Living The Journey

Painting Outside the Lines

Painting Outside the Lines

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • November 1998

Remember the old paint-by-number sets? Collies stretched out on a hillside. Fly fishermen casting over a forest stream. Autumn trees and distant mountains.

Somewhere inside me must be a wanna-be artist, because I loved those things as a child. Even today as I channel surf, I get stuck on the painting lessons that public broadcasting offers.

But I don’t have the gifts of an artist, and I’ve long outgrown paint-by-number sets. They were fun and though the results were surprising from someone so untalented, no one would mistake them for real art. They were manufactured paintings, not requiring my talent, only my technical skill at painting between the lines.

You can spot those paintings in an instant, can’t you? Blotches of color between hard and fast lines is not how real artists paint. They blend colors, overlay strokes and produce paintings that have meaningful detail, passion and even life.

I can’t help but wonder if religion’s attempts to help us find a meaningful relationship with God isn’t a lot like a paint by number set. A discipleship curriculum I worked on nearly a decade ago had a grid containing behavioral objectives designed to help someone walk with God. I think it had about 60 things to do, staged over a four-step growth process.

Last month I listened to a presentation on discipleship-making that listed 372 behavioral objectives over a four-step process that would teach us how to be followers of Jesus. (Given enough time, I think I might have come up with that many.)

But we all know that following such guidelines doesn’t produce the relationship with God we hunger for. They might be able to help us conform enough behavior to make us look more Christian, but they cannot produce what our hearts hunger for most. For that reason my chart got put away many years ago. God had something better in mind:

God’s Incredible Wonder

Last spring Sara and I had the chance to walk through some of the most beautiful gardens in France, including those in Paris and at the Palace of Versailles. They were splendid examples of human landscape but as lovely as they were, they were not breath-taking.

If you want breath-taking, stand on a bridge over a New England stream, completely surrounded by the vivid hues of autumn color; or try the vista of high Sierras from the bluff alongside Walling Lake in the Kaiser Wilderness; or, gaze out over the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. All of those have actually taken my breath away and are more lovely than anything man can produce with all his symmetry and planning. Not only is God’s canvas far larger, but he creates beauty in ways we can never duplicate.

At a leadership meeting years ago I remember someone sharing an insight God had given them about managing his work. We put gardens in rows, curb off the grass and tightly clip hedges. God scatters wildflowers across the hillsides. He warned us that if we ever tried to fit his work into our boxes, we’d miss out on what he was doing and the results would be a pathetic shadow of the real beauty he wanted to produce in his people.

We didn’t listen. Soon we had almost as many lines for God to paint in as most other religious organizations. The more we tried to force God into our expectations the more people got hurt and the further we got from the simplicity and beauty of just loving him. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t faithful to paint inside our lines whenever he could, but it meant that we missed so much of his working because it didn’t fit neatly into our expectations.

Managed Spirituality

Anyone who seeks a relationship with the living God, knows it doesn’t fit in neat boxes designed by human ingenuity. That’s why 2,000 years of Christendom has produced hundreds of thousands of different denominations and organizations–none of them able to contain God’s working, though all of them have tried.

Life in God is a dynamic relationship. You can’t mass produce it by behavioral objectives. You can’t find it in religious tradition or embrace it vicariously through a charismatic leader. Life in God has to be lived in our own hearts.

It’s been almost four years ago since Sara and I were painted out of the fellowship we helped plant and in which we had lived for 15 years. We didn’t plan on getting painted out, but people we loved deeply drew lines of conformity we could not embrace. We saw the lines as limiting God’s work to a few personal preferences. Rather than release God’s fullness to people it would limit it. I only say that to explain that I never set out to live outside the lines. I was a line-drawer myself for many years and thought that was as God wanted it.

I decried people who didn’t “belong to a local body of believers” as independent, selfish and in danger of being led astray. I saw institutions like ours as their source of safety. And it was true that I didn’t know anyone outside the lines that was doing very well in their walk with Jesus. The ones I knew were bitter, distant and uninvolved because they had no passion for God.

I don’t know now if that assessment was true or whether it was skewed by my own need to have others belong to my system, but since we’ve been outside the lines Sara and I continue to meet the most wonderful, passionate, giving people whom we have ever known. Far from bitter or isolated, they are wonderfully free, engaging God in ways that thrill my heart.

To be sure, there are plenty of others outside the lines who have no idea who Father is and use a cry for freedom as an excuse to indulge their flesh and justify themselves. It’s a fascinating paradox–what hungry people most need to thrive in a relationship with the Living God are the same things that selfish people abuse to pretend a faith they don’t live.

I guess that’s why we draw so many lines, so that self-dominated people cannot fool themselves. But when we take away the truth of God’s life because someone is abusing it, we hurt hungry people who want to know him in truth and be transformed into his likeness.

Unstructured Is Not Unsaved

According to George Barna, a Christian researcher, the fastest growing wing of church life today is among people who have exited the organized religious establishments, but gather in loosely-affiliated relational groups for prayer, study and sharing their growth in Christ. That’s amazing!

A few years ago, I would have cast a suspicious eye toward such ‘unchurched’ rebels. Not anymore.

I have discovered that ‘unchurched’ is not necessarily ‘unsaved.’ Even the term ‘unchurched’ shows a weak understanding of what church is to begin with. You’re not ‘churched’ because you frequent a weekend service at a local building. You are part of the church when you live in relationship to the Living God and share his life with people he places around you.

To be sure, there are people who find religious structures a wonderful place to grow in their relationship with God. But not everyone does. Many believers today are finding ways to gather with believers and reach out to the lost without the cumbersome costs and time constraints of organized religion.

