The Importance of Living Free

How Do I… ?

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • March 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hounded by Luke 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fight For the Top

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head Table Wannabes

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

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

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

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

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

The Organic Growth of Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live, Love and Listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Reveling in the Freedom to Follow

By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • July 2006

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Don’t We Want People to Follow?

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

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

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

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

 

One Flock, One Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spiritual Couch Potatoes?

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

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

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

 

The Submitted Flock

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

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

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

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

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

 

A People Like No Other

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

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

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

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

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

 

Live Free!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that something worth waking up to?


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

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

Articles in Chronological Order | Articles by Content

Feasting on the Tree of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Life that Really Is Life

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

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

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

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

 

An Independence of Painful Consequence

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

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

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

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

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

 

Not By Principles Alone

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

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

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

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

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

Give Us A Model!

“But what does it look like?”

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

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

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

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

 

A New Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dieing to the Right

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

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

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

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

 

At Rest in His Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*Other contributors to this article:

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

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


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Thriving Outside the Box

bird_in_cage_0Thriving Outside the Box

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • October 2003

I have never been able to enjoy looking at a bird in a cage, even if it is a nice cage. While it may provide a safe haven and contain all the food and water she will ever need it also prevents her from doing the one thing God made her to do. A bird that cannot take wing and soar to the heights misses the best part of being a bird.

Over the last decade I’ve communicated with thousands of people whom God has awoken to the fact that they have grown up in religious cages that have stunted their growth and robbed them of God’s life. Some were thrown out for questioning the sanctity of the cage, while others escaped when they noticed the door was not closed as tightly as they’d been led to believe.

But not all who find themselves outside the box thrive in their newfound freedom. Though many do, others find living outside disorienting and uncertain. While they know well the pain of the box they were in, they don’t know how to thrive outside of it. Nothing works the way they are used to and if they don’t learn to live differently their release will be their ruin. They will soon learn that freedom itself is not the goal. It is only an opportunity. If they don’t use it to live more deeply in Jesus they will find themselves using it to stew in their anger at the cage that held them or to succumb to the ever-enticing flesh.

Boxed In

I know the analogy almost begs misunderstanding so let me be clear from the outset. If you’re thinking the cage represents those who participate in a Sunday morning event in those buildings many mistakenly call ‘churches,’ you would be wrong. It is not as simple as that. The cage that imprisons God’s people is not religious institutions per se, but the system of religious obligation that many of them (though not all) use to preserve the institution or to advance its program. Just because you meet in a home is no guarantee you’ve broken free of this system either. By moving it into a more intimate setting it only becomes more hurtful.

But no matter how we gather with believers, God wants all of us liberated from the cage of religious obligation. Because it is based on human effort for spiritual growth and community life, this cage is lined with guilt that you’re never doing enough to earn God’s favor and it is laced with the fear that your spiritual security lies in conforming to the doctrine and program of the group. It often focuses on an institutional program or someone’s personal vision, rewarding those who conform while abusing those who do not.

Many of us who gave ourselves wholeheartedly to that system were shocked to find out that it could only deliver an illusion of God’s life but never the reality. It exploited our most noble intentions and imprisoned us with our basest desires. It offered temporal security, spoon-fed nourishment and even some emotionally satisfying moments, but it could not let us soar to the heights. This system only wore us out with its programs, exhausting our efforts while bearing little fruit, and while it could conform our external behavior, it could not transform our inner thoughts and motives. So sin still undermined us, guilt consumed us and emptiness hounded us and we were only left with the inescapable conclusion that it wasn’t working because we weren’t trying hard enough.

Life Outside the Box

But every once in awhile God will allow his followers to see through the illusion of religious obligation and see what a failure it truly is. This usually comes with considerable pain – either exposure of our spiritual shallowness or of the exploitation or betrayal of someone we thought was a close friend.

-People react to those moments differently. Some take their liberty and go on in a relationship with God that becomes deeper and more powerful every day. Others may blame the symptom of the pain (an abusive leader or intransigent institution) and miss the larger reality of how the system itself destroys. They may move outside the box, but with considerable anger. Unresolved pain quickly devours their passion for Jesus and they find themselves emptier in freedom than they did in the cage.

Now what? Like the children of Israel who craved the comforts of Egypt some prefer to be secure slaves than free children. They seek out another cage or worse yet build one of their own mistakenly thinking that the problem was not with the cage, but with the people leaders in it. Others become so jaded they shun even genuine expressions of fellowship, fearful they will end up in another counterfeit. Neither the bondage of religion nor the complacency of freedom will lead people into Father’s fullness.

If we don’t find a greater freedom in Jesus outside the cage we will wither away. I know how disorienting it can be because nothing we learned in there works outside. To thrive in freedom we’ll need to learn a new way of living. Here are some of those lessons I see God teaching people learning to live free:

1. Relax. This is God’s Work

Religious obligation says that it is all up to you. If God isn’t doing the things you want, you have to work harder, stand firmer and pray longer. The focus is on your performance, your obedience, your righteousness. Outside that cage you will quickly recognize that your best efforts will not accomplish God’s work. This depends on him not you. Instead of trying to manipulate God he will teach you rest in his work through you.You will find yourself making better decisions when you trust his love for you than when you’re anxiety-ridden about trying to earn it.

You will learn rely on him alone and recognize that any time you give up responsibility for your spiritual nourishment to another person – whether friend, pastor or author, you’ve already traded away a bit of your freedom for life in a cage. We can only experience the true wonder of body life when we are learning to depend on God together, not exploiting each other in an attempt to get from each other what we have not found in God.

