Living Loved

Living Loved Is Real!

The email below is one of the best I’ve received because I know it comes out of real struggle and pain and into a reality that is available to all of us.

I started corresponding with Amy this summer, first over a crisis that happened at work, and then with trouble in her marriage. In her first email, she signed off  ‘Confused,’ in her second, ‘Heartbroken and Stunned.’ It has been an amazing eight months for her, but through it all, Jesus helped her discover the life that is life:

After telling me he no longer loves me, my husband left me in September of last year, and we are still separated. The last several months (8 months since he told me he no longer believes in God, 5 months since he left me) have been the most excruciatingly painful, yet spectacularly amazing, months I ever could have imagined. The freedom you talk and write about…it’s real.

I took your book He Loves Me! on a whim from the library at the church my husband and I were attending several years ago. I brought it home but never opened it…until June 24, 2018, when my world came crashing down around me. Since then, I have read it at least seven times and have sent 8 copies to friends and family members. Father is using that little book to change the lives of many, Wayne, and I’m so grateful to be one of the “many”.

There have been many moments since last June when I have wondered if “living loved” was a pipe dream. Now I know that it is not. I come from a family of Pharisees, albeit very well-intentioned ones, and the re-wiring of my understanding about God has been intensely difficult. I have experienced more heartache, more uncertainty, more insecurity, more fear…more confidence, more peace, more love, more safety, more hope…than I ever dreamed was possible. My husband claims unerringly that he is “done” with us and that there is no hope for our restoration. This from a man who treated me for sixteen years like every woman longs to be treated by her husband.

And yet, I am not destroyed by his certain distaste for me. While I can attest to the fact that emotions are extremely fickle creatures (and I certainly have run the gamut of them) I also can attest to the fact that the confidence, peace, and freedom that come from living in Father’s affection make it possible for me to rest in Him, in spite of my circumstances. I feel as if I’m living in a pocket of impenetrable grace.

I cannot thank you enough for sharing with the world, the God of love. My life and that of my Pharisaic family has been forever changed by this monumental truth—that God loves us and desires an actual relationship with us. I no longer am afraid of Him or regard Him as mean and spiteful, eager to destroy the very people He created. I no longer (even subconsciously) think I have to “earn” His affection or approval.

Ironically, since I stopped “trying” to produce fruit and started living in the certainty of His affection for me, I am shocked at the fruit HE is producing!!! WOW! Who’d have thought?!? I only wish that I could go back in time and know Him like this from the beginning. Perhaps then I would have known how to love my husband the way God wants him to be loved. Regardless, I am learning to surrender even that to His capable hands. He is completely trustworthy; of this I am certain.

God bless you, brother. I hope I meet you in person one day to thank you for showing me the way to the real Jesus.

I love that. He is real, especially in the darkest places. This life in Christ can help us overcome any wicked curveballs this world may throw at us and draw us into the fullness of his joy and hold us there.

To do that, however, we have to give up our agenda and expectations for the outcome we desire. When we pray for the result we want, It’s easy to grow disappointed when God doesn’t do it, or even begin to doubt that he loves us at all. That could have happened here. Amy could have spent the last five months begging God to bring her husband back and feeling unloved when he didn’t. I’m sure she asked, but when it didn’t happen, she discovered a love that was bigger than the outcome she wanted.

God won’t make her husband come back against his will; he isn’t like that. Isn’t it glorious that our peace and security don’t rest in the circumstance we want, but in the Father who loves us more than anyone on this planet ever has or ever will?

His Incarnation Changed Everything

The story has become so commonplace it’s easy to miss the wonder of it all. The transcendent God, who created everything, took on our humanity to live inside his own creation. (The painting of Joseph and Jesus at left is from A Man Like No Other.)

Nine months in a young woman’s womb, years in her care, growing alongside his siblings and then to discover that he came from a different realm. He took on the most thrilling, the most mundane, and the most painful aspect of the human experience and he did so as one who could live in God’s love and share it freely in the world. What’s more he allowed himself to be tortured and killed by those who could not appreciate who he was, all for the purpose of rescuing lost humanity and inviting us back inside a relationship with his Father.

If we understood that God actually lived here as Jesus of Nazareth, it would swallow up so many of our false views of God.  Jesus was his exact representative. He wasn’t a junior partner or the better side of God.  He mirrored exactly what his Father was like and that reality changes everything.

