November 15, 2019

Jesus: The Glory of the Christian Journey

I can’t speak for anyone else, just for me.

When I became a Christian in 1974, I was immediately taught to define myself three ways.

First, did I believe that I was a sinner and that Jesus died for my sins so I could go to heaven?

Second, was I doing the the things my church taught me to do: attend worship, pray, read the Bible, tithe, “witness”, come to Sunday School, be a good Baptist?

Third, was I not doing the things my church taught me were sinful: drink, dance, use drugs, watch R-rated movies, listen to rock music, have sex outside of marriage, use profanity, work on Sundays, marry a Catholic?

That was the menu. Simple. Comprehensive. Understandable.

Jesus wasn’t absent. He was the door in. But then he seemed to vanish into the background.

God had other plans for me, however. One of my school friends introduced me to books. Christian books. He was reading C.S. Lewis. I didn’t get what that was all about.

Then he gave me a copy of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. It’s a weighty book now, and it certainly was then. I read what I could, and that wasn’t much, but it was enough to reorient my understanding of the Christian life if two ways.

First, Packer impressed upon me that the Christian life was a relationship with God- “Knowing God.” I’d never heard this before. There was some “knowing” in my faith, but it was primarily about doing. Coming to me at a time when I was starting to awaken intellectually and grow personally, I was drawn to this new way of thinking about the Christian life.

Secondly, Packer’s book demonstrated that being a Christian was a much bigger project than I ever suspected. God touched on everything, not just in the sense of “being a witness,” but in the sense that everything was a way to worship God, serve God or experience God. Suddenly, all of life, not just witnessing or listening to sermons, became part of the experience of knowing God.

I took the book to my youth director and asked him if he’d ever heard of it. He looked at it, and read the title. He told me that being a Christian was about how many people you could get to go to heaven, not about knowing God. The book, he said, sounded off track and I should avoid it.

For the first time in my life, I realized I was being led in the wrong direction by one of my spiritual leaders. It was an uncomfortable place, and I was, for a moment, torn about what to do.

I’d gone a long way down the road of identifying with my church’s way of being a Christian. I won’t recite some of what I did to try and be a good witness, but it was between comedy and the sort of travesty that is exceedingly painful to watch.

My church specialized in certainty. They were certain that the Bible absolutely would lead anyone reading it to become exactly what we were, and anyone paying attention to the Bible would do exactly what we did exactly the way we did it.

Now here I was, a teenager, still in high school, a relatively new Christian, holding a book by some Anglican guy I’d never heard of, feeling drawn by the Holy Spirit toward a new direction in understanding God. Somehow being drawn, in a way I could never explain, toward Jesus; a Jesus to whom I felt like a stranger.

Here I was feeling that maybe it wasn’t about door-knocking confrontations, dress codes, sin lists and repeated trips down the aisle to finally surrender “all.” God was reaching out to me, and showing me more of himself. To know him, I would come to know Jesus.

It was the beginning of a journey. It would take me to the Catholic charismatic movement where I learned that Jesus was much more generous and amazing than I ever had been told in my church. It was a journey that took me on to a Methodist revival team called the “New Disciples for Christ,” where I learned about calling people to follow Jesus.

It took me to college where I gave up on the rapture, and into the first suspicions that I may not have ever truly known the Father heart of God. A longing for Jesus began in me; a longing amplified when my fiancee dumped me and I began to see myself as a man.

There have been times in my life that I did not move forward with God, but camped where I was, convinced I was finally surrounded by the “real” Christians with the “final” answers. Always, God moved me on, toward a deeper fellowship with Him. Always, moving me toward Jesus.

That journey wasn’t constant. In my years on church staff, I forgot about Jesus and focused on the church. I wanted to be successful. Jesus would always be there, creating his special kind of tension with the normal expectations of ministry in a large church. Under the influence of Tony Campolo, I began taking students to eastern Kentucky and into the inner cities of Chicago and Boston. In those experiences, I began to see and sense Jesus again. I began to grow past the approved, safe Jesus of the suburban church, and to understand that Jesus was a trouble-maker; a revolutionary turning the world upside down.

