Why Is Life So Hard? Trading Hype for Hope

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. As a young person I wrongly assumed that life got easier as you get older.

Unfortunately the further I go the more questions I have and the less confident I am in my own abilities. How can I be a good father, pastor, leader or Christ-follower if I’m increasingly feeling like I just don’t want to deal with life anymore? Why is it all so hard? Why don’t things seem to go in the direction they are supposed to? If God wants something from me, why doesn’t he make the path more pleasant? Have you ever been there?

Hard kills hype
In wrestling with this question, one thing I’ve discovered is that hard kills hype. Whether you realize it or not, hype is a big bully. Often in your life and mine, the problem isn’t the situation, the lack of funding or that annoying person. The problem is that we think other people’s lives are not exactly like ours. The problem is pictures. It’s snapshots and status updates. We get expectations and images in our minds from Instagram that make our imagination our reality. But one thing I’ve notices about the hard is that it kills my hype. It crushes the hollow and empty image I have of life and other people. Through the hard, God is killing my giant, my Goliath and in that process he’s paving the way for something better.

Hard creates hope
If you’re like me, you don’t want your hype to die. Even though it’s a bully, you’ve learned to live with it. But the truth is God has something better, a better that can only happen through the hard. In the end, your hard gives way to hope. I think sometimes God gives us hard things not to make us feel insignificant, but to help us to realize that we already are small and that he is big. God gives us the hard so that we will fix our eyes in the right place. Without disease and discomfort we would look to our bank accounts, our health and our comparisons to create happiness. On the other hand, God offers us a real and lasting hope in things to come. Jesus provides a bright future for God’s people that we can take hold of right now through faith in his promise.

Hard makes holy
We all wonder why life isn’t getting any easier. Our wondering that, however, points us to another purpose. If things aren’t going where we want them it’s because they are not supposed to go that way. If we can start to connect God’s good intentions for us with our surroundings we can only reason that, yes, God does have different plans for our lives than we have for ourselves. God’s plan isn’t to make us comfortable. God’s plan is to make us conformable. He wants us to look like Jesus, to be holy. Holiness isn’t what we seek by nature but it is exactly what we need for God’s happiness. God’s plan is to bless you. While he was in jail, the Apostle Paul encouraged the Philippian church, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6). Why is life so hard? Because God is hard at work! With that in mind, look at your hardship not as a hindrance but as God’s help to make you more like him and you will have his joy today.

Faith Application
Have you ever experienced what I’m talking about? Are you willing to exchange hollow hype for God’s hope? Be encouraged today that his end game is your good and that your hard is exactly what he’s using to get you there!

A Little about Me (and a Little about You Too) ….

Have you ever done some reflecting? Sometimes life can bring us to a place where we think about the places we come from and that’s what has been happening to me lately. So I thought I’d take a minute to share with you a little about myself and, hopefully, that can be an encouragement about God’s great work in your life too!

What’s in store?
Where did you start off in life? Maybe you come from an influential family. Or maybe not. Maybe you’ve been successful. Or maybe you got off on the wrong foot and haven’t seemed to be able to recover. Wherever you are or wherever you’ve been, know that God has god things in store for your future. That alone is reason to look to him with faith.

My start
When I was young I didn’t think too much about making a difference in the world. I wanted to be a teacher but not because of the difference I could make. I thought it would be nice to have summers off. Oh, if only life were that easy! My perception of the world, however, began to change a few weeks before my seventeenth birthday as I found myself sitting in a jail cell for playing a prank on the assistant principle at our school. Even though I only spent about eighteen hours there, the event changed the course of my life. While stuck in that space, I sat I read a copy of the Bible and made God a promise to read the Bible when I got out. I know, I make it sound like I did hard time. I guess that’s what happens when you send a kid from the suburbs to jail for the night. The way I tell my story you’d think I started off with a twenty year prison sentence.

But regardless of “how” it happened, it happened. I followed through on that promise. I got a Bible and read it every night before I went to bed for about a year. Near the end of that year I drove a friend home from school who also happened to be a Christian. He shared the good news of Jesus with me and brought me to the church I now pastor.

Your start and future….
So that’s my story in a nutshell. It doesn’t include all of my struggles, situations and shortcomings. It’s just my start. What’s the start to your story? I never would have thought all those years ago, that I’d be serving God on the capacity that I am today. When I read the Bible all those years ago my heart felt alive.  Though I did not realize it at the time, God had a different plan for my life than the one I had imagined for myself. And through all the ups and downs, my start has kept me grounded. It reminds me that God has his own purpose for me and a plan for blessing. I hope you understand that he has the same great things in store for you too. What might those plans be? Connect with God today and he may show you something new about yourself, your circumstances or his glorious future for you!

Faith Application:
If you get a chance leave a comment about how God is working in your life today!

5 Reasons for FAITH Part 3: Why I Have faith (and You Do Too)

This post is the last in a three part series on the nature of faith. So if you haven’t read my first two entries, give them a look. In total I’ve given you fifteen reasons that faith is so important. But let’s be honest, who wants fifteen reasons for anything? I certainly don’t.