  • If you see God as an offended deity out to destroy a world he hates, then you have yet to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus wasn’t angry, not at the misunderstandings of his disciples, the unbelief of Mary and Martha, the emptiness of a woman at a well, the sin of an adulteress, nor the corruption of Zaccheus. He didn’t lash out at those who were lost in sin. He only challenged the religious leaders to reconsider the conclusions they had made about God and how they were holding people captive with their rules and regulations.
  • If you think God can’t bear to look on sin, then you have yet to grasp the reality of the Incarnation. He lived in the midst of it and befriended those who were caught in it. He wasn’t repelled by sin; he was compelled with love to find us in all the places we got lost and offered us a hand to lead us back to the fullness of his love.
  • If you believe God is offended or disappointed in you because of your failures, then you’ve yet to grasp the power of the Incarnation.  He didn’t come to judge you for being broken, but to rescue you from that which seeks your destruction.
  • If you believe that there are places or times that are more sacred than others, you have yet to grasp the wonder of the Incarnation. Jesus came to show us all of life is sacred, washing someone’s feet as much as reading the Scriptures, learning carpentry as much as preaching a sermon; praying in a closet or on the hills above Galilee even more than the temple itself.
  • If you give into the feeling that you are all alone in your pain, you have yet to grasp the permanence of his Incarnation. He wasn’t just with us those thirty-three years, but was resurrected so that we could live in him today. He is still with us and every breath we take, we take in him.

He wanted to be where we live, not demand our audience at some sacred building or meeting. He came to ennoble all that we experience in life because he is there with us to show us how to truly live. This season we celebrate God with us!  He shattered the divide between heaven and earth from heaven’s side so that we could no our worth to him. 

The loving Father comes alongside you in your pain, your doubts, your sins, andy our joys inviting you to a better journey where learning to live in his love reverses all that evil has tried to do to destroy you. That is the meaning of his Incarnation and why we celebrate the amazing work of God to come and make himself known in our world.

Immanuel!  God with us! And not just two thousand years ago, but every day since. He is still with you on this day wherever you are and loving you with all that he has. That reality changes everything.

(This painting also taken from A Man Like No Other)

The Dones, Free Books, and the Future of Lifestream

The last issue of Living Loved, has just been posted at Lifestream.org. We published this newsletter for over twenty years, first as a mail-out publication and then as a web-based magazine. Technology, however, has continued to move forward and now what we used to do in Living Loved we now do on my blog and my podcast at TheGodJourney.com. I post articles there, talk about the latest news at Lifestream, and read or post letters from folks who have been touched by various things we do here. It had been three years since our last newsletter, so we thought it time to bring it to an end. However, I will continue to write articles and post them in the archives though they will show up in my blog first.

In this issue you’ll find my mini-book, on the Phenomenon of the Dones, or at least part 1 of it. This is drawn from a number of blog articles I did over the past year combined in one place. I’ve still got a number of articles I will add to this and it will eventually be a free e-book for people to download and read.  Also in our the Lifestream News section you can find out about how to get free books, how the movies are coming along, how to get Wayne to visit your area, and lots of other details about Lifestream.

Our good-bye is bittersweet.  Some of my best articles I wrote for this publication over the years including Why House Church Isn’t the Answer, Signposts on the Journey, The Deepest Freedom,The Nut Test, Friends and Friends of Friends, the series on The Relatinal Church and many more.  You can still find all of them in the archives, either chronologically or by topic.

 

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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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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Friends and Friends of Friends - Living in the Relational Church - Part 11

Friends and Friends of Friends: Living in the Relational Church – Part 11

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • September 2007

Since I first wrote The Naked Church twenty years ago now, I have searched for a definition of the church that encompasses her majesty and yet explains in simplicity who she is and how she functions in the world. At first I thought that could be answered in structural ways as I moved from the mechanics of large institutions into more relational structures, like cell groups, home groups, and house churches.

But it didn’t work out that way, for which I am incredibly grateful. Defining the church structurally has two problems. First, the life of the church is found in the affection and cooperation of people who are living in Christ. No structure guarantees that reality. In fact, smaller groups who practice performance-based religion are even more dangerous than larger ones who do. Second, these definitions were inherently divisive – excluding brothers and sisters who met in different structures and inculcating a false sense of superiority in those who think they have finally recaptured ‘the secret’ of New Testament church life.

All the while, my relationships never reflected the reality of the definition for which I groped. I had close fellowship with brothers and sisters who gathered in a variety of expressions, all the way from large institutional gatherings to those who just live relationally alongside others. I wanted a definition that transcends all the structural ways we tend to see church.

This summer, however, I stumbled upon a definition that expresses the life of the church better than any I’ve yet run across. It crystallized in my thinking at a worldwide gathering of believers this summer and it has grown on me more ever since. Its application to a variety of settings seems to bear witness to its clarity as well as practicality. What is that definition? Simply I am coming to see the beauty of the church of Jesus Christ emerge in this day as “friends, and friends of friends.”