In 2006, God told me to leave a church situation I’d been part of for 12 years. The result, 3 years later, was my wife going to the Roman Catholic Church and my journey with God going into the evangelical wilderness, where the same God is beckoning me on. This wasn’t where I expected to find Jesus, but I should know better. It’s always him, making me his disciple, surprising me, taking me out of the safe places and putting me where he emerges more wonderful than ever.

It is, always, the same God I heard calling me in the pages of Knowing God. I haven’t chased every wind of doctrine. With the exception of a foray into Calvinism for too long, I’ve always been much the same Baptist believer I was when I started this journey. Jesus has shown me that he isn’t a franchised product of some denomination or the spokesman for some program or cause. Jesus is the source, the head, of his body. He’s present in all the places Christians seek him, but he’s present in some many more places and in so many more ways that we ever suspect.

The constant is that God isn’t through with me, and the older I get, the more excited I am about Jesus. The more I come to see glimmers of what it really means to know him and be known by him. I now have few doubts that God is at work in my life for his glory and my benefit, but the journey won’t be a standstill. It will be new discoveries and new adventures.

In the midst of knowing God through his Son, I’m discovering that I am a member of the human race, deeply connected to all other persons in my humanity and my sinfulness. I’m discovering I don’t need to make a demonstration of what I know about anyone else’s life or how God works. I simply need to learn humility and understand that God is surprising us constantly in Jesus. I need to be open to Jesus and not turn him into the sum total of my idea of what it means to be a Christian.

Every so often, things I’ve learned, but not connected, will powerfully come together, as they did today in finishing Andrew Marin’s book, and I’ll see the presence and power of Jesus and the Gospel in ways I haven’t before. I’ll discover that all my experiences with Jesus are preparing me for an epiphany. There is no controlling or predicting where or when or how Jesus will show up in my life. I only know that now, after 37 years, I am starting to see Jesus in magnificent new detail.

I’ve come to understand my journey in new terms.

The church is about Jesus. The Bible is about Jesus. Christians are about Jesus. The creeds are about Jesus. A lot of great ministries, preachers and teachers are about Jesus.

But none of us- NONE of us- nowhere, no way have Jesus captured and commodified. He is, by the power of his Spirit, more than all of this and leading us to himself.

Everything we have that brings Jesus to us is ultimately used by Jesus to bring us to himself. We are always moving forward; always experiencing the Spirit remaking and revealing, empowering and epiphanizing…Jesus.

I have discovered that the maps, as important as they are, will run their course. The wise men are not as wise in the wilderness as they are in the safety of their sanctuaries. The way is lonelier, the companions more precious, the views and vistas more breath-taking.

Onward and upward, to Jesus. Into his Kingdom, and to greater glory and treasure. Always, no matter how much we know, discovering that we are only children, invited to trust more than understand.

Today, as I closed Love Is An Orientation, Jesus appeared again, out in front of me, familiar yet strange. Always beckoning me on. I know less and less what is before me, but I am ever more certain he is the way, the truth and the life.

So I beg your pardon friends. It’s time to travel again.

Comments

  1. “I forgot about Jesus and focused on the church”

    Oh, how we all do that, don’t we? Thanks again, Michael.

  2. thank you for writing this piece-it comforted me-peace

  3. Scott Eaton says

    “I know less and less what is before me, but I am ever more certain he is the way, the truth and the life.”

    I can say I know the reality of this statement. The last nine months have been unlike anything I could have ever imagined and I do not know what lies ahead. But I am more certain than ever that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is a sure guide, worthy to be followed.

    As always, thanks for the post, Michael.

  4. …………flawless.

  5. This is a very inspiring article. I am very glad that I wasn’t “saved” into a large mainstream denomination many years ago. It was difficult but I had to form a relationship with God to help sustain me through many of my formative young christian years.

    But I did dream of becoming what everyone else was. I guess I had the grass is greener on the other side mentality and so I investigated the evangelical system and became a big follower of it. Yet, it always seemed wrong in so many ways and eventually returned to my roots that it is more personal and bigger than the pinned-down religion of evangelicalism..

    anyway, this is all to say that your post really resonated within me.

