as a pass/fail test. If it is, then once you’ve missed that mark, you might as well just give up. But the New Testament makes it clear that God’s ideal is a promise of freedom that he will work in you. If you let God shape you with his desires you can still experience with ever-increasing glory God’s best for you. His forgiveness will cover your failure and his restoration opens up a new future to embrace your sexuality as God designed it.

I know it isn’t easy. My heart goes out to those who have lost their way in temptation or in the struggle with sexual thoughts and appetites. Nothing keeps men I’ve talked to from living confidently in God like the shame of their sexual failures. That struggle is made even more difficult by the sexually obsessed culture we live in. And I’m not just talking about pornography or MTV videos. So many things in our culture tear at our sexuality as Madison Avenue appeals to our sexual urges to sell everything from milk to cars. Provocative clothing has become the norm for women, and for men who are easily stimulated visually (that’s most of us!) our culture provides a constant haze of sexual stimulation. And sometimes even the most innocent glance or conversation will provoke temptation.

Sexual brokenness is rampant in our culture and manifests itself in a number of ways from outright sexual affairs, to emotional attractions for someone other than a spouse, to indulging in pornography or simply being tormented by fantasies that one cannot turn off. The accessibility of pornography and stimulating entertainments has grown exponentially in the media and on the Internet. No one has to get in their car and drive to the seedy part of town and risk being seen sneaking into an ‘adult’ store. A pit of sexual indulgence is only a mouse click away.

So we’re caught in quite a dilemma. God has given us a precious gift of sexuality and with it a drive that is often stronger than our will to resist its abuse. Our culture and the twisted nature of sin conspire to beckons us to squander God’s gift for instant gratification.

Just Say No?

Religion is notorious for underscoring the rules, demanding complicity and punishing those who fall short. It’s only counsel for sexual bondage is to just say no. If you love Jesus enough you will not yield to temptation. What kind of hope is that?

I heard a health educator to a secular audience say it as clearly as it can be said: “‘Just say no!’ hasn’t worked since the two most innocent people got it from the highest possible authority.” Adam and Eve in their innocence found themselves face to face with a ‘no’ they could not resist. If ‘just say no’ is the answer, then discipline is all we need to live free. Certainly some of us can muster enough discipline to live purely, at least outwardly. But Paul tells us that we are helpless in sin (Romans 5) and even those who may be able to deny themselves externally can still be tormented on the inside.

Jesus warned us in his Sermon on the Mount that just because you don’t commit adultery doesn’t mean you’ve fulfilled the law. If you even look at another person with lust then you’ve committed adultery in your heart. I used to hate that. I didn’t want to be guilty of something I worked so hard to deny. Of course, Jesus wasn’t telling us that if you’re thinking it you might just as well go ahead and do it. And he wasn’t trying to multiply our guilt either. What he wanted us to see is that our bondage run deeper than mere actions, and so does God’s healing.

Those who think just having the discipline to say no is Father’s fix, will find themselves either becoming proficient at hiding or excusing their failures, or give up altogether – thinking they’ll never be disciplined enough to make it in this kingdom. Amazingly those who scream ‘Just say no!’ the loudest are often caught later hiding their own failures. One pastor angered people by forcing young couples he married to confess their promiscuity to families and friends at their wedding. It came out years later that during that time that pastor was involved in an affair of his own.

As we shall see if you think piling on shame for sexual failure will deter future failures you are sadly misguided. The manipulation of shame in the face of sexual failure doesn’t advance healing; it only deepens the bondage by keeping it in the dark where it grows best. Those who struggle with sexual brokenness will find themselves acting out most when they feel condemned and distant from God.

So How Do We Fix It?

I hope I can be clear here. You can’t! You can’t! You can’t! This is not something you can do, but something Jesus can accomplish in you. The temptation to sexual indulgence is the most powerful and conflicting you’ll ever meet, and only a growing, vibrant relationship with the living God will displace its influence and free you to live God’s freedom.

I’m convinced that a lot of sexual bondage is perpetuated out of boredom and the self-focused life our society worships. A major way God displaces sin in our life is by giving us a higher purpose that captures our hearts and guides us through a day. Knowing him and engaging his agenda each day in our lives will save us from being captured in the bondage of our own comfort or amusement. So our focus needs to be less on trying not to do something as it is on engaging a reality so much larger than ourselves.

That’s not to say there aren’t specific ways we can look for God to touch our sexual brokenness. And I hope you’re not looking for a prescribed set of steps that you can follow to sexual healing. Jesus sorts these things out in a personal relationship with him and as I’ve walked with folks through these things I notice he so personalizes the healing process to the reality of each individual, that any prescribed plan would only work for a few and leave others feeling left out. So instead let me offer some thoughts that might help us recognize his work in this area.

Demystify your sexual struggles. Religion has made it a hornet’s nest of misinformation and deep-seated bias. Let me say at the outset that I embrace what Scripture says about healthy sexuality and what it identifies as sexual sin. Paul warned us that sexual failure destroys something deep inside us (1 Cor. 6) and yet it is obvious from his letters that all of the early congregations struggled with sexual temptation.

Remember you are not alone. Other brothers and sisters share your struggle. A well-known seminary did a survey a few years ago on the hidden addictions of Christian leaders and found that 55% of pastors confessed to regular use of Internet pornography. And that’s just those who were honest enough with themselves to admit it.

Sexual brokenness is not the last, great sin in the human experience. We all know what sexual temptation is like, even if the object of those temptations may be different. We’ve got to let him sort out the condemnation and humiliation religion has imbedded in sexual temptation because it only makes it stronger. And shame keeps us from the one thing that can free us from sexual bondage – a growing relationship of trust and intimacy with Jesus.

And there’s the conflict, isn’t it? I can’t be free until I have a relationship, but I’m too shamed in my failures to have the relationship. But the cross of Jesus solved that paradox. It reconciled our shame in the mercy of God, so that we would find him the safest place to be at our most broken. As we lean into him more each day, he will unwire our brokenness and channel our passions in ways that please him and fulfills his desire in us.

Walking Out of the Darkness

It might be helpful to view the struggle for freedom at three levels.

  • The first is dealing with the sexual temptations and fantasies that are a part of a normal sex drive. You don’t act on them, but they do filter into your thinking and challenge your resistance not to indulge them in ways that can result in greater bondage. The second level of bondage is marked by more protracted sexual thoughts that harass you almost constantly and which are acted out privately, either through role-playing, indulging fantasies, or viewing pornography. This includes aberrant sexual appetites, homosexuality and gender confusion.
  • The third level is overt sexual sin, engaged in with another person, either in cultivating an illicit emotional relationship or outright sexual activity.
  • Obviously the later two are of greatest concern and freedom at those levels will require an intentional choice on your part to sort out with Jesus why these fantasies have set such a deep hook in you and how it is that he will liberate you from them. Wherever you are you can start by surrendering yourself and your sexuality to Jesus. You’ve got to take this area seriously, with a desire to let him change your behavior and get whatever help you need for that to be a reality.

Let me add a caveat here about masturbation because I know that this one struggle keeps more men from walking closely to Jesus more than anything else I know. I wouldn’t suggest that self-gratification is a healthy way to deal with our sexual urges, but I find it odd that Scripture does not address something that is so prevalent in humanity. Nowhere does Scripture even mention it, must less forbid it, and that includes the story of Onan in Genesis 38.

The larger concern seems to be not the act itself, but the fantasies that go along with the act. Some think that is enough to forbid it, but I think that overreaches. This is something each one needs to sort out with God, especially knowing what he defines as sin and lust that captures our heart. And if you have to hide something from your spouse, that’s a pretty good sign it is not honorable even in your own eyes. In the meantime, don’t let this behavior push you away from Jesus, but let it draw you to him all the more.

Ask him to show you why you treat sex the way you do and why certain images incite your passions and why, beyond the rush of pleasure, do you succumb to its devices. You have to see it as more than just a moment of brief euphoria brought on by a weak will, and let him show you why it has become your drug of choice. Perhaps some formative event started you down this path, either abuse or great loss. God knows and he loves you enough to walk this through with you into absolute freedom.

As he does he will show you how sexual brokenness dehumanizes you and your spouse (even if he or she is still in the future). Real sexuality is about relationship first and pleasure second. Marriages that are affair-proof celebrate their sexuality as a relationship between best friends, not an act of pleasure or duty between two bodies.

Some Final Thoughts

Those of you who are young, it will serve you best to sort out these things early in your life. Don’t believe the world’s lie that sex can be casual and that it can be separated from a life-long relationship, or buy religion’s lie that you’re powerful enough to overcome temptation on your own.

By all means, resist sexual temptation wherever you can, for as long as you can. When you falter, don’t waste time bashing yourself or wallowing in shame. Don’t make promises you can’t keep because they will just increase your guilt and push you further from him. Instead, run to his presence, presenting yourself to him in failure and asking him what it is about you that is broken. He will show you.

Ask him to give you someone who will walk in this struggle with you. Brothers find a brother, and sisters another sister, not for accountability per se, but for compassion, prayer and support. Be careful here. Make sure this is someone you can trust to support you in the struggle, not load you up with guilt or expose your failures to others.

Beware of sexual or romantic fantasies that rob you of the true joy of sexuality. While couples can explore a variety of ways to make their lovemaking fun and playful, fantasies by definition are not reality. When you give yourself to being turned on by that which does not exist, you will miss the treasure of what does. Unrealistic fantasies do not help us enjoy sex more. They slowly dismantle real sexuality by dehumanizing your spouse and the act itself. Isn’t it amazing that with the rise of sexual imagery and exploitation in our culture, sexual dysfunction is growing at an astounding rate? I know there can be genuine physical reasons that Viagra and other enhancing drugs can be a real godsend in a marriage, but I also wonder how much of these chemicals are needed because indulging in unreal fantasies has robbed us of the truest joys right before us.

Those of you who have spouses whom you know are struggling with pornography, find a way to share that struggle together if you can do it with grace. As hard as this may be, don’t just react to it as if his indulgence in pornography is a rejection of you. These traps often get set at young ages, and are not easily broken. A man can be madly in love with his wife, care about her deeply, be turned on by her and still find pornography a cheap, temporal thrill.

This is where society has really conspired against people getting whole. The pressure on women to compete with fantasy images is unbearable. And, because women are wired differently they will see pornography as a personal betrayal. Let me assure you that that is rarely the case and your spouse was probably involved with it long before he met you. (For more comments on this, you can read the email I wrote to the young mother who first asked the question, on our website.)

I know there is much left unanswered here. How do couples build a mutually fulfilling sex life without using sex or its frequency as a weapon? Is there a difference between appreciating God’s creation in a beautiful woman without being lustful? How can women grow up healthy in a culture that judges them by external beauty and that with impossible standards? Why are some tempted by aberrant sexual desires while others are not? I can’t cover all that here but I do know that religious answers to these questions are not enough to lead people into God’s healing.

But he is enough. God wants us to experience our sexuality as the gift he gave us – joyfully linked to a life-long relationship of growing trust and joy, rather than squandering it for momentary cheap thrills that leave us empty and alone. Yes, it can be a huge battle that may take some time, but let me encourage you to take this freedom seriously and let him lead you to the gift of righteousness that a growing trust in him provides.

I said, that I hoped this article would begin a bit of dialogue, and some interesting ‘extras’ have come in. You can find that at the links below:


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OTHER TRANSLATIONS


The Struggle for Sexual Freedom

These two letters come from brothers I know personally and i thought their stories might be an encouragement and help to others. I know that God does not have a process for this kind of freedom that fits everyone, so please don’t assume you can just do what the’re doing. But hopefully they will encourage you to look to Father as your source of life and freedom in this struggle:

An Ongoing Struggle:

Wow! Way to go Wayne!

Nice opening shot on the whole sexuality thing. As you know, this has been a struggle for me over the years. Institutional churches usually do such a miserable job, and there are so few resources out there. I don’t know how others handle it. As for me, it has now been 7 years of concerted effort–counseling, prayer support buddies, small-group work/12-step stuff, etc. Things are much better, but the temptation–and “failures” remain.