2. Give Up Your Illusion of Control

Someone told me last week God was asking them to give up control over their lives. I told him I didn’t quite think that was how God does it. You can only try to give up control if you’re still under the illusion that you have it. I know our actions and decisions have profound consequences in our journey, but ultimately God is in control. Has any amount of scheming or manipulation ever truly produced the results you seek? When God shows you that you are not in control, then you will truly be free to live in his purposes instead of your own.

3. Live for His Approval

The reason religious systems work so successfully is their ability to exploit people’s desire to be accepted. When we go along with the program we are rewarded with approval. When we do not, we are punished by being shunned, gossiped about or overlooked.

The craving for approval devours our spiritual passions by putting our focus on what people think of us rather than what God does. Paul clearly showed us that such thinking is at odds with spiritual growth: ?If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.? (Galatians 1:10) As you get free from the cage, expect others to play this approval card for all its worth. Even close friends will suddenly hold you at arm’s length or say ugly things about you, all in the hope of drawing you back into the cage they think holds the keys to life. It does not.

4. Learn Grace in Opposition

Jesus warned us that if we follow him others will speak ill of you, make false accusations and even exclude you. Fortunately in this day and age, they can’t stone you. But it is true that people in the cage regard those who are not as dangerous, deceived and rebellious.

It will hurt deeply, especially early in the process. But as you lean into him you will find his life in you becoming more real than the pain they can inflict. Knowing what God overlooks in you every day will make you more patient with others, even those who attack you. Your contempt for them will melt into compassion as you realize just how painful their bondage really is. Remember, as long as you are reacting to something, you are being controlled by it.

5. Let Guilt Die

You feel it when you turn down a request for help or sit out of a meeting you’ve attended most of your life – guilt. It is that deep, nagging drumbeat in your gut trying to convince you that you’re a really bad person and God is upset with you. Even when you rationally know you made the right decision, guilt can be relentless. Many would rather give in to it than face it. They were trained that way. Guilt is the easiest way to motivate people who do not know who they are in Christ.

How do you deal with it? Let it die. Though you can’t stop its drumbeat you can refuse to dance to it. In time it will fade away. You will also discover that those who help you most grow in God will never pile on the condemnation when you disappoint them, but they will always help peel it away. Like Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, they know that guilt rather than freeing people from sin only drives it into darker closets where it only becomes more destructive.

6. Savor the Story

In his amazing grace God gave us the story of how he made himself known to men and women just like us. He wanted us to know exactly what he is like and how he thinks so that we could know him as he is.

Evangelicalism may go down in history as the group that ardently defended the truth of Scripture while ignoring most of its content. The Bible is not an owner’s manual with rules to be followed nor a file of proof texts to wage doctrinal wars. It is the story of God making his reality known in the brokenness of our world. It doesn’t end with a book called Revelation, but with a person – Jesus himself! Scripture guides us to him so we can know him (John 5:40). If it doesn’t do that it can itself be a hindrance.

If you’re used to others spoon-feeding it to you, now is the time to take it on yourself. Start with the Gospels. Read them through three or four times to get to know the person of Jesus in his words and actions. Then read Acts and Paul’s letters, understanding how he saw God work in people. As you get a handle on the New Testament, then go back to the Old and read it in light of the New. How did God’s revelation get clearer? What has been his purpose through the ages and how does he think about things in our world? How does the Son sum it all up?

As you savor God’s story, you will find yourself better able to see and appreciate how he continues to write that story into your own life. You will see Jesus more clearly and recognize his voice more simply.

7. Be Aggressive about Cultivating Relationships

You never know how God might use you to touch someone who works near you, lives near you or just passes by you during the day. You’ll be surprised at the people he will put you in touch with and how his presence in you will be a blessing to them. (For more insight on this incredible process, consider taking a look at our new book Authentic Relationships.)

As you find yourself blessing others near you, you will also come across brothers and sisters who are on a similar journey. When you do, make the effort to get with them periodically for lunch or an evening together so the relationship can grow.

8. Live the Life, Don’t Fill Up On Meetings

Don’t rush so quickly to find body life that you try to rebuild it on your own needs! Real community is a gift God gives out of growing friendships, not what we produce by any methods or programs. Instead of creating it, we have only to recognize it as God builds it around us.

I know people misunderstand that and think I’m against meetings. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love gathering with the body in large and small groupings when Jesus is at the center of it. Unfortunately we hold way too many meetings because we don’t know how to share God’s life in the joy of ever-deepening relationships. That does not happen in meetings. The best gatherings of body life emerge out of relationships where people are learning to share the Jesus journey together.

If you know people who want to be intentional about sharing this kind of community, by all means join them. But if you don’t, don’t give into the lie that God has forgotten you. There are many ways God can relate you to people who are also living the journey, even if it is just a conversation here and there for a time. I suspect that when people have a hard time finding fellowship with others its because God wants to draw them closer to himself first.

9. Finally, Don’t Despise the Struggle

I know it isn’t easy learning to live outside the false security of religious obligation, but the freedom is so worth it. Scientists say if you help a butterfly escape its chrysalis, you actually kill it. God designed the process so that the struggle itself actually strengthens the butterfly so she will be able to fly away when she is finally free. Our struggles accomplish the same thing. They are part of what God uses to invite us deeper into him.

I know it can be scary when all the props that made you comfortable are no longer there. I know how easy it is to coast through life and miss out on the incredible friendship God wants with you. But don’t you think it is time you found out just how awesome God wants to be in you?

It is one thing to walk away from that which is fruitless and hurtful and quite another to soar in the life of Jesus. Stop reacting to the failures of others. Stop hoping to find a system that will satisfy your insecurities. Stop waiting until you understand it all or find someone to do it for you.


