This time of year, you hear a lot about goals, self-improvement plans and similar objectives and resolutions to get the new year started off right. No matter how you fared last year, or what things that were in your list of achievements that never got accomplished, we view the new year as a clean slate, a chance to start over and try again (or trying something different or new.)
As I’ve tried different programs and reflected on some things that have worked in my life and didn’t work (including some real doozies of failure), I have to wonder, “Is this what Jesus has in mind for us?” To continually try to improve ourselves? Or is there something else that He wants from us? Is there a different way to go about this whole “following Jesus” thing?
Having not only done the planner/calendar approach, the goal-setting program (I even came up with my own goal-setting challenge a couple of years ago I sheepishly admit), and others, I can say that seldom does this approach work when you’re talking about spiritual growth. There are things like spiritual disciplines that can be helpful, but only as you approach it from a relational perspective.
There are no spiritual principles that will be 100% effective. There isn’t a 4 step plan that will help you become a better Christian. I don’t believe these things even work very well when we’re talking about day-to-day self-improvement. The industries that are “built” to help you succeed (all the self-improvement programs, the goal setting workshops, diet and exercise programs) are really banking on your failure. Very few of the people who start programs like these end up with their desired results, even of the few who finish.
So does that mean Jesus wants you to step it up? Does he want you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and try harder, learn more, and (as one of my friends say), “suck it up, buttercup?”
Hardly. Jesus doesn’t offer just another self-improvement program. What he offers is new life. The two couldn’t be more opposite. Whereas a self-improvement program depends on, well, you and your self-discipline to make things different. What Jesus offers is really more of a self-crucifixion program. There needs to be less of you so that there can be more of Him.
More of His life.
More of His Spirit.
More of Him. In. You.
A number of years ago, this verse hit me smack in my spirit:
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8:11)
Do you see what’s going on? I read that verse for two or three decades before it really sank in. I finally understood what was going on here.
First, think about the power that is required to raise someone from the dead. That is no natural power. If they are close to life, then CPR or a jolt of electricity (“Clear!”) might do it. But, for those (like Lazarus) who are beyond hope physically, think about the kind of power that it must take to raise someone from the dead. Jesus was like Lazarus in that it wasn’t just a near-death experience. They were both in the grave for 3 days.
Meditate on this for a few minutes: the supernatural power of God that dwells in the Spirit.
Now, what else does this verse say? “…is living in you…” So, this same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead; this same Spirit who brought Lazarus back to life; this same Spirit who caused the lame to walk and the blind to see; He lives in you! Isn’t that amazing?
All of the power.
All of the wisdom.
“…is living in You…”
The Spirit who “hovered over the waters” at the beginning of creation. The Spirit who breathed life into Adam. The Spirit who was there at Pentecost that fell on thousands of people and made them speak in other languages.
That’s the Spirit we’re talking about. This Spirit resides within every believer. And He is there to comfort, to guide, and to help.
Are you beginning to see the difference in what we think our spiritual life should be versus what God offers us? And that’s not even scratching the surface of all the gloriousness (did I just make up a word?) that Father wants for us.
When I visit with others about this – even when I just ponder and think about it – or write about it, there is something that wells up within me that wants to shout this from the rooftops.
This isn’t something that any man taught me. It’s something that God revealed to me as I read the Scriptures. It’s another reason this truth is so special to me – Father Himself was my teacher.
I know you want to do better, to be better, to have the abundant life that He offers. The trick is, you can’t earn your way or work your way into it. It’s something that comes as a result of the Life that lives in you by the Spirit. It’s part of the self-crucifixion program that Jesus beckons you to. It’s not something that comes by effort. It’s something that comes by rest, believe it or not.
So the next time your tempted to buy that self-improvement program, ask Father what He wants of you and where He wants you to invest your time, energy, and resources. Chances are, it isn’t to plan out your next 5 or even next year.
Chance are, He will invite you to a one-step-at-a-time plan that Has you trusting in Him and leaning into Him each step of the way.