The biggest obstacle is succumbing to the dirty feeling and allowing it to drive you from God and other people. Your book, He Loves Me, has been an immensely valuable resource to me and other men I know who struggle with this issue. Men struggling with this must know the truth that God’s love for them is bigger than their own feelings of failure. Men must choose to believe and accept this love. It is then that they will be able to demonstrate the paradox of “strength in weakness” that Jesus talks about.

Finding Freedom in a Long-Term Struggle

I just read your reply to the young wife and mother whose husband is struggling with pornography. I wanted to share what God’s been showing me and walking me through with this issue. As you know, I’ve been addicted to pornography and habitual masturbation since I was in junior high. I’ve never really understood why it’s been such a strong part of my life until recently.

Wild at Heart - John EldridgeI’ve been working through a book with two of the men in our group. We’ve been going through Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. My brother got it for me for my birthday and I looked at the first chapter and put it down because it seemed like another “Christian self-help” book extolling the wonders of the religious system. My wife looked through it and said there was some really good stuff in it. My brother kept asking if I’d read it yet and since it was important to him and my wife said it might be good, I started it.

I started reading it on a flight back home from a business trip and while reading into the third chapter it seemed like God just started speaking to the empty areas of my life. I started crying on the plane and then wrote my wife a five-page letter just sharing my heart with her. I’ve since been meeting with two older brothers that are more like father figures for me, and we’ve all been walking out what it means to be masculine in the heart of God. It seems like almost every week more and more of Gods call for my life is being revealed and understood. The way I view women and especially my wife has changed dramatically as well as the way I parent my children.

There are a few places where the author talks about pornography and why it’s so powerful of an addiction for men and I must admit that, at least in my life, he’s nailed it.

“What makes pornography so addictive is that more than anything else in a lost man’s life, it makes him feel like a man without ever requiring a thing of him. The less a guy feels like a real man in the presence of a real woman, the more vulnerable he is to porn”.

In another chapter….”Why is pornography the most addictive thing in the universe for men? Certainly there’s the fact that a man is visually wired, that pictures and images arouse men much more than they do women. But the deeper reason is because that seductive beauty reaches down inside and touches your desperate hunger for validation as a man you didn’t even know you had, touches it like nothing else most men have ever experienced.”

And finally….”Pornography is what happens when a man insists on being energized by a woman, he uses her to get a feeling that he is a man. It is a false strength, as I’ve said, because it depends on an outside source rather than emanating from deep within his center. And it is a paragon of selfishness. He offers nothing and takes everything.” The question of “Am I a man? Do I have what it takes? “If he can feel like the hero sexually, well, then mister, he’s the hero. Pornography is so seductive because what is a wounded, famished man to think when there are literally hundreds of beauties willing to give themselves to him. (Oh course, it’s not just to him, but when he’s alone with the photos, it feels likes it’s just for him.)”

All of these passages opened my heart and eyes to what has been going on for so long in my life. In your response to the young wife you said “For a man it is the catalyst for a cheap, momentary sexual thrill, and not much more.” But in my life it’s not been just a cheap thrill but so much more. It’s been one of the things that I’ve turned to feel like I’m somebody, that I’m loved by someone. I’ve known all along that it was sinful and NOT the answer, but when you don’t know how much God loves you and trust him to bring you life, you go to what you know works.

My earthly father is a passive, weak man, who’s never ushered me into genuine masculinity. I’ve never known what and who God’s called me to be so I’ve been looking. Looking into everything from being a great drummer on a worship team, to a great employee at work, and when I got married, the best husband and father. But of course, when all of those ambitions failed, there was always my fantasy women who would “comfort” me. Who would make me feel alive again!

It seemed like the compulsion to masturbate was strongest after having a big fight with my wife. I’d run off, either out of the house or simply to the bathroom and I’d either feel like a failure or be so angry at her for not loving me that I’d fantasizing about women who did love me and wanted me for the person I was or who I wanted to be. Pornography is so powerful because it offers a generation of men whose masculinity is under assault by the world, the enemy, and even the church, a way of “feeling” like a man.

It’s also so damaging. I’ve objectified women and especially my wife most of my life. I haven’t been there to offer my wife my strength as a man and husband but instead looked to her to fulfill it in me. I’m so blessed that she’s still with me. What an incredible woman to put up with a sex addict and an alcoholic for over 13 years. I’m happy to say that we’re actually moving toward each other in relationship and it’s a joy.

I’ve been experiencing freedom from the addiction more than I ever had and it’s been through understanding that I am valuable to Father, that he has an adventure for me live, a battle to fight, and a beauty to rescue. That I’m a warrior in his kingdom. That his love for me that is powerful. It’s also helped to have a couple of brothers I can talk to. One of the brothers had an affair as a pastor and being able to share my struggles with someone who’s been there and can empathize and help walk through finding Father has been invaluable.

A Couple Struggles with Pornography

couple_silhouette_0This is the exchange I had with a young wife and mother struggling with her husband’s addiction. I think it is important for all sides to see how this is not some victimless pursuit and how couples can work together to sort through the bondage and find freedom.

This is the email I received:

Have you any resources that you would suggest or articles or could you address this subject some how on your site or something? Pornography addiction. I am struggling with hurt and I do not know who to go to. My father has struggled with this, I think my brother has, and my husband is struggling. I don’t understand it and it hurts. I think God has really used it to teach me about forgiveness and this is good, but it is hard and I don’t know who to talk to. In the past in our institutional church this sin was yelled about from the pulpit and people were condemned and yet no one talked about it. There was never any help offered or anything. It seems to be a much bigger problem than I ever realized and all these men are believers.

Here’s how I responded at the time:

No I don’t have anything on my website about this, but perhaps I should. Probably 60–70% of guys I know (and that includes men who are serioulsy trying to follow Jesus and walk in his righteousness) have struggled with this at some point in their lives and all the more because of its easy availability on the Internet. It was one thing when a guy had to go into a store to buy it and risk being seen, plus hiding it at home, but quite another when it shows up unsolicited in your email box every morning. This is a really, really tough temptation and requires tons of prayer, usually a helping relationship from someone who understands the struggle, and an aggressive, growing relationship with God to displace the temptation itself.

I know this probably won’t sound like it helps at all, but a husband’s use of pornography isn’t personal. A man can be madly in love with his wife, care about her deeply, be turned on by her and yet find pornography an easy addiction to succumb to. This is where society has really conspired against people getting whole here. The pressure on women to compete with fantasy images is unbearable. And, because women are wired so much more differently they see pornography as a personal betrayal when the man is not thinking that way at all. They think men turn to pornography because the wife is inadequate either visually, physically or sexually. Let me assure you that that is rarely the case.

For a man it is the catalyst for a cheap, momentary sexual thrill, and not much more. Men are easily excited sexually by visual images and pornographic writings. Whatever turns on their fantasies (and it differs greatly even among men) is an almost irresistible draw, sometimes multiple times throughout the day. I think it is like overeating or shopping or whatever else tempts you regularly. You can say no to the desire often throughout the day, but it is impossible to do throughout the entire day without major intervention by Jesus.

And you’re right, there is little written that helps a man find a grace-based freedom from this bondage. Pressure, condemnation and guilt actually only increases the bondage. Strange, isn’t it? The dirtier they feel, the less they feel capable of struggling with it and the less inclined they feel to draw near to Jesus. It is easy to think their failure is proof that they don’t love him or aren’t committed enough. But without the closeness of relationship, the bondage will only grow deeper. Even the anger or hurt of their wife, won’t alone be enough to turn the tide. And if a man is feeling like a failure at work, or as a husband, or is depressed about what God isn’t doing in their life the temptation becomes all the greater. Pornography provides a cheap, easy sexual thrill during the day and it usually doesn’t mean much more than that to him. Except, however, for the believer who finds the guilt of failure, deep and unrelenting.

What can you do?

You will need help from the Lord not to take your husband’s bondage to visual stimulation as a rejection of you personally, or that he wants someone more attractive. That is rarely, if ever the case. You can live in freedom about yourself and your relationship even if he never finds the victory he craves.

If he wants you to share this journey for healing with him and he with you (and I don’t often recommend that wives do this because it is usually incredibly painful for them), then this is something you’ll want to pray about regularly together, not by focusing on the sin, but by focusing on Jesus together. Finding healing that endures from this temptation only comes when God’s presence becomes so real that the dark desires it serves are displaced by his presence.

What would be valuable is communicating together about your own sexual relationship. Talk about frequency, fantasies that you can play out in the bedroom together without debasing yourselves or the gift of sex as God gave it. Having a healthy, fun, sexual relationship together can help expose pornography as the cheap illusion it is. In time he needs to see that he is robbing you of the sexual energy he would bring to the bedroom by playing it out alone.

Pray for him, and find ways to encourage him as a man of God, even with the struggle he’s in. The more he’ll see himself as God’s child, the less he will need to give in to the temptation.

What can he do?

I thought I would just add this, even though there is no way you can, or even should, try to get him to do these things. When he is ready to let the Lord have this, he will want to find a process that brings him into freedom.

He needs to pursue relationship with Jesus in the midst of his bondage, and do not see this bondage as a barrier to relationship. Relationship will free him from the bondage, it is not the reward for him finding his own freedom. Jesus knows how strong our sexual urges are and he has grace enough to hold us in our failures while he rewires in us what finds release in cheap sexual thrills.

He needs to lean into Jesus and aggressively hold his bondage to pornography before the Lord. Each day, perhaps multiple times per day, he can say to God, “Father would you displace in me what draws me to this sin. Would you become so real in my life that I will no longer succumb to its temptation.

He should never give up saying ‘no’ as much and for as long as he is able. Sexual temptation seems to have a spiraling effect. Like illegal drugs, the more you give in to it, the more you want it. Reversing that trend by relying on Jesus is very important.

Finding another brother with whom he can honestly share this struggle is also important. The point here is not accountability but support and encouragement to help him think the way God thinks about pornography and find the true, deep and abiding freedom. It may take some time, so don’t grow impatient with the process.

I don’t know if any of this helps. As I finished this I want you to know that this is the first time I’ve ever tried to write on this, though I have had hundreds of conversations with men about it. My thoughts may not be as clear as I would want them to be, but I may keep working on this over time and eventually post it on the website somewhere. So, if something doesn’t make sense, please ask me, because I may be nuts. This is something worth discussing, however, because it is a trap that affects many lives and marriages.

I’ll pray for you as you continue to let God sort this out in those you love…

Wayne

The Church That Jesus Builds: Living in the Relational Church – Part 10

wedding_0The Church That Jesus Builds: Living in the Relational Churh – Part 10

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • December 2004

“You want to know what I’ve learned this weekend?” the man said as he drove me to a Midwest airport early one morning. We’d just spent an incredible weekend together with a house church he’d helped foster and another group of believers who joined us when they heard I was in town. The latter were deeply conflicted about their current involvement with a congregation that sounded abusive. “I’ve been selling the wrong thing!” he continued.

“What’s that?” I asked oblivious to what we were talking about.

“I’ve been selling house church,” he said shaking his head with a sigh, “instead of Jesus.” Obviously he wasn’t talking about ‘selling’ anything, but I love his discovery. Almost everywhere I go people are preoccupied with finding the right way to do church. It seems our hunger for church outstrips our hunger for Jesus.

In one house church meeting a few years ago I heard a woman share a dream she had the night before about a bride endlessly primping in the mirror and admiring her own beauty. She fussed with her hair, make-up and dress making sure everything was perfect. Meanwhile she saw the groom standing at the altar checking his watch and wondering why his bride had not come. What a sad and lonely picture of too many believers in our day. We are so focused on ourselves and what the church should look like that we’ve forgotten our joy is in the bridegroom – Jesus himself!

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last decade visiting expressions of the body of Christ all over the world, it is that those preoccupied with doing church rarely get to experience body life to its full, while those who are preoccupied with Jesus find church life that is vibrant and awesome.