So that’s why we broke the discussion into three segments of five. In part one, I defined what faith is. I hope that, among other things, I cleared up some misconceptions and offered some encouragement where necessary. Part two was targeted at those who might have little or no faith in hopes that people might give it a try. So as we wrap up the discussion I thought I’d offer some encouragement to those of us who already believe, to the faithful … even if your faith is small. I’d like to tell you why you believe or maybe why you have more faith than you think you do. May the words that follow offer you new insight or fresh perspective into some of the great things you will continue to experience in your real, vibrant and incredible journey with your Maker.

1. FAVOR: Your faith is a gift from your Father
Faith is often looked at as the activity of the human heart and this is true. In fact, faith is ultimately what God requires of us. He doesn’t want our mighty works, big buildings, lots of money or even nice new clothes. He wants your heart. That’s what he once said about King David in the Bible who was a young man at the time and not kingly by any earthly standards. He said, “Man looks at outward appearance but God looks at the heart.”[i] What often goes overlooked when it comes to faith, however, is that faith isn’t something we can conjure up on our own. Yes, in a way, it’s the flexing of our spiritual muscle. But the ability to flex our soul is only something God can produce in us. In other words, faith is God’s gift. It’s God’s favor in your life. So if you have faith, it’s reason for encouragement.

Thus far I’ve shared little bits about my own faith journey. On more than one occasion, I’ve explained that at the end of the day there isn’t necessarily a rational reason for your faith. Sure we can point to logical reasons that we believe. But those same reasons are available for everyone and clearly everyone doesn’t believe. Therefore, true faith has to be more than that. And I think those of you who believe know what I’m talking about. My faith, for example, can’t be explained by my knowledge of the world or by some external proof from empirical science. It’s more complex. I believe because of those things in part, maybe. But I also believe because of the life experiences I’ve had and maybe also because of the culture I was born into. In short, I believe because I think that someone beyond myself worked in my life to cause, create and actualize my soul to see the world in a different way. This is what the Bible says about faith by the way. The Bible says that faith is God’s gift and the result of a spiritual rebirth in our hearts.[ii] So if you have faith today know that your faith is not of your own doing. It comes from somewhere else. It comes from your great Heavenly Father who blesses you with good things.

2. ANATOMY: Your faith placed you into a believing community
Can you think of a part of the human body that isn’t important? What about ear lobes? Maybe God had piercing in mind when he created us, I don’t know. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. But regardless of your take on that, think about the fact that every part of your body is connected to you. If you think something isn’t important try removing it. Ouch, right!? The point is, every part of you is important. Your faith works the same way. In several of his letters, Paul explained this. He said that through faith, we are actually individual parts of Jesus’ body which is the church.[iii] So if you believe, then you are a part of something bigger than yourself. By this I mean you are part of a faith-based community. And those other parts of your body (your faith-filled friends) are just as important as you are. In fact, you actually rub off on one another. You depend on one another and you make each other better. Whether you’ve thought about it or not, they are a big reason your faith is as strong as it is. Whether you’re a powerful bicep holding others up or you’re just a tiny ear lobe that’s hanging on for dear life, you all make one another better at flexing your spiritual muscles and more acceptable to God as a result.

3. INCREDIBLE: Your faith Is the most powerful force in the world
I’ve always wondered why they give certain adjectives to superheroes. There’s the “Amazing” Spider-Man and the “Uncanny” X-Men. Apparently Stan Lee (the creator of those characters) just felt like his heroes needed a little explanation. Regardless I think the adjectives generally fit the characters. “Incredible” certainly describes the Hulk. His power is “beyond belief” and, ironically, both he and his adjective make a great illustration of our own faith.

This might seem contradictory, you know … saying that faith is “beyond belief” (incredible). It kind of sounds like I’m saying that faith is beyond itself. But it’s true! Our faith really is incredible. Faith is unbelievable in terms of what it can accomplish. It’s like the Hulk. It’s inhumanly strong, even in little increments. That’s what Jesus said. It only takes the faith of a mustard seed to produce something much larger.[iv] Your faith is invincible. It will accomplish the purpose for which God intended it on this earth and afterwards. So the Hulk-like nature of your faith is also another reason you believe. Even if you seem like you’re hanging on by a thread, you still haven’t given up. Your faith will see you through. It really will!

4. TALENT: Your faith moves forward
In addition to other things, faith is also forward moving. In other words, it produces things. You don’t have to look any further than the plethora of charities existing within our culture. Among other things they show the drive of people to give to a greater cause. We want to help others and our faith causes us to contribute or to use our talents for good. Jesus told a story about this, though he used the word “talent” in a slightly different sense. In Matthew’s Gospel, he told the story of a master who gave bags of gold (“talents” in Old English) to three different men. Two of the men invested their gifts and grew what they had been given. They were the good and “faithful” servants. The bad guy hid his gold in the ground, didn’t use it, and only gave back to the master that which the master had given him in the first place. In other words, this servant wasn’t fruitful with his gift. Among other things, the parable speaks to the nature of kingdom growth. The faithful servants used their abilities to contribute to a greater cause. Your faith compels you to do the same thing. Maybe you give financially to your church or a charity. Maybe you invest in those around you with your time. Maybe you’re a teacher or maybe you serve your community in some way. Have you ever thought that you’re doing that because of something that is at work on the inside of you? That internal force is your faith. It’s your spiritual talent, your gift that God is using as a force for good in the world.