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The Deepest Freedom


By Wayne Jacobsen
BodyLife • January 2001

 

The familiar voice on the phone brought back incredible memories of the friendship we had shared, even though it had been almost two years since we had last spoken. “What has God been doing in you?” he asked after we had exchanged pleasantries.

Before I realized what I was saying, the words rolled off of my tongue: “Over the past few years God has defied to the nth degree every expectation and desire I had for my life.” I was so surprised at my own answer and how smoothly it had flowed from my lips that as I paused to think about it an uneasy silence hung on the line.

After a few moments he spoke again, quite tentatively, “And is that a good thing?”

I remember chuckling as I answered, “It is the best thing!”

“Really?”

“Yes! In every way, what Father has accomplished in me was far better than anything I had tried to produce for myself.”

I was probably as surprised by the answer as he was. My life is far from any idealized existence I’d been taught to dream. The last few years had brought many painful circumstances that I would have changed in an instant had I the power to do so, as well as a number of disappointed hopes that I thought were as much God’s idea as mine.

What I realized in that moment, however, was that none of those things mattered anymore. Somehow in this incredible journey he had guided me toward a deeper level of freedom. What had for most of my spiritual journey been a great source of frustration—that God would not meet my expectations of him—had in fact been his hand setting me free from the worst kind of bondage.

I wanted him to please me; he wanted me to be free of the need to be pleased. Painful circumstances and disappointing expectations had been the incubator in which God wanted to teach me to stop trusting my expectations for my life and embrace his.

The Tyranny of Self

Today, I look back in awe. In spite of my best efforts at times to the contrary, God has steadily drawn me to himself. The things he’s changed in me, the people he has brought into my life, the way he has provided, and the doors he has opened to share his reality with others are far beyond anything I could ever have asked or imagined. (Which is a clear way of saying this is not the way I would have done it!)

I am now living the life in him the life I always thought was possible when I read with deep longing the Scriptures that spoke of God’s reality. Along the way, many tried to convince me I was just too idealistic. They told me that the relationship I desired with him and the depth of body life I hungered for with other believers were not going to be found in this age of fallen humanity. They may be right if we’re looking for fallen humanity to produce it—especially if we look to ourselves. But he has ways, to do just that in each of us if we ask him to do so.

But the greatest tyranny in our lives is not legalism, tradition nor religious obligation so prevalent in our day. As binding as those things can be, a more powerful tyrant holds us captive from the true depths of Father’s life and joy—self! We can be free of all the others and yet remain captive to this one that matters most.

I’ve seen it happen far too often. The nature of the things God’s asked me to write brings me to people who are discovering just how much bondage organized religion has become in our day. While it promises a dynamic relationship with the Living God, it too often only offers a program of behavioral conformity that leaves many empty, manipulated and disillusioned. Watching God set people free from that bondage is always a joy. However, freedom from those things without also finding freedom from the tyranny of self only becomes an excuse for greater bondage to the flesh. Paul warned the Galatians just how true that is.

Our greatest captivity is not to any other person or system; it is to self. And the greater bondage here is not the appetites of the flesh we clearly know are sinful, but the agendas we hold for our own good. Trying to get God to do for me what I think is best has tripped me up far more effectively, than more obvious sins.

God’s Will As A Joy

About six months ago I ran across these words from I Peter 4:1-2 in The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible. I think I have shared them just about everywhere I’ve gone since because I think they capture the heart of living as one of God’s children.

“Since Jesus went through everything you’re going through and more, learn to think and act like him. Think of your sufferings as a weaning away from the old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want.”

Growing up as a young Christian I used to view doing God’s will as the overwhelming burden of the serious disciple. Somehow we were supposed to find the will-power to deny ourselves all the things we really wanted to do and then force ourselves to do God’s will. Doing his will was not something to be desired, but endured.

This translation turns that thinking on its head. Who wouldn’t want to wake up everyday free to engage God’s desires in their life? I’ll tell you who: those who have no idea who God is. If you think him a demanding taskmaster, you will find his will not only frustrating but you’ll also never be sure what it is. However, once you know him as he really is and are secure in how much he loves you, pursuing what he wants everyday will become your greatest joy.

Notice how Peter regards our self-nature. It is the tyrant, not God. I can think of no better words to describe our own agenda. When you go into a situation having to get your own way, don’t you feel tyrannized? I have. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to survive if I didn’t get what I wanted that I pressured myself and everyone else to conform to what I thought best. The weight of pulling that off is a tyranny all its own and a source of great anxiety for us and manipulation for others.

The real joy of being God’s child is waking up everyday with the simple freedom to join God in what he wants. As Jesus said, he is always working, in our lives and in people around us. He wants to share in the delight of that working, as a Father with his son or daughter. There is no greater freedom than to do so without distorting that with false needs and misplaced wants.

The School of Hard Knocks

How does that freedom come? Do you think you can just read an article or book about it and turn around and do it? I wish! How does God free us from our own agenda and teach us how much fun it is to embrace his? He does it by defying our misplaced expectations. That’s why Peter encouraged us to think of our sufferings as God’s way of weaning us away from having to get our own way.

Peter didn’t say he orchestrates our sufferings. He doesn’t create your troubles to teach you a lesson, but simply uses the troubles of life in this age to show you his freedom. He just graciously refuses to settle for flawed agendas and continues to fulfill his own in the lives of those who have asked him to do so.

He doesn’t deny us what we want to frustrate us, but to show us that he knows best about everything. The only way we figure that out is to watch our hard-fought agendas fall to nothing and to see God’s working exceed our greatest expectations.

This is not an easy process, as I’m sure you already know. When God doesn’t do the things we expect him to, we often wonder if he doesn’t love us, or if we haven’t done enough to earn his favor. Only by knowing that he loves you completely will you ever be able to go through moments of suffering as the weaning process he desires.