Search for the Church

In the last 40 years hundreds of books have been written about church renewal. I have watched countless people move from mainline to charismatic to mega-church to prayer-based to power-centered to cell church to seeker-sensitive to renewal to purpose-driven to house church to emerging church and the list just keeps getting longer. Some have even gone back to liturgical services, finding solace in its aesthetic beauty and safety. As one man confessed, “I just wanted to meet with Christians where I didn’t have to worry about someone flopping on the floor like a beached fish.”

These movements last only briefly spearheaded by a gifted speaker who draws a large following and then claims he has at last found the Biblical way to do church. After the euphoria of the alleged ‘new wineskin’ wears off in 3 to 5 years, people find themselves frustrated with the results and have to look again for another expression of church that fulfills the cry of their heart.

I understand the hunger. The Scriptures paint a compelling picture of God’s church – brothers and sisters growing in their relationship with Jesus and each other in a way that transformed them. They loved each other, grew together in God’s wisdom, shared their possessions together freely, and saw him reveal himself in extraordinary ways to them and their culture.

Was it perfect? Of course not and Scripture graciously made that clear as well. They struggled through failures and sin. They had to deal with those who tried to exercise control over others and brothers and sisters who preferred the comfort of false teaching to the challenge of the true. But throughout God kept making his way and truth known. They were filled with awe and God’s grace multiplied among them in demonstrable ways.

Who wouldn’t want that? But those expressions of church life have been rare and brief in our day. What passes for church today makes us spectators rather than participants, manipulates people’s shame rather than setting them free from it, prefers the rigidity of obligation to the power of love, is more contemptuous of the world than more relevant in it, and rewards cooperative pawns in someone else’s program rather than growing disciples of Jesus himself. No wonder so many people are disillusioned with it. Yet the search goes on, like birds drawn on an inexplicable migration, to a land they’ve never seen.

Beyond House Church

What compounds this search is that all that calls itself the church is not really the church. After 2000 years of Christian history, the term is used for institutions that provide a Christian experience through rituals, clergy and tradition. Some of the best of these actually provide an environment where people can come to know Jesus, grow in Biblical truths and connect in real fellowship so that in and around these institutions some people find expressions of church life.

However, there are increasing numbers of people who find that expression incredibly limited. Some have spilled out of abusive systems where the control of insecure leaders and the priorities of the institution overran any legitimate spiritual life. Still others grew unsettled with the time and money invested in building and institutional politics and found that those who get to the top of such groups often have little of Father’s character and even less of his passion.

I am continually amazed by the number of people I run into who have left those institutions who were once respected leaders in it – pastors, elders, teachers, deacons and board members. Some left rather than submit to ungodly demands made of them, but others did so because they grew convinced that the institution didn’t fulfill their hunger to live as the church. Loyalty was valued over honesty, arrogance over tenderness, entertainment over spiritual growth and the survival of the institution over loving people.

One denominational official confronted his own organization, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.” People are waking up to a new reality, and finding the way they have learned to “do church” in the past doesn’t serve their hunger to know Jesus more intimately and to share that life with others more effectively.

Many of these initially turned to house church, hoping its more Biblical dynamics would provide the Promised Land they hungered for. But they soon find it a mixed bag as well. Their excitement at the relational dynamics of a smaller group fades when they discover there are still people who wanted to control it from within or mold it into new networks from without. They find relationships awkward as people are more focused on a method than on following Jesus. They often face the same religious demands for conformity and commitment and they find the same our-group-is-better superiority that separates them from other Christians and from the world by breeding contempt for unbelievers, rather than compassion.

Now increasing numbers find themselves beyond house church still wondering where they can find authentic church life, or even if it exists at all.

An Undeniable Hunger

A sad reality is that many who break free of systems of religious obligation sometimes find themselves using freedom as an excuse to fulfill long-restrained appetites in the things of the world. They don’t always fall into great sin, but their spiritual hunger is swallowed up by their search for pleasure. I cringe when it happens, but I know for many it will only be a phase. Having worked so long and so hard for God with so little enduring fruit in relationship with him or with others, their frustration often spills out in careless personal indulgence.

For those who have been touched by Jesus, this season won’t satisfy and out of it a new passion for a real connection with Jesus emerges. Beyond their disappointments, beyond the failure of others, their hunger to find real life among God’s people surfaces again and again. I am amazed at the resiliency of this hunger to find life in Father’s family. Even those who have been abused or frustrated in their attempts to find it in the past, still find that undeniable hunger rising even beyond their resolve to go it alone. Once you’ve tasted genuine fellowship where dear friendships inspired your journey and opened up new vistas into God’s nature, you won’t be satisfied by anything less. Most have experienced some taste of that in the early days of a new fellowship, in an informal Bible study or with a close friend.

Certain there must be a consistent way for believers to share this incredible journey they read voraciously anything they can find on the church, search the Internet to see if anyone else has found it and keep going to any group in their area that sounds promising. While some find answers and connections others find themselves with passions ignited that leave them feeling increasingly isolated when they can find no one locally to share it with.

Perhaps we’re finally waking up to the fact that Jesus didn’t tell us to build his church. He said he would do that. He told us to abide in him, love others as he loves us, proclaim the gospel and help others learn to follow him. If we are focused on those things instead of trying to do his work, I’ve no doubt we’ll see the church springing up all around us.

The church that Jesus is building continues to grow the world over and you are no small part of that. Even if you feel alone in your journey, he is creating a passion in your heart for a purpose you may not yet see. I suspect in the next few years we will see Jesus bring his body together in ways we cannot even fathom now. I see two trends in our culture that excite me. First, an increasing number of believers are growing disillusioned with the rituals of organized religion. Second, an increasing number of nonbelievers are contemplating spiritual issues and hungering for authentic relationships. It will be interesting to see how these realities converge in the days ahead.

Recognizing His Church

Though I don’t expect to see a perfect expression of the body of Christ on the planet before Jesus returns, that doesn’t keep me from beholding her glory nonetheless. I have witnessed again and again all over the world the miracle of people sharing the life of Jesus together in growing compassion, wisdom, care and freedom. I’ve watched God connect people who had a profound impact on each other’s lives and had great joy in doing so.

I am reticent to define what Jesus’ church looks like, because I am convinced people know it when they touch it. Church is not a place to go or an organization of any kind. It is the network of relationships we share with other believers where Jesus is the only focus (Colossians 1:18) and we are free to grow in him (Ephesians 1:21; 4:18-20). You’ll recognize the life of Jesus’ church where people have the freedom to be honest without being attacked (John 4:24 – See sidebar Being Real), where they can disagree without being less loved (Romans 13), where they can be encouraged to their best without being manipulated by someone else’s agenda (I Corinthians 14), where guilt is lifted off each other instead of heaped on (Romans 8:1-4), where they lovingly care for each other’s practical and spiritual needs (Philippians 2:4), where they are set free from obligation to live in love (Galatians 5) and where God’s purpose in us comes into sharper focus (John 17, Ephesians 1). In short it is a family in the best sense of the word, brothers and sisters growing together under Father. People like this will find ways to gather regularly in various arrangements as God leads, but their relationships are the focus, not their meetings. Where you find people like that you’ve found the body of Christ. Of course these may happen around existing institutions, though no institution can ultimately contain it. They also happen outside institutions in the normal course of our lives as Jesus sets us in his body just as he desires (I Corinthians 1:18).

Where Can I Find That?

Relational community is not rocket science. The more we try to organize it the more we will siphon the life right out of it. When I was in junior high school I watched my parents move from being nominal church attendees to passionate believers. Caught up in the early days of the Charismatic renewal of the mid-1960s they began to discover just how real Jesus wanted to be in their lives and found many of their friends shared that hunger. Without any of the hassles of an institution they met house-to-house, shared meals and resources, and even invited in more mature believers to help them make sense of what God was doing in them.

The congregation they all attended on Sunday mornings soon grew threatened by their newfound fervor and soon forced them out. Excited, they moved their Friday night ‘prayer meetings’ to Sunday mornings to ‘start their own church.’ I remember even as a young man being amazed at how quickly their joy, enthusiasm and spontaneity faded away in the demands of getting organized, planning Sunday services, and staffing children’s ministries. Soon they were bickering over how things should be done and how money should be spent, rather than growing in Jesus.

I’ve seen that happen so many times since. Thinking we can make church life better by organizing it, we almost always unwittingly sacrifice it to the institutional needs that bear so little fruit. Church life is the natural fruit of people growing in Jesus and in friendships with people near them. It isn’t always easy to find people with that kind of passion, but Father has some interesting ways to connect them.

What You Can Do

You certainly cannot make church happen by your own effort but neither will it come banging on your door while you watch TV. There are some things you can think through that will help you see how God might be connecting you to other believers:

First, live the journey. You don’t find life in Jesus by finding the right group; you are connected with the family out of your relationship to the Head, Jesus. Isn’t it sad that people who have ‘attended church’ for 20, 30 or 40 years, have no idea how to listen to Jesus and do what he wants. We have so equipped them to live by principles that they have never learned to follow his voice. Learn to live in him. Discover how secure you are in his love and how much you can trust his work in you. Read the Scriptures so you will learn to think like he thinks and recognize his voice. If you know a few others who want to grow in this too, share that journey together.

Second, cultivate relationships. As you grow secure in Father’s love you will find yourself loving others in the same way, and not just Christians but people in the world, too. You’ll come to recognize that God works primarily through relationships. So join him in building relationships however God gives them to you. He might lead you to a group of folks already gathering or to some individual relationships among your neighbors or co-workers. He might call you to get involved with others in what are commonly called ‘parachurch’ ministries, such as a rescue mission, prison or youth outreach, or prayer gathering, or he might lead you to open your home for a Bible study or fellowship group. God knows how to connect you with folks he wants you to know. Be prepared to give some time to those relationships by doing things together – sharing a meal, helping on a household project, or going out together. Too few people actually initiate these kinds of encounters and yet they are critical to growing friendships.

Third, share the journey. Who has God put around you that you can open up your life to? It may be one person or a handful. They may live across town or work across the hall. Find a way to share God’s life together. Admittedly this will be awkward at first because we’re not used to these kinds of conversations, but this is a joy worth learning. Share insights from Scripture or things you’re learning, pray together about situations you’re encountering and what God is doing in you and learn to listen to him together as you encourage his work in others. As your friendships grow you’ll find yourself increasingly free to be more open, honest and confessional about your struggles and be able to garner the wisdom and strength God has given to others.

Fourth, learn to lay down your life. Community doesn’t happen where everyone grabs for what they want, but where they follow Jesus’ example of laying down their lives for others. As long as we only look out for ourselves we will pass like ships in the night, and even if we meet every week we’ll end up feeling alone. Laying down your life for others will open the doors to real community.

Fifth, explore relational community. As your relationships grow you might find some people or families who feel called to walk together for a season. There is no better expression of body life than brothers and sisters who want to share God’s life with some regularity and intentionality. Don’t try to ‘start a church’, just grow in what it means to care for each other through the real circumstances of life. Include entire families. Get together regularly, but also cultivate those relationships beyond the meetings. Share your resources, gifts and time as Jesus leads you. Look for ways God might give you away to others in the community, individually or collectively to reveal him in our world or bless other believers with help in growing spiritually and support each other in that process. Be careful not to limit your relationships just to those in the group and don’t try to make your community permanent. Enjoy what God gives you in each season and be open to moving on to other relationships when Jesus so leads.

And If You Want Help…

Learning to live as the church Jesus is building will challenge long-held paradigms. Most of us have been taught to be passive learners. If we need something, someone else will tell us what it is. Growth in this kingdom doesn’t happen that way. Those who find life are not afraid to knock, to ask, or to seek.

If you’re struggling to know how to live deeply in Christ, connect with other Christians, or have a group that can’t sort out how to share this journey together, it is often helpful to sort things out with a brother or sister that might be a bit further down the road in some areas. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. At every stage of my journey, God has always put someone nearby to help confirm things I’m seeing and to help me think outside the limitations of my own previous experience. But I sought out those relationships. They didn’t come to me.