To embrace what God is doing in that arena represents quite a change for me. I’ve jokingly told others that five years ago I wouldn’t have even talked to the believer I’ve become. I found it too threatening, and myself too selfish to consider the genuineness of faith and fellowship that can exist outside the structures that we have come to call church.

But I’ve found out my canvas wasn’t quite large enough for all God is doing in the world. It seems he is calling an increasing army of people to walk with him outside the traditional patterns we’ve come to associate with organized Christianity.

I’ve discovered that church isn’t something you can go to, it is simply what you become a part of when Father invites you into his family. It is not an organization, but a way to live in love and freedom with his people all week long. It is not limited to a select group of his followers, but whomever God brings into our lives at a given moment.

Outside the Camp

Over the past month or so I’ve gathered with a significant number of such folks in Alaska, Portland and St Louis. Their passion for God excites me, and even though many of their former friends in the faith cannot understand the choices they’ve made, none of them regret the freedom or the passion for God that they’ve discovered outside the lines.

In fact, the reproach of well-intentioned believers who think unstructured Christianity is unsafe at best and blatantly wrong at worst is part of the process God is using to invite people closer to himself. There’s something in all of us that seeks the approval of others. Paul called it people-pleasing. He said as long as we worry about what others think of us, we’ll never know what it means to be a bondservant of Jesus Christ. When he said it, Paul was talking about brothers and sisters, not the world’s rejection.

Is that why God is calling an increasing number to follow him outside the camp, risking the reproach and judgment of other brothers and sisters when their lives don’t match what they believe to be normal Christianity? Is this why there is such power and excitement among believers, because they have taken the road less traveled, and are willing to lay down the need for other men’s approval to live to God alone?

That may explain why as soon as a move of God becomes known and recognized, that its power fades away. Instead of people discovering a deeper reality of God at great personal cost, they jump on a bandwagon for their own amusement. The glory fades because selfless pursuit is replaced with other motives that will not lead us closer to him.

I know that nothing pains me more than to be misunderstood by other believers whom I have loved (and still do!) and with whom I had served in God’s kingdom. This is not the easiest way to live as God’s people. Far from it. It requires greater initiative, passion and sensitivity to God than following any managed program.

But the rewards are commensurate with the risk. Once you have tasted of life with the Living God, you simply know that no system or program can ever contain it. There is no greater joy than knowing how much he loves you, hearing him speak with such simplicity and power, watching him work his ways into your life, and engaging spontaneous fellowship between believers without the weight of programs and agendas.

I realize that all of these things can also happen within more traditional expressions of Christianity, but in my experience they are rare indeed. Too much time is filled up maintaining machinery and compelling others to conform to the program that hunger for God is often swallowed up by so much spiritual busyness and well-intentioned programs.

It makes me wonder whether our attempts at organized religion is just our way to box God into our traditions and preferences. No wonder it leaves many confused when God doesn’t seem to be as real as Scripture indicates he wants to be. Maybe he finds our lines unable to contain all his wonder and beauty.

Outside the Lines

Jesus seemed to paint outside the lines with regularity–healing on the Sabbath, feasting with sinners, even ignoring the fast days that the religious crowd observed. His lifestyle plagued them with doubts about his authenticity and they regarded his nonconformity as a threat to their power and position with people.

Living outside the lines does not mean we have to rebel against the system. I don’t see God doing that. In fact, he extends his life to every person, regardless of where he finds them. I think it simply means that God has no regard for our machinery, nor limits himself to its demands. He can move through it, in spite of it and beyond it. He can point out its failures even as he uses those failures to transform those who look to him. He is an amazing artist, brushing his glory into our lives in more ways than any structure could ever contain.

Living outside the lines frees us to live in God and not be controlled by other people’s attempts to manipulate us. It looks something like this:

  • It is the freedom to put your relationship with Jesus above anything else.
  • It is the freedom to obey him and live in the truth of Scripture even if others don’t approve.
  • It is the freedom to engage Christ’s body however he calls you–within structures or beyond them.
  • It is the freedom to love God’s people and broken lives in the world without putting people in boxes.
  • It is the freedom to walk away from abusive religious settings and so-called ‘leaders.’
  • It is the freedom to ask hard questions and not allow your faith in God to be questioned.
  • It is the freedom to be honest about your struggles without being condemned or accused of rebellion.
  • It is the freedom to be known for who you really are and not pressured to pretend to be anything more or less.

This is the environment where our relationship with God can grow and flourish. And yes, many people use these very same truths as excuses to indulge their own selfish desires or to live in captivity to their capricious feelings. But just because some will use this freedom as an excuse for the flesh is no reason to deny it to people who really want to know God in truth and be transformed into his likeness.

The reason Christ set us free on the cross from the bondage of religious tradition and obligation is so that we might behold him in the fullness of his glory. We are not settlers who can pitch our tent and live in the relative comfort that God will conform himself to our expectations. He has called us to be pioneers, still journeying toward the city whose builder is God.

Don’t settle for anything less, just because it merits the approval of others. Keep seeking to know the Living God in spirit and in truth, until you see the glory of his life poured out in you every moment of your life on this earth.

He died for that to be true of us. Let us live to make it so!


“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” G. K. Chesterton

Sidebar #1 – From Anna, Mister God and the Black Knight by Fynn

“Sometimes Tich, I think it’s a whole lot easier for kids to know Mister God than it is for grown ups.”

“Why, Finn?” she persisted. Why?”

I didn’t quite know the answer to that one, so I just had to make it up.