Now, I realize that needs a bit of explanation, so let me try.

An Example In Ireland

Those who read my blog or listen to The God Journey know I was part of an incredible gathering of believers this past June in Ireland. It was hosted by a number of people who have been living relationally around Dublin for almost 30 years. They were in the midst of forming a congregation in the 80s when God made it clear he hadn’t asked them to do so. They stopped meeting regularly, but continued to share the life of Jesus together as friends living alongside each other. They rarely all get together for a meeting, though it would also be rare if on any given day a number of them weren’t together in one way or another – sharing their journeys and helping each other.

This summer God brought together people from all over the world who are learning to live relationally in his family for a week of sharing life. People came from 10 different countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and other countries in Europe. Most of those who came did not know each other beforehand, and many had never even been to Ireland before.

We spent the week together, beginning with a picnic on a Sunday in a field and ended in the same field the following Saturday with a barbecue. Nothing was planned beyond the meal for both of those occasions and the rest of the week we did not gather as a large group except to take a bus tour of that part of Ireland. But throughout the week in various homes and other venues pockets of people got together for meals, recreation, and conversation. By the end of the week we were blown away by all Father had accomplished without planning or scheduling any ‘ministry’ times. Friendships blossomed, deep issues discussed, insights shared and questions answered. We prayed together, cried together, and laughed together all the while watching Jesus emerge among us. Significant time was spent helping individuals through rough spots on the road through prayer and counsel. Friends and friends of friends could be together for a week and Jesus could accomplish all he wanted through that simple reality.

Most of those who gathered during this week, I had previously met in my travels. Watching friends of mine meet and enjoy other friends of mine was an absolute delight. I was blessed at how simply a web of connections expanded to encompass other people and how so many reported that they had time with were just the people they needed to know and could already see ways God might connect them in the future.

At one level, none of this surprised me. Most of my life is spent with friends and friends of friends that the Spirit is knitting together. I had similar times this summer in smaller groups whether it was on the beach at Lake Tahoe, in an old fellowship hall in Stratford, Ontario, or in a home in Naarden in the Netherlands. So many of the tasks Jesus asks me to do these days couldn’t be done without a network of other people, each supplying their part. My life has become an endless sea of relationships, some long-term, others just for a season. But I am convinced that the environment of growing friendships is where family flourishes, not in the rigid routine of an institution.

What amazed me in Ireland was that these same dynamics were visible on a larger scale with such diverse people. This is where I have been told it cannot work. People say friendships are fine for getting together locally, but it will not allow the body of Christ to function on a global scale. They are wrong. I’m convinced it’s the only way it can function globally. Institutions constantly fight over control, doctrine and money. But where Jesus builds friendships there is no end to the assets and resources he can bring together to accomplish his purpose. Nothing is wasted in political struggles or maintaining machinery. All the dynamics of body life in the New Testament apply better in growing friendships than they do in all our attempts at group building.

Jesus-Style Friendships

I know of no managed system large or small that can guarantee real community will emerge when it is implemented. Body life does not grow out of any management system, but out of the quality of a growing friendship with Jesus, linked together by people sharing that friendship with others. Even if you are part of a large institution, your quality of life in it will be found far more in the friendships you cultivate and how they stimulate you to live more deeply in Christ, than anything the corporate meeting alone can produce. Read the Gospels again and you will see just how much of Jesus’ mission was fulfilled in simple friendships, whether he was befriending weary fishermen returning in an empty boat, a greedy tax collector over lunch, or Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. He was persistently accused of being the friend of sinners, and enjoying their company. At the end of his life, he clearly stated to those early disciples that what he wanted from them was not the obedience of slaves, but the affection of friends (John 15:15).

Perhaps friendships may sound like too casual a word to describe the wonder of our connections to him and to each other, but that’s only because we look at friendship in human terms. Most friendships are built on a delicate balance of mutual benefit. As long as people provide something for us, we consider them friends. When they no longer do so, we move on. Because of that most of us have only known very shallow friendships that can be as fickle as the weather. And too many of us have tasted the bitter pain of betrayal when a good friend decides they have more to gain by leaving us out.

Thus, many of us shy away from deep friendships thinking we can protect ourselves from future disappointments. That is why we find it easier to trust the managed relationships of institutions than to risk the spontaneity of real and growing friendships. But that is to our loss.

Friendships as Jesus viewed them were not the what-can-I-get-out-of-you style of relationship, but the willingness to lay down our life for someone else. Until you know how he does that for you, you will never know how to do it for others. But once you’ve tasted it in him, you can’t wait to give it away.