There are also gifts God has distributed through the body (Ephesians 4:11-13) to help equip people to live this journey. You won’t recognize them by their titles since the real ones won’t use them, or by their popularity since most fly under the radar, or even by their writings since most don’t write. God will link you to those he desires through relationship. You’ll recognize in their demeanor Father’s nature. You’ll hear in their words his voice. And time with them will draw you to Father and free you to trust him more. They will leave you focused on him not on trying to implement some method or set of principles. They help people unload their guilt and shame and never exploit it even in an attempt to get them to do the right thing. They have patience with those who struggle and are not defensive when people challenge them with honest questions. They don’t see themselves as experts above you, but as brothers or sisters alongside and will never pressure you or try to make you dependent on them. Their joy comes in your greater reliance on Father’s work in you.

It may require you to think outside the box, but learning to live in the church Jesus is building is worth every moment of the journey. He does want you to know the joy of walking alongside other brothers and sisters and finding them a powerful addition to the life you’re finding in him. Try not to lose your heart for that, even if it only looks like a distant mirage. I assure it is real enough and part of God’s plan to bring all things together under one head!

SIDEBAR:

Being Real

The following paragraph was adapted from “Will the Real You Please Stand Up!” a Lifestream Audio Collection, by a sister from Texas:

It’s OK to question what I need to question, ask what I need to ask and struggle where I struggle. I’ve learned that I am not rewarded for pretending to be better than I am, but that experiencing the life of God means that I am loved through the ups and downs, hurts and joys, and doubts as well as triumphs. Instead of exploiting people’s shame or need for approval to try and make them better Christians, I encourage people to go to God for healing and restoration from shame so they can experience for themselves the love of God.

Instead of loading others up with a list of `shoulds’, I tell people that God is working by “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” and his greatest desire is to communicate with them. I talk about learning “how to” listen to God and follow what he puts on their heart even if that means they make a mistake doing so. Instead of trying to change people I urge them to get to know Christ as life because it’s so much fun (and far more effective) watching him change them. Instead of manipulating others to do what I think would benefit me and my definition of God’s will for them.

I’ll share as much of your journey as I can to help lighten your load. If you’re in pain or in despair, I’ll be there for you as Father sorts things out. I don’t know that I’ll always have what you need, but I will at least be there with you so you won’t have to go it alone.


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OTHER TRANSLATIONS


Breaking Free

butterfly_0Can someone try too hard to walk with God?

Absolutely!

I know that sounds odd, but relationship with the Living God cannot be earned by human effort, even extensive human effort. And sometimes those trying the hardest to make it happen, find themselves furthest from it. It breaks my heart to find people there. Religion never tires of telling us to try harder and giving us an increasing array of tasks to ‘help’ us find him.

Our self-effort still focuses on us, however, and we end up missing Jesus, who is right there to lead us into relationship with his Father. This is something he does at our invitation, not something we can do by our diligence.

Recently I met a man who was struggling with this very thing. If a relationship with God could be earned, this man would have earned it. He is a humble man, with an honest heart. He had spent decades in Bible study, prayer, teaching seminars, and local congregational leadership, trying to do whatever he knew to please God and was frustrated at how fruitless it had been. He felt as if God was a million miles away and had abandoned him in some of his greatest struggles. The first time I rode with him, he poured out decades of anguish and told me how empty he felt.

Over the next few days we talked about learning to live in Father’s affection, rather than trying to earn it. I encouraged him to relax in his walk with Jesus, to give up trying to control it and simply let Jesus take him for the ride of his life. It wasn’t easy for him. It isn’t easy for any of us. Religion has taught us that our relationship with God depends on our diligence, our commitment and our effort. It robs us of true relationship while piling on obligations that wear us out. I don’t know exactly what finally connected with him. I rarely do. But two weeks after I returned home I received a letter from him.

I have shared this letter on my blog, Brad and I discussed it on The God Journey and I’m reprinting it here because it is an incredible look at the beginning stages of someone breaking free of religion to find a real relationship with God. I hope it encourages some of you to give up on your own efforts without giving up on how this Father really feels about you and what he wants to do in you:


This journey that I am on is really something else. I thought you might be interested to hear what the Lord is doing. First I want to tell you that I can’t remember any conference I’ve attended having the same lasting affect on me that your weekend visit has so far. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I suppose I hear at least a hundred times a day, “Relax!” I never realized just how much of my life has been based on performance, or how deeply ingrained has been the idea that somehow I must produce the things that Jesus wants to see in me. You can well imagine the sense of relief and freedom I am feeling. Your CDs are a big help, but more importantly I am hearing more clearly than ever before directly from Father Himself. How wonderful!

All the things I used to do that were spiritual (more religious, actually) are being overhauled into a new dynamic. Now, I find that my days are filled more with fellowship with Him and that the things I used to do to get close to Him are woven into our relationship as I walk through each day. And in that I am discovering how desperately I have always needed a Father, one that I never had. And He is revealing Himself as my Father! Man, oh man!!!

The other day I was struggling through some disappointments when I lost it and threw a mini-tantrum. After I calmed down, I went back to Father to apologize. Same old perspective – You are Holy God and who am I to challenge you like that, etc. What he said stunned me, “You never had a father to whom you could express yourself like that. And when you did it would have been better if you hadn’t.” Then he showed me a picture of how I was with my sons when they did the same thing, reminding me that I didn’t punish them but let them vent, encouraged them, and came along side of them to work through the issues with them.

Wayne, I have never made the connection until now – honestly. God showed me that that’s how he is! Matter of fact he said – “You are my son! I understand and here I am to work through it with you. We are partners in this.” Isn’t that amazing? He actually said that to me.

Then a little while later I was thinking about Scripture and pondering something I had read. Father said, “you know, the problem is that all along you’ve viewed the Scripture from the perspective of ‘must do’, ‘must perform’, ‘must make happen’. All along the Scripture has been intended to be viewed from the perspective of discovery of who I am and who you are and all that I have for you and intend to work in you but only in the context of relationship with me.” This is amazing-probably elementary to you but a real revelation to me.

So, this is how my journey is starting out, Wayne. I understand now what you meant about Father’s “tangible” love. I’m experiencing it. It’s not an emotion but something a lot deeper. There’s a connection that’s never been there before and the reason I know it’s true is because it is there day after day, all day, – not fleeting like emotions. I am beginning to have a sense of sonship with my Father. And He is answering literally, lifelong cry of my heart – to know Him and know His love. I can’t get my mind around the freedom and peace I am experiencing. I can’t get my mind around this sense of being a son and having a father. It’s amazing!


It truly is amazing! Look at how his entire perspective has shifted. Instead of trying to get God’s life for himself, he’s beginning to know the Father as a constant companion who is rewriting how he looks at God, himself, the Scriptures, and life itself. Jesus is doing this work in him, and even though he will go through some ups and downs in the days ahead, he can walk through them certain of Father’s affection and presence with him. That’s where this journey thrives.

So, if you find yourself in the same frustration and despair of religious practice that my friend was in at the start of this story, don’t let this letter be one more incredible story for someone else! I hope it inspires you to launch out on a similar journey yourself.

No, it won’t happen the same way. You are too unique and Jesus too creative to resort to formulas, but Jesus will carve out for you a relationship with his Father that is tangible and grows with each passing day. He wants you to cease from your own labors and learn to relax into a relationship that he desires more than you do. All you need to do is ask him.


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What Is God Asking Of You?

stepping_stones_0What Is God Asking Of You?

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • September 2004

It’s been there for quite a while – a sense that Jesus is asking something of you. It doesn’t nag you at every moment, but often something will happen or something will be said that triggers your memory and brings it to your attention again. Suddenly you’re aware of a deeper stirring in your heart and even excited to think how it might come to be. Maybe you’re even reminded of it right now while you’re reading this.

But just as quickly that sense so often fades as it gets swallowed up in the daily demands of 21st Century living. Responsibilities at work, chores at home, family needs and the busyness of life take hold of our day and sends us careening from circumstance to circumstance until fulfilling our obligations takes up almost all of our time. We find ourselves so exhausted in the moments that remain that we can only muster enough energy for some brief amusement before falling into bed and starting the rat race again the next day.

This is the cycle of spiritual stagnation that can easily ensnare any of us. Instead of living in the adventure of Jesus’ work and purpose in our lives each day, we get sucked into the world’s way of thinking and focused only on daily survival. When that happens we become part of it again, so preoccupied with jobs, homes and activities that we lose our awareness that we are part of a greater kingdom. Even our spiritual passion is robbed by trading Jesus’ ever-present voice for the obligations, traditions and models others tell us we must employ.

We think we’re stuck in a dry time and that God’s presence has passed us by when nothing could be further from the truth.

Focus!

He’s right where he’s always been, deep in your heart using everything he can to invite you alongside him so that you can participate in his glory. He will continue to offer you the next step in the journey and will wait for you to follow. That’s why it is important for us to cultivate a heart that recognizes when he speaks and is intentional about following through as he shows you how. This is how we go on the adventure of living in him and escape the world’s attempts to press us into its mold.

Jesus told his followers that their continued growth in his love would come as they followed his ways. “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10) He was not talking here about observing the law, but about doing what he saw his Father doing every day. There is no life, passion and joy in this kingdom without Jesus leading us and the choices we make to follow as best we can. He wants to be the voice that steers you through every situation, the peace that sets your heart at rest in trouble and the power that holds you up in the storm.

What is he asking of you right now? It could be as simple as taking a treat to a neighbor and getting acquainted, or as life-changing as using a gift God has given you to help advance his kingdom in the world. He might be encouraging you to start a lunch-time study at work, or help some brothers and sisters near you to find more intentional ways of living out community. He could be asking you to give money to someone in need, open a door to reconcile a broken relationship, or come alongside another person in what he has called him or her to do. Or it could be a million other possibilities.

A Voice We’ve Been Taught To Ignore

The world makes fun of the notion that God still speaks to individuals. Some well-intentioned believers do as well. And you really can’t blame them. You probably know a number of people who have done ridiculous or destructive things all the while claiming God told them to do so. It’s enough to give listening to God a bad name. But just because people pass counterfeit money doesn’t stop us from using the real thing. At the heart of our life in Jesus is the freedom to hear him and follow him. Paul told the Romans that this life wasn’t about following rules anymore, but about following Jesus, “But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way.” (Romans 6:22 – The Message)

Learning to think with God through our day is not the upgraded, only-for-special-people, option of the life of Christ. This is the basic, stripped down version of the life Jesus purchased for us. He wants you to learn how to think through every event and encounter with his wisdom and heart, recognizing his prodding and following him. The New Testament reminds us over and over again that each of us can know him, so that no one needs to tell us what to do, or decide for us what is truth or error. (John 16:13, Hebrews 8:11; I John 2:20 & 27).

What is he doing in you? What is he asking of you today? Almost everything I’m involved in today as a part of God’s life in me resulted from simple actions I felt God asked of me years ago. Some of them were as small as making a phone call, volunteering at my daughter’s school, spending time developing relationships or walking away from a conflict with a brother when I would have preferred to fight. Each choice set off a chain reaction that opened doors that have astounded me. At no time did I foresee with any accuracy how those things would turn out but I am amazed at what can unfold from the simplest obedience.

A Growing Conviction

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I don’t sit down every morning and hear God tell me to go do this or that. It isn’t that contrived. Most times God speaks to me through a growing conviction in my heart over a period of time. Like everyone else I have fleeting thoughts and desires that sound like him initially, but soon prove to come from me and not him. How am I learning to tell the difference?

Give it some time. If it is not a spur of the moment opportunity like talking to someone on a plane, I let it settle for a few days. As I regularly spend time with Jesus, and season my mind with Bible reading and with the insights of other believers, I find God’s leading becomes increasingly clear over time. This growing relationship causes his voice to rise above the distraction and distress of the world’s ways.

I also measure whatever I’m hearing to the content and spirit of Scripture. Is this consistent with how God has revealed himself and how he works?