“Well,” I began, “I reckon grown ups have often got so many problems of their own that they just haven’t got time to… er…er…”

“Play?” she suggested. “Play with Mister God. Eh? Play?” “Something like that,” I said. “Um. Grown-up people make church so, well, serious that they ne-ver have time to play, do they, Fynn?” “I guess you’re just about right on that one, luv,” I replied. “Too busy trying to earn enough money to pay the bills, I guess.”

Sidebar #2 – From Who Builds the Church? By Alan Richardson

It’s worth turning aside a moment to encourage those of you who may, right now, be out in the wilderness at this point in your experience of life and God. You’re there because God has taken you to one side to show you something of Himself. It’s not easy, and it’s not very comfortable. You’re almost certainly misunderstood, mostly rejected and probably written off by most of your former peers. You may even be wondering sometimes what is happening to you.

Especially, if (your former peers) are enjoying apparent success and limelight, while you seem lost in the back woods.

After you’ve been out there a while, your true friends will begin to made known to you. They’re the ones who stick with you through thick and thin not because of what you do, but because of who you are. And at the times when you’re not even sure who that is any more, they’ll hold through because they have no hidden agendas in the relationship. They’re with you and alongside you simply because of God’s love.

But then there will be some friends who are performance related. They are your friends because of what they expect you to do, or because of the way they expect you to act. And when that fails to line up with their expectations, things go a little awry. You get criticized albeit “in love”. You get marginalized or put on the sidelines. And what’s even harder for you is that while you seem to “decrease”, these other friends whom you are sure are really missing it go on from success to success.

Your temptation is to let go of what God is seeking to build in you. To deny the struggle, the doubts the uncertainties and just get back into the flow where your former friends are seeing it all happen. You know you can do that or at least join them. And if you do, you’ll bring this uncertainty to an end.

But if you go back into what they are doing, God would have had no need to call you to one side.

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The Nut Test

BodyLife Archive • September 1997
By Wayne Jacobsen

“You mean I’m not nuts!” No statement has been spoken to me more often by such a wide variety of people than this one.  Sometimes it’s a question. Sometimes it’s spoken with great joy, other times with quiet relief. I’ve heard these words in virtually every state of the union, and from countries half way around the world. Every time, I hear them, I am blessed to be there.
Because for a long time, I wondered if I was nuts, too. I had hungers in my heart toward God that life in today’s Christianity never satisfied. In fact I would say most church activity did more to negate my hunger than satisfy it. There were too many substitutes for the living God and too many people missing out on the sheer joy and freedom of knowing him and depending totally on him. Whenever I tried to talk about it people accused me of being nuts.

Well, that’s not exactly the words they used. They said stuff like: You’re too idealistic. Can’t you just accept it the way it is! If that’s what God wanted to do in the church today don’t you think he would speak to our leaders about it.

The only reason you’re not happy is because you’re too independent and unsubmitted. But every time I read the Word and took a look at church life, I couldn’t relate the two. The promises far outweighed the reality. It seemed to me that only a few people were really discovering what life in Jesus was all about. The rest were just cogs in the machinery of religious institutions.
For the most part these were good people, mind you. They were diligent in their commitments and responsibilities, believing they were fulfilling God’s purpose by doing so. But they never seemed to engage a joyful, transforming relationship with a loving Father.

I know that sounds judgmental. I don’t mean it to be. I’ve talked with many of them always working hard, but always feeling empty. Like me they wondered why they didn’t experience the depth of spiritual life they saw in the Word. They were grieved by the focus they saw on buildings, programs, money and superstar leaders, and the hurt caused by the pursuit of those things.

Ten years ago I wrote some of those observations in a book called The Naked Church. That’s when the letters and phone calls started. It seems that I was not the only one afraid they were nuts. I discovered lots of other believers whose hunger for God left them disillusioned with the priorities of our religious systems. They too had experienced persistent questioning of their sanity. Many of these had served in leadership positions in a variety of denominations. Many had been pushed aside with accusations of being arrogant or rebellious when they started asking the questions that made others uncomfortable.

When they talked to me, they didn’t say things like, “Wayne, you opened my eyes to things I never considered before.” Instead they said, “Wayne, you put into words what I have felt for so long, but could never express.” That someone else was asking the same questions and sharing the same hungers made them feel like maybe they weren’t nuts after all.
Unless, of course, we’re all nuts. Which in all fairness might be worthy to consider. But nothing sums up the passion of this ministry than that simple discovery. We exist to help people discover and enjoy a vibrant relationship with the living God. Sometimes all we have to say is, “I think God is leading you. Feel free to follow him and not worry what others think.” Sometimes we’re the only voice saying that to them.

Relationship not Religion

“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

These are the words Jesus prayed in the Garden, shortly before his crucifixion. He didn’t die to give birth to another religion, but engage people in a relationship with him and his Father. It has always bothered me that institutional Christianity doesn’t look any different to the world than any of the other religions. We who allegedly walk with the living God have the same traditions, obligations, shrines, sacrifices and ceremonies that they have. Oh, we call them by different names and tell them we are different. But it certainly doesn’t look that way to outsiders.

Christianity is not another religion. It is not a code of ethics. It is not participation in ceremonies or signing some creed. Christianity is a relationship to the Risen Christ, his Father and the Holy Spirit. It is intended to be a relationship more real, more loving, more transforming than any other we’ve ever known in this life. He wants to be at our side when we waken in the morning and walk with us through every step of our day. He wants to be the shoulder we cry on when we hurt, the resource we count on every moment, and the ever-present guide that teaches us how to walk away from the bondage of self and embrace life as Father knows it to be. Then we can be like him in the world, loving others as we have been loved.