That’s why real friendships don’t grow out of institutional rules and guidelines, but out of people connecting in a real way with Jesus and then with others. As we grow in the freedom of not needing to exploit others or be exploited by them we can begin to taste what real friendships are all about. These friendships are the building blocks of the New Testament community.

This is the kind of friendship I have shared with those who gathered in Ireland and the friendship that grew between others that week. I am convinced that this is how the bride takes shape in the world as the Spirit connects the body through affectionate and caring friendships. Friends and friends of friends, living, sharing and tasking alongside each other as each contributes what the Lord gives them. This is our engagement with the Body of Christ and will open the door to all the ways in which Jesus wants us to share his life together.

Growing Friendships

Obviously joining a group and becoming part of a growing circle of friends are two very different things. Most of us only know the former and the latter can seem threatening at first because there isn’t any place you can go to sign up for a real friendship. We can’t orchestrate them. They emerge as we recognize and invest time in those Father is asking us to walk alongside in a given season. Thus they begin the only place they can begin, not with others but with him!

First, learn to be friends with Jesus. He is the only source of life. Body life is the fruit of our walk with him not the means to gain it. Let your relationship with him grow. If you don’t know others with a similar passion, just lean in close to him and keep your eyes open. He may want you to himself for a time so that you will only be dependent on him. Eventually he will connect you with others.

Second, pursue friendships with those God puts in your path. The building blocks of body life are not found in groups, believe it or not. Jesus specifically pointed to the value of twos and threes coming together in him. Small conversations are where we truly get to know each other and recognize the life of Jesus in one other. Sitting in a meeting won’t do that. I’ve even been to home groups that have been meeting for prayer and Bible study for over 20 years who are not friends. They claimed to be the church, but there was no affection among them and no understanding of what it means to share life together. They were just committed to their weekly meetings.

Find ways to share a meal, an evening or an outing together. When you cross paths in a store don’t rush on with your day. Hang back if only for a moment and enjoy each other’s company. Relationships grow best in small conversations. Trying to form groups is a poor substitute for that, and often a structured way of trying to build friendships unwittingly subverts the process itself. Friendships flourish only in real conversations where people are growing to know and care about each other under Father’s love.

Now, watch the connections grow. Out of these twos and threes a marvelous network of friendships will emerge. As some of my friends get to know other of my friends the body takes shape around me. This web of interconnected friendships offers unlimited possibilities as to the ways the Spirit might connect us and show them how to cooperate together in doing what he asks. Gatherings of various groups will take shape, not because they are trying to have a New Testament meeting, but because they want to learn together, work together or in some other way express God’s work in the world. People who live like this learn to value every connection God gives them.

Those who played a part in facilitating what happened in Ireland and other places I go are those who have invested years in growing friendships. They aren’t trying to manage groups or form structured networks, but have simply let Jesus connect them to others and made time for those friendships to grow. And they have generously shared those friendships with their other friends.

That’s how the church takes shape locally, regionally and globally. I love seeing some of my dear friends become friends themselves. When I was in the U.K. this summer, I met a young couple that had just immigrated to the UK from South Africa. They knew a couple I’d spent some time with when I was there, who in turn knew an elderly couple living near them outside London. That couple connected them with some friends hosting my visit this summer. They came down to join us the weekend I was there. A week later I found myself sitting in Ireland with the couple from South Africa who started it all and the couple from London that passed it on. What a fun family – friends and friends of friends finding fellowship and life together, helping each other on the journey.

Do you hear the clicking of the Spirit’s needles as he knits the family together?

The Wider Family

What a joy it is to watch the church take shape not as the result of the vision of some man, or group of people scheming to create an organization to contain it, but seeing it as a reality than transcends all of our attempts to control it. Thus the church takes expression through millions of simple acts of friendship in response to Jesus’ leading and the wonderful fruit that flows from doing so. No human could ever control it and in the end there is no all-encompassing institution to be managed, financed, fought over or divided.

Expressions of the wider family are in his hands alone as we respond to him. That’s the church he is building. It permeates everything and ever place and no matter how we gather in groups with other believers, those moments of twos and threes, and eight and tens are the most important. It is where relationships grow, where people truly share their journey, and where we’ll find ways to do together what he might ask of us

As I sat in Ireland I couldn’t help but wonder how many other pools of interconnected friendships fill our globe. How easy it is for the Spirit to connect them when he is ready. Only two people have to cross paths for separate bits of the family to find each other. It is such joy to meet people who have no desire to manage God’s working – to pressure others with their pet doctrines or need to organize them for any desired outcome (or income). Living loved and sharing that love is really more than enough to give expression to this incredible family. Isn’t that what Jesus told us? (John 13:34-35)

A Fruitful Life Together

Seeing the family as an ever-expanding fellowship of friends, and friends of friends helps see the church as she really is. It also allows us to appreciate the organic growth that happens through friendship, rather than the imposition of any structured model that forces people into friendships that haven’t grown naturally and most likely won’t grow in that environment either. This view fulfills so much of what the New Testament teaches and demonstrates about the life of the church.