God’s not punishing you he is fulfilling your hunger at a deeper level. When I first started publishing books in the late 80’s I was just certain God wanted me to be a best-selling author and reform his church by the influence of the words I was writing. When book distribution was well below my expectations, I was frustrated at God. When my first two books went out of print, I was downright angry. Why would God fail me? Weren’t my desires only for his best interest? (You can laugh now!)

The more “my ministry” didn’t grow the way I desired, the more frustrated I got with God. Did that change the way he treated me? Not one bit! He still moved ahead to work his desires into my life. It almost killed me because I didn’t trust him. I was so tuned to what I thought God wanted I couldn’t recognize what he was actually doing. During those days my life was marked with bouts of anger, frustration, and anxiety.

Over the years, however, I’ve seen God maneuver circumstances that continued to draw me closer to him and closer to what he really had in mind for me. He opened doors I wasn’t even knocking on. He showed me that his idea of ministry made mine look like garbage in comparison. He really does know what is best for us everyday and is fully capable to lead us to it as long as we keep inviting him to do so.

NATO Living

The trick is learning how to live each day in the expectancy of God’s working in the circumstances of my life, without giving in to the expectation that it must look any particular way to satisfy me. I have begun to taste of the freedom of that kind of trust, and it is the most incredible reality I’ve yet to find in his love.

Imagine the freedom of no longer having to try and manipulate God or others toward your desired outcome. Instead, you can simply find out what he is up to, and though it will often seem more painful in the short-term than you might want, his ways are always the best — not only in resolving our circumstances but transforming us through them.

A number of years ago I read a book about a man playing the last rounds of golf with his terminally ill father around the famed courses of Scotland. Early on that trip he realized how little he enjoyed golf because his only goal was to shoot the lowest score possible. Whenever he got an unlucky bounce or hit a bad shot he’d sulk for the next few holes and play even worse.

That’s when his father taught him to play NATO golf—Not Attached To Outcome. In other words, his father told him, don’t worry about the score, just enjoy the challenge of hitting each shot as well as you can. When it goes off track, go find it and figure out the best shot you can hit from there. Let the score take care of itself and even if you don’t have a good round you still get to enjoy a walk in a beautiful park and the friendship of your partners.

Perhaps we should learn to live each day Not Attached To Outcome. Wouldn’t we be truly free if we could do the same on our own spiritual journeys? Instead of being so focused on the outcomes we desire, we could simply trust that regardless of the outcome, God is doing his work in and through us. Now instead of wasting our time with him trying to get him on our page, we can simply enjoy our fellowship with him as he moves us to his. And believe me, it is a lot more peaceful walking with God on his page, than constantly trying to figure out how to get him on yours.

A Better Agenda

What God has been doing in you since the day you came to know him, is to liberate you from the tyranny of self. He knows that your ability to live in his rest, peace and joy, will not come when you get everything you want, but when you forsake all your wants and embrace his.

Through most of my spiritual journey, I’ve been an insecure person about God’s love for me and my significance in the world. Most of what drove my life in those early years was trying to be successful, in my own eyes and the eyes of others. My prayer life focused around those insecurities, trying to get God to arrange my circumstances so that I would not have to be afraid or risk failure.

It always amazed me when he seemed to ignore my most ardent prayers, especially for those things I was certain were part of his vision for my life. How could he not change the things that angered and frustrated me?

Thankfully he had something far better in mind. I wanted him to change my circumstances so I would never have the need to feel insecure or afraid. He wanted to change me so that no circumstance would ever make me afraid again. If my security was going to be based on circumstances, he knew I would never follow him to the incredible places he wanted to take me.

How did he do that? He allowed circumstances to confront my greatest insecurities over and over again. In spite of my cries for relief, he just kept showing up for me every day, swallowing my pain with his love and gently pointing me toward a better way.

The Joy of Freedom

Certainly he has far more to do in my life along these lines, but somehow the last few months have brought me to a new plateau of this freedom. I feel like I can walk into most situations now with a freedom to live without catering to my agenda. I am more excited about what he might do than what I think he should do.

I don’t find myself haunted by the same insecurities or plagued by the sleepless nights of anxiety. I don’t walk into difficult conversations with that knot in the pit of my stomach because I know the outcome is not in my hands but his. Without all that bondage, I find it much easier to recognize his hand and flow with it.

Yes, there are still times I would like him to change some of my circumstances in ways that would make it easier for me. Now, however, I have a healthy suspicion that the way I would go about anything in my life and the way God would are probably polar opposites. I still let him know my requests of him, but I listen more intently for his of me. I know that what he’s up to in every circumstance will be far better than anything I could conceive.

So if you find God defying some of your most passionate expectations, just consider that he is doing something more extraordinary in you than you have yet grasped. He is expressing his love to you at a deeper level so that you will no longer have to bow to the tyranny of self.

By opening your eyes to that reality he is showing you how to be truly free—not just from legalism, works or religious obligation, but from a more powerful foe still. He wants you to be free of you, and only by doing so will you be able to know the person he created you to be.

You’ll find that freedom to be one of God’s greatest gifts. It will allow you to enjoy him more deeply and to recognize more easily how he wants you to share in his work around you.

You, too, will wake up each day excited to embrace what God wants rather than being forced by the tyranny of your own wants. This freedom is like no other.