It is called relational Christianity, because it is only caught up in loving him and loving others. Period. That’s all he asked us to do, and it is what religion has most failed at over 2,000 years. We are committed to helping people discover the depth of that relationship in him and then discover healthy ways believers can relate together without contempt, manipulation, expectation and the arrogance of setting themselves above others. That’s not only the way we’ll treat other believers, but unbelievers around us as well.

Freedom not Conformity

That kind of relationship however doesn’t grow where people are burdened down with religious obligations and duties. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Paul encouraged the church at Galatia to that freedom, even though he warned them not to use it as an excuse to run off and appease the flesh. But even when people did, he didn’t revoke the freedom of those who were growing to know Father. His letters defined that freedom even as they warned that false leaders would come to take that freedom away. He knew believers would only grow in an environment of freedom.


  • To live in the love of an awesome Father, free to respond to him as he leads you, even if that means you make mistakes now and then.
  • To walk without guilt or condemnation. Recognize that transformation is a life-long process that Jesus
  • works in us by our security in his love, not something we do for him out of fear.
  • To be real. To feel what you feel; to ask what you need to ask, to be wrong where you are wrong, and to extend that same freedom to others.
  • To be liberated from accountability to human leaders who seek to take the place of Jesus in the church by telling others what they think he would have them do.
  • To love other brothers and sisters freely, serving them the way Jesus leads you and not trying to conform to their expectations of what a ‘good Christian’ should do for them.
  • To live free of bitterness and hurt, even where religious institutions (and those who run them) have failed you. We’ve all got plenty wrong with us, so there can be no end to the generosity we can extend others in their weakness.


Those who do not understand this freedom, have lost touch with the head and deny the power of the cross. When that happens people end up lording over others, seeking to conform them to their standard of Christian behavior. Enduring transformation, however, can never come that way. It can only spring from within as the fruit of our friendship with Jesus.


Inside Out Not Outside In

Jesus didn’t mince words. “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”

Religion always tries to change people from the outside in, because it has no power to affect the inner life. Religion finds its reason for being in sustaining traditions and ceremonies, meeting people’s needs and demanding behavioral and philosophical conformity. We talk alike, act alike, think alike! We must be OK!

And because we’ve learned to be ‘nice’ on the outside, we think that God’s work is done. The only problem is that nothing has changed on the inside. We forget that the same system that made Paul “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” was the same system that made him the “chief of sinners.” When he fixed up the outside, he only drove the sin deeper inside.

What he was on the inside was frightful. Even though outwardly perfect by his standard, by his own words he was a “blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” It’s amazing what horrors external righteousness can produce where it really counts.

In Christ Paul found motivation that absolutely transformed him. He came face to face with a love so powerful, that Jesus’ love for him was the only motivation he needed. He didn’t need the fear of hell. He didn’t need accountability to men. He only needed to know how much he was loved. There Paul could die to everything he aspired to for himself, and could enter into the freedom of living in the power of God.

I find no greater joy in my life than to help people discover the depth of that love for themselves, and see how it transforms them by the shear power of his love. This is no external righteousness, it flows from the depth of our being, the freedom to no longer live with self at the center.

So, Are We Against The System?

If by system we mean Christians gathering together (even if it is the same time every week) for prayer, worship and teaching.  Absolutely not! In fact, I go to places like that quite frequently. But if by system we mean the bondage of religious conformity, where people become passive believers in the machinery of a system that wants to use them to feed itself, then yes!
It amazes me that no one is even bothered by the fact that Jesus never once gathered his people in a ‘service.’ He never ‘led worship’ as far as we knew. He never set up a Sunday School. He never launched into a 10 week study of anything beginning at 10:00 on Saturday or Sunday morning. Yet today, we cannot imagine Christianity without those things and judge harshly those who feel like those thing don’t benefit them.

Hear me clearly here. If you are involved in such a gathering that truly stimulates you to greater depths of relationship with God by all means enjoy it! Wonderful things can and do happen when believers get together like that.

But if you find that environment too passive, or even hurtful because of what’s being taught or how people are treated, feel free not to go too! There are many people today who deeply love God and are finding the joy of gathering in much more informal settings, learning as families to share the life of Jesus together in their homes. They don’t go to church, but are learning to live as the church by sharing his life with others and with the world. There’s nothing wrong with that either. In fact, I think it’s a lot closer to what Jesus modeled for his disciples than many of us would care to admit.
Statistics continue to show that the most significant moments in people’s spiritual growth come not at church services, but through personal relationships and in small home studies. Church statisticians tell us that the fastest growing segment of church life today is home groups, Bible studies and house churches. In fact the most effective discipleship and mission work is done by loosely-affiliated small groups of believers learning to share the life and love of Jesus together as a real part of their every day lives.

Personally, I love that kind of body life. Certainly it is more challenging than meeting in managed services, but I find it a far greater growing environment for the whole family. But our purpose at Lifestream is not to advance any system over another. Actually any system (including home churches) can be exploited by people looking to serve themselves instead of live in Father’s love. And any time our idea of church becomes a substitute for a living relationship with Father it becomes destructive.

Love Him, Love Each Other

Relational Christianity is so simply summed up it seems almost trite to say it. Love him with everything you are, and love others the same way you have been loved by him.
We want to help people experience the depth of that relational life in all its facets. We provide writing and teaching to encourage that process in people’s lives. We meet with a wide variety of groups who want to discover what it means to walk with him and experience Godly relationships with other believers.