5. HOME: Your faith is the framework of your soul
Well that’s it … almost. What new insight have you gained about faith during our conversations? Of all the reasons I given you to believe, the one that I hope you pick up on the most is this idea: Faith is the framework of your soul. It’s the most natural place for you to be. If faith were a physical structure it would be your house, your home. It’s where you belong. Doubt and disbelief only produce fear and frustration. Faith, however, is your heart’s true home. Faith is full of life. It’s a place to lay your head at the end of the night. In faith, there’s a large space for recreation and play. There’s a kitchen filled with your favorite foods. There are pictures on the walls that tell you about who you are. There are even other family members there. You’re not alone. In faith, you’ve got comfort, love and support. You have everything you need and that is most importantly why you believe. You believe because that’s the space where you feel the most whole.

Faith Application:
What are your thoughts on the things we’ve talked about? Do you look at faith any differently? It’s my hope that everyone will give faith a chance. If you are a believer, it’s my prayer that you’ve seen the powerful force that is at work on the inside. God’s Spirit produces faith in you and that’s reason for both encouragement and reproduction. In other words, what can you do with your faith? How can you bless others? When you get a chance write down one new insight you’ve gained and one way you can use it to bless someone else in the near future. God bless and stay faithful!

[i] 1 Samuel 16:7

[ii] Paul wrote in Romans 10:17 that, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” In other words, God’s message impacts our hearts and gives us the ability to have faith. Often in the Bible, faith is compared to physical senses like sight and hearing. Without spiritual life or rebirth, we are not alive towards God and can’t “see” or “hear” him with our hearts. This is the same thing Jesus talked to Nicodemas about in John 3:3 when he said, “You must be born again.” God’s Spirit changes our hearts and allows us to become “alive” on the inside, having spiritual senses that express faith in our Creator.

[iii] 1 Corinthians 12:7

[iv] Matthew 17:20

5 Reasons for FAITH Part 2: Why I Have Faith (and So Should You)

Do you consider yourself a person of faith?

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with people who don’t believe. In those conversations, typically I find myself trying to reconstruct what faith looks like. It’s not that I can create faith in someone just by changing the definition … not at all. I’m just a believer in faith. What I mean is that I think faith is a natural activity of the human soul. We all believe in something.

Maybe you grew up in church. If you did, you almost certainly have some idea of what faith is supposed to look like … allegedly. Definitions can vary widely. For me though, church culture has at times made faith look like something beyond what it actually is. That’s part of the problem too. I think for many people, the idea of faith has become somewhat unbelievable and certainly impractical. Maybe it (faith) conflicts with your understanding of science or culture. Or maybe the faith that you’ve been presented with conflicts with your understanding of morality. That might sound paradoxical but it happens, I think, more frequently than we realize.

So I guess what I’m trying to accomplish is a recapturing of faith’s meaning and especially its relevance. Mainly because I think it will be helpful for me and for you. I don’t want to tear down what you think. I want to tear down faith misconceptions. Maybe you’re ready to give up on faith. If so, hang in there, because here are five reasons I have FAITH (my acronym for the day) and I think you should too.

1. Factors: You should have faith because we are still figuring things out
“I don’t believe in the Bible because it contradicts science.”

Maybe you’ve heard that before. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. The problem with that statement, in my experience, is that it is founded on a plethora of misconceptions.
Maybe science does contradict the Bible. Maybe it doesn’t though. Maybe our understanding of the Bible is flawed, not the Bible itself. There was a time when people were condemned for saying the sun is at the center of things. It was based on misconception though. The Bible does not teach that the earth is the center of the solar system. It often uses metaphor to speak to ancient cultures about God. The point is that our understanding of faith has grown. It has matured.

You may not realize it, but science works much the same way. Science literally means “knowledge.” It’s what we “know about things.” That’s all. And our knowledge of things is constantly changing, growing, maturing and even “evolving” (couldn’t help myself). So I’d just like to open the door to faith. Sometimes, it might seem like there’s a contradiction between what your church and the outside world are saying. But just remember that growth is happening in both places too. If you can remember that, you might begin to see the truth that God cares a great deal about what we know and faith will become more meaningful for you at the same time.

2. Already: You should have faith because it’s something you already practice
Faith produces outcomes.

Have you ever thought about that?

Reason and experience are certainly part of the process. But faith comes first. Faith says that something impossible can be done and then drives a person to make it a reality. Faith looks for answers when reason and experience contradict what we’re seeking. So you should have faith because faith is something you’re practicing already without realizing it. Maybe it’s faith in the economy, faith in a relationship or faith in the laws of physics (since philosophers would argue you can never be certain of the ground beneath your feet). In short, people can’t live without faith and progress can’t be made either.

So if you already practice faith in unexpected ways, maybe you’d be willing to look at faith in the context of a broader narrative. Maybe it’s not something you understand completely but give it a try. Maybe God will speak to you in an unexpected way.
I know that my belief in a greater narrative has never let me down. Some people may feel that it has but I don’t. On the other hand, faith has often forced me to look outside myself for solutions. In addition, it brings me great comfort in the process of discovery. For me and for many people in history, faith has produced much of what we take for granted today. It will for you too.