It keeps the focus on relationship. Instead of trying to build a corporate life on doctrine, programs, rituals or structures, people are focused on their friendship with Jesus and finding others who share that same friendship. The more your friendships grow the more involvement you have in the family. And those that have a hard time connecting relationally, can be befriended and helped by those who have found freedom to do so.

It is not meeting-focused, but relationally lived. Sharing life in the body of Christ does not happen by attending a meeting, but by growing in friendship with Jesus and our spiritual siblings. Of course the body will get together in a variety of ways as it celebrates those friendships. But it will do so as people want to be together with a specific purpose in mind, not just to follow an artificial routine. Until then our focus can be where Jesus put it – on connections of twos and threes as our friendships grow. And when our gatherings happen out of friendship they won’t be a static program put on by a few to entertain the others. lsbl.sept

It answers the dilemma of how much structure we need. We won’t want structures to attempt to manage friendships, because that will only prevent people from dealing with their differences and growing in the process. The structures we can embrace are those that facilitate what God is doing among a specific group for a specific season. We won’t need to start ministries or perpetuate groups for their own sake, but simply learn how to care about each other, stimulate each other to grow in him and do together whatever he asks us to do.

It resolves conflict without the appeal to power. Institutions have to provide clear decision-making authority, creating an environment based on who holds the power to make decisions others have to follow. Friends sort out conflicts not by deciding who is in charge, but through honesty and openness looking for God’s highest good and no one assuming they will know that for others. But a connection of relationships in agreement will have far more meaningful impact on others than any council making rules.

It can give proper place to the weaker believer. One of the Scriptures that always bothered me as a manager of an institution was Romans 14-15 where Paul talks about the stronger giving way to the weaker. There is absolutely no application of that in an institutional setting. Instead the stronger must take control over the weaker or chaos will result. In a family of relationships, however, those weaker in faith can be loved, extended the grace to be where they are in the journey and encouraged to move on to greater freedom, all in the context of friendship.

It allows leaders to truly be servants, helping others to grow rather than maintaining machinery. It also prevents those who are immature from aspiring to false leadership while hiding behind their personal charisma, eloquence or intellectual knowledge as a way to lord over others. True elders will simply be those a bit further down the road helping others find friendships as well.

It allows for wider connections, both in meeting new people and cooperating together in various efforts. When we think of the church as a specific institution who share a specific location, ritual or doctrine, we cut ourselves off from other relationships that God might want to arrange for interconnecting his family or touching the world.

The Power of Connections

I’ve been blessed over the last few years to be part of some amazing connections with individuals and networks of friends that God brought together for a specific season. The Ireland gathering was like that. It was a specific event whose ongoing fruit will only be measued by the friendships it produced. Almost everything I do now brings together friends in Christ each doing their part and results in something far more wonderful than any of us could accomplish alone. Perhaps the most amazing has been my experience with a new book a friend of mine wrote.

After unsuccessfully approaching on his behalf a number of publishers to print The Shack, we finally concluded that this was something God wanted us to do together. When we started pursing that direction we had so many missing pieces. But over the days and weeks, through friends and friends of friends we connected with people who could help us put it together.

Our biggest concern was how to get it out as broadly as we thought God wanted. Imagine our shock at selling out the first printing of 11,000 copies within four months of putting it on a web site, and talking to our friends about it. As friends passed it on to their friends the book just took off. Without one advertisement and without being in any bookstore, it spread like wildfire. Today some influential members of the national media have it in hand and the stories of how it has touched lives – especially those who have suffered great tragedy – continue to melt our hearts. We have been contacted by major book chains and distributors that we had no access to when we began. And we have turned down two top-tier Christian publishers who had rejected the book a year ago and now wanted to take it over.

I could tell you so many more stories of the simple joy and fruitfulness of people connecting with each other. Almost every where I travel now one of the great results is people who live in the same area who didn’t know each other before, get to meet each other. I get email long after I’ve returned home of the friendships that have grown and how people can now walk alongside some others as Jesus directs.

I could tell you of people in foreign countries living a life of expanding friendships that is giving great testimony to the reality of Jesus in the most brutal circumstances by simply loving and forgiving as they have found it in him. I do believe this is what he meant when he said the world would come to know him by the love we share one for another.

