Religion vs. Relationship

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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The Third Road

fishing_0By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • June 2002

My father woke us up at 5:30 in the morning. We crawled out of our sleeping bags into the cold mountain air, ready for a fishing trip of a lifetime. Someone had told us that if we hiked out of the Dinky Creek campground up Rodman’s road for four or five miles, we would come to a creek where large rainbow trout lurked in every pool, ours for the taking. It would be the most incredible fishing experience we had ever known.

I don’t know how far we hiked that morning. We didn’t have a map, just the word of a friend. We trudged on for hours looking for any sign of a creek. At times we thought we could hear one in the distance spilling over the rocks and our pace would quicken in anticipation of finding it around the next bend.

As the hours passed, however, we didn’t even cross so much as a creek bed. When some spoke of giving up, others would encourage them on. We’d come so far. We’d hate to find out later we’d missed it simply because we hadn’t gone another few hundred yards.

Finally, however, our spirits lagged. Our candy bars were gone and our canteens were more than half empty. The sun was getting hotter and all we could think about was the long walk home. Somewhere past 11:00 we gave up and returned to camp in the middle of the afternoon, our fishing poles never having even touched a drop of water.

No one in our group was at fault. We were all awed by the incredible hope of this fishing hole. We’d all done our best and stuck together even when the going got rough. The fact was we were just on the wrong road. It didn’t matter how pure our motives, how passionate our expectations or how hard we tried. That road could not take us where we wanted to go.

Hiking to Nowhere

Bogus fishing expeditions are not the only frustrating hikes I’ve been on. For most of my spiritual journey, I’ve chased the greatest promises of Scripture only to have many of them melt away just at the moment I thought I was closest to them.

I’ve worked hard to seek God’s approval by my diligence, only to see my greatest efforts succumb yet again to attitudes and appetites that diminish my passion and distract my energies. I’ve sought to trust God in every circumstance, only to see circumstances I did not understand rob me of that trust. I’ve tasted of incredible fellowship, only to have it stolen by those who sought to control it.

Only in recent years have I come to see why. What I thought was the road to righteousness didn’t lead where it had promised. A long time ago, I had shunned the values of the world and chosen to live my life after God’s ways. I wanted to live in his righteousness and thought I knew how that could happen. It was a well-worn path that others have walked for centuries.

I had no idea the righteousness it promised was only an illusion. Rather than lead me to life and joy and freedom, it only detoured into a swamp of my own best efforts, woefully short of his promise. I used to blame myself at times for not trying hard enough and God at other times for not being fair to my efforts, never considering that I might actually be on the wrong road. No matter how far I followed it, it was never going to lead me to that which I desired most.

Only in the last decade have I come to realize the folly of the road I was on. I have since found a different road that actually fulfills the promise of Scripture. On its pathway I have found joy greater than I ever thought I could contain, healing from appetites and desires that only grows greater with the passing of time, a reality to God’s presence as real as I always hoped it could be, fellowship that runs deep and true without stagnating or collapsing into personal agendas, and transformation that even has unbelievers asking me what guides my life.

The Righteousness You Don’t Want

If I could offer you a box full of righteousness, would you take it?

Most believers would answer yes because we all know we’re supposed to be righteous. But you might want to be careful here. Paul might have answered, “It depends! What kind of righteousness do you have in there?”

There was a righteousness that Paul clearly did not want. He said he wanted to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” (Phil 3:9) Can you believe there was a righteousness that Paul rejected? He didn’t want to be found anywhere near it. No matter how much better it made him look on the outside it still pulled him further away from the true joy and life of God. He had been on that road most of his life, subscribing to the best rule-keeping system ever devised, and knew it did not lead to the fullness of life in God.

I used to think we had only two roads to choose between – the paths of wickedness or righteousness. The road to wickedness we all know well. Through rebellion, indulgence, independence and selfishness we can live only to please ourselves. Though that road provides momentary pleasures, it leads to death and destruction.

The only other road I knew about was the road to righteousness. I had to learn how to change my life so that it was pleasing to God. It was lined with rules and principles to observe, and laced with routines to follow. Accountability and commitment drove that journey in the unending quest of trying to earn God’s approval. When I fell short (and I always fell short) I resorted to comparing myself to others, hoping that God would grade on the curve. If I couldn’t be perfect I would at least be better than 90% of the other believers I knew.