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OTHER TRANSLATIONS


Freedom is Only the Beginning

st_louis_lightning_0By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • May 2000

While in St. Louis in April after an outing looking to help some of the homeless in downtown a group of brothers took me to stand under the arch at 9:00 at night. We ascended the hill it sits on next to the Mississippi River just as a thunder storm made its approach on the city. As we stood there lightning flashed across the skyline, racing through the clouds then suddenly spearing the earth with its jagged fingers while the thunder rolled in the background. It was one of those rare moments when the awesome beauty of God’s creation literally takes your breath away and its memory hangs on for weeks afterwards.

As great as times like that are, they pale in comparison to those moments when God lets someone see just how free they are in his love. Sometimes it comes with a flood of tears and at others with a simple chuckle and a shake of the head. I’ve seen it happen while sharing through a portion of Scripture, or sitting down with someone to talk or to pray.

Somehow, as only his Spirit can do, God allows them to see that they are carrying far too much baggage in their Christian walk, robbing themselves of the simplicity of knowing God as their loving Father. Some have labored for months or years under the oppressive burden earning God’s approval, trying to please abusive leadership, or failing the expectations others have held for them. The moment God’s love works its way past all those things and captures them in his sheer delight is a moment that knows no equal in creation.

Once people discover just how much he loves them, and that love is motive enough to allow God to do everything in their life that he wants to do, you can see the weight lift from their shoulders. You can see in their eyes the renewed hope of enjoying again their relationship with Father.

Recently someone wrote me with huge letters, all in caps. “I GET IT!!!! I FINALLY GET IT!!!!” I could see them in my mind’s eye and laughed out loud as I. read. What is better than that?

I still remember one of my moments like that almost six years ago. Having tried to fit myself into a calling God had not given me (nor anyone else for that matter!), and having tried to find a Christian response to people who were playing power games God wouldn’t let me play. While I was walking through a park he spoke to me: “If you never teach another sermon, write another book, or spend one more moment counseling a broken life or witnessing to a lost soul, I will love you just as much!” What a moment! I never realized how much of my efforts as a believer had been wasted at trying to earn approval he had already given me. It had devoured my relationship with him and twisted my relationships with others.

That moment of revelation freed me to make the decisions he asked of me–even though many people I knew at the time would reject me for it. It also allowed me to reorder my entire life, no longer trying to earn his affection, but simply living in its reality every day.

Not the End-all!

As spectacular as God’s freedom is, however, it is not the end of the journey. In fact, it is only the beginning.

Don’t forget, it was freedom that allowed the Prodigal Son to leave his father’s house and strike out on his own. He used his freedom as an excuse to indulge his flesh, not knowing how much it would betray him and leave him broken in a pig-pen of self-doubt, loneliness and desperate need.

God’s freedom doesn’t make us his disciples, it only opens the door for us to decide whether we want to be or not. I’m convinced that without the freedom to be authentic and to make choices based on our own free will rather than the pressure of others, true discipleship cannot begin.

It is the environment Paul protected at all costs. He already knew all too well how our religious tendencies make us great rule-makers. It takes our own best intentions for others and makes part of a conspiracy that actually denies others the life they are looking for in God’s.

So when believers in Galatia sought to institute a set of “New Testament principles” that would rob God’s people of the freedom to hear Jesus and trust him, Paul rushed into the breach asking why they would trade the simplicity of relationship with Jesus for rules and regulations that they would have to keep by their own effort? Why indeed? Wasn’t loving Jesus enough for them? Obviously not for everyone!

We have every reason to believe that there were Galatians who were using the excuse of freedom to indulge their flesh and conspire in their own destruction. But even in the face of those who would abuse freedom, Paul still spoke up for the necessity of it if people are really going to be changed by God. Freedom is the only incubator in which God’s Spirit can thrive to transform those who want to walk with him.

Though freedom is the trailhead to the depths of God’s heart, it is also the trailhead away from it. Scary isn’t it? The choice is ours. Freedom itself is no virtue. Only if we use it to engage him in ever-deepening friendship will freedom be the blessing God intended.

The Fellowship of Freedom

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” The freedom to do whatever I want isn’t God’s kind of freedom at all. His freedom invites us to experience the depth of his love, both in our touch with him, and in our life with others.

Just because many of us have been manipulated and abused by those who claimed to be more knowledgeable (or more anointed), doesn’t mean we have to now make it on our own. We are as much a prisoner reacting to hurt as we were when we were bound by it. That’s true of sin and of unhealthy relationships with other believers. While it may make us more aware of how well-intentioned relationships can turn destructive, it doesn’t mean we throw out body life altogether.

Father has some incredible brothers and sisters out there who are discovering who he is and can encourage you along the journey even as you encourage them. At first blush they may seem difficult to find, but searching them out is well worth it. Whenever Scripture talks about my ability to know God as an individual, it makes clear that our best view is a dim one, as if through a darkened glass. It is only through his body that the fullness of Jesus is revealed. (Eph 1:23)

Of course we’ve got to define that term as Jesus did. He wasn’t referring to the numerous groups who get together and name themselves the First Something-Or-Other Church of Wherever-We-Are. He was referring to other believers who are on the journey of knowing him. We all know that trying to fellowship with people who are more in love with religion than God is a near impossibility and often find it distracting and discouraging to God’s work in our lives.

Freedom invites us to fellowship with those who are on the journey of knowing the Living God and understand how God works in our lives–not through manipulation and control but revelation of himself. When I find people like that I always come away strengthened, encouraged, and enlightened in what God is doing in my life.

Just because God has set you free, doesn’t mean you have to walk this journey alone. If you just want to see what you see, you’re free to live that way. But I want so much more. I want to know what Jesus is showing others as well. That may come in a serendipitous conversation Jesus sets up for me or through regular contact with people I get to be with more consistently. Of course, I think the best expression of this comes when people are willing to share intentional community together as they learn to listen to God together while they encourage and serve each other in the journey. Unfortunately the latter is difficult to find in this day and age. But don’t stop looking and asking God how he wants to connect you with others in that way.