This is really a follow-up post to Can You Have Church Without an Agenda? If you haven’t read that, I’d encourage you to read it first before continuing.
I can’t tell you how it happened or why it happened in the timing that it did. I can only tell you that it did happen. The events that have taken place over the last couple of weeks have been more than mere coincidence. I consider them to be divine encounters.
Maybe the Lord has opened my eyes to see more clearly the way He moves. Why now? This is a prayer I’ve been praying for years. What has changed and what has happened these last few weeks? As far as i can tell, nothing special. I haven’t changed jobs or received some kind of special revelation. Only, I’m beginning to see things differently. What I might have chalked up to happenstance encounters, I am beginning to see with new eyes.
Shortly after the men’s retreat I talked about in a previous post, I was tempted to “start something.” You might know that urge that I’m referring to. The need to start a Bible study, a home group or home church, or something else. Yet, I resisted. I did not feel that I was resisting Father, but my own flesh that felt the need to “help God out” and make something happen.
There were three words the Lord gave me for this year towards the end of last year. Release, relax, and rest. Little did I know what those meant at the time. But it’s those three words that have been the focus of my year when it comes to both my relationship with Father and learning to live by His rhythms.
- Connecting with a couple who we have been trying to get together with for over 2 years on Halloween night simply by popping in (and staying for 2 hours!) since we were already on their street for Trick or Treating.
- Getting to eat lunch with a friend on the same journey when he was at my work for a workshop and luncheon.
- Having the freedom to go to a baptism where my friend (who I baptized a few years ago) got to baptize his daughter – it just so happened to be one of the weekends I was free in October.
- Hearing from a couple of brothers who are dear friends and on this Jesus adventure together in the same week.
I am so encouraged by what Father is doing in my life right now. I know there are some who might read this and are struggling to understand or connect to how He’s working in your life, or feel that He is silent or withdrawn.
I went through a period of feeling like that, too. I’m not sure why it feels that way or why He seems to be quiet sometimes. Yet, I always believed that God was speaking. It wasn’t necessarily His fault that I had trouble listening. There are times I believe we look for the wrong things and assume God is speaking in certain ways when He wants us to tune in to a different frequency, so to speak.
I believe that God is always speaking and speaks to us every day. Whether or not we hear Him is a different matter. It’s worth learning to recognize His voice. In fact, His sheep know His voice and know how to follow.
This happens based on a relationship. There’s no principle to follow or “how-to program” to go by. It’s a daily recognition that He is speaking and learning to discern what is His voice, what is yours, and what is noise and distraction. The only way to do it is by a daily focus on Him and a continual quieting of both internal and external disruptions. As soon as we feel or sense that we are getting off track, it’s simply a matter of refocusing our attention on Him.
It can take a while. It’s not a striving to hear Him perfectly. It’s a step by step journey to discovering which voice is His, which one is mine, and the ones that are trying to lead me off the path and into the ditch. When you discover His voice, it’s not a raging cacophony, but a quiet whisper, a gentle nudge, or a sense or urge that says, “Come this way. Walk over here for a while.”
Learn to trust yourself and the nudges that you sense are from Father. You’ll make mistakes. It’s okay. I’ve made plenty. But when you learn His voice, and you know it’s Him and you obey and follow, it opens up a whole new world.
A couple of weekends ago, I participated in a men’s retreat. It was one I helped coordinate, and we had invited Wayne Jacobsen (founder of Lifestream Ministries, co-host of The God Journey podcast, and co-author on The Shack) to come and be with us.
I’ve never experienced a men’s retreat like this before. For one, we decided to run the retreat without an agenda. I had heard Wayne talk about this before, and it sounded like amazing things could happen. However, it also scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. Being a good ex-pastor, I always had a plan or agenda for things like this. After all, God’s not a God of chaos, so we shouldn’t be either, right?
Wouldn’t not having a schedule lead to utter chaos?