3. Images: You should believe because signs are all around you
What do you really think about God? If I put you on the spot right now what would you say? Maybe to you, all the talk of miracles in the land of faith have made the broader story seem ridiculous and disconnected. At the same time, maybe there are images (signs) all around you showing you that it’s true or worth believing in.

I can see why some don’t believe. Certainly all of the miracles in the Bible (including Jesus’ resurrection) introduce the supernatural into our otherwise mechanical understanding of things. Sure. Faith is believing in at least some of those things. A Judeo-Christian worldview, for example, is predicated on the idea of resurrection. Faith, however, is not believing in all of those things all the time. Aside from Jesus, the Bible is filled with failures. It presents a humanity who doubts and struggles to understand God’s plan.

Still want proof? Look at life. Just the existence of life stands as reason enough to believe in a greater meaning. Life on our planet is very complex but it’s also incredibly delicate. Any closer to the sun and we’d burn. Any further, we’d freeze. Even our moon creates crucial ocean currents that make life as we know it possible (apparently it’s not just there for aesthetics). These things are images that point us to faith.

I admit that there are seemingly unbelievable stories in our faith narrative. But there are equally unbelievable realities in our everyday world. Maybe in that context the miracles don’t seem so unbelievable. I think this is especially true when you consider the point of our story: that God loves us and we’re going to live forever with him. The one who created the universe also conquered death. He has been a sign to everyone through the centuries that we can believe. And he’s a sign to you that you can do the same today.

4. Teleios: You should have faith because God completes you
Teleios is a Greek word that means complete or whole. Have you ever put a puzzle together only to find out that you were missing a piece? It’s awful isn’t it? Incomplete carries a feeling.

One of the natural conclusions we can draw from our faith conversation so far is that we were meant for more. If we achieve our outcomes by faith and life also provides us with plenty of signs pointing us in that direction, it only follows that a life of faith gives us a sense of wholeness. It gives us a feeling that we’ve found that missing puzzle piece.

You may be a passionate person. You may already feel like you have a sense of purpose. For me, that sense of purpose came as I fulfilled my calling as a pastor and grew in my knowledge of God. My education was a big part of that process too. But you don’t need my faith to feel complete. That’s not what I’m getting at. You need your own faith … your own personal faith. Look around. Acknowledging the amazing order that exists in the universe, you can bet there is a purpose for you. What I’m saying is that faith has a way of enhancing the things we care about and bringing completion to our world.
You don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, you shouldn’t. But I think if you’re willing to see things in this light, faith will look a whole lot more relevant.

5. Harmony: You should have faith because faith paves the way for peace
Have you ever heard something that just doesn’t quite sound right in a musical setting? Harmony is key in music and it is key in life too. When one person in a group is off pitch, the whole thing can sound repulsive.

People like things when they work. We like functionality and beauty. That’s what harmony represents. And that’s what people seek all the time. It’s why we believe in our gods, behave in moral ways and belong to our social groups. We want harmony in the social order and we want peace in our lives. In my experience, faith provides the best opportunity for that to happen.

Some religious groups and people of faith have a bad reputation in this regard. We see them in the media all the time. Because they believe, behave and belong in a certain way, they think their way is what’s best for everyone. Then, others reject faith (possibly altogether) because they see it opposing their cause.

But what if God is interested in freedom? What if he actually loves worthy social causes, hates injustice and is inclined towards mercy? My faith tells me that he values equality and is so good in many other ways because God is working out harmony in the world. For me, faith informs my understanding of these things. It tells me that God cares about the same things I care about and that he’s actually better at making them a reality, when I can trust him, when I can have faith in his plan.

Thoughts?
What do you think about what I’ve said? I’m sure that I haven’t covered everything or answered all of your questions but that’s a good thing. It means you can explore your own solutions by taking a few small steps of faith today. What do you think some of those steps might be? Let me know! Maybe you can help me find some of the answers I’m looking for too.

Faith Application
For an extra step, read the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42. When Jesus initially speaks to her, she doesn’t seem to get what he’s saying. Later, however, she catches on and is deeply impacted by the experience. What does that story say to you about faith? Can you relate with the woman or Jesus disciples in the story? God bless!

5 Reasons for FAITH Part 1: Why I Have Faith (and What that Means)

Do you have an early faith memory? Maybe you used to pray at bedtime with your parents or God saved your narrowly escaped bodily harm when you were young (in my case this happened more than once lol). As far back as I can remember I’ve always believed.

So over the years I’ve put a lot of thought into exactly what belief means. Maybe you have too. While I’d like to say that I’m happy with all of the answers I’ve found, that’s just not true. Because I, like many other people, see myself as a rational person, I’d like to say that my faith is firmly founded upon reason and logic. But it’s not. Certainly I’d say that my faith is logical … or better yet that logic compliments what I believe nicely. At the same time, I know that I am more than the product of my experiences. Nothing controversial here. I’d imagine that most people feel the same way I do because, in my view, all people are religious in one form or another. What I’m getting at is this: faith, mine and yours, can’t be dependent upon reason or experience alone. That’s because there are too many negative experiences in this life and too many seemingly logical arguments that would undermine the things our hearts say to us on the inside. So instead, my faith and yours has to be more than that. Our faith has to be defined on some level by the object of our belief (on God himself) otherwise it’s not faith to begin with. What I’m saying is that faith isn’t reason or experience – faith is faith. Faith comes from and is defined by God, not by us, and certainly not by stained glass, empty rituals and our tribal terminology.