I never trust what answers my anxieties the easiest. Jesus warned us in Matthew 6 that a rising tide of anxiety would wash away our freedom to think kingdom thoughts. He reminded us that only by trusting God’s care for us would we be at rest enough to know his ways.

I don’t listen to guilt. Guilt drives us away from God’s wisdom. Too many think they will only be led by God when they finally stop some temptation or act more disciplined. But they have it backwards. We cannot conform our flesh to God’s ways but we can be led of him until our flesh is displaced by his presence and insight.

It also helps to let go of the tyranny of your own agenda. We all have things we want Jesus to do in our lives and the way we want him to do them. But our presumption that we know the best way to get there will keep us from simply doing things the way he asks of us. He is the one that taught us that you get to the top by serving and that first in line is found at the back. The more you grow to trust him to fulfill his purpose in you his way the easier it will be to recognize how he is doing it.

Don’t let your sense of incompetence keep you from following. Your natural mind won’t always be able to figure it out. You are not going to feel qualified to do what he asks of you, but he will go with you and empower you to do it. But you only experience that if you follow him far enough to see his hand at work through you.

And yes, you’ll make some mistakes along the way; no one who walks this way avoids them. I certainly made my share in my younger days and am far from perfect at it now. But learning to follow him comes as much from our mistakes as it does getting it right. Experience is a valuable tool in the hands of God’s Spirit.

And always be suspicious when you think what God is telling you is to make someone else to do something. God will lead you to follow him, not get you to make others do so. When God asks you to follow him, you will be the one to take the risk and pay the price for it, not someone else. While he may use us to confirm something he is already telling others, we will not need to manipulate them to be true to what he’s doing in us.

Now It’s Your Turn…

Few weeks go by that I don’t hear of some incredible thing God is doing in people just because of their intentional choice to follow what God has put on their heart. A woman wrote me last week telling me how God was bringing her out of spiritual bondage that resulted from prolonged abuse by her parents simply by following what he has been asking her to do. He’s given her simple steps to follow, but the freedom it is working into her life is amazing. I know people caring for people living with AIDs with the love of Jesus today because God asked one woman to go back and care for her gay ex-husband as he was dying of that horrible disease.

I know a man who sings in a mostly-gay civic chorus because God asked him to demonstrate God’s love to the other members. I know many people around the world who have found amazing expressions of New Testament community simply by listening to God together and following his voice. I know deep and life-changing relationships that started just because someone picked up a phone or made a visit in response to God’s leading. All of these things and the fruit that flows from them came from incredibly small choices to be part of something God put on their heart. It is amazing what will unfold in our lives when we are ready to obey the growing conviction in our hearts.

What has he put on yours? Find the time to simply ask him if you have lost sight of it. If nothing becomes clear in the next few days, don’t be discouraged. For now he may just want you more than he wants you to do something. Just keep leaning into him and as your relationship deepens, watch for anything he makes clear to you.

Then do it.

It may even seem small and insignificant, hardly worth your time or attention. But until you simply take the next step Jesus has put before you, you will never know what it means to follow him, nor the glory he wants to share with you. You just never know where one small step in obedience will lead.

Fairlie, New Zealand

That Lot in Fairlie

This summer Sara and I visited believers throughout New Zealand. Here is an incredible story excerpted from Wayne’s Blog of what happened when a group of people simply followed what Jesus had put on their heart to do. He won’t lead everyone the same way, but you have to love how these were able to follow his lead together.

Fairlie is a small farming village in the center of New Zealand’s South Island. For the last two years I had heard about some believers whom God led to give up the religious structure they had become part of to live as the body of Christ together in this region of the world. It was 1986 and some of its leaders felt like God was asking them to give up the structures that constrained their life together, which included not only the institution but also the building where they met. After weeks of praying together and considering this leading, the people unanimously agreed that this is what God was saying to them.

They agreed to lay it all down and let God lead them. The building they used was quite old and after donating all the furnishings that were worth anything to the denomination’s district they were leaving, they offered the building to the fire brigade to burn as a training exercise.

The neighbors objected, however, to torching the large structure so close to their homes, so in the end they dismantled it. They took some of the remaining furnishings, like the offering bags, out to the country and burnt them. Then one day some of the brothers descended on the building with chain saws. As they walked in that day to the main meeting room they asked where they should begin. They all looked at each other and in the same moment said,, “The pulpit!” With relish the sawed it in half, kept going across the stage and eventually dismantled the entire building and hauled it away to the trash heap.

Sara and I laughed and shook our heads in awe as we heard that story while meeting with about two dozen or more of these people. They had not done these things frivolously or in rage at ‘the system.’ They had simply felt those things, as they had used them, had become an offense to God and he wanted them to get rid of them. They never said anyone else should do the same, they simply went on and learned how to be the body of Christ without all the trappings of institutionalism. After they disposed of the building they found some amazing doors open in the community. One man from the village was talking to one of the former leaders shortly after these events, “I feel like I can really talk to you now.” They had no idea how much their baggage had turned off the very people God asked them to reach.

In the nearly twenty years since they have thrived in God’s life together as his people in this community. It has not been easy, nor has it been without challenge, but many of them talked of how their relationship with God really began to grow when they removed the crutch that the institution had become. Not having everything planned out for them anymore, they had to listen to God and do the things he put on their heart. Now they are people who live at peace with God, in fellowship with each other and available to unbelievers in ways they never had when they were so busy maintaining their structure. Even the children from those days have continued on with the simplicity of living in God and loving each other in the process. What joyful simplicity and what an incredible life they’ve gone on to share together!

They are also affectionately known in these parts as ‘that lot.’ The whole community knows about the congregation that dismantled its building and stopped meeting every week on a regular basis. They also know they have lived on as passionate believers. Without all the machinery to maintain, they have been more available to help care for the families and neighbors.

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24-25) As long as we hold tightly to the things we think we must preserve, we’ll miss the incredible doors God would put before us every day as we simply live in him and follow his ways. True life is found in giving up, not in holding on, as we follow wherever God leads us.


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The Call of the Shepherd

The Call of the Shepherd

As put into words by Wayne Jacobsen 

BodyLife • May 2004

[I appreciate that the form of this piece can lend itself to misinterpretation. By putting it in the first person I am not claiming to quote Jesus directly or giving a prophecy. I simply wrote down as best I could the voice that rings in my heart. Much of the language here is drawn from Scripture (cf. Ezekiel 34, Micah 5, Matthew 9:35-38,11:25-30, John 10) as it speaks of God’s heart for his people.]

Do you remember the first day you knew that I loved you? Do you remember how clean you felt and how light your heart was? The air seemed clearer, the colors of my creation brighter. You felt as if you had stumbled out of a dark, dirty cave and plunged headlong into a clean, cool stream. You drank in the reality of my presence and splashed with delight in my goodness.

In that moment nothing else mattered. You knew at the very core of your being that I was real, that I had great affection for you. Even in the face of dire circumstances, you were convinced that there was nothing we couldn’t walk through together. My love not only overwhelmed you, it also overflowed you with grace for others, even those who had wronged you. You woke up every morning in eager anticipation of what I’d show you that day. You delighted yourself in me as I delighted myself in you and each day became an adventure together.

Wouldn’t you like to come back to that space? That’s not just where I wanted you to start. It was where I wanted you to live every day.

Harassed and Helpless

I know things got complicated. I didn’t fix everything you wanted me to fix and I know that shook your confidence in me. Others told you that you weren’t working hard enough so you concluded that the success of our relationship was hinged on your effort and wisdom. When anything went wrong you either blamed me for not loving you or yourself for not trying hard enough. Both were dead ends and the life we shared eventually faded into confusion and guilt.

But I never gave up on you. I knew your best efforts would not be enough, which is why I already satisfied in myself everything you thought the Father might require of you. Your righteousness is in me and guilt never has a place in our relationship. And I know I disappointed your expectations, but that was only because I had better things in mind for you. I work through times of pain as well as times of joy.

I know you thought I had lost sight of you, but I never had. It was you who lost sight of me. I know right where you are and every place you have wandered because I followed you there. I have continued to call your name and invite you into the life that really is life. But so many other things drowned out my voice, activities you thought would bring me closer to you and the busyness you got caught in hoping to hide your emptiness. Even when I tried to scoop you up in my arms, you recoiled, not recognizing my hand and I held back, letting you have the distance you thought you needed.

I’m still here ready for you to fall into my arms. I want you to see through the illusion of your own efforts to produce my work in your life, or in the lives of others. I will teach you how to trust my purpose in you so that even times of trouble will not destroy our friendship. Come, my Beloved, let me wash over you again like a cool fountain, cleansing all that has hurt and confused you. Let us start anew and I will show you just how much I love you and that all I ever wanted from you was you!

A Shepherd Like No Other

Did I not tell you that I would take care of you – that I would lead you into safe pastures and refresh you with living water? Did I not tell you that I had rejected the shepherds who wanted to use my flock for their own purpose battering and plundering them for their own gain?

You need no other shepherd but me. I will lead you into rich pastures and watch over you so that you will never need to be afraid again. I am not going to exploit you, for I am the shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. I did not run in the face of my own death, but embraced the shame because I wanted to open the way for us to be together.

No one on this planet ever has or ever will love you like I do. The great lie is that I cannot be trusted with your life. Oh, but I can! I will take care of you and teach you to follow me so that you can know the fullness of my life. I will hold you close to my heart as we walk through the days ahead. Even in the face of pain and death, I will ensure that nothing will take you out of my hand. I will draw you to myself, wipe every tear from your eyes and through it all transform you into the person I created you to be.

I know you haven’t always seen that, nor yielded to me so that I could do it. You wandered in places where you got hurt and sought out easy answers that could not work. I have not been the source of your pain, but the one who has offered you healing. All the while I wanted to teach you how I work. I do not put band-aids over your life so it will look better but seek to heal you at the deepest places. It is not something that you can do, but it is something that you can thwart if you won’t let me teach you how to yield to my wisdom and power. You have nothing to fear. Your entire life is in my hands and my hands are sure.

No More Strangers

My sheep know my voice. I call you by name and point the way for you to go, but you have found the voice of strangers to be more certain than my own. Those who take turns pretending to be the shepherd have destroyed your confidence in my ability to lead you. Wanting you to be dependent on them, they told you to follow them because they knew what would be best for you.

Many of them even meant well, but the end result was always the same. They could not lead you to life because life is only in me. They had no way of knowing where I wanted to lead you and they were blinded to my working by their own plans to do what they thought were great things for me.

And you followed them, only to be abused and exploited. It was their vision they served and not mine. Yes, I saw your pain when they turned on you for asking honest questions and cut you off when you sought to follow me instead of them. I know how deeply it hurts to be betrayed by those you thought loved you. I never wanted you to trust them more than me. I never asked you to follow any man or woman. They’re the ones who asked you to do that.

I know many of you thought they were helping you, but in the end they only led you astray. They bullied you with their imagined authority and bloodied you with guilt and calls to loyalty. But you knew better, didn’t you? Often I warned you and your heart was unsettled in the things they told you. You overrode my warnings because you didn’t think yourself mature enough to question people like them. At such times you were looking to yourself and not to me. I am strong enough to lead you in my life, even beyond your doubts and insecurities.

Anyone who knows me will teach you to follow me. They will not use you to build their ministry or to line their pockets. They will give freely, always pointing you to the only shepherd that matters – me! They will encourage you to trust my love for you and will teach you to follow me even when you’re uncertain. They know it is better for you to learn to follow me and make a mistake than think yourself secure in any program they could devise.

Are you tired of listening to the voice of strangers? I want to teach you how to know my voice again. I have others that will help you learn but listen only to those that point you to me, not the ones who would gather you to themselves. You can trust me to make clear to you everything that I want you to know and everything that I call you to do. If you don’t hear my voice in what others say do not feel any obligation to follow their counsel or their instruction. You are only truly safe in me.

Listen

Can you hear me calling you in the deepest chambers of your heart and mind? I am not loud and boisterous. I will not compete with the clamor of the world nor the busyness of your agenda. I gently call you by name, hold you close to my heart and invite you to follow me.