I decided to trust in the process that God has been leading me in over the last few years, and trust that it was God who was nudging me to have an agenda-less retreat. I ran it by my friend who so graciously offered up his lake house where we hosted the retreat. He obliged to the request.
I’ve seen and been part of retreats that fill up every moment of time, not really allowing you to connect with God, or others for that matter. I’ve been to others that have a light schedule but also provide room to hear from God. I enjoyed the ones that didn’t fill up the whole time and so I wondered, “What could Father do if we don’t fill up any of the time, but turn it over completely to him?”
There were still doubts and fears, even at one point the first night of the retreat. I kept wondering, “Is this really going to work?” After that first moment of panic, I decided (again) to surrender the schedule to the Lord. We had one dinner planned with the wives on Saturday night; other than that, we left conversations, gatherings, and agenda to Father.
At the end of the weekend, as I reflected, I couldn’t have planned and orchestrated everything any better than what happened. There were deep conversations, there was time spent alone or in groups of two’s or three’s. I got to know new brothers and fellowship deeply with others that I hardly know. There was laughter and joy. There were moments where I was deeply satisfied and
It was, in a word, more.
I felt more community.
I felt more connection.
I felt more “church” than I have in a long time. All without an agenda – and all without planning much of anything.
I used to think that you needed a plan or schedule to make things happen. I really didn’t trust that God would show up without needing a bit of help. Now I know that a schedule isn’t necessary. Father can handle it. Much of the time, we limit God by our own agenda. We read into what He wants, instead of simply surrendering our agenda and plan to Him, because we ultimately don’t trust that He can do things without our assistance.
It doesn’t mean there is not room for a plan, on occasion. However, I think we (I know I did) have a tendency to over-plan and plan God right out of most of what we do. I’ve heard people ask, “Couldn’t God break into [our plan] if he wanted to?” I guess he could, but wouldn’t it be better to let Him lead from the beginning? Trust him with the program and the results.
Try it and see what happens. And when God shows up, I bet you’ll be glad you did!
Where can you create more space for God to set the agenda in your life or ministry? What fears do you have about leaving the results and schedule to Father?
Tonight, my 10-year old son wanted to go for a walk but didn’t think he could keep up with my wife and I as we were walking the dog, so I told him I would go with him later. He spent the day at home with a headache and wanted to get some fresh air.
I know that these invitations from him to spend time together will eventually fade, but I hope that’s many years away. All the same, I want to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along and as I am able.
As I’ve been on a journey to find community outside normal, traditional religious structures, I’ve come to see the life we live in Christ as a continual invitation. He invites us to spend time with Him, to listen to Him, and to follow Him.
“Come, follow me,” is a continual invitation, not a one-time decision to escape eternal fire and damnation. We tend to replace this ever-present beckoning with a safe and secure structure where we don’t have to depend on God on a daily basis. Jesus never asked anyone to resurrect a monument in his honor or construct a building with his name on it. (In fact, he encouraged the disciples not to at the transfiguration.)
“Dad, will you go for a walk with me?” What if the language that my 10-year old used to ask me to spend time together is exactly what we should ask of our heavenly Father? What if it were that relaxed? That easy?
I can tell you that as I’ve walked this journey over the last couple of years, I tend to make it way too difficult. I knew God could speak anywhere, but I also felt that I had to be in a certain place or do certain things to get Him to do what I wanted – or even just to pay attention to me. A certain time, the right Scripture, the right atmosphere, or even humbling myself by kneeling at the altar or raising my hands in worship.
The truth is (and was) that God loved me despite those things, not because of them. The invitation is always open. God is continually saying, “Come, child, walk with me.”
“I’ll set up my residence in your neighborhood; I won’t avoid or shun you; I’ll stroll through your streets. I’ll be your God; you’ll be my people. I am God, your personal God who rescued you from Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians. I ripped off the harness of your slavery so that you can move about freely. [Leviticus 26:11-13, The Message]
The God that rescued the Egyptians out of captivity wants to walk with you through your neighborhood. He’s already there.
All you have to do is ask.
“Dad, want to go for a walk?”