  6. Thank you so much for posting that.

  7. For me it was the fact that I didn’t fit, didn’t belong, that stopped me from settling for comfortable churchianity. I just couldn’t do it — and I especially didn’t fit the available female roles in my typically complementarian environment. Then there were abuse issues — just when i’d reached my mid thirties and wondered why I couldn’t be content with this settled numbness the memories, unwanted and unsought, started coming back. I had to relearn all my theology (which I thought I knew) in order to learn that Jesus didn’t hate me and want me to go through those things. I had to journey through some pretty ugly places and start listening more to God and less to people. And Jesus was there every step of the way, even when i felt most abandoned. Any religious system, no matter how high-flown, that does not put that Jesus in the foreground is just empty words to me.

  8. Thanks. This expresses what my haeart has been trying to formulate for a long time, as I try to “know nothing except Christ and Him crucified” and “shepherd the flock of God” all at the same time. I appreciate this reality check. I needed this today.

  9. IMONK,

    I think this post really brings home why I enjoy reading your blog and participating in your discussions. Despite the great difference in our faith backgrounds, we really have the same experience!

    As a Catholic, I remember lying in bed when I was about 12 pondering why I shouldn’t sin, or why I should go to Church? Why not steal? Why pray? Why read the Bible?

    The easy answer was: “because I want to go to Heaven.” But even then I’d see the problem. If I was only reading the Bible to go to heaven, and only being honest to avoid hell, was I really obeying God or being a desciple? Was I really being a Christian? or was I just trying to make a bargain with God?

    Eventually the Holy Spirit working through many other people and experiences taught me that I must Love God and Love Jesus and Love my Neighbor and take action out of Love. That also means I have to have a relationship with God, Jesus and my Neighbor.

    And it takes prayer and surrender and time to enter into that relationship. I haven’t been a soft and supple piece of clay. I think God has pounded me back into a lump and started over a few times.

    I’m doing much better now.

    God Bless

  10. Great testimony, man. As someone who grew up in the Baptist church, I can really relate to your own spiritual beginnings, as well as to much of your journey since then. And you’re right. Everything and everyone is about Yeshua, and everything and everyone were created by and for Him. To fully understand and fully live in that truth is the journey on which He’s leading us. Trek on, my brother.

  11. “I have discovered that the maps, as important as they are, will run their course.”

    This is so true. But often we only realise this when we look back and see how much we tried to hold on to those maps and how we can’t let go even though the need to go on the “next map”.

  12. Steve in Toronto says

    CS Lewis, JI Packer and now NT Wright, Those Anglicans will get you into trouble every time. Thanks for the thoughtful and heartfelt post I know my response is a bit flippant.

    God Bless
    Steve in Toronto

  13. Well said. What always amazes me is how similar and yet how varied is each person’s experience with getting to know God. As varied as there are designs of snowflakes I suppose…

  14. Yep, when we exhaust all the theories and theologies we realize that the journey is all about Jesus, knowing him, loving him, following him and sharing him. Thanks Michael.

  15. Memphis Aggie says

    Very fine post

  16. Yep.

  17. Great post Michael,

    Reminds me of another Anglican’s creation – Aslan! Very well said. Just like the mystical actions of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus seems to do the same. I’m on the same path, only further behind you due to having waisted more time in the church and various doctrinal schools. I too am learning that Jesus makes us his disciples, not we ourselves. Keep plodding on. I’ll try to catch up and keep you company. “For Narnia and the North” . . . ahem, I mean “Onward and upward, to Jesus. Into his Kingdom, and to greater glory and treasure.”

    in pace Christi

  18. May God continue to bless you and lead you. Thanks for the inspiring post.

  19. For years I pined that I was not brought up in a Christian church. Now like S.Miracle above I appreciate the freedom that being saved outside a “system” brought, along with it’s loneliness and lack of discipleship. For years i thought of what could have been if only…
    Thank you for sharing, the grass seems greener across the fence, but sometimes when you look close enough you see it is crabgrass.
    How small the box that the faith group of your youth would use to contain God.