And once in a while we’ll be a burr in the saddle of institutional religion, not because we enjoy raining on other people’s parades, but because a lot of people fall out of that system hurt and disillusioned. We want them to know that though the system will fail us all at some point, that is only so that we might come to trust Father and him alone.
Jesus didn’t leave his disciples with a system to mass produce throughout the world. He gave them the Spirit, so that we might depend on him. That is true freedom and the source of limitless joy that can conquer any circumstance life hurls at us.

Learn that and you’ll discover the church as God sees it not our cloistered groups meeting in a specific building under a creed some weekend morning. You will see his body scattered throughout your community and the whole world. He knows those who are his. He is able to be the shepherd and hold them in his care. He is able to link them for fellowship and ministry in ways you never dreamed.

We simply aspire to be a part of Jesus doing that wherever he sends us. We’ll keep talking about this wonderful Father and how we can grow to know him better. We’ll keep talking about ways the body of Christ can share life together that doesn’t hurt or manipulate, but encourage us to greater trust in him.
And we’ll keep telling people they’re not nuts. Unless, of course, we think they are!

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The Nut Test Read More »

What’s In it For Me?

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • May 1997

Over the last few years I’ve shared a meal or two with some incredible brothers and sisters.

All of them had been involved in successful vocations or ministries at one point in their lives, most of them at the head of it, and yet all of them found occasion to walk away. For all of them at the time it had been a very painful decision, and none of them really knew what lie beyond it. Often their friends or families didn’t understand what they were doing, and either ridiculed them or withdrew from them.

But they had some wonderful things in common. None of them were bitter, or pined away for their “successful past.” They all confessed how deeply their relationship with Jesus had grown and their understanding of the power of God’s grace. All of them said they had discovered life and freedom in Jesus they never imagined existed when they made their difficult decision.

People who do not act in their own best interest have always fascinated me. It’s easy to understand why people do good things when there is something in it for them. Even our pleas for volunteer help or charitable contributions are almost always linked to tax-deductions, feeling good about yourself and or giving something back, as a way of appealing to people who make choices only because it is in their best interest to do so. That’s just the way our world works.

But that’s not the way Father’s kingdom works. Jesus said so in perhaps the most paradoxical statement of his ministry: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

When we worry about what’s in it for us, struggle to do the best we can for ourselves, even in our pursuit of God, we will always find ourselves deeply disappointed. But if we can let go of that which seeks our perception of our own best interest, we will discover the life of God in the fullest measure.

This is an incredible kingdom our Father has crafted. Choosing his way is undoubtedly the best decision we can make for ourselves. However, our knowledge about what is truly best for us is so limited, that decisions we make seeking our own best interest only draw us further from him. That’s why Jesus warned anyone who would come after him that he would need to, “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Only where we mistrust our pursuit of happiness on our terms, will we discover that true joy lies only in him. For our joy comes not in attaining anything, but being free from our own selfish passions and desires. The problem is that’s not how most of us were introduced to the Father’s kingdom.

Bribed and Threatened

The two most effective evangelism tools of our century both appeal to people’s best interests.

“If you died tonight do you know that you would go to heaven?” Many people come to this kingdom threatened with the fiery stench of hell. It’s a terrifying concept, isn’t it? Once you convince people that heaven and hell, are both real and God decides who goes where, the work of evangelism is done. What fool would choose hell over heaven if they really believe both existed?

Yet this approach to God leaves us in a horrible dilemma. How do you build a loving relationship with the God who would hurl you into eternal torture if you don’t? Is there something so wrong with God that we have to be threatened with torture to come to him?

The second tool, takes the opposite approach to our best interests. “God has a wonderful plan for your life;” and with it we conjure up images of a blissful life with a God who will keep us at peace, happy and free from suffering if we’ll just follow him. So, people come to God in hopes of finding in him what they couldn’t find for themselves in the world. But self is still at the center-we come to him for ourselves. Joy is still defined in our terms.

This becomes painfully obvious whenever expectations are disappointed or difficulties arise. We begin to doubt God’s love if we don’t get the job we wanted or if our children battle a serious illness. Most Christians I have dealt with in years of ministry seem to have more stress over the fact that God is allowing them to be in crisis, than the crisis itself would ever produce.

In appealing to people’s best interest for themselves, both of these invitations to the kingdom may be counterproductive to the kingdom itself. By getting people to chose the kingdom based on their fear of punishment or their greed for the good life, they are only further ensnared in their bondage to self. Rather than leading them closer to the embrace of a living God, they end up only frustrated that Christianity isn’t all it pretends to be.

The relationship that God invites us to share in is the same one that he has enjoyed through all eternity. The Father, Son and Spirit live together in absolute love, sharing together life, glory, and joy. Love in this sense is complete selflessness, each of them giving and serving without any thought for themselves. This kind of love is hard for us to grasp, for what love defines in our age is usually nothing more than mutually-beneficial relationship. People say they love each other when each of them provide some benefit or enjoyment to the other. But as soon as one stops benefiting from the relationship, they usually withdraw pursuing other more-satisfying relationships.

Such self-based love really isn’t love at all. When we approach God in this way we will find ourselves often disappointed when he doesn’t do what we expect him to. When Jesus invited us to the depths of relationship with the Father, the Spirit and himself, he knew the only way we could discover the depth of joy is where we abandon the pursuit of our own best interests and completely trust him to provide everything we need. But that runs against everything we’ve ever known.

What Else Do you Do With Flesh?

Adam and Eve made their choice in the garden, certain they were acting in their own best interest. We will become like God, they thought, never understanding all the ramifications of that choice until it was too late.