If you want to be part of that, just remember, the joy of living as friends, and friends of friends, does not come out of a desperate attempt to find friends for yourself, but by simply being a friend to whomever Father allows to cross your path. No, you cannot befriend everyone, but you can take the time to invest in those Jesus asks you to, whether they be a believer yet or not. And when you take the risk to cultivate that friendship, you’ll never know where it might lead.


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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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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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.

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

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The Real Question

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • March 2006

As I travel among the body of Christ one of the questions I am asked the most is, what do I see Jesus doing in his church today? Am I excited or discouraged by what I see?

Before I answer that here, let me admit at the outset that my vantage point is in some ways incredibly blessed and in other ways severely limited. While better traveled than most, perhaps, there is much I don’t see and certainly my teachings, writings and web postings put me in touch believers who have a specific kind of passion. But I do get to sit down fairly often with some of the most incredible followers of Christ on the planet – those who are experiencing a depth of relationship with him that is transforming how they live in the world. Many of those had been in ‘positions of ministry’ at some point, but found themselves unable to fit into the religious landscape that proved insufficient for their hungers even though few others could validate their passion or obedience.

From this vantage point I am incredibly thrilled with what I see God doing to draw people to himself in our day. This Church all over the world is rising to become a people in whom God dwells, a bride without spot or wrinkle. That doesn’t mean she’s perfect, but her passion for the groom is growing to outweigh her desire for convenience or comfort in the culture. In that regard, these are the most exciting days of my lifetime as God’s glory is becoming increasingly visible in the earth.

I can say that because I don’t see the church as the sum of all the Christian institutions that dot our world. If I did, my conclusions wouldn’t be nearly so positive. Many of those institutions are preoccupied with the wrong priorities (money, size and political power), divided by their own preferences (of doctrine, music styles or allegiance to a human leader) and fail to help people discover how to live deeply in Father’s love and grow in trusting him.

I see the church as the sum of all the people in the world who are coming to know God as Father, Jesus as Lord, and are learning to live in the power of his Spirit. At no other time in my life have I met so many people really living the life even at great cost. They follow him even when others accuse them of being selfish or rebellious. They are sorting through their deepest doubts and disappointments to find out just who this God really is and how they can fulfill the purpose he has in putting them on the planet. This is an exciting day to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

An Unhealthy Divide

George Barna, a noted religious statistician published his latest book, Revolution, in September 2005, which notes that 30% of committed believers today are no longer attached to a traditional congregation. If the same demographic trends continue, he says, in 20 years 70% of committed believers will no longer be attached to a traditional congregation. And while some would look at that as a great tragedy, Barna asserts that many of those people have not left established congregations to abandon their faith or even the body of Christ. They have left because the institutions didn’t fulfill their spiritual hunger and wasted too much of their time and energy in programs and activities that did little to promote a deeper dependence on Christ or healthy relationships among believers.

To no one’s surprise this book started a fire storm. The largest evangelical magazine, Christianity Today and the largest Charismatic magazine, Charisma, both resoundingly attacked the book. And to do so they both had to distort its message. The truth is people are leaving organized religion in droves because it has not satisfied the cry of their heart to know the Living God. These are not by and large angry, independent believers who live isolated lives, but those who live out their relationship with God and their relationships with the body in more informal, relational gatherings in homes, neighborhoods and businesses. According to Barna, these believers often have a more Biblical worldview, live out a passionate devotion to Christ, deep relationships with other believers and are generous in giving to extend the kingdom around the world.

Yes, I can understand why those who still value the congregational model would be threatened with such conclusions. And certainly Barna didn’t help anyone by labeling them ‘Revolutionaries’ and making others feel excluded from their spiritual passions and hungers. The resulting anguish (and sometimes anger) between those who participate in traditional congregations and those who do not, will not serve the kingdom well. At a time when we most need a conversation between all of those who are living under Father that will help identify his hand in our age, we are pulling apart once again – this time fractionalized by how we ‘do church.’ Can you imagine what grief this brings to our Father?

I know how passionate people can be when they leave an abusive congregation, or even one that sucked out their spiritual passion with religious activities that did little to help them live the life Father wanted for them. And I know how threatening it can be for those who still embrace the congregational form as the only God-given expression of the body of Christ, to see people walk away and talk as if it is unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

But let’s be real about it. Spontaneously and simultaneously believers all over the world are rethinking what it means to live in the life of Jesus and how the body of Christ takes expression in our world. They have wearied of religious systems that permeates much of our congregational life and are looking for more effective alternatives. It’s not enough to simply say that Hebrews 10:25 requires all committed Christians to be in attendance on Sunday morning in one of the institutions called ‘church’. They know better. ‘Assembling together’ is not a matter of attendance at a meeting, but the joining of lives in a common journey.