Because that path could not transform me, it only made me more proficient at pretending to be righteous. It could never draw me into right relationship with the Father and free me to enjoy his life. Regardless of how passionate my pursuit was, it would on its best days only lead me to smug self-righteousness and on its worst days to the despair of unresolved guilt. No matter how much effort or expectation I brought to it, I always ended up frustrated and disappointed. Like our mountain hike to the phantom fishing hole, it was an impostor trail that led to greater bondage, not freedom.

The Righteousness that Comes from Faith

That’s why Paul spoke of a third road. This one doesn’t just aim at righteousness it actually gets there. In the same breath that he distanced himself from the righteousness produced by human effort, he declared his all-out passion for a different kind of righteousness – “that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Phil 3:9) Sharing his life with Jesus, the joys and the troubles, had transformed the way he thought about everything, and yes, his actions right along with it.

Though I’ve had tastes of this kind of righteousness in various seasons of my life, it is only in the last decade that I’ve really come to understand its power. All the appetites, attitudes and anxieties that held sway in my life all resulted from the fact that I did not trust that Jesus was big enough to watch over my life and lead me into his fullness. Because I couldn’t trust him to do it without me, I always found myself wandering back to the trail of self-effort.

The work Jesus has done in my heart over the past few years was to convince me that his love was great enough to contain every event in my life and provide for me all that he wants. He didn’t need me trying to produce it, only to draw close to him and discover how incredibly rich and powerful his love is. His presence would set me free enough from self so that I could live in him.

No, I do not consider myself perfect, far from it. But the more his love wins me over, the easier it is to entrust increasing bits of my life to him. The more I trust him the freer I become from the anxiety, appetites and attitudes that used to rule my life. I am just beginning to feast on the righteousness that relationship with him produces, and I’ve got to tell you, there is nothing sweeter. I notice it in the smallest things, the lack of frustration and anger if things don’t work out the way I’d hoped; less expectations of others and less hurt when they fail to live up to them; greater clarity about God’s purpose in the unfolding events of my life; and being able to recognize when others seek to manipulate me and the freedom to step away from it.

The only thing that needs to concern me on this road is drawing ever closer to him with an honest and sincere heart. No matter the joy, struggle or failure, he is there to love me in the middle of it and to lead me through it to greater life in him. The more he affirms his love for me, the easier it is for me to trust him and the freer I find myself to live out his life with people around me. This is the road that Paul discovered and the one he refused to get off of, even when others demanded it of him.

Rebellion, Religion, Relationship

Thus there are three roads that confront us daily. Let’s label the first road ‘Rebellion’, because it substitutes our own will for what God wants to accomplish in us. The second I’ll label ‘Religion’ because it is our attempts to produce God’s life by human effort. Like that fateful fishing expedition, it is a road that will never lead us to Godly fulfillment. The third road is the one Jesus paved for us. Let’s call it ‘Relationship’, because out of relationship with him he will transform us to live in his righteousness and freedom.

If you’ve been persistently disappointed by your spiritual aspirations, perhaps you, too, have been on the wrong road. Unfortunately many believers have tried to live on the very road that Paul repudiated. You don’t have to be a Christian long to run into the religious mindset that says we have to try harder to please God. Many of our religious institutions are built on that premise, because institutions demand conformity and conformity is a human process.

All of the early churches that Paul planted on the road to relationship ended up on the road of human effort. The reason we have most of the New Testament is because believers in Corinth, Galatia and Colossae, had gotten on the wrong road. They were convinced by those who claimed to be leaders that their success hinged on conforming to their demands. They all traded away the freedom of journeying in God for the empty works of human effort.

Paul wrote to point them back to the only way we can discover God’s righteousness – the road to relationship. He does not conform us by obligation, but transforms us by sharing his love with us and showing us how we can trust him.

Fellowshipping on the Second Road

We all know the camaraderie of indulgent living. Those who live to their own ambitions either want others to come along so they won’t feel alone, or they destroy people who get in their way. In this world relationships are either boom or bust depending on how we serve their interests.