Why believe?
So why do we believe? I guess I still haven’t answered the question. While I’m at it, let me also ask, “Is faith even reliable in the first place?” These are things a lot of people wrestle with and they probably cause some to give up on the subject altogether. If that’s you, I’m encouraging you today to not give up that easily. Both logic and experience tell me that there is an answer for you right around the corner if you can wait for it. Though they don’t come naturally to us, waiting and patience are the name of the game with faith. So I guess that’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. I want to encourage you and others to believe, like I do. I definitely don’t want you to become me. I just want you to believe … or maybe to help you see some simple ways in which you already do and, I guess, to help you to understand what true faith is. Maybe faith looks different than you’ve been told. My faith certainly looks different than others have said it should. So here are a few reasons I believe along with some characteristics of true faith that I hope will encourage you to know that God is far closer to you than you might realize.

1. FOUNDATIONS (Good Stories Are Faith’s Foundation)
When we’re talking about faith it might be helpful to lay some groundwork. In other words if faith is a structure, a house, let’s think for a minute about the blocks we’re building our house on. Are they strong? And if not, how do we make them more firm so that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down around us? Jesus said something like this. In his Sermon on the Mount, he said that a wise person will put into practice the things that he said. He said the one who does this is like a person who builds his or her house on a bedrock foundation that will help the whole structure to withstand all the storms and trials of life.[i] Is it easy to concisely define what Jesus said? The answer is both yes and no. In the Sermon on the Mount he explained what true religion looks like. There he said that true morality comes from the heart, pleases God and blesses others. But more fundamentally than that … what did Jesus teach? Jesus’ teachings and those of the Bible for that matter (including the Sermon on the Mount) are not just limited to good morality. Maybe you don’t realize it but Jesus’ teachings are the culmination of a people and a history – the Israelites. Ever heard of them? If you fail to see their relevance, however, that’s OK. Speaking even more broadly, the Bible tells the story of humanity, the story of who we are and where we are going. What I’m getting at is this: God’s message is (at its heart) a story, a narrative and firm faith is always based on a good story, not on good teaching alone.

Super Stories
Think for a moment about how important stories are. When I was a kid a lot of cartoons would include a thirty second public service announcement teaching children some moral principle that could make the world a better place. In my case it was GI Joe and Transformers. For you, it might have been John Wayne, the Lone Ranger or Pikachu. While I can’t remember a single public service announcement, I do remember a lot about the adventures of those that I looked up to. I remember how they fought the bad guys, overcame adversity and did the right thing. Then, as I grew up, real life examples from history and the Bible gave me even more inspiration. Ultimately, I learned far more from narrative, from “story” than I did from any textbook. Why is that? We can remember so much about our cultural adventures yet we have to work hard to stay fluent with a second language or a skill of some kind? Stories impact us so powerfully and so permanently because stories provide the context in which our values, ideologies and beliefs exist. In truth, the flawless morality Jesus taught us from the mountainside is meaningless without his suffering and resurrection from death as a demonstration that those teachings came from God himself – a God who loves and cares for us completely. The same thing could be said about the whole of the history of Israel (and world history for that matter) which begins in the garden where we fell. The rest of the Scriptures look forward to our Redeemer who, by his work, helps us to live as we should in the present and will one day remake us in his image.

Too often I’ve tried to complicate the reasons for my faith. Too often I’ve tried to prove it through reason or justify it as the better experience. In reality, I think the answer is a lot simpler. The truth is I believe because the story is so good it must be true. And that’s what I think true faith does. True faith, a strong faith, embraces a strong narrative. Everyone believes in a story about where we came from and where we’re going. God’s narrative, however, is by far the best one out there. It is, in fact, the Narrative. It’s your narrative and mine. It’s the greatest story ever told. It’s the foundation of my faith and it’s a great starting place for you to see faith itself from a better vantage point.

2. AFTERTASTE (Faith Leaves You Feeling Good Long after the Fact)
One of the things we like best about good foods and drinks are the aftertaste they leave us with. No one wants to drink something that tastes great at first and then turns bitter when you’re finished. Likewise, one of the reasons I believe is that (to me) God’s message is the best one out there. Metaphorically speaking, it leaves me with the best aftertaste. It has great and meaningful implications for all that I see, know and experience. It makes the most sense of what I see in the world. I guess at the end of the day, I just can’t see things any other way. I’ve tried to see things from other faith perspectives and, at times, live my life a different way but I just can’t. And I don’t want to. God’s story gives me an explanation beyond chance. It fulfills a deep longing I have on the inside, the need for a deeper experience or meaning. God’s message tells me why there is suffering in the world. We caused it a long time ago. But his message also leaves me with the hope that he’s going to fix things too. I guess that message just makes me feel a lot more whole on the inside … not just for myself though. It makes me feel better about people who don’t have a voice, those who have experienced tragedy and others who just feel alone.