How does that happen? It can only begin first in our relationship with God. Over the centuries we have been taught that our relationship with God rises out of body life, when it works just the opposite of that. No wonder true fellowship is so rare. If we don’t find our own relationship with God, we’ll merely use others as a substitute for what we’re not getting from him, disappointing ourselves and frustrating them in the process.

That’s why God is calling people in our day back to himself. For too long we have looked to groups or gifted ‘leaders’ to provide what Father wanted to give us. You may not find many others in the early days of this process that can validate what God has birthed deep in your heart. That’s because he wants to be the center of your life first. However, as he draws you closer to himself he will begin to connect you to healthy relationships with fellow-travelers that will encourage your journey without impinging on his freedom.

The Marks of a Free People

Relational Christianity is not primarily a different way of doing church. It is a different way of thinking about God and his family that will allow you to truly experience his life directly and alongside other followers. I don’t know of anyone growing in a relationship with Jesus that doesn’t hunger for friends who really want to share the journey with them.

But once people have been hurt by those who are willing to use God’s words to manipulate others, it is easy to see why they mistakenly equate body life with a compromise of freedom. But that really isn’t so.

As excited as I am about the current trend to gather in homes to discover relational life together, just because a group meets in a home doesn’t make them relational. And just because a group meets in a facility doesn’t mean they’re not. While I do think the home is the most natural place for us to discover life as a family, ultimately what facility we use is far less important than a host of other factors.

I travel among various expressions of the body of Christ regularly and find people I connect with instantly and others that seem forced and ultimately never become fruitful. I’ve noticed some common ingredients in relationships that spawn a healthy body life. Though I often befriend those who don’t understand many of these priorities, my greatest times of fellowship arise where people understand the nature of how God works and the freedom essential to true growth. Here are some of the signs of people who understand body life as God designed it:

The living presence of Jesus is their central focus. He is the only attraction and the only voice people are encouraged to follow. They don’t boast about the glories of their ‘worship’, the giftedness of their ‘teacher’, or even how ‘relational’ their priorities are. They only want to know him better and follow him more closely while helping others do the same.

They value authenticity over conformity. They would rather see the rough edges in someone’s life than have them put on an image. They allow people to feel what they feel, share what they think and question what they don’t understand without being judged, silenced or called independent or unsubmitted. Blind trust is never sought, nor are people encouraged to ‘act’ better. They’re more concerned about what’s really going on inside you than having you look better on the outside.

They trust grace-based transformation. Groups steeped in religion only know behavioral modification as the tool for personal change. If you’ll try harder you’ll get better. Those on the journey recognize that only Jesus can transform a life and see more fruit in encouraging each other to know his love more completely than to pressure people to outward change.

They are more concerned about relationships than meetings. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus never seemed to have held a meeting that bears any resemblance to most of what we do in what we call church today? He got to know people at a heart level and spoke Father’s wisdom into the most mundane moments. His most effective exchanges with people came in homes, walks by the sea or even at a well outside Samaria. As wonderful as it is to gather together for prayer, worship or learning, without relationships that carry through the week we can’t really share the journey. Encouragement is a daily reality. I’ve been in home groups that have met for years where the people don’t really enjoy each other and can’t even carry on a normal conversation around a dinner table.

They are as honest in their struggles as they are in their joys. People who play one-upsmanship games, trying to convince others of how much they know and how together their lives are haven’t the foggiest idea what it is to know the Living God. Among them you’ll find far more gossip about the needs of others than confession about their own. But those who are growing to know God would rather expose the truth about their journey than try to impress each other with a false front of success. I love people who know they haven’t arrived yet, and who are in touch with the reality of their own doubts and struggles.

They are learning to depend on God’s agenda, work and power, over human preference, effort and ingenuity. They’ve given up trying to do things for God, and are nuts about doing things with him. Like me, they’ve messed it up enough, hurt enough people and fallen too far short too many times to keep trying to get God to bless what they want him to do. They only want to tune in to what he is doing and cooperate with him in it.

They are more interested in following God than getting their needs met. Look how divided Father’s family is in our day because people prefer worship a certain way, being led by a certain person or because the program fits their family best. The way of the cross is not to find a way to get all of our wants met, but to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Ultimately what makes us most comfortable and secure in ourselves may be the worst thing for us. Following his ever-present voice is the only way to know for sure.

They know that worship isn’t something we do to start a gathering, but how we live in God every day. Rather than being frustrated at everything they wish they could change about their lives, they are simply learning to be grateful for what he is doing every day.

They understand that we are all part of the body and desire environments where interaction happens rather than an up-front performance by a few. The living reality of God’s people is that everyone has a part, and they would never want to see a few gifts glorified at the expense of everyone else simply being who God has made them to be. They have the ability to celebrate the unique contribution of each of God’s kids, from the oldest to the youngest, male and female, without regard to status or station in society.

They trust God’s ability to connect them with people and don’t force themselves on anyone. I can be with some people for ten seconds and know God has brought us together for some purpose. I’ve known others I’ve tried to build a relationship with that never seems to work. I don’t really need to fuss over that, but trust what he is doing to knit his body together the way he wants.

They are not exclusive about God’s working and realize that what he is doing in the world and even in their own locality is far larger than they can see at any one moment and cherish opportunities to meet others who hunger for the same God they do even if they aren’t part of their same group.

Having been loved by God, they want to help others taste that love as well. They are learning to serve others in the most mundane ways and enjoy seeing others discover the same freedom in God that they enjoy.

Of course even a list like this can become another tool of bondage if people try to live up to it. These are not qualifications you should emulate, but simple observations as to what Godly fellowship can look like.