If my voice seems only to drift by for a moment and then fades into the harried pace of life, it is because your ears are better tuned to other things. I only seem more distant when you trust your own wisdom instead of mine. Often I have shown you the way I want you to go but instead of simply following, you looked at the challenges that stood in your way and convinced yourself that it wasn’t me at all. I do not take the path of least resistance, but neither do I send you where I will not go with you. One day you will know that your safety is not in pleasant circumstances, but in being with me.

If you have forgotten how to listen, just ask me and I will show you. It is not as hard as you think. I simply want you to draw near to me and once again let your heart be mine alone. The more you grow in knowing my love for you, the easier it will be to recognize my gentle prodding. I am greater than any doubt that troubles you or any voice that seeks to steer you another way. I will help you recognize my presence in all you do. I will show you how to live as a father or mother, child or student, employer or employee, neighbor or friend. Don’t separate me to a separate spiritual part of your life, I want to make all of your life spiritual and all of it full in me.

You Won’t Be Alone

I know that the closer you follow me the lonelier it seems. You even think at times that I have abandoned you and you withdraw into your own fears. But even there I am with you, calling you outside yourself to come into the freedom of being my child and to join your hearts with others in my flock who live for no other.

You’ve been called arrogant, independent and unsubmitted, not by those who knew my heart, but by those who wanted you to conform to their way of doing things. They can’t see the body beyond their own way of organizing. If you only knew how many people I have scattered all over the world, you would know that you’re not alone.

Some of those live just down the block from you or work alongside you. I know that you don’t know them yet but you do understand the passion that courses through their veins and their desire to connect with people who share it. I am the shepherd of all my sheep and I am not only inviting you to follow me as an individual, I am gathering my flock together from the ends of the earth – not in human systems devouring your time and energy, but in the joy of healthy friendships. No man will own it and no system will replicate what I am building between my people. Resist the temptation to follow models devised by men that will always fail.

I will knit you into relationships with people near you and even some far away so that you can enjoy the richness of my flock. Don’t try to make it happen on your own. Just live with your eye on me everyday and soon you will find people around you who follow the same Shepherd you follow.

But first I want your heart to be mine. If you try to use others in the body to get what you do not find in me, it will only ruin the relationships. I want to teach you how to share my life together, each one receiving from my hand and sharing freely with the others without demanding anything in return. As you love that way you will find that life among my people is not cumbersome, but of great joy. You will go away from encounters more aware of who I am and less focused on your needs and weaknesses.

Wherever I Lead

What do I need from you? I need a willing heart that will simply follow me wherever I choose to take you. I don’t need great talent, great wisdom or great abilities, just a yielded life willing to learn how to trust me beyond your wisdom and your fears.

I want you to abandon your agenda, for it will only distract you from what I want to do in you. Even the best of intentions can lead you to desire the wrong things and following the wrong path. If you only knew the plans I have for you with a future and a hope that far outweighs your own agenda, you would abandon yours in an instant.

Don’t try to save yourself for you will only get in deeper trouble. Stop. Take a deep breath and yield to my arms. Pause before me and listen until you hear that voice that says, “This is the way I want you to go.” Don’t worry about whether or not it makes sense to you. I’ve been here before and you have not. I know the way through your doubts and pain to greater transformation and freedom.

Wake up each day and lay your agenda aside. Live in the moment looking for my hand and listening to my voice. Don’t live in the past by copying what you’ve done before. Don’t try to secure the future with programs and models that only offer false security.

Lay down even your dreams for ministry. You have confused your dreams with mine and trying to fulfill them in your own effort will only frustrate you. If they are only your dreams you won’t want them and those that are mine I will bring to pass in a way that you cannot even imagine yet. Most of what you call ministry has more to do with human aspiration than it does the life of my kingdom. Your pursuit of ministry instead of me will be a barrier not a blessing. Let me teach you all over again, how much I love the broken-hearted, the wounded and the oppressed and how I set them free.

To The Heights

I can keep following you and rescuing you out of all the places you get stuck, or you can turn around and follow me and I will lead you to the heights of my glory. I am the way to Father’s fullness and I want nothing more than to take you there.

Let me scoop you up in my arms and carry you along as I show you the wonders of my Father’s kingdom. Tune your ears to my voice and look to me in everything you do. There is no situation that I can’t lead you through and no promise that I cannot fulfill in you. Trust my voice more than your own and yield to my hand as I shape you into the person I created you to be.

There is nothing you can do to earn this. It is beyond your ability, but it is not beyond mine. I am able to make you stand and establish you in my gospel. I am able to make all grace abound to you so that in all things at all times you will have all that you need. I am able to guard all that you have entrusted to me and able to help you at your weakest moment. And I am able to keep you from falling and present you before God’s glorious presence, without fault and with great joy! (Rom. 14:4; 16:25-26, 2 Cor. 9:8, 2 Tim 1:12, Heb. 5:2; Jude 24-25)

I am calling my flock back to me from all the places it has been scattered. I will take you to the heights of my glory, where you can delight in the greenest of pastures and drink the purest water. You will never need to be afraid again for you will know how much I love you and how safe you are in my hand. There is no God beside me, and no life apart from mine.

Come, my Beloved, your time is now. Draw near to me. Take my hand and I will show you all that I hold in my heart for you and you will discover the unmitigated joy of living in my rest.


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Living in Two Worlds

nasa_photo_0Living in Two Worlds

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • February 2004

I can’t begin to comprehend what it would be like to wake up tomorrow morning and find myself free of everything that hinders or distracts me from life in Jesus.

No longer would I have to grope through the fog of my own selfishness to get a fading glimpse of God’s presence for I would see God’s face as clearly as he sees mine. No longer would I entertain, even for a moment, doubts about his love for me or his ability to draw me into the fullness of his life. No longer would the ravages of fleshly appetites lure me into bondage that can suffocate me in my own amusements.

I can only imagine what it would be like if every appetite for sin was suddenly silent and all I wanted was what God wanted for me. How would it be to live without a hint of fear, self-pity or envy because the demands of self have been swallowed up in the greatness of God? I would have nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to win, because I would be so fully satisfied by God himself, and totally at rest in whatever he gives. What would it be like to have no needs to harass me, no conflict to afflict me, no pain or disease to limit me and no sorrow to wound me?

Then I could enjoy unlimited time and unrestricted insights into the beauty of God’s nature and the wonder of his person. I could finally search out just how high and wide and deep his love runs for me and enjoy forever his infinite creativity and his boundless wisdom. What a life that would be!

Of course no one reading these words has any idea what that adventure will be like, but that day is fast approaching for all of us and it is closer now than when you began to read these words. It is what God made us for and what he steadily leads us to embrace.

Beyond Death’s Door

Obviously the full glory of what I describe here lies beyond death’s door and from our vantage point it isn’t easy to see. This world spares no expense to try and convince us that this is all there is. It beckons us to seek fulfillment in this age as if it was designed to provide it. The truth is it will never fulfill what our hearts long for most. Thinking it can will send us down the wrong paths and make us doubt God’s intentions toward us when things don’t work out as we think they should.

Life in this age is a mixed bag. At times we see the magnificence of God’s glory in the creation and experience marvelous moments of his blessings and his refreshing. At other times we come face to face with the suffering and chaos of a world out of synch with its Creator. Though the world was painted in God’s glory, it was marred by sin and is now hemmed in by death. That’s why God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden after they had sinned. If they had eaten from the Tree of Life in their sinful state, they would have been eternally sinful. How can you rescue what is eternal? By condemning sin and its devastation to this age, God preserved eternity to be pure and holy and the safe haven to which he could bring us to share in the fullness of his glory.

Though death is the tool God uses to keep eternity unstained by sin, it is not his friend. Paul calls it God’s enemy (I Cor. 15:26) and the last one he will destroy. He never wanted us to face death, neither the physical death that stalks our bodies in this age, nor the spiritual death that magnifies our selfish ambitions and hides us from the Father’s love. We see it clearly in the devastation brought on by war, terrorism, crime, tragic accidents and disease. With each death of a loved one, or the growing aches and limitations of age we are reminded that everything in this age is destined to perish.

But for those who yearn to know God in his fullness, death has no sting. It is simply a doorway through which we will find our final freedom. It is not the dreaded end of our life on earth, but a doorway into the last, great adventure – the freedom to know him without limitation or distraction. For us, death will be waking up on some tomorrow morning finally free of this broken world and our sin-scarred bodies.

Only a Prologue

On the last page of the last book of his Narnia tales, just when the reader thinks the story is over because the world has ended, C.S. Lewis pulls back the curtain even further: “For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world… had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” Lewis gets it exactly right. The time between our birth and our death is only a small slice of your story. When we look back from eternity we will know that the whole of our life in this age, that seems like everything to us now, was only the beginning. I suspect we’ll remember it much like we remember kindergarten. That’s how God looks at our life in this age, and Scripture encouragea us to as well. It repeatedly says that this world and our life in it are as brief as the dew on the morning grass, or a vapor of smoke that hangs briefly in the air. If we knew that we wouldn’t be so devastated by our struggles or despair at life’s disappointments. And we wouldn’t fear death because we would see it not as the tragic end to life, but the beginning of life as God truly meant us to live it.

If we want to understand God’s unfolding work in our lives, we must look beyond the prologue and include the whole of the story. If not, we’ll miss God’s work in our lives, yearning for true fulfillment in an age that cannot deliver it. This world exists in the brokenness and chaos of sin and even God’s people face that every day. Our circumstances will never play out perfectly. We’ll never have everything we want and we’ll regularly face moments of conflict, struggle and pain. Even the best of times will not provide enduring satisfaction because we will never quite feel at home here.

Our home is in the Father’s heart. Though we won’t experience that fully until the end of the age, that doesn’t need to stop us from enjoying the first-fruits of it in our life every day. The early apostles didn’t think of eternal life only as life that would last forever, but as a quality of life lived in him. Eternal life is available now in Jesus. No wonder we feel caught between two worlds – living in one but drawing our life from another.

The World We Are In

When Jesus prayed for his disciples in John 17 he specifically said his prayer was not that God would take them out of the world, but that God would keep them in the midst of it. They would be in the world, but they would no longer be of it. Tapping into God’s reality supersedes everything about this age and clarifies how we can live freely in it.

But we all know that isn’t easy. How distant the eternal can often feel when we get lost in our responsibilities at work and at home and by the myriad of amusements that our world offers. We think we’ll find greater joy in a better job, a nicer home or a bigger bank account. The lie is that we will. We are constantly bombarded in news stories and TV shows, advertisements, and movies that life in this age can fulfill our deepest dreams. It creates in all of us the frustration that we could just strike it rich in business or luck out in the lottery, find the right soul mate, write that best-seller, or get a decent break for our creativity then we would finally find the fulfillment we desperately seek.

We forget that the media sell illusions not reality, like the endless contraptions that promise to take inches off our waistline without any effort from us. What makes it even more difficult is that these illusionists aren’t just in the world, they are also among God’s people, co-opting the reality of God’s life by promising that if we just follow their program, prayer formula or other scheme God will make our wildest dreams come true.

Of course their wares sell well. Lies always do. But what happens when they don’t work? The dream- merchants fly off in their Lear jets while the people who paid for it are left wondering what is wrong with them or with God that he didn’t carve out an easy and prosperous life for them. This frustration at God and jealousy for the world’s goods has shipwrecked many believers. While God will often give us moments of joy and refreshing, we live in the chaos of a sin-stained world and we will also experience seasons of great hardship, sorrow and pain. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something, and that something will not last. That’s why Paul blasted the false teachers who said that godliness could lead to financial gain (I Timothy 6). He went on to say that the follower of Jesus would be content merely with food and clothes. Those who seek the fulfillment of wealth have never experienced the treasure that no amount of money can buy.

The World We Are Of

Jesus offered an abundance of life to those who follow him, but he never defined that in material terms. I’ve seen people live in the fullness of that life even as they endured dire poverty, fought debilitating diseases and faced persecution for their faith. They didn’t live out of the circumstances that assailed them but out of God’s presence that filled them.