Fellowshipping on the second road, can be as destructive, but is far subtler. People captured by religion are often well intentioned. They want what God wants for them, but because they are confused about how God accomplishes his purpose in them, they can be destructive without even realizing it.

Religious structures wire their relationships with accountability and control in the futile attempt to help people try to be more pleasing to God. Often their standards have nothing to do with what it means to walk with Jesus. One TV pastor summed it up this way: “Going to church, giving tithes and offerings, and keeping the sabbath are the basic doctrines of Christianity. We live the Christian life by practicing these basic doctrines of Christianity.” Of course these are practices not doctrines, but he does sum up the attitude of those mired in religion. And isn’t it interesting that the actions demanded do more to sustain the institution than draw people closer to Jesus and help them participate in his life?

If you go along, you are rewarded with approval and promises of expanding influence. When you cease to go along, you are cast out as a dangerous influence. Because our fallen nature craves approval by others, religious environments easily manipulate us by fear, guilt and shame. There is no middle ground here, because those on this journey know how easy it is to slip off that road back into the world. They regard their spirituality as fragile and it must be protected at all costs.

However, human effort cannot embrace the righteousness of God. People who follow it only end up pretending to be more righteous. Pecking orders develop quickly as people who seem to conform to the standards are exalted over those who struggle with them.

It has always bothered me that so many people who sincerely love God at the outset of their journey end up mired in manipulative relationships and, in the end, become far more hurtful than helpful to the kingdom. Now I understand. If we don’t get on the only road to righteousness that works, we have to keep going as we did most of the morning on our ill-fated fishing expedition. We’ve got too much invested now, to simply admit that we might have been led astray and look for a better option.

Fellowship on this road is painful at best, and seems to be based on the notion that misery loves company. People don’t talk of enjoying the camaraderie of the journey, but needing to “go to church” unless they fall into some grievous error. Often they have few true relationships with other believers, because they spend so much energy pretending to be what they know they are not.

Fellowship on the Third Road

Since I’ve discovered life on the road of ever growing trust in Jesus’ love for me and his purpose in my life, I have found a new depth of fellowship I never thought possible. Sharing life with people on this road fulfills all that Scriptures says about real body life.

Instead of pretending to be what we’re not, we encourage each other to be authentic. It’s OK to question what we need to question, ask what we need to ask and struggle where we struggle. People are not rewarded for pretending to be better than they are, but are 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, we help people be released from shame so that they can experience God’s love.

Instead of loading each other up with a list of ‘shoulds’, we help each other 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 each other we just encourage each other closer to Jesus, because it is so much fun (and far more effective) watching him change them.

Instead of manipulating each other to do what we think would most benefit the group, we learn together how to trust Jesus for what we need and find the simple sharing of that life together is the best of body life.

Since our eyes are fixed on Jesus and we simply get to enjoy each other, we have found that this kind of righteousness and body life is not nearly as fragile as we had been taught. I had learned that if I hung out with the wrong people, or missed a meeting or two, I would suddenly be swallowed back into the world’s temptation or be seduced into some grievous heresy. While that may be true of works-righteousness, it is not true of the righteousness that faith produces. He is able to keep us from falling. He is able to link us up with other brothers and sisters exactly as he desires. He is able to teach us how to live deeply in him and know the awesome freedom from our own expectations and the demands we put on others.

The righteousness that flows from trust is incredibly resilient. Once you’ve tasted of it, everything else loses its appeal. Though I am often with people walking down Religion Road, I am not even tempted to join them on that road again. I don’t mind loving them, telling stories of a better road that will really take them to the fullness of God’s life, but I have no desire to trade the power of God’s transformation for the illusion of human effort.

This is the best fellowship in the world, and I hope you are finding it too. Notice that it does not come from finding the ‘right group’ or meeting in the right way. You can seek those forever and never find them. This fellowship flows naturally among people who are walking on the road of ever-deepening relationship with God. I meet people like that everywhere.

If you find yourself today on the road to religion, why don’t you recognize it for what it is and ask the Father to free you from it and show you the road to increasing relationship. As you grow in doing so you will find yourself connecting to an ever-expanding group of folks who have found that trusting a Father’s love and depending on him is the only way to walk.

Believe me, you’ll never want to go back to mere religion again!