  20. Peggy in Shenandoah Valley says

    Lynne (12:58 AM)- my heart goes out to you. The numbing down of all you were created to be, due to past abuse; the dumbing down of all the church was meant to be, due to our tendency away from Christianity and toward churchianity. For myself, too many years of internally fighting against “I surrender all” because of my own necessary numbing down and dumbing down and knowing deep down that the surrender would be to a man-made system and to men who were invested in maintaining an inherently abusive and unChristlike superior position. Now, to the real Jesus, I can surrender all.
    Oh, those naughty Anglicans, always looking at things from other angles and upsetting our comfortable man-made systems. Especially CS Lewis-have read, and re-read, almost everything he’s written. Such a beautiful blend of imagination and reason- and no dumbing down. Hallelujah! Haven’t read Packer yet- but am now inspired to do so. Thanks again Michael for a great post. And thanks again to an awesome group of regular commenters.

  21. treebeard says

    Thank you, iMonk. So true. Thank the Lord that He calls us forward, and never lets us get comfortable with what we think we know of Him.

    I know this is a minor point, but I would love for you to say more about this: “It took me to college where I gave up on the rapture.” I’d like to give up on that too, but it still haunts me like a ghost. How do you get rid of that stuff? Please share.

  22. Christopher Lake says

    Michael,

    Your youth director wasn’t merely a bit off– his advice was *terrible.* Not to sound graceless about it though… we have all given terrible advice at times.

    Knowing God is an incredible book. I feel badly for anyone who has been wrongly “advised” against reading it and who has actually taken that advice.

    Your post reminds me of the time that I was preparing to teach through Knowing God at the church of which I was a member at the time. We had a “Sunday School” fair, outside the church building, with each teacher having a booth at which to “advertise” his/her class. Very few people came to my booth, but one teenager did. When he saw the title of the book though, he said, “I don’t need that. I already know God,” and he walked away before I could even begin to engage him.

    Tragic… not that he missed my class but that he missed out on such a wonderful book that has led many people to know God much more personally and deeply.

  23. There is a huge difference between being religious and being a follower of Jesus.

  24. Thank you, once again.

  25. Hello Michael,

    Do you know anything about religious ocd (scrupulosity)?

  26. dumb ox says

    “CS Lewis, JI Packer and now NT Wright, Those Anglicans will get you into trouble every time. ” – Steve in Toronto

    Don’t forget Capon, and all his talk about grace. Scandalous.

    😉

  27. Michael,

    This post was powerful, stirring, informative and inspiring. One of your best ever. Many thanks.

  28. KR Wordgazer says

    Again you uplift and inspire me, Michael. There is a breath blowing through your words that feels like the breath of Heaven, lifting my eyes above my own concerns to see His.

  29. Sherwood MacRae says

    I learned a lot about church in the first 45 years of my life; very little about Jesus.

    Then, I came heart-to-heart with God – as He answered a prayer and I came to know Him as real and through Him, I met His son. Just reading about His life – and death, fascinated me and I decided to accept Him as my Lord.

    The church? I love the church, the people who come there asking questions and leave to consider the answers. All are a lot like I was, interested but not convicted. Only as one considers the reality of the life they have lived – and are living, and dare to rest in a future in which the Lord leads, can you discover the joy that was meant for each of us – from the beginning.

    But as long as church leaders continue their obsession with sin – without regard to their own, the church will continue wandering through life, never understanding the glory to be realized in the life of a true believer.

    The joy is to be discovered in the journey…

  30. “Jesus has shown me that he isn’t a franchised product of some denomination or the spokesman for some program or cause. Jesus is the source, the head, of his body. He’s present in all the places Christians seek him, but he’s present in some many more places and in so many more ways that we ever suspect.”
    So right IMonk! Jesus is not a prisoner in the Christian ghetto. And I don’t have to be, either.

  31. Dana Ames says

    yes… thanks ms. God bless you.

    Treebeard, I was always somewhat wary of “the rapture” but couldn’t fully set it aside because people who studied the bible lots more than I did taught it. Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” and NT Wright’s big books on Jesus (at first, and later his Paul stuff) melted it away for good and all. (You don’t have to buy all Wright’s books; there’s lots of great audio and articles for free on the NT Wrightpage.)

    Dana

  32. treebeard says

    Thanks very much, Dana. I will look into it. I appreciate the references.