Our home can never be in Oxnard, California or Lagos, Nigeria. Our home is in the heart of the Living God. The life that really is life comes from him alone. It isn’t measured in convenient or easy circumstances. This overwhelming sense of fullness and belonging comes simply from knowing the Father’s presence in every circumstance whether good or bad. That life expresses itself in his voice that guides us, his comfort that holds us, and his strength that transforms us to be a bit more like him with each passing day.

In our lives God continues to invade this sin-stained world, and though he will not fix every circumstance to conform to my comfort, he has offered to share all of his life with me. He will hold me in times of suffering and laugh with me in times of joy. He will give my life meaning not by what I gain in this world, but by making me part of his unfolding purpose – to win the world back to himself through his overwhelming love.

His reality in our lives and our cooperation with him is the only well that can sate our quest for fulfillment in this world. This is eternal life and it began for us the day you gave your life to him. As we let him live in us, becoming more real than the world we touch, see and hear every day, he will create in us an oasis of eternity in the midst of the barren wasteland of our culture.

Living In the Eternal

I love the way Paul thought through this:

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. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

He fully faced the fact that outwardly death works to cause us to waste away in this age, but inwardly God’s renewal offers us an inner glory that carries far more weight than anything in this life. So his determination is to fix his perspective not on what he could see around him, but on the unseen realm, those things that are eternal.

The only way to live in this world and not become of it is to stare into the face of our gracious Father. His eternal life has already begun in his followers. If we live in that reality we won’t get sucked in by the illusions of this age nor think our answers are found in its systems. Then we are free to cooperate with God’s working in our own lives and in others around us.

That’s why Paul could look at perilous circumstances and rise victorious through them. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:9) His presence in us is greater than anything the world can hurl at us. With our eyes fixed on him we do not have to surrender to the world we live in or retreat from it. We can fully embrace whatever unfolds knowing that God’s greater purpose will go forward in our lives. This is living in the eternal: To taste of his rich presence every day that will not only guide us through it but will also overflow us and splash out onto a thirsty world.

Look to him early and often throughout your day. Ask him to make himself more real to you than anything in this world. Let him show you how to follow his voice and to see where his hand is moving in your life each day. Don’t think that can only happen in special devotional times that you try to cram into all the other demands of the day. God wants to invade your world and walk with you through it, not wear you out with religious activity.

You’ll find your values shifting from the temporary things that are destined to perish to embrace those things that live on through eternity. Possessions, amusements and achievements, will all come to nothing at the end of this age. You can enjoy what God gives you without being possessed by it. You can delight in the recreation God gives without being held captive by it. And you can do what he’s asked you to do in this world without keeping score that exalts yourself over others.

Keeping your eye on what’s eternal will help you navigate through the distractions of this world. When I took flying lessons as a teen-ager my instructor taught me to trust the instruments on the dash panel, rather than my feelings. To drive the point home he told me to close my eyes and hold the airplane straight and level. After a few seconds he asked how I was doing. I thought I was fine until he told me to open my eyes and I saw that the plane was in a steep bank and diving for the ground.

He made his point. By keeping my eyes on those instruments I could keep the plane level even if I couldn’t see the horizon. That’s why God wants us to keep our eyes on him and glance at the world, not the other way around.

A Life Worth Sharing

Of course walking with your eye on the eternal is easier if you know other believers who share that focus. Have you noticed how much your heart covets the things of this world when you’re around people who live for those things? The same is true of those focused on eternal things. We become like the people we hang out with. Real fellowship helps us see how God is working in our lives and will fill us with a greater passion for that which has eternal value.

I am somewhat bothered that so many of our engagements with other believers gets lost in age-old theological controversies, speculations about the end times or trying to find the right church model for real New Testament community. Find people with their eyes on the eternal and you’ll find yourself in the middle of fellowship that is real, encouraging, and fun. They will help you embrace the life that really is life rather than being sucked into the busyness of this world and the multitude of amusements it offers to seduce us back into its clutches.

Living in the eternal will not only refresh you in God’s presence, but you will also discover that he will make you an oasis of eternal life for people battered by our broken world. You will be able to help mend the broken-hearted, bind up the wounded, love the outcast and liberate the captive.

Surely the fullness of our eternal life awaits a future day, but that need not stop you from participating in as much of it as Father makes available today.


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Thriving Outside the Box

bird_in_cage_0Thriving Outside the Box

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • October 2003

I have never been able to enjoy looking at a bird in a cage, even if it is a nice cage. While it may provide a safe haven and contain all the food and water she will ever need it also prevents her from doing the one thing God made her to do. A bird that cannot take wing and soar to the heights misses the best part of being a bird.

Over the last decade I’ve communicated with thousands of people whom God has awoken to the fact that they have grown up in religious cages that have stunted their growth and robbed them of God’s life. Some were thrown out for questioning the sanctity of the cage, while others escaped when they noticed the door was not closed as tightly as they’d been led to believe.

But not all who find themselves outside the box thrive in their newfound freedom. Though many do, others find living outside disorienting and uncertain. While they know well the pain of the box they were in, they don’t know how to thrive outside of it. Nothing works the way they are used to and if they don’t learn to live differently their release will be their ruin. They will soon learn that freedom itself is not the goal. It is only an opportunity. If they don’t use it to live more deeply in Jesus they will find themselves using it to stew in their anger at the cage that held them or to succumb to the ever-enticing flesh.

Boxed In

I know the analogy almost begs misunderstanding so let me be clear from the outset. If you’re thinking the cage represents those who participate in a Sunday morning event in those buildings many mistakenly call ‘churches,’ you would be wrong. It is not as simple as that. The cage that imprisons God’s people is not religious institutions per se, but the system of religious obligation that many of them (though not all) use to preserve the institution or to advance its program. Just because you meet in a home is no guarantee you’ve broken free of this system either. By moving it into a more intimate setting it only becomes more hurtful.

But no matter how we gather with believers, God wants all of us liberated from the cage of religious obligation. Because it is based on human effort for spiritual growth and community life, this cage is lined with guilt that you’re never doing enough to earn God’s favor and it is laced with the fear that your spiritual security lies in conforming to the doctrine and program of the group. It often focuses on an institutional program or someone’s personal vision, rewarding those who conform while abusing those who do not.

Many of us who gave ourselves wholeheartedly to that system were shocked to find out that it could only deliver an illusion of God’s life but never the reality. It exploited our most noble intentions and imprisoned us with our basest desires. It offered temporal security, spoon-fed nourishment and even some emotionally satisfying moments, but it could not let us soar to the heights. This system only wore us out with its programs, exhausting our efforts while bearing little fruit, and while it could conform our external behavior, it could not transform our inner thoughts and motives. So sin still undermined us, guilt consumed us and emptiness hounded us and we were only left with the inescapable conclusion that it wasn’t working because we weren’t trying hard enough.

Life Outside the Box

But every once in awhile God will allow his followers to see through the illusion of religious obligation and see what a failure it truly is. This usually comes with considerable pain – either exposure of our spiritual shallowness or of the exploitation or betrayal of someone we thought was a close friend.

-People react to those moments differently. Some take their liberty and go on in a relationship with God that becomes deeper and more powerful every day. Others may blame the symptom of the pain (an abusive leader or intransigent institution) and miss the larger reality of how the system itself destroys. They may move outside the box, but with considerable anger. Unresolved pain quickly devours their passion for Jesus and they find themselves emptier in freedom than they did in the cage.

Now what? Like the children of Israel who craved the comforts of Egypt some prefer to be secure slaves than free children. They seek out another cage or worse yet build one of their own mistakenly thinking that the problem was not with the cage, but with the people leaders in it. Others become so jaded they shun even genuine expressions of fellowship, fearful they will end up in another counterfeit. Neither the bondage of religion nor the complacency of freedom will lead people into Father’s fullness.

If we don’t find a greater freedom in Jesus outside the cage we will wither away. I know how disorienting it can be because nothing we learned in there works outside. To thrive in freedom we’ll need to learn a new way of living. Here are some of those lessons I see God teaching people learning to live free:

1. Relax. This is God’s Work

Religious obligation says that it is all up to you. If God isn’t doing the things you want, you have to work harder, stand firmer and pray longer. The focus is on your performance, your obedience, your righteousness. Outside that cage you will quickly recognize that your best efforts will not accomplish God’s work. This depends on him not you. Instead of trying to manipulate God he will teach you rest in his work through you.You will find yourself making better decisions when you trust his love for you than when you’re anxiety-ridden about trying to earn it.

You will learn rely on him alone and recognize that any time you give up responsibility for your spiritual nourishment to another person – whether friend, pastor or author, you’ve already traded away a bit of your freedom for life in a cage. We can only experience the true wonder of body life when we are learning to depend on God together, not exploiting each other in an attempt to get from each other what we have not found in God.

2. Give Up Your Illusion of Control

Someone told me last week God was asking them to give up control over their lives. I told him I didn’t quite think that was how God does it. You can only try to give up control if you’re still under the illusion that you have it. I know our actions and decisions have profound consequences in our journey, but ultimately God is in control. Has any amount of scheming or manipulation ever truly produced the results you seek? When God shows you that you are not in control, then you will truly be free to live in his purposes instead of your own.

3. Live for His Approval

The reason religious systems work so successfully is their ability to exploit people’s desire to be accepted. When we go along with the program we are rewarded with approval. When we do not, we are punished by being shunned, gossiped about or overlooked.

The craving for approval devours our spiritual passions by putting our focus on what people think of us rather than what God does. Paul clearly showed us that such thinking is at odds with spiritual growth: ?If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.? (Galatians 1:10) As you get free from the cage, expect others to play this approval card for all its worth. Even close friends will suddenly hold you at arm’s length or say ugly things about you, all in the hope of drawing you back into the cage they think holds the keys to life. It does not.

4. Learn Grace in Opposition

Jesus warned us that if we follow him others will speak ill of you, make false accusations and even exclude you. Fortunately in this day and age, they can’t stone you. But it is true that people in the cage regard those who are not as dangerous, deceived and rebellious.

It will hurt deeply, especially early in the process. But as you lean into him you will find his life in you becoming more real than the pain they can inflict. Knowing what God overlooks in you every day will make you more patient with others, even those who attack you. Your contempt for them will melt into compassion as you realize just how painful their bondage really is. Remember, as long as you are reacting to something, you are being controlled by it.

5. Let Guilt Die

You feel it when you turn down a request for help or sit out of a meeting you’ve attended most of your life – guilt. It is that deep, nagging drumbeat in your gut trying to convince you that you’re a really bad person and God is upset with you. Even when you rationally know you made the right decision, guilt can be relentless. Many would rather give in to it than face it. They were trained that way. Guilt is the easiest way to motivate people who do not know who they are in Christ.

How do you deal with it? Let it die. Though you can’t stop its drumbeat you can refuse to dance to it. In time it will fade away. You will also discover that those who help you most grow in God will never pile on the condemnation when you disappoint them, but they will always help peel it away. Like Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, they know that guilt rather than freeing people from sin only drives it into darker closets where it only becomes more destructive.

6. Savor the Story

In his amazing grace God gave us the story of how he made himself known to men and women just like us. He wanted us to know exactly what he is like and how he thinks so that we could know him as he is.

Evangelicalism may go down in history as the group that ardently defended the truth of Scripture while ignoring most of its content. The Bible is not an owner’s manual with rules to be followed nor a file of proof texts to wage doctrinal wars. It is the story of God making his reality known in the brokenness of our world. It doesn’t end with a book called Revelation, but with a person – Jesus himself! Scripture guides us to him so we can know him (John 5:40). If it doesn’t do that it can itself be a hindrance.

If you’re used to others spoon-feeding it to you, now is the time to take it on yourself. Start with the Gospels. Read them through three or four times to get to know the person of Jesus in his words and actions. Then read Acts and Paul’s letters, understanding how he saw God work in people. As you get a handle on the New Testament, then go back to the Old and read it in light of the New. How did God’s revelation get clearer? What has been his purpose through the ages and how does he think about things in our world? How does the Son sum it all up?