Don’t limit your relationships only to those who have it all together here, because God will bring lots of people across your path on any given day who are no where close to understanding the journey. But if you want to know the depths of what living in God’s family is about, this will give you some idea.

Where you find these kind of friendships, cherish them, and make the choice to invest some time cultivating them. Where you don’t, ask Father to bring about those connections in his way and in his time. Your journey will be all that much more fulfilling.

There’s nothing like it in all the world, when free people in Christ learn how to love each other without all the bondage of religious obligation. It is some of the richest fruit of God’s freedom. Only in freedom will we discover what true friendship really is.


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To Be Free of God??!!?!?

By Wayne Jacobsen

BodyLife • September 1996

“The wish to be free of God is the deepest yearning of man. It is greater than his yearning for God.”

The sentence leapt off the page and nearly took my breath away. I was reading Helmut Thielicke’s, Between God and Satan, a provocative study of the temptations of Jesus. Thielicke was a German theologian who lived through the horrors of World War II as an active resistor of his own government. A depth of faith forged in the struggle of those years permeates everything he writes.

I was enjoying this book tremendously until I came to this statement. As one who teaches on intimacy with God often, I like to think it fulfills the deepest longing of the human heart. Who wouldn’t want to know the Creator personally; to sense the majesty of his presence; hear his tender voice and watch his power accomplish things we could never even imagine? What else could anyone really want?

Before I knew it I was arguing with Professor Thielicke, trying to reject his conclusion. But the more I thought about it the more sense it made. His conclusion does answer some compelling questions: Even though I do really want to know God better, why do I often make choices that lead me further from that reality? Why do I get into circumstances and so easily trust my common sense, than really wait to hear what God might have to say about it? In short, why is it so difficult to follow someone we desire to love so much?

I know there is a deep longing in my heart to know God, but could there also be a deeper yearning still?

The Quest for Control

There was for Adam and Eve. It wasn’t enough that God had given them each other, a garden to live in or even daily moments of fellowship with himself. They wanted something more. Something God said they shouldn’t take to themselves or they would die.

But they did anyway. No where do we read that Adam and Eve wanted to reject God. Quite the contrary they just wanted to be more like him, and this knowledge of good and evil just might be the trick. Here was a simple way to get it. All they had to do was eat the fruit before them. They wanted control of their destiny, freedom from God to earn their own way by their own hand!

And of course it was God that gave them the power to do so. He gave them the freedom of self-determination the gift of choice. He not only invited them to trust him, but he also provided the fruit of that tree as a means for them to gain knowledge apart from him. He warned them not to, but then watched as the enemy coaxed out of Eve her distrust of Father. “God just knows that when you eat of it you’ll be like him.” He’s holding out on you, Eve.

The choice was clear. Trust Father and spurn the devil’s temptation; or trust her own insight and strength to get what she could do for herself. Adam wasn’t long in following after her, and though they gained the knowledge they sought, that knowledge became their bondage. They had no power to choose the good over the evil. Their desire to take control of their lives was greater than their desire for God.

I’ve weathered that same struggle. Sometimes I’ll just start praying about a situation, when my mind is already scheming about phone calls I can make or a letter I could write to fix it. Too often it was only after I have tried those things and made things worse that I quiet myself enough to listen to God’s wisdom.

Don’t we hate being in any kind of situation where we are not in control. Fear and anxiety overwhelm us and we waste all kinds of effort scheming or manipulating others to put ourselves back in control. Haven’t we all learned how horrible it can be to be at the mercy of circumstance or other people? If you don’t control you’re own destiny people will take advantage of you, and use you for theirs.

The yearning in our hearts to be free of God springs from this fountain. It’s not that we reject God; it’s more that we want control of our own lives. We want that and God too, and there is the deception. We don’t realize that the affections are mutually exclusive.

The Insidious Reversal

When we seek control of our own lives, and at the same time attempt to foster a relationship with Father we put ourselves above him. We know what is best for us, and if God doesn’t satisfy our expectations we doubt his love for us, our love for him, or both. Every difficult circumstance, then becomes a cause for despair and disillusionment. We enlist his help to change the circumstances or what others are doing and are frustrated when he doesn’t honor our attempts. Or worse yet, we assume his favor when someone does give in to our manipulation, thinking we’ve won a great victory.

But notice what has happened in this whole process? By wanting God to be the vehicle for our agenda, we turn the Almighty God into our personal fairy godmother. We think he exists to turn our pumpkins into carriages, and our mice into white stallions. Of course we still want God, but not as God. We want him to fulfill our needs our way. We want his power to serve our comfort and convenience.

Jesus didn’t see it that way, which is why he seemed to say some really strange things by our standards. “Blessed are you when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” That’s Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 5:3. How many of us genuinely feel blessed when we are at the end of our rope? How many people do you find sharing how great their week was because they had lost control of key situations in their life?

No, our sense of being blessed is often derived from how ‘in control’ we feel. If we have enough money, friends, health and possessions we feel secure. When we don’t have those things we’re afraid and have to work even harder to maneuver our circumstances to a more secure place.

I’ve come to realize that I have spent most of my life working against Father’s plan for my life and I didn’t even know it. I was trying to help God (see how twisted that is!) get me to a place where everything in my life was wonderful and easy. In short, I wanted to be so secure in my circumstances that I wouldn’t need him every day. All the while he was trying to teach me that I needed him, and that there is no other place in the world more secure than that regardless of what the external circumstances look like.