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The Same Old Story

hot_air_balloons_0The Same Old Story

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • January 2000

How quickly the Galatians had lost sight of it! According to Paul, they had had a clear revelation of the crucified Christ and the glory it produced. They had experienced a work of the Spirit that had captured their heart and had swept them to the heights of what it meant to know Jesus.

But in less than a decade, they had traded the fresh wind of God’s Spirit, for the predictable, but empty, patterns of trying to live in God’s life by their own efforts.

In one of the first letters he wrote to any of the churches, Paul was beside himself. He was in obvious anguish when he wrote them, for he knew too well what had lured them earthward again—the need to boast in their own efforts rather than to trust God’s ability to work in them. He knew how seductive it was for them to work hard for God and how exhilarating it would be for them to feel as if they had earned God’s blessing by their diligence.

He had already been down that road, remember, and knew too well that it always produced the opposite of what it promised. Instead of drawing them closer to God, it only obscured their view of him and left them mired in a host of activities and routines that only offered a form of Godliness, but denied the real power of it.

How often that story has been repeated among God’s people in the 2,000 years since. It’s even been repeated in my own life numerous times. For the most part, I’m not even aware when I’m settling out of the winds aloft to tether my craft to my way to more earthly ways of doing things, because my desire to live in God hasn’t changed. It’s just that I opt for ways that look more predictable and more in my control. I seem to only to notice after I’m good and stuck, longing for the freedom to soar with God that I have long since given up.

Regrettably the Galatians’ story proved to be more parable in Christian history than anomaly. Like them, we often need to be encouraged regularly away from the apparent safety of the moorings of the rules and routines with which we become so familiar, so that we can be carried again wherever the winds of God’s Spirit desires to take us.

Taking Flight

It has been five years now since Father delivered Sara and I from the role I thought I had to play in managing the spiritual life of a group of people. We began as a small group of people who just wanted to learn how to love God together. As we incorporated more programs to meet the needs of a growing congregation, our attention to God’s voice faded. We ended up with a large machine that required constant maintenance and where it became far easier to battle over competing agendas than to love each other from the heart.

In the separation we found more pain than we ever thought we could endure, but found more freedom than we ever knew we were allowed to embrace. It has been a wild ride since we cut the tethers that had held us down, and have come to discover that we are not alone. Over these five years we have met people from all over the world with similar journey and nearly identical hungers to know God in his life and fullness.

The conversations we’ve had have encouraged us and helped us see just what our Father is doing in these days. God is calling people away from the safety of those things they can control, to allow him to lead them to his fullness. But that process is never easy and in fact can be filled with great pain.

I wish there were a way to gather all of you next month for a week of being God’s people together. I know how incredibly encouraged you would be to see what God is doing in people all over the world. Father is opening the eyes of many people to see the futility of trying to replicate his life by our own efforts. You would be so encouraged to hear other people tell your same story and know that God really is who he claims to be and that life as his people can be filled with joy instead of pain, freedom instead of conformity, and encouragement instead of confrontation.

It would be just a small taste of what I get to experience as God allows me to meet with pockets of people all over who are struggling with the emptiness of religion and the questions and accusations they get from others who don’t underhand their actions.

I hope we can put together some gatherings like that this year, but in the meantime I want to share with you the common threads in this age-old story, and some of the lessons others seem to be learning. I think you’ll discover that your story may well be part of one far larger and far older than you may have known.

When Your Eyes Open?

It’s not that we didn’t try to find a way to make organized religion a tool for our passion to know God and help others know him. Many of us shared in leadership under one title or another, or at least gave countless hours and significant dollars trying to make the best of it. That was until we began to see some things we hadn’t noticed before.

Here the details vary somewhat. For some they discovered that their honest attempts to follow the voice of Jesus made the others around them nervous or even hostile. What began as a joyful discovery of God’s life together, quickly turned into a source of great pain as others rejected their insights or probing questions and sought to silence them or get them to leave.

For others, they found that the mere invitation to conform to the programs of religion couldn’t heal their brokenness. When they cried out for help, people became uncomfortable with their pain and pushed them aside. Instead of comforting those in pain, they often accused them of not doing enough right or for not having enough faith.

Still others, in a growing revelation begin to recognize that all the activities and traditions are not helping them either to know God any more deeply, nor to see his presence transform the inner conflicts and temptations they faced.