  33. alvin_tsf says

    imonk,

    i read “knowing God” at a time when i was also questioning my faith (was raised as a Baptist too)and the reality of the Gospel. the book was comprehensive but the great thing about it is that as i read it, it lead me to a great hunger for God’s Word. and as always the Holy Spirit’s counsel always points to Jesus. this was a great article. and find myself wanting to read it again. i think i’ve read a hundred times already.

    “Onward and upward, to Jesus”

    i believe this captures the essence for all those the Father has drawn to the great Shepherd by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    alvin

  34. Big Daddy Z says

    Have you read the book by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg called Sitting At The Feet Of Rabbi Jesus? It is waiting to take you to the next level. See you there!

    Blessings,

    Big Daddy Z

  35. http://www.zondervan.com/m/spangler/rabbiJesusBlog.pdf
    To Big Daddy Z…I did a little online research about the book you mention above, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, and I found that you can read a chapter of the book at the URL I gave above. It looks very interesting. I wish I didn’t have to work and could devote more time to some more reading!

  36. If this is an example of what your book is going to be about, I want it yesterday!

  37. Theophilus says

    Jesus is a revolutionary. I know that relationship is constantly overthrowing my little plans. He keeps life “interesting.”

  38. Treebeard,

    Two more books that might help you in breaking away from the idea of the Rapture are from the Catholic perspective. “The Rapture Trap” by Paul Thigpe and “Will Catholics be Left Behind” by Carl Olsen.

    I’ve read both and they helped me put into words what I was instinctively bothered by.

    Bob3, I’ve not seen where Michael is against either Conservative Christians (unless they confuse the gospel with American culture) or contemporary churches (In fact, he considers himself a post-evangelical)

    So you are for Joel Osteen?

    I can appreciate his journey because mine is similar. When I first became Catholic is was very wary and very anti certain authors because they weren’t orthodox Catholics. Now, I am being nourished by some of them. I know what I believe and I trust the Holy Spirit will lead and encourage me in what I read and think and pray.

    Some writers, I don’t think that I will ever get up the nerve to read, though.

  39. Opps. That is Paul Thigpen. (Sorry, Treebeard)

  40. John R. says

    Wow. IMonk, I am humbled reading this article and many of these well thought out responses. All in all, it so makes me want to know Jesus more.

  41. treebeard says

    Anna A., thanks very much. I’ll look them up.

    One thing I really like about iMonk’s blog is the helpfulness and generosity of the commenters.

    For myself, I’m trying to get J.N.Darby and dispensationalism out of my bloodstream. His teachings (and their progeny) are worse than swine flu.

  42. Scrapiron says

    IMonk,

    I got similar advice about “Knowing God” to that from your youth pastor when I was a kid, but I foolishly heeded that advice. I wasted a lot of years recovering from that mistake and re-discovering that following Jesus doesn’t have to mean shutting off your brain. Coming from a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren upbringing and going through my education as a scientist, I buried my head in the sand for stagnant, unhappy decades regarding issues that created an unbearable cognitive dissonance for me (biblical literalism, Y.E.C. are obviously big ones, but there definitely others.)

    A couple of years ago I began lurking here and reading lots of stuff from the archives, identifying and usually agreeing with nearly everything you write. You have helped me develop an intellectual honesty that has allowed me to make sense of being a Christian and greatly deepened my urge to follow Jesus with my mind heart, strength. I can honestly say that you have been one of the biggest influences in my development as a Christian. Outstanding posts like this one are why. Thank you so much for your willingness to open your heart and mind on this blog and thank God for giving you your obvious writing talent. I join those waiting impatiently for your book. Meanwhile, I still have that 30-year old (unread) copy of Knowing God on my bookshelf. I believe I’ll dig in to it tonight after I get the kids to bed.

  43. treebeard says

    Scrapiron,
    I hope you don’t mind my responding to you personally, even though you were addressing iMonk. My background was in an offshoot of the PB’s, so I can fully relate to your experiences. I’m more of a humanities person than a scientist, but it is still hard for me to get that background noise out of my head. The cognitive dissonance (including lots of self-condemnation) still follows me around. Like you, I’ve been tremendously helped by this blog, especially the essays on grace.
    Anyway, I just wanted to commiserate. I hope you can continue your spiritual and intellectual journey in peace.

  44. Thank you.

  45. How closely you articulate my journey, too.

    Thanks!