Faith Implications
Like I said, faith has good implications. One of which is that we are not alone. By that I do not mean that Aliens are among us. No. God is with us. And he made us for something better. Our story is better and our Creator has a purpose for our pain. Sure, this point is somewhat logical al in nature. I look at our message and the other options and I think to myself, this one makes more “sense.”  But that’s OK. Reason compliments true faith. It informs it. It’s just not the ultimate reason we believe. If it is, our faith isn’t from God but from intellectual principles. In that case we can be reasoned out of it. Simply speaking, I believe in part because I just think God presents us with the best option. Maybe you think the same thing. Unlike other messages, other stories, his leaves the best taste behind long after I’ve taken a drink. I guess that’s what Jesus meant when he said he offered us a different kind of water.[ii] His water fills us up, completely. Once we take a drink we lack nothing. Likewise, God’s message truly quenches our thirst but not just the kind we feel on our taste buds. God’s story leaves us in better shape than it found us. It’s like the finest wine that gets better with age. It sits better than anything else out there and that’s why the aftertaste of God’s great message provides an excellent place for you to establish yourself and your faith.

3. INSIDE-OUT (Faith Is the Activity of Your Soul and Moves Outward)
The more I think about it the more I realize the faith that I have is something that God has given me. That’s the conclusion of us Christians. We say it’s God’s Holy Spirit at work in our hearts.  It’s not a set of rules I practice that tries to conform the inside to the outside. That’s the way it seems to me a lot of people practice it. But that’s not what it’s like for me. Rigid rules or punishments don’t change the heart. They only change behavior and that only temporarily. Things can’t move inward like that. My gut tells me that you’d agree with that. My life seems to be completely the opposite of the whole “outside-in” thing. Instead, my entire life has been an example of trying to work outward what’s in my heart. I think that’s what true faith does. It begins with the soul and works its way into our actions.

Irrational Faith
At the end of the day there is no rational reason I believe. I would like there to be but there’s not. I just believe. Some would say that the rational mind is the gateway to the heart but I’m not sure. In fact, I think that’s misinformation. And whatever this thing is on the inside of me that drives me to do what I do (faith) it can’t be from culture, conditioning or my psychological make-up. It has to be from God otherwise it would have died out a long time ago. In fact, if faith itself were not from God, religion would not exist. So in that sense I’ve come full circle in that irrational faith becomes the only rational answer. It’s something on the inside of me that can only be explained by the work of a personal God. And this thing on the inside which transcends rationality and personal experience is the only explanation for me and for you. If anyone reasons within themselves a sense of right and wrong and then seeks to do it they prove what I am saying. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at your life like a story but you should. In that narrative you are the hero and you’re living your life according to what you think is right and wrong. But why do you do the things you do? No one is forcing you to. It’s because you are a person of faith. You believe from your soul that God rewards those who diligently seek him. The good news is that he does just that and he’s made himself near to you right now, maybe more so than you’ve ever realized.

4. TERMINOLOGY (Faith Speaks Your Language)
For many people, the language they speak is a form of separation, especially if that language is different than the surrounding culture. It’s hard to relate with someone when you don’t understand what they’re saying. Fortunately for us, God speaks our language. This is definitely true in my case. One major explanation I would give for my faith is my love of history. Just like other things my love of history has informed my faith. Again, it’s not “why” I believe. It just jives with it, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why I believe in the events of the Bible I just do. And to me, nothing better demonstrates the greatness of our book than it’s interaction with history. Many great philosophers have come and gone but none of them have built on one another to paint a bigger picture for world history beginning with creation and concluding with our bright future. The point of what I’m saying is that we’ve seen those things come to pass. We’ve seen them come to pass through the coming of a man named Jesus two thousand years ago and now through the working out of his kingdom in history. That kingdom is still growing every day, despite the claims of some to the contrary. In the West it looks like unbelief is running rampant but in other parts of the world faith is growing like crazy. Don’t let the skeptics fool you either. It’s still alive and active here too, in the West I mean. Faith just looks different here than it used to. The more I study history the more I realize there is truly only one explanation for the emergence and the prominence of Christianity: It’s all true. This interaction with history speaks my language if you know what I mean and it’s also one more part of my faith structure.

What’s Your Faith Language?
Getting back to the point, the good news in all of this isn’t a bunch of boring history. The good news is that if God speaks my language, he is also speaking in a way that you can relate to him and what he’s doing. God is described in many such ways by the people of faith who have proceeded us including: artist, author, creator, competitor, ruler, doctor or healer, provider, scientist, mathematician, thinker, lover, life-giver, family member, musician, servant, savior and human being, just to name a few. Can you relate with any of those things? I’d imagine you can. That’s what I mean when I say God speaks your language. He is intimately involved in your passion. You just didn’t know he was there. So your faith will help you connect his will with the things that you love. It will help you find greater (not less) fulfillment in life. I’d imagine faith is something you want more (not less) of for that and other reasons. Faith helps you to see into the future and move towards something you don’t currently have, something that’s not there right now but will be one day. Maybe you’re trying to solve a problem or help someone else. Either way, faith will light the path for your pursuits and God himself will give you the strength to follow it just like he has for me and others all these years.