I’ve often wondered why God was not a bit more specific about the trees he’d planted in that garden. About the tree they ate from, he warned them they would die if they did. But why didn’t he tell them all of it? Why didn’t he tell them that if they ate of it they would subject themselves and thousands of generations to follow to the horrible atrocities of sin, disease, depression, broken relationships, abuse and death? If he had, and told them all they had to do to avoid these things was to go over and eat of the Tree of Life, don’t you suppose they would have done it?

Of course they would. But why, because they loved and trusted him? No. They would have done it only because it would have been in their best interest. They would have still chosen control of their own life and by doing so would have missed out on the relationship he wanted them to discover. So they came to know good and evil without any power to choose the good.

But let us not forget, that God knew from the beginning what their choice would be and had already set about to use their failure in the process of redemption. Immediately after their fall, he prescribed conditions in which their bent for choosing in their own best interest would be used to help hold their sin in check until the Savior would come. The curses and eventually the law God used rewards and punishments to make God’s ways appeal to our self-interest.

We do the same thing when we discipline our children. Their flesh will not want to do good on their own, but through discipline we seek to make disobedience less attractive. This is how our world conforms behavior. We obey traffic laws, for fear of getting a ticket. The military makes people conform to the standards of conduct they want by an exhaustive set of rewards and punishments, all designed to use self-interest as the motivating force. Grades in school and incentives in business are all meant to appeal to our greed and fear to hold us in check.

So it is natural for us to assume then that God would use hell and the promise of the abundant life to conform our behavior in the kingdom. That’s why so much fear and guilt or promise of God’s blessing or leadership positions are used to get believers to do what’s right.

The Problem with Self-Interest

But anyone who has ever used self-interest as a motivating tool, knows it ultimately doesn’t work. God never expected his own law to work, because our flesh was just too weak. While it can be successful in conforming external behaviors (there’s a lot less adultery around if people get stoned for it), it ultimately cannot transform people.

That’s why children who have only been motivated by fear will end up in rebellion in the teen-age years. Fear never endures. Having been taught all their lives to respond to self-interest what do parents do when that self-interest is served more by going along with their crowd instead of following the desires of their parents?

Even Paul blamed the same process that made him a Pharisee and faultless in legalistic righteousness, as that which made him the chiefest of sinners. Outside his life conformed to God’s law, even though inside hate raged against people he considered a threat to the God he thought he knew. So he murdered in God’s name, and only by God’s mercy found the light of God.

That ought to give us pause, because much of our orientation to the Christian life today is incredibly similar to the Pharisees. We might call them ‘New Testament principles’ instead of law but they still are a set of dos and don’ts that we try to package to appeal to people’s self interest. Regrettably the results are the same. Externally we may look like good Christians and might even take great pride in that; while the most despicable of sins devours us from within. Scripture and history show us that even the most religious of us, will only end up using our traditions and principles to maximize our own best interests, like tax-lawyers groping for loopholes.

It’s no wonder that this process cannot draw us any closer to him, and why God had a better plan in mind.

Serving God Without Preference

God’s ultimate plan to deal with self-interest was not going to come through law or obligation. He knew our flesh was too weak for that. The only way to life was for self to be swallowed up in the immensity of Father’s love.

So Jesus came to die, not because God needed a victim on which to expend his wrath, but that we needed a demonstration of love so powerful, that we could abandon all trust in living to our own best interests and come to participate in the community of God. Because we would trust his love and care for our lives, we would no longer have to look out for ourselves, but follow him freely all of our days.

That’s what Paul taught regarding the cross. “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor 5:15) That became incredibly practical for me recently. I was reminded about a near accident I had while driving a car when I was eighteen. I was speeding down a dark country road with five passengers aboard. All of a sudden I was overwhelmed with an urge to slam on my brakes and did so without even consciously choosing to. As the car skidded to a stop a diamond-shaped reflector sign came into view. The road was coming to a dead-end into a cement ditch. My tires stopped within a foot of that sign.

I haven’t thought about that for a long time, until a time of prayer when I was complaining to God about some difficult things that were going in my life. “Why can’t I get away with doing what seems to work for everyone else?”

At that moment I thought of my near accident and heard that still, small voice: “Ever since that night I’ve considered you mine. You deserved to die in a tragedy that would have taken five other lives, but I saved you. I own you.”

What captured my heart in that moment was the overwhelming love of God. Being owned by him was not bondage. What he was doing in my life was not punishment I needed to fear, but his grace that was showing me the depth of his love. He was inviting me to a relationship with him that acting in my best interest would never approach.

“But perfect love drives out fear,” John wrote, “because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

What a gift! Abandoning our best-interest is a no-brainer decision in the face of the cross. Our agenda is exposed clearly for what it is, a march for self-destruction. Now, we can face every situation without the horrible bondage of figuring out how to make it work best for me. We can simply yield ourselves to God and watch him work out his purposes.

Obedience is no longer the onerous task of trying to keep God appeased, but the simple result of living in trust. After all, isn’t sin only the result of trying to provide for ourselves what God said he would provide for us? If so, then when we are confident that God will have his way, we no longer have to push for our own agendas. In the cross Wayne’s best interest has ceased to exist and no longer needs to be served. That’s not just true of sinful acts but even visions of ministry. He is at work in me for his pleasure. I don’t have to scheme or manipulate people anymore.

The One Who Is Truly Free

What has touched me most about the people I mentioned at the beginning of this article is that they are the most liberated people I’ve ever known. They had uncovered a greater depth of relationship, not because Father rewarded their efforts, but because they had discovered a life in God beyond self. They had seen God take care of them and were learning to enjoy his presence because they were no longer blowing by him in the night continuing to pursue their own agendas.