Many of those are still in systems their heart no longer supports, and they too yearn for a deeper reality to their spiritual life and a revival in church life. In these days we have far more to gain by keeping the lines of communication open between us all rather than by dividing up sides and rejecting those who disagree with us.

In the last two months I have been with two different traditional congregations while I was in the midst of also visiting people who have spilled outside of such things. I find the same passion in both places. There are people in both places seeking to know him and are asking similar questions as to how they can live that out in their daily lives. It would do us well to remember that not all congregations are like the one you last attended.

 

Why We’re Not There

As Barna has documented and my email confirms, many people have grown weary of a religious system that on net balance has become more of a distraction to their walk with Christ than an aid to it. I know that is hard for people to hear who find the opposite to be true. Keep reading, your section is coming!

Why are so many Christians growing disillusioned with the congregational experience? There are many reasons. Here are some I’ve heard over and over:

  •    We’re bored. Sitting through the same tired ritual every week, or listening to the same voice has dulled our spiritual passions rather than excited them.
  •    We felt disconnected. Sitting in rooms full of strangers on Sunday morning watching the same stage does not build the relationships among believers we desire.
  •    We are tired of seeing people blasted with guilt and religious obligation. While it may press people to conform to the needs of the institution, it only distances them from a Father who loves them more than they know.
  •    We got sick of the political games played behind the scenes to serve someone’s ego or put institutional priorities above the purpose of Jesus.
  •    Some of us didn’t leave, we were pushed aside by those who disliked the questions we raised, the clothes we wore or the truths we struggled with.
  •    We found that they reinforced the wrong things, encouraging us to pretend instead of being real, encouraging us to exploit people rather than serve them.
  •    We found out that the Gospel was so mixed with performance-based religion that the life of the Jesus had been swallowed up by our busyness.
  •    And yes, some have left because of the emptiness of religion and have abandoned Jesus altogether and no longer believe that Scripture speaks the truth. That’s what many of us hate most about religion. It makes promises it can’t keep and then makes people question whether or not God is real at all.

Most likely none of these things adequately describes any one person’s story, but rather it would be found in a mixture of them. And we realize not all congregations fall to such blatant abuses. But most of us hoped it could change, labored tirelessly in hopes that it would, tried other congregations we thought were better, and have only found themselves outside of it when those inside couldn’t respect the journey we are on.

 

Why We Are There…

I am often asked to teach in traditional congregations and I often feel impressed to go. Why? Because I find God’s people there too, many of them hungering for the same thing I hunger for and asking the same questions I was asking a decade or two ago. People with a heart for God still permeate many congregations even if they do see some of the same weaknesses in it that many others do.

  •    We are there because on balance we feel our congregational experience enlivens our passion for Jesus more than the politics and abuses undermines it.
  •    We are there to connect with fellow Christians in our communities.
  •    We are there because we’ve found some people that are more focused on Jesus than the demands of the institution.
  •    We are there hoping against hope that others might come to see that the authority structures can be changed to reflect more closely the Lord’s glory.
  •    We are there to learn from the Scriptures from what others have learned.
  •    We are there because we feel God has asked us to be even though we struggle with the politics and petty gossip.
  •    We’re there because we don’t know what else we’d do if we weren’t.
  •    And, yes, some are there only because they are mistakenly convinced that Hebrews 10:25 obligates them to be so. They think today’s congregational institutions are the only legitimate expression of church life and would feel judged by others if they weren’t there.

Again, there are more possibilities here than I can list and certainly a mixture of these motivations rather than just one of them would better express what most people see. Many would even consider other expressions if they saw some in their area that lived out the New Testament more authentically.

 

It’s Not About Church

My point is this: there are many wonderful God-loving believers inside traditional congregations and there are many who have spilled out of them. Those looking for a more authentic life in him and with his church have more to gain by staying in fellowship with each other rather than cutting each other off if we’re being led in different directions.

While I love alternative forms of relational life that are often expressed in homes and in more informal groupings, if we only change the locale without shifting our focus we will end up with the same result. If we’re focused on how we do church, even if we find more Scriptural ways to do it, instead of on Jesus himself as the Cornerstone and Head of that church, we will still miss his life. In short, finding our place in the body of Christ has far less to do with how we do church than it does with how we find our life on him. It’s not about church; it’s about Jesus. Where he captures our hearts and draws us to himself, we will find ourselves growing in the dynamics that allow the life of his church to emerge around us. We will value people being real, rather than pretending. We’ll want to free people from guilt and condemnation rather than manipulate them to get them to do what we think is best for them. We’ll value relationships that illuminate Jesus in our lives more than meetings that often don’t. And those who bear his heart will help equip others to live the life not manage programs for others to be obligated to attend.