5. HONESTY (Faith Has Doubts but Does Not Despair)
A lot of explanations could be made for the things we do and think. Here I’m just limiting it to a few and doing the best that I can to keep it simple … hopefully I’ve done that. Along those lines, my father used to always say to me that honesty is the best policy. I think this saying holds true with faith. And if I’m being honest I’d say that, while I have doubts, God has never given me reason to disbelieve. He has actually done quite the opposite. For over twenty years I have not been able to get away from faith. So far, it’s been my experience that I can’t disbelieve. This brings me back to my first point that my faith and yours comes from God in the first place.

Nonetheless, if anything, my faith in God’s great story has only grown. Some people say there are errors and man-made manipulations in our Bible but (to be honest) it’s just not true.[iii] I’ve studied the Bible and I’ve spent a lot of money studying books about the Bible. All of that has brought me more firmly to the conclusion that it’s all true. Yes, this stuff actually happened. Honestly it’s quite impressive too. We really have no reason to believe that the content of God’s book was either manipulated or man-made. Sure our understanding of that book often changes as we grow. This is true both personally and culturally. The Bible is an authentic account that is completely true and is still coming true. In my honesty, I can say that I often have had and will continue to have doubts. I’m sure you do too. Yet those doubts, however, have never given way to despair. Then as I’ve followed God in faith, he’s answered many of those doubts and on other occasions paved the way for new questions. Questions and fears don’t mean the whole thing isn’t true. They just mean that my understanding isn’t yet what it will be. They also illuminate the nature of true, real and reasonable faith.

What about you?
I truly hope you are encouraged by what I’ve said. That’s been my intent. I think a lot of people don’t see the relevance of faith in their lives. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Faith is transformational for everyone. It has been for me and it is for you. If you don’t view yourself as a person of faith I’d like to open the door of belief to you. Also I’d like to help you see, maybe in small ways, how faith will enhance your passion. If you already believe I hope you’ve come to see how faith is so much more than you thought it was. Faith calls out to us all to be stronger people. It is building a house in which we and others can live. I hope you see that and that you desire like I have to follow God’s call and find his true fulfillment.

Faith Application
I think a great way to apply what we’re talking about here is just to ask God to enhance your faith. That’s it! I am confident that if you ask him he will do it. And when you ask, be willing to go where he leads you remembering that reason informs but doesn’t replace faith. You might not know where you’re going. Abraham didn’t. God gave him a direction and a couple of steps at a time and it took child-like trust for him to follow the path God laid out for him. He made mistakes. But he got a lot of things right too. That’s what faith is all about. Faith sometimes doesn’t know “how” but always understands that God, not us, is going to get it right. If you’d like to read about Abraham’s faith journey and those of others check out Hebrews 11 in the Bible. It’s known as the “Hall of Faith” and may God greatly enhance your life as you and others come to know him more!

[i] See Matthew 7:24-27

[ii] See John 7:37-39

[iii] If you’d like a good resource on textual criticism read Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, Kregal Publications: Grand Rapids, 2011.

You’ve Got HEART: 5 Reasons You Are More Religious than You Think

Do you feel religious? Growing up I never really felt like I was. We live in a time when people might answer, “No” … at least it seems like people increasingly don’t view themselves as religious in traditional terms. Do you?

I guess your answer would depend on how you define “religion.” Does religion only deal in the realm of fairytales and superstition, stained glass and ritual? Or is there more to it? When I was a child, I wasn’t really able to make the connection between all of those things and something deeper. That was until I had a spiritual awakening of sorts in my teenage years. At that time, God became much more real to me. Yet it has still taken me years to see exactly how much he is at work in the world, even in terrible places. In theory, the point of religion (at least the organized kind) is to bring God near. The gold leaf of iconography, for example, is meant to communicate that the riches of heaven are in our midst. Sometimes, however, the same organization which is intended to emphasize God’s relevance can cause us to miss it. And when the things we do begin to cloud the things to which they point, our religion becomes empty and it loses its usefulness.

What about you? Would you define yourself as a religious person? I tend to think that those who would answer “no” just don’t fully understand what true religion is and that there are many ways in which all people are very religious without knowing it. It might sound a little weird but the truth is we are religious because it’s part of our chemistry, our biology or our “science,” if you know what I mean. This is true even if you’ve never found much intrigue in the topic of faith. And yet, even though I am interested, I’m certainly not the model for how a human being should think and believe. We both are, you and me, because we are both people. And what I’m saying here is that we are all religious … no matter who we are or in what situations we might find ourselves. We all have a passion or a HEART that bends toward God and here are five ways in which you, me and everyone else are far more religious than we think we are.

1. HEARING: You have the ability to hear. Well, probably. If you don’t, you understand the value of the things most of us take for granted every day. Hearing, sight and touch are examples of senses. They tell us (at least in part) that we are alive. The kind of senses that I’m talking about, though, are not of this world. They are not earthly in the sense that you can touch them. They are nonetheless very real and we all have them. Or rather, we all have “it.” What I’m talking about is the presence within our physical bodies of an immaterial soul. Sure, it’s not something you can prove empirically. But at the very least, the circumstantial evidence of our spiritual senses is all around us. I think you already believe this, but really entertain the thought for a moment: How many people go to church, temple, synagogue or mosque around the world at least once a year? How many people pray, at least occasionally? That’s right, almost everyone. And to be honest, I think people who say that they never pray probably aren’t being honest with themselves. We don’t have to look very far with our physical eyes to see that we (people) have spiritual eyes too. It’s true, we love a fresh cup of coffee and good sushi … the physical taste and smell of it. We do, on the other hand, have spiritual tastes as well … passions, desires, a drive on the inside of us that propels us towards a Creator, towards meaning, towards the fact that there is far more to life than that which we currently know and experience.