We understand people who serve their self-interest. In fact it is easy to manipulate people with threats and bribery. But when someone ceases to be motivated by such things, they themselves become a threat to the self-interest system. Others will call them rebels and accuse them of being unsubmitted.

The free person in Christ and the rebellious will always look the same to those who labor under religious obligation, because both ignore the conventions that govern men. But there is a major difference between the two. The rebel does it to serve himself and his passions, always harming others in the process and leaving a wake of anarchy behind him.

The free person in Christ, however, does so because they no longer have a need to serve themselves. They have embraced God’s love at a far deeper level than any method of behavioral conformity will touch, and they will guard that freedom even if it means others will misunderstand them. They reject the conventions not to please themselves, but Father, and because they want others to find that same joy in the hands of a loving Father.

This is the parent, co-worker, brother, sister, son or daughter that God wants to scatter over the whole earth, and by liberating us from self-interest based, legalistic righteousness, allows us to taste the majesty and depth of all that waits for us in God.

This is the purpose of God in bringing his children into his glory. As long as you seek your own best interest in the circumstances you face, you will never find the life of God. Learn to let go of your agenda and trust Father’s immense love, and you will discover what true freedom and joy really are.

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Why Settle for Anything Less?

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • April 1996

The lone figure stood on the shore. They didn’t recognize his form or his voice as he inquired about their catch, “You don’t have any fish, do you?” The fisherman’s worst torment when coming up empty.

“Try the other side,” the voice recommended.

Only when they had cast their net on the other side and it came alive with a boiling sea of fish, did John put it all together. He’d seen it happen once before, on the day he and Peter had first met Jesus back on a dock in Galilee. “It is the Lord!”

Without hesitation, Peter stripped off his outer garment, plunged into the sea, and swam for shore. His friend was back and he couldn’t wait for the boat to bring him to shore. There he finds Jesus had already cooked breakfast for them bread and fish.

It appears that the conversation is somewhat stilted. I’m not sure the disciples ever got comfortable with the Risen Christ who appeared and disappeared when they least expected him. No one challenged him as they ate in silent awe. Any word seemed too awkward so the silence hung in the air with the scent of cooked fish. Only when they finished eating did Jesus turn to Peter.

“Simon, do you love me?” The betrayed turns face to face with his betrayer.

“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Peter’s response is not flippant, it is measured. He doesn’t respond with the word for divine love, agape, that Jesus had used, but with a lesser word, phileo, the companionship of friends. Jesus then tells him to tend his lambs.

You know the exchange. Jesus asks again and again Peter answers the same way. Finally Jesus ends with Peter’s word, “Peter do you like me as a friend.” And now Peter grieved at the third question answers in agony, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I like you.”

Looking for Love

“Do you love me?”

What god of any religion that has existed on the earth cares about being loved? False gods never seek love, only power. They rule with terror, demanding unquestioned obedience and inexhaustible rituals. This theme runs through the idols of the Old Testament, the gods of Greek mythology and the tribal deities of
people around the world. Human-made gods don’t want love, they want subservience even if that means they plunder a man’s riches and require the sacrifice of his own child.

But since they are man’s own creation, they tell us far more about man’s sinfulness than they do the intentions of God. Our Father is a God of love. It was love that inspired him to create a world and people to fill it. It was love that beckoned him earthward, to live as man among us so we might know exactly who God is. It was love that invited these men from fishing boats and tax booths into an awesome friendship. It was love that devised a plan for our salvation for which he would be the sacrifice. And it was love that held him through the brutal agony of the cross until our redemption was won.

His love had prevailed through it all. Was this the final test of the cross, not just that God loved us, but that the sacrifice itself might produce love in our hearts for him? For this was what God wanted with us from the very beginning.

So he turns to the one remaining who had just failed him the most. Peter, so confident that night that his love would prevail, boasted that he would die for his friend. But Jesus knew better. He knew the fear in Peter would overwhelm his faith, that by the next dawn Peter would be devastated by his greatest failure.

But if the cross was going to be worth anything, it would have to demonstrate God’s love so completely, that it could usher a man from his worst failure into the fullness of the Father’s love.

Could that be what Jesus was looking for in Peter? This was no quiz to prolong Peter’s agony nor a three-point make-up test. It was an opportunity for Peter to discover the depth of love he really had for his friend, something he didn’t even know himself.

Is that why he hesitated to use the word agape? Did he feel so unworthy to use Jesus’ word because his failure might well have demonstrated otherwise? Maybe he wanted to use it, but hadn’t felt he’d earned it. Nevertheless the question kept coming. “Simon, do you love me?”

Jesus wanted him to know that his failure was not a measure of his love. Perhaps Peter didn’t understand it completely during this encounter. Perhaps this was just the seed, or maybe he couldn’t grasp it until the fullness of the Spirit captured his heart at Pentecost, but we know he eventually got it. Whenever he refers to the love of God in his own epistles, phileo is no longer on his lips. It is agape and agape alone. Peter came to know not only the depth of God’s love for him, but also his love for God.

Live the Love

Love is the very essence of God’s nature, and it is the means by which everything in his kingdom is transacted. He knew we were ill-equipped to understand that. Life in a fallen world is based around power, not love. We live by seeking to acquire the power or means necessary to guarantee our own survival, happiness or safety. Often when we speak of love, we primarily understand it only in terms of what we get out of it a good feeling, a friendship or some other need met.

God’s love is self-giving. It doesn’t seek its own glory or advancement, and in fact makes one only more vulnerable in a hostile world. But this love is the most powerful force in all the world, able to transform the most broken lives and able to hold us through unimaginable pain.