As you savor God’s story, you will find yourself better able to see and appreciate how he continues to write that story into your own life. You will see Jesus more clearly and recognize his voice more simply.

7. Be Aggressive about Cultivating Relationships

You never know how God might use you to touch someone who works near you, lives near you or just passes by you during the day. You’ll be surprised at the people he will put you in touch with and how his presence in you will be a blessing to them. (For more insight on this incredible process, consider taking a look at our new book Authentic Relationships.)

As you find yourself blessing others near you, you will also come across brothers and sisters who are on a similar journey. When you do, make the effort to get with them periodically for lunch or an evening together so the relationship can grow.

8. Live the Life, Don’t Fill Up On Meetings

Don’t rush so quickly to find body life that you try to rebuild it on your own needs! Real community is a gift God gives out of growing friendships, not what we produce by any methods or programs. Instead of creating it, we have only to recognize it as God builds it around us.

I know people misunderstand that and think I’m against meetings. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love gathering with the body in large and small groupings when Jesus is at the center of it. Unfortunately we hold way too many meetings because we don’t know how to share God’s life in the joy of ever-deepening relationships. That does not happen in meetings. The best gatherings of body life emerge out of relationships where people are learning to share the Jesus journey together.

If you know people who want to be intentional about sharing this kind of community, by all means join them. But if you don’t, don’t give into the lie that God has forgotten you. There are many ways God can relate you to people who are also living the journey, even if it is just a conversation here and there for a time. I suspect that when people have a hard time finding fellowship with others its because God wants to draw them closer to himself first.

9. Finally, Don’t Despise the Struggle

I know it isn’t easy learning to live outside the false security of religious obligation, but the freedom is so worth it. Scientists say if you help a butterfly escape its chrysalis, you actually kill it. God designed the process so that the struggle itself actually strengthens the butterfly so she will be able to fly away when she is finally free. Our struggles accomplish the same thing. They are part of what God uses to invite us deeper into him.

I know it can be scary when all the props that made you comfortable are no longer there. I know how easy it is to coast through life and miss out on the incredible friendship God wants with you. But don’t you think it is time you found out just how awesome God wants to be in you?

It is one thing to walk away from that which is fruitless and hurtful and quite another to soar in the life of Jesus. Stop reacting to the failures of others. Stop hoping to find a system that will satisfy your insecurities. Stop waiting until you understand it all or find someone to do it for you.


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Sharing the Journey

hikers_on_trail_0Sharing the Journey

By Wayne Jacobsen and Clay Jacobsen

BodyLife • July 2003

Isn’t it interesting that you can spend all day wandering through the busy streets of Manhattan without anyone noticing you, and yet anyone you pass on a hiking trail will not only notice you but usually will pause to find out where you’ve been and where you are headed? The street is anonymous—people passing in a hurry to get somewhere else. There are far too many people to even consider engaging in a conversation. You would never get anywhere.

Loneliness flourishes in large crowds. But I have yet to pass anyone on a hiking trail who didn’t stop and talk at least briefly. The camaraderie of the trails is immediate, even if you are not likely to see each other again. For those brief moments the help and insight two people can share can make a huge difference.

If your Christian experience is a living journey instead of a plodding ritual, you will find the same thing to be true. When my Christianity was more static—consisting of attending services, doing church work and trying to be good—my fellowship with others stayed shallow. I remember coming home many nights frustrated from having spent an entire evening with other people but somehow having been unable to move the conversation beyond the weather, sports, family and current movies.

I wanted fellowship, but every time I would try to bring up something about God or Scripture the conversation grew stilted and awkward. Only in the last few years have I come to recognize that Christianity is a journey into ever-deepening levels of relationship and ever-widening spaces of freedom. When you’re on that journey you will naturally talk about it in virtually every conversation you have, and when you connect with someone else who is sharing that journey, your conversation will be the best. Sharing the journey is as natural as breathing.

Geese or Sparrows?

Watching a flock of Canada geese fly over in precise V-formation is an enthralling sight? How do you suppose they do that? Do they attend V-formation flying school when they are young? I can just see a older goose projecting a Powerpoint presentation against a birch tree and explaining to the younger birds that they must fly two feet to the outside wing of the goose in front of them, one foot behind and eighteen inches above its flight path so it will impress the humans below.

No, geese fly in a V-formation because flying in that exact spot allows them to fly in smoother air with less effort. If a goose falls out of position it immediately feels the added stress of flying on its own and moves pack into position. Scientists estimate that by drafting on the wake of the goose in front of them the entire flock is able to fly 71% further than each of them could fly individually. To accomplish this incredible feat the stronger birds in the flock will rotate the lead position so that no one bird wears out. According to NASA, ?This allows a flock of birds with differing abilities to fly at a constant speed with a common endurance.?

By drafting on the wake of the goose in front of them the entire flock is able to fly 71% further than each of them could fly individuallyThe reason you never see a flock of sparrows fly in V-formation is because they are not going anywhere. They flit around the yard from tree to tree, but at the end of the day they are in the same area. They could try to learn to fly in a V-formation, but by the time they got the formation together they would already be to the next tree and not need it. The same is true about fellowship. If Christianity is about rituals, routines and morals, our fellowship will suffer. We can rearrange our groupings or try a number of novel small-group techniques, but they will be as awkward as sparrows trying to fly in formation. But when Christianity is a life of growing dependence on God through the joys and challenges of our circumstances, pooling our wisdom becomes a natural extension of that life for us as it is for geese to fly in formation. When God is more real to you than the weather and the events of your day, you’ll find him filling your conversations and fellowship will be immediate, powerful and alive.

Journey Talk

I went to a men’s breakfast group one morning where the participants pulled out scorecards and each reported how many days the previous week they had read Scripture, witnessed to an unbeliever or ‘hit their knees’ before ‘hitting the shower.’ They were holding each other accountable to disciplines they thought important. As sincere as they may have been to encourage each other, they were sincerely wrong.

These men had embraced a process of conformity, thinking it was their responsibility to motivate people to comply with their standards. Little did they realize that this process is the opposite of sharing the Christian journey. That is why accountability groups start with a wealth of zeal and quickly fade away. Can you imagine Jesus pulling out similar scorecards to check on his disciples?

Growing in relationship with God does not come through conformity, but through transformation. Relationships are organic and therefore defy all attempts to fit into any one-size-fits-all model. Rules, routines and rituals are the building blocks of religion, not relationship. People caught up in religion will always focus on obeying authority, accountability, meeting standards by human effort, finding fault, confronting failure and blaming others. In short conforming to these things can be quite painful, especially for those who struggle to conform to do the accepted thing. People instinctively know that instead of helping them know God better, these religious activities add stress and strain to the journey. That is why Paul told us over and over again not to have anything to do with people who wanted to boss others, even if it their aim was greater righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Galatians 5:7-10, 6:11-19; Philippians 3:2; Colossians 2:16-19).

Paul wasn’t against righteousness, but knew that true righteousness grew only out of a trusting relationship to the Father. This kingdom does not result from our efforts, but from his. ?Apart from me you can do nothing,? (John 15:5) Jesus said, calling us to depend on him. We do not share the journey by conforming others to what we think is best for them, but by encouraging each other to lean on Jesus.

Those on the journey talk about encouragement, help, service, support, love, compassion, forgiveness and trust. They will focus on loving God more freely and one another more openly, trusting God instead of trusting ourselves, being real instead of repeating ‘right’ answers, and taking the risk to follow God instead of meeting people’s expectations. They won’t force people into a mold, because they know people have to have their own journey with God so he can transform them into his likeness. Doing so lifts people higher instead of weighing them down with added obligations and responsibilities.

“Instruct one another”

Teach? Me? Absolutely not! I couldn’t possibly do that. I hate standing in front of people.

It is tragic than when most of us hear the word ‘teaching’ we think of standing in front of a roomful of people lecturing. That is a small slice of what real teaching is. In fact for most of human history teaching was done one-on-one, in tutoring or apprenticeships. When share a favorite recipe with a friend; tell someone about a favorite article, book or thought; or you show a child how to use a fork, you are teaching.

We are all teachers. Sharing with others the insights God drops into our lives, or lessons we have picked up from others is the most powerful process for learning the lessons we need for the journey. The vast majority of teaching doesn’t happen in lecture halls, but in conversations in which we share what we have discovered to help others.

One of the hardest things to motivate small-group participants to do is to come ready to share. We have for so long been schooled in the notion that we gather as a body to receive what a few professionals have prepared for us that believers shy away from sharing a psalm, a word, a prayer—anything! Getting together with other Christians should be like a spiritual potluck where different ones bring something to share (I Corinthians 14:26).

I once met with a home group that grew awkwardly quiet as we began. It was the kind of meeting everyone hates, because no one has anything to share. After a song or two, it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere. ?It seems to me that we’re all a bit tired tonight.? I ventured. People nodded. ?Did anyone bring anything to share with us?? Everyone looked around the room but there were no takers. ?We have two choices, then. We can either press through our tiredness and see if God has something for us tonight, or we can just admit that we’re all tired and unprepared, call it a night, and try again next week.?

We agreed to try again next week. It was only a 10-minute meeting, but a powerful learning experience. We didn’t force anything to happen, nor did we go through the motions just to make us feel good. If we had it would have been the same as pretending to eat at a potluck to which no one had brought food. We wouldn’t do it nor would we ask our hosts to empty their freezer and feed everyone who hadn’t come prepared.

Until that notion of body life captures our heart, and we realize that God wants to use each of us to share his wisdom with others, we’ll miss out on the best teaching available in the body of Christ today. Whenever I see something in Scripture that touches my life, I always look for someone else it might bless.

“Admonishing one another”

“Don’t you think that was the most manipulative thing you’ve ever said?”

I couldn’t have been more shocked at his words. He always encouraged me in things I’d written or preached. I thought yesterday’s sermon on having a heart for outreach had been one of my best. I had looked forward to our lunch appointment all daybecause I knew Dave would be impressed.

“You’re kidding, right?” I said laughing it off. His face told me he wasn’t. I told him how powerful I thought the message had been and the positive feedback others had given me.

“I could be wrong,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “But it looked to me like you were manipulating people with guilt to make them do what you wanted. I’ve learned that anytime my success depends on another person’s response, I will manipulate them.”

Only after a few days of mulling over my friend’s words in prayer, did I finally understand. Even though my aim was noble, I had manipulated my audience and I called Dave to tell him so. That one conversation changed my life in powerful ways. Dave had spoken the truth to me out of a personal friendship that allowed it to bear fruit.

I love the way Dave spoke to me. He had the relationship to speak truthfully and firmly to me—as my friend, not my judge. He was honest with me, but didn’t try to convince me even when I resisted. He trusted that God would have to make it clear. That is admonishment—our willingness to be gently honest with people we see making hurtful choices. How many times have you walked away from a conversation wishing you had been more honest?

Admonishment was part of the early church’s body life. Paul rebuked Peter for discriminating against Gentile believers in the face of his Jewish friends (Galatians 2:11-15). And the writer of Hebrews rebuked believers who were throwing away their confidence in the mist of difficult times (Hebrews 10:35-39). Still, the New Testament uses words like encourage or build up fifty-six times, and to rebuke or admonish only 7 times. That seems like a pretty good ratio to me. Though I have learned some of my greatest lessons from Dave, he has affirmed God’s work in me at least eight times more than he has pointed out something that concerned him.

When people use admonishment to point out the faults of others so the former feel better about themselves, they kill genuine fellowship. We are not called to confront one another constantly or hold each other to exacting standards. We are to encourage one another along the journey of being transformed by God and only admonish each other when it will help them walk in greater wisdom.

Our past encouragements will make any admonishment easier to heed. Don’t force admonishment on others. Share what you see and trust the Holy Spirit to make it clear to them. Remember, we are only sharing a journey; we are not called to badger one another into righteousness or nit pick at one another’s faults.


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