Regrettably, we only seem to realize that when our attempts to control ourselves fail miserably. According to Jesus that’s the best place for us to be, so he is merciful to show us over and over again that our efforts will never be good enough. When we finally give in, no longer trusting our insights or our abilities we are in the best place to see God’s hand more clearly. Then we can give way to his rule, or purpose, in us. The secret to intimacy with Father is to give up on our ideas of what is best for us and surrender completely to the Father’s purpose even when we may not understand it.

I remember how risky all of that used to sound to me. Even the thought of surrendering completely to God conjured up fears of missionary service in a distant land or menial labor closer to home. Trust used to be so scary. Not anymore.

Life at the End of the Rope

Whenever I talk with other pastors who hunger to see the body of Christ as a dynamic people growing together in loving the Father and sharing his life together, one question almost always surfaces. “If all the body shares responsibility together, how do we justify our salaries?” Sometimes we laughed it off, too uncomfortable with the subject. In more secure times we engaged serious discussion about how great it would be for the body not to have the image of full-time Christians trying to be the body of Christ to everyone else. But we never did anything about it because we were afraid of losing control of our lives.

Instead we’d have to work harder and do more than others to justify our position and our pay. I felt pressure to teach or lead activities, so people would think we were earning our keep. It’s a vicious cycle. The more I did, the more people let me do. The more they let me do, the less opportunity there was for others to grow in their gifts, and the less of a body we became.

Almost two years ago now, it became clear that Sara and I were on a different track than others on the leadership team of the church I’d helped plant 15 years before. We tried everything we knew to do to fix the problem or make room for the differences, but every attempt failed. God clearly put it on Sara and my heart to let go and give everything up–ministry, friendships, reputation, and salary. It was the hardest and most painful thing we have ever done.

Never before had I truly been at the end of my rope. I’ve been a couple of inches down it before, but now I knew I’d never been close to the end. Everything I had controlled about my life through 20 years of vocational ministry was gone in a single day. We cried out to God to fix the circumstances, but he didn’t. Oh, he took care of us well enough. We never missed a meal, nor a house payment. He graciously used our lives to encourage others even as he brought others to encourage us.

The first six months were horrible. We might have put up a bold front at times, but the anxiety was great. Both books I had published were out of print. Few churches were inviting us to come and teach, and I was no longer sure I believed in the church system I had invested so much time in training others to embrace.

I’d lost control of my life and was miserable for it. You would never have convinced me before that I was in control of it. I couldn’t see it until I lost it. I tried a number of things to get it back and all of them either failed, or someone stopped me before I made things worse. Through it all Father kept dealing with my trust in him. “Stop trying to control your life, Wayne. That’s my job. All you have to do is trust me enough to let me.” I kept trying to explain to him that it would be easier to yield to him if I had more control.

I don’t know how. I’m not even sure exactly when, but somehow the words finally sank through my unbelief. The last year has been an absolute joy seeing God open doors, provide for us, and teach us how to live life outside of our own control and under the security of his. Looking back now through every painful moment, I am incredibly thankful for what God has taught us.

I have never known such freedom. No longer burdened by my attempts to earn my way, I can enjoy the grace of God. No longer having to manipulate people to fit into my plans, I can simply love them and free them to discover God’s will and live in it with joy. No longer finding security in a salary, I have only to obey him every day and rejoice as he provides. And no longer being in charge of a fellowship, I can be only what Father has made me to be in the body and not fit a cultural role that no man can honestly bear.

Losing Control, Gaining a Father

When Kevin Smith, a friend from Australia, was here this summer he said something that intrigued me. Because we don’t really trust Jesus to be the head of his church, we devise systems to keep it under man’s control on his behalf. Which means much of our structures for body life today are actually built on unbelief.

Sometimes I feel like such a fool that I had been in ministry so long without learning that Jesus rules to the extent that I let go. He said it clearly, “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I thought I knew what that meant, but if I’d have listened carefully my anxieties would have proved me wrong. Fear is certain evidence that I’m moving out of my own wisdom and expectations, instead of moving out of my trust and security in the Father’s watchfulness over and care for my life.

As long as we’re trying to manipulate circumstances around us, we’ll find our spiritual life shriveling up. That’s as true of our job as it is our ministries and our children. That’s because we’re trying to be free of Father to pursue our own will and desires. That road always looks secure but leads to ruin. I am so thankful that he has provided a better way.

Even out of our own failures, our Father can work his purpose. That’s what he did for Adam and Eve. In fact he knew his first invitation to trust would be ignored. He knew it would cost him his Son before we would be able to understand how much we are loved and how safe it is to put all of our trust in him. He also knows how slow we are to learn that, and with great patience continues to invite us past our fears and anxieties, past the need to control every circumstance of our lives, and surrender to his work and purpose.

What are you afraid of today? Where does your life feel out of control? Right there, at the end of your rope, let go and fall into the lap of a loving and powerful Father. “I’m so sorry God for trying to fit everything in my image; so tired of finding my security in the fickleness of circumstance. Show me, Father, how I am manipulating others and teach me how to find all my joy and security in you and you alone.”

He knows everything about you. He knows every circumstance that assails you and he will use them all to teach you how to trust him, if you’ll let him. He will never take control of your life; that’s something you must give up to him every day, circumstance by circumstance. Give up trying to grab what you desire most. Do it and you’ll find that real security doesn’t come in the money we possess, the church we attend, or the circumstances we manipulate. Security is found in the Father alone.

Then build your life anew not on the fears of unbelief, demanding your expectations be fulfilled, but on the presence of a Father who is more awesome than you ever imagined. There you’ll find a peace and rest that no circumstance or person can disturb.

Finally, you’ll discover what it is to be free of the need to control your own life. You’ll find that Father really does know best and that he can work in you better than you ever asked or imagined.

Then and only then will your deepest desire be to know God more fully.


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