In almost all these cases, the initial discovery came with great excitement. Certain others would be as excited as they were with God’s working, they shared freely their hopes, suggestions for change, or even their disappointment and pain. It didn’t take long to see that others didn’t share their enthusiasm. Instead they found that their insights or struggles caused even close friends to question their passion for Jesus, their submittedness in the body of Christ or, in worst cases, even their sanity.

Cutting the Ropes

That which tethers us to our own human efforts are not easily cut. Few people I know ever intended to leave the system they were in, hoping rather to be a catalyst for change with in it. But when they met the powers of institutionalism which prefer procedure and rules over the breath of the Spirit they were shocked at how easily those who were formerly friends and colleagues would turn on them.

Here is a critical juncture. Will we risk our comfort to follow what we know in our hearts to be true? Many don’t make it past this point, preferring to co-exist in silence rather than pursue their passion. I understand why people do that, but also know that he miss out on a journey whose joys far outweigh its risks and its cost.

Those who do go on, meet resistance on virtually every front. Accused of being independent, unsubmitted, or spiritually confused, they find their own self-doubts adding to the chorus. “What if I am nuts?” “Who am I to question what has been in existence for so long and seems to bless so many people?”

But Father’s leading plays out in the deepest places of our hearts. Usually these people are not convinced they are right and that all others are wrong, but finally realize that they want only to follow God’s leading as best they understand it. But pressing ahead isn’t easy. As their eyes continue to open they see how the system is used to manipulate people and reward a select view. They see how people God cares for deeply are hurt, excluded or neglected. They see that those who have been lulled to complacency by tradition and religious activities are missing out on the greatest joys of walking with the Living God. And for many they just can’t keep quiet.

The Need to Convince

No doubt this is where the process gets most painful for everyone. Because the struggle to follow our conscience ensues without a lot of external affirmation, we find ourselves having to defend our actions. We hope others will still trust that we love God and will allow us the journey, but it is not so.

Nothing threatens systems of conformity more than those who begin to live in the freedom that Jesus purchased for us. Those who challenge the validity of the routines and traditions are often isolated and excluded. Mostly this is done through gossip by ‘leaders’ who think they protect God’s work by discrediting other believers.

Regretfully some of us fall into the trap of bolstering our confidence by striking back. We too point out their faults, rail against the abuses and gossip about those who we find opposing us. That isn’t always wrong. Jesus may want us to confront openly the failures of institutionalized Christianity, but we need to be sure.

More often, our reactions come from our insecurities and wanting to defend our reputations. We don’t want people to misunderstand us nor distort the passions of our heart. We speak up hopeful that others will listen. They rarely do. We think they will be easily convinced if they just have the right information. But the sad fact is that many people find more comfort in staying tethered to someone’s program rather than to soar on the heights of trusting God.

Though God may call us to speak up in truth, he never makes us responsible to convince others. I have long since realized that people won’t see the fallacy and pain of institutionalized religion until God himself shows it to them. Sadly, that often only comes in moments of great pain where God allows the institution to fail us, so that we can see our trust has been vested in the wrong place.

We have to remember that those who don’t see it yet, are not usually complicit in the destruction it causes. I’m convinced that the real danger of religion is that it takes our best motives for God’s life and turns them against ourselves and others. All the proof I need is seeing how people caught up in religion can harshly treat others who disagree with them.

Where to From Here?

Many people I know are right here in the story. They have seen something they cannot deny and are willing to follow God’s leading no matter what the cost. But how he seems to be leading them is very different.

Some stay right where they are, learning how to live in God’s freedom even among those who are caught up in religion. They disregard the guilt-inducing sermons and glean what encourages their relationship to Jesus. Not wanting to waste time maintaining machinery, nor needing the notoriety of a title, they decline invitations to participate in leadership positions that are invariably offered. This will work as long as God calls them to it, but it is certainly not for everyone. They can find their motives questioned for not helping out or conforming enough, and few can resist for long the hypnotic complacency that religion tries to trade for our radical passion for Jesus.

Others find themselves out of the system entirely. Many are forced to leave by outright request or by never-ceasing gossip; others simply are unwilling to be a partner any longer in the damaging environment. This time can be incredibly painful and you’ll find that people with whom you’ve had life-long friendships will no longer acknowledge you or seek out your company.