Jesus lived in that love every second of his life, and in doing so he sought to share it with his disciples. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (John 15:9) All he asked them to do was stay in the love he had given them. He warned them: do it, and everything about their lives would bear fruit. Wander away and they would whither up and die.

His call to love was not just for them, but for all who follow him. That is the only basis for life in this kingdom. How do we do that. Here are three ways that can happen in each of us everyday:

1. Embrace His Love Every Day

Do you remember the first day that you knew God loved you? Do you recall the euphoria, the wonder that the Almighty God who spoke worlds into existence even took note of you, much less genuinely cared about you and every event in your life?

If you are like most, that reality probably became clear to you in the midst of great pain or failure. But none of that mattered. His love captured your heart and everything about the world around you paled in comparison.

Every day was an adventure, and even through the most difficult circumstances you knew you were safe in his care and all your struggles were just a part of a larger plan of which you were now a part. God never intended you to leave that place. All he wanted you to do is remain there, or if you’ve left it, to return there. That’s why Scripture calls it first love. We weren’t meant to get on from there, but live in the joy of that love everyday.

Yet, isn’t the record of most of our lives littered with great periods of time where we have wandered away from that love, and sought other motives to carry our spiritual life? Devoid of his presence we are hounded by fear, guilt and the delusion that we can earn that love by just trying harder. So easily we find ourselves living with love-substitutes. We double our efforts to be responsible, committed or disciplined. But those don’t produce love, they were only meant to flow out of it.

In fact that’s also the history of the church. In Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning points out a disheartening trend:

History attests that religion and religious people tend to be narrow. Instead of expanding our capacity for
life, joy, and mystery, religion often contracts it. As systematic theology advance, the sense of wonder declines. The paradoxes, contradictions and ambiguities of life are codified, and God himself is cribbed, cabined, and confined within the pages of a leather-bound book. Instead of a love story the Bible is viewed as a detailed manual of directions.

If the Lord’s love seems distant for you, draw back to him. Find a quiet place and rekindle your affection. Don’t try to go on without it. God never intended you to live even one day outside the wonder of his love. And don’t make the mistake of trying to earn it either. You can’t earn points with someone who is no longer keeping score. Jesus already filled out your card with maximum points. You don’t have to earn what he has already freely given; you simply get to receive it.

2. Let Love Be Your Only Motive

“The love of Christ compels me,” Paul, the apostle wrote in 2 Corinthians 5. Here was a man that rose to the pinnacle of the religious institution of his day before he came face to face with the love of Jesus on that road to Damascus.

He knew what it was to fear the disapproval of men, to conform his life to the strictest of codes trying to measure up, and the control he could exercise over others as a leader.

But the cross changed all of that. He knew he deserved to die in his sin, yet Jesus had taken his place. Paul concluded that he died with Christ and that his life was no longer his own. He had nothing to fear, nothing to earn, nothing to control. His life had been swallowed up by Jesus’ love. There was nothing left for him to do but live every day only by what that love led him to do.

Everyday we are manipulated by host of motives, some of which even look godly. There are expectations people put on us, fears that drive us, appe-tites that lure us, and guilt that hounds us. But none of these are to control the life of the believer. All that matters now is love: his in us, and ours for him.

The next time you feel torn in any situation, retreat to this simple test: overwhelmed by gratefulness for what he’s done for me and secure in his acceptance and care for me, what do I feel called to do? Paul allowed himself no other motive, and neither should we. That’s the only motive that counts in this kingdom and the greatest gift of the cross.

Remain in my love. Without that kindled fresh in our hearts every day it is easy to find our spiritual lives sliding into an exhausting road of responsibilities and rituals. We will be busy doing a lot of things for God, but absolutely devoid of his life and his joy. Weariness will overtake us and our spiritual life will dry up.

3. Let His Love Flow Through You

With every exchange Jesus admonished Peter to take care of his sheep. The love of God flowing in us will die if it can’t flow through us. Having been so generously embraced by the Father, we will find it spilling over to others.

This love is the most powerful demonstration of God in the world. Jesus even took the Old Testament admonition, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” to a whole new level: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Having been loved, now we can love, both our brothers and sisters in Christ and those around us who are lost in the darkness.

I am convinced that we understand little of this incredible love. Yes, it forgives wrongs suffered, but not without honoring truth. Jesus could in one moment confront the false spirituality of the Pharisees at the same time he invited the prostitute into his kingdom.

So much that travels as love in the body of Christ today is simply trying to be nice even at the expense of dishonesty. We’ll smile and feign love in someone’s presence and take the freedom to tear them down in a conversation with someone else. God’s love doesn’t live in denial. It can take situations as they really are and transform them by his glory.

This is the love God invites us to live in and with which we so easily lose touch. I realize that those who misunderstand love only as feeling will agree with much of what I’ve said, yet dismiss the conclusion as too idealistic. We need commitment and tradition, they’ll say, because we won’t always feel his love.

What has feelings do with love? His love for us and ours for him must transcend feelings and touch us at a far deeper level than the capriciousness of our emotions. But it is nonetheless real, all-encompassing and what ignites our hearts with his life.

Wouldn’t it be better to rekindle the love, instead of pushing ourselves to greater responsibility? What effort of our own has ever led us into a greater touch with the Father’s love?

We need only fall at his feet and receive what he has already given. In moments like that we can be captured by his love all over again. When that happens, we are truly full and truly free. He asked us to settle for nothing less. So whenever you lose touch with it, don’t take another step until you fall back into his arms again, and again, and again.

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