In this kingdom the critical question is not where you go to church or how you ‘do church’ it is whether or not you’re coming to know him and walking alongside those he is giving you at any moment to help them on their journey. And if you are, you’ll be far more concerned with recognizing Jesus’ work in others, rather than judging their place in him by their view of church.

 

Reconciliation Not Suspicion

Our God is a God of reconciliation. Jesus died on the cross so that he could reconcile all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5). Those who grasp that purpose will also share his passion to see the family brought together in him, not divided by institutions or differences in how we view church. We have had enough broken relationships, enough division, enough of those who worry more about defining their distinctions than sharing the life we hold in common.

How do we do that, by encouraging our institutions and denominations to work together for greater unity? As if that has ever worked! Those who lead such things may talk about it from time to time, but denominations are about dividing and few at the top of those institutions will ever give up the power, money or prestige necessary for them to appreciate the true unity of this incredible family.

No, reconciliation happens simply by you loving each and every believer God allows to cross your path and look for ways to encourage them to know him better. We have to live as if the divisions don’t exist, recognizing Father’s fingerprints in each other’s lives, even if we don’t see eye to eye on every issue. This is where the unity of the body of Christ is celebrated. It is the stuff of grass roots actions, not organizational decrees.

Wherever you find believers near you get to know them. Celebrate Jesus together and see where the relationship might lead. Don’t feel you have to convince them about your idea of church, rather fan the flames of their passion for Jesus. You’ll find some amazing things happen in relationships that institutions can never touch.

When Paul traveled back through the people he’d help establish in the faith during his journey in Macedonia, Luke says that he “gave constant encouragement, lifting their spirits and charging them with fresh hope.” (Acts 20:2, The Message). Can you imagine a better description of fellowship? Paul was able to love them so freely, not because he wanted something from them, but because he wanted to encourage them where they were and make their journey lighter.

 

The Great Gathering

It is the nature of the Shepherd to gather – first to himself and then alongside others who belong to him as well. That’s what I see happening in the world today. Jesus is gathering people to himself and letting them link up with each other. When you find his heart in this, you too will have a heart for the great gathering that is going on among all his followers. Whether or not people are in a traditional congregation is an irrelevant question. What matters is whether or not they are growing to know him and find life in him. That’s the real question on which the family is based.

A few years ago a friend of mine was on a flight home. He discovered he was sitting next to a believer from his own city whom he didn’t know. For an hour they shared about their life in Jesus, how they had come to know him, what he was doing in them and what they were learning about him. As they approached their destination the other man asked my friend, “Where do you go to church, anyway?”

My friend thought for a moment and then answered, “For the last hour we’ve been talking about the most unifying person in all of history and have had a marvelous time. Do we really want to trade that conversation to discuss the most divisive question the body of Christ has ever known?”

His seatmate thought a minute, smiled and agreed, “Let’s not!”

What a perspective! Trading congregational brand names or models only takes the focus off of Jesus and leads us to assumptions about people that are rarely valid. We join this great gathering by loving those God puts in front of us every day. We won’t then seek for the like-minded, but the like-hearted, and then we’ll be closer to his truth for doing so. And once we’ve a connection with others that shows our love for them and our respect for Jesus’ work in them, then we will be able to discuss those things we see differently in ways that will draw the family together, not tear it apart.

As a father of older children, nothing brings me greater joy than watching my children love and laugh together even in the face of their differences. I can’t imagine that the Father of all doesn’t enjoy that as well.


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.

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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

One Brother’s Burgeoning Sexual Freedom

romanceIn response to my recent article in BodyLife on Sexual Struggles on the Relational Journey, I received some wonderful emails from people in the midst of this struggle and from those who are deeply saddened by how our culture has cheapened sexuality in our day and how young people are succumbing to its seductions. It appears it was long overdue to bring this subject into the light of fellowship.

One brother wrote me an extended account of the freedom God is brining into his life and how God used one book in particular to put his finger on the source of sexual bondage in this brother’s life. Even though I know his story and solution will not fit everyone, I think it will be an encouragement to those who struggle to believe that God can get to the root of their bondage and set them free as well. Here are a couple of paragraphs of his email and a link to the rest of his story…

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.

I’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 Jen 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 God’s 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…

You can read the rest of his story here.

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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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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