But what do we do for fellowship now? Some try other local congregations hoping to find one that is more focused on Jesus and less tainted by organized religion, but that doesn’t work for many.

The temptation is to distance ourselves entirely from other believers and think we can make it on our own. While God may call us ‘outside the camp’ for a period of time to reorder his place in our lives and to reinstill a hunger to find genuine and healthy relationships to his people, his passion is to reconcile people together and place before his son a bride fit for him. That process may take longer than you want it to, just because you may not be able to find others who want to meet regularly to encourage each other in Christ. But let it have its end.

Freedom to Fly Higher

That needn’t concern you unnecessarily. What is certain is that whatever ways we find to be the church with other believers, is initiated by Jesus himself, the head of the church. He knows how, when and where to connect you with other people. Some are finding each other through internet resources and are willing to travel periodically to find meaningful fellowship. Others find spontaneous encounters or simply fellowship with good friends to be a starting point. Where people are free to love Jesus passionately, the bride will emerge.

Personally, I’m thrilled to find believers who want to be God’s church together. They want to learn how to listen to him together, to encourage one another on the journey and to care for each other through the twists and turns of life.

Without the trappings of religion, however, that takes a firm choice on our part and a willingness to invest time in other believers. I don’t know how Jesus will produce that in you, but isn’t it thrilling to see the number of people seeking out home-based church life? It’s not easy and we may have to re-learn how we think about God and his people, but the freedom it gives us to share life with each other relationally instead of organizationally is incredible.

The temptation all of us face, however, is to abuse this new-found freedom as an excuse for the flesh to reassert control of our lives. He sets us free from guilt and manipulation so that we can know him better, become more like him, and reflect his glory in the world—to believer and unbeliever alike. We can’t make that happen by our own efforts; but we can choose to draw near to him daily, hear his passion for our lives, and follow him wherever he leads us.

Recently I heard someone in a clerical collar express his outrage on TV at those who question organized religion. “What would you prefer disorganized religion?”

It’s a cute comment, but truly misses the point. The problem is not that our religion is organized, but that it is religion at all. Religion is managed spirituality—an attempt to make people feel better about themselves without helping them discover the reality of their own friendship with the Living God. It is man’s attempt to do God’s work.

It will forever keep you tethered to your own best efforts when Father wants you to ride freely on the wind of the Spirit.


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Daisy Petal Christianity

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By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • March 1999

He loves me.

He loves me not.

He loves me.

He loves me not.

It is a game little girls play hoping to find out if the boy of their desires also desires them. As the daisy petals are torn from the flower one by one, the chant continues. The tension builds until the last petal tells all. Are they loved in return or not? Even if you’re watching them from far away, their squeals of delight or groans of sorrow will tell you how it turned out.

Of course no one takes it seriously. When they don’t get the answer they want, many will take another daisy and start the process again. It doesn’t take long even for children to realize that flowers just weren’t designed to tell romantic fortunes. Why should they link their heart’s desires to the fickleness of chance?

Why indeed!

It seems to be a lesson far easier learned in romance than in our relationship with God. Perhaps because he has eyes we cannot look into and a voice that our ears often cannot hear, we look to our circumstances for clues as to how God feels toward us on any given day.

Is he delighted with me, or disappointed? Am I in a place to receive his blessing, or have I messed up enough to warrant his anger? Can I feel safe with him today, or should I shy away in fear? It’s a game too many of us play.

I got a raise at work. He loves me.

I lost my job. He loves me not.

I got something meaningful out of the Bible today. He loves me.

My child is seriously ill. He loves me not.

I gave money to someone in need. He loves me.

I let my anger get the best of me. He loves me not.

Something I prayed for actually happened. He loves me.

I fudged on the truth to get me out of a tight spot. He loves me not.

Have you ever felt like that? Tossed back and forth, you sort through ever circumstance just like you used to pluck daisy petals–hoping to find some clear evidence of God’s disposition toward you. Does he love me?

What God Is This?

It is a perilous tight-rope. You have heard that God loves you and in your better moments you believe it easily.

But what do you do when circumstances turn hurtful? For you have also have heard that he is a God of vengeance, demanding your obedience to his will. If he rewards those who follow him, are your difficulties confirmation that you’re not on his good side?

Here is the problem isn’t it? Scripture paints two seemingly contradictory portraits of him. As the holy God he is shown to be unapproachable in his purity, willing to met out unspeakable torment on his Son, and ready to consign the unrepentant to eternal agony in hell. He is also portrayed as a tender Father, so loving that the most wayward sinner could run to his side in absolute safety and find forgiveness and mercy.

If you are not able to resolve these images into a coherent view of God, you will end up playing the he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not game. Like the schizophrenic child of an abusive father, you’ll never be certain what God you’ll meet on a given day–the one who wants to scoop you up in his arms with laughter, or the one who ignores or punishes you for reasons you don’t understand.

Vacillating between loving him and fearing him will keep you from learning to trust him. For you know intuitively that you cannot love what you fear; and you will not fear what you love. Here is why so few believers ever discover the depths of friendship God has offered to them. They see God’s holiness as a contradiction to his tenderness. Unable to reconcile the two, fear wins out and intimacy with him is forfeit.

Fear Him or Love Him?

Fear and love cannot exist side by side in the human heart. Though the Psalmist tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom–it is only the beginning. We need to learn that love is the fulfillment of it, and that’s why John said that perfect love will cast out all fear. The upshot is this: if you don’t love God, you would be well-served to fear him. Once, however, you learn what it really is to love him, you will never need to fear him again.

Only by experiencing this depth of love can you come to know God as he really is and how secure you are in him. Discover that out and your calamities will never again drive you to question God’s love nor whether you’ve done enough to merit his affection. Instead of fearing he has turned his back on you, you will be able to rest in his love at the moments you need it most.

This has been God’s desire for you since the first day of creation–to invite you past your fear of him, to discover what it means to love him. He offers you an intimate friendship with him that will transform you as he alone becomes the all-consuming passion of your life. He will 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. He wants to be closer than your dearest friend and more faithful than you’ve ever known in any human being.

I know it sounds too good to be true. How can mere humans enjoy such a friendship with the Almighty God who created with a word all that we see? Do I dare think that he would know and care about the details of my life? Isn’t it presumptuous to even imagine that this God would take delight in me, even though I still struggle with the failures of flesh?

It would be if this were not his idea before it was ever yours. He’s the one that offered to be your loving Father–sharing life with you in ways no earthly father ever could. He’s the one that loves you more than you have ever been loved, and he knows that when you discover that, all of your fears, including your fear of him, will be destroyed.

Where Is This Love?

There’s only one place you can go to find a love so powerful–the cross on Golgotha. Here the Father and Son unveil a plan so incredible that it opens the door for you to have an eternity-long, love-relationship with the Lord of glory.

For most of my life in the faith I have seen the cross only as the substitutionary sacrifice that allowed Jesus to pay the price for my sins. It is only in the last few years that I have discovered it is so much more. The cross not only qualified us for salvation, but also provided the basis for our confidence in his love. Turn your eyes again to his cross, and see what transpired between a Father and a Son that forever secures our place in his love. He was not just punished for our sin, but he took sin into himself, so he might destroy it there for all who want to come to him.

That is the love God invites us to live in every day. Fear paralyzes, but love will free you to come to him, even in the midst of your worst failures, knowing that he loves you enough to change you. Fear makes you work harder to prove your worth to him; love teaches you to trust his work in you.

For too long organized religion has sought to teach us that fear and shame will make us better Christians, but it is not so. Insecurity about your place in him will do far more to separate you from your loving Father than to ever draw you to him. Jesus knew that. He taught people how to live securely in God’s love every moment of ever day so that he could transform them in ways they never could on their own.

For those that think grace offers us the luxury of throwing token acknowledgment to God while we continue to live to our own desires, you greatly misunderstand it. Grace frees us to live in relationship with God while he teaches us how to live in his desires. When you learn to live in Father’s love, you will discover how to love him with all your heart. And I dare you to do that, and not be transformed into an authentic reflection of his glory.

Drink deeply of his love every day. Engage him daily in conversation. Ask him to reveal himself and his love to you and watch him do so in the most unlikely places.

He wants you to walk with him that way every day, for the rest of your life–never fearing him again.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18


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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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