And there’s good news in that. Part of the good news is that you were made in God’s image and you have the ability to know him and to be his true child. Not the know-it-all kind (by this I mean the kind without questions or doubts). No. He’s called you to be the kind of child that is curious and has a desire to learn, learn about his creation and learn about him. That is what makes you, you. Your soul, your mind, your heart. That spiritual core is what drives you to go to church. It’s why you pray or go to funerals. Your heart tells you that loved ones are in a better place when they pass on. I also tend to think that our hearts tell there are better days ahead, even when we’re in dark places and we just want the old days, not better ones. Yet God is still going to give them to us because that’s who he is. And he speaks these things to us on the inside. So look for ways to enhance your religious nature, like I did. Be open to ways that faith can enhance what you do. Certainly it can because God himself is always speaking to you on the inside, where your true life resides.

2. ENJOYMENT: Enjoyment and religion are often perceived as enemies but it’s not true. They’re actually good friends. In reality, you can’t have one without the other. Not if you’re practicing true religion, that is. And I think we all do in many ways. Jesus himself said it many, many times. The Bible says it too, over, and over again. God’s life is true life. God’s life isn’t filled with death. Death was brought into the world to reconcile the fact that we missed the mark on God. But it’s not a permanent part. God’s life is filled with joy, and passions and creativity and culture. God’s great creation is teeming with all of these things. Can we conclude that God is any different than the amazing things that are all around us every day? Certainly not! Francis Schaeffer said, “Art is a reflection of God’s creativity.”[i] I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the things you enjoy as evidence that you are engaging in a religious activity of sorts, but those things should point you to God – not away from him.

Elsewhere it’s been said that mankind’s greatest fulfillment is to “glorify and enjoy God,”[ii] but certainly that doesn’t just mean through theology and religious practice. Instead, this opens the door for everything to become religious. Are you good at something? Do you love sports, or painting or business, or leading people? Do you want to help society, fix things or find a cure for cancer? You’re hobby, your passion and your career just might point to the fact that you are seeking to connect with a greater sense of purpose, something beyond yourself, maybe to connect with God himself. I know that in my life, my passions have lead me to a greater understanding of God’s presence in all things and I think the same will be true for you if you look for him in places you didn’t expect, in the things you know and love … in the things you enjoy every day. He’s right there in them with you!

3. ADORATION: We all have feelings of love for someone or something. Even if it’s yourself, you love something. Many contemporary sociologists have noticed this and point out that what makes us, us is that we are in fact moral, believing creatures.[iii] In other words, we are religious. We have faith in things, in people or, maybe, in God. Maybe you’ve said these words to someone, “I adore you!” Adoration or love is the most basic form of worship. In ancient languages, worship can literally mean to “bow down” or “pay homage” to someone. As living creatures, we all devote our time and energy to stuff.

So what do you love? Like I said, we all love something. That means we all worship something. In other words, we are all religious. Sometimes a person’s desires will lead them away from faith. Instead, I think it might be helpful to look at your core longings as evidence that there is more to you than meets the eye. No, you’re not a transformer. But the ordinary aspects of your life are definitely transformational, and maybe even transcendent. What I mean is they have the ability to take you outside of the ordinary into something more … that is if you’re open to it, to worship, to faith. The fact that you love one thing might mean that there’s some sort of ultimate fulfillment intended for your future when you direct your passions in worship to your Creator.

4. RESPONSIBILITY: I grew up an only child. And the older I get the more I realize how formative that was for me as a person. I’d even say it’s possible that this singular demographic was most responsible for nearly all of the pivotal decisions I’ve made in my life, whether good or bad. Some people think only children are annoying or selfish. Maybe that’s been the case with me at times, I’m not sure. But I do know that I’ve always felt an incredible drive to do something significant or to make my life count. I’ve pushed myself to extreme limits for that end. There are so many people that have far more than me. And at the end of the day I look at myself like a nobody. I’m not an only, just one in a multitude. Yet, I’ve felt so blessed through the course of my life. And I frequently feel compelled to give something back to God and to others. Maybe you’re like me or maybe you’re not, but before you dismiss what I’m saying about religion realize that you are probably a lot more like me than you realize and that humanity in general has just such an “only child complex” about itself that pushes it (and you) towards a vicarious responsibility in the world.

You’ve heard of Adam and Eve and you may or may not believe the story. If you believe in the explanations offered by contemporary science you may question the literal nature of the account. However, to just look at Genesis (or any other creation narrative for that matter) only through the eyes of empirical science (that which you can know through the senses) is to miss the point. I’m not saying that if you dismiss the story’s literal nature you’re in the wrong. You might be a better person than me. What I am saying is that the point of origins isn’t just to tell us how we exist but, more importantly, why we exist. In this regard, humanity knows it is special. It’s in our nature. We know we are different than the rest of the creation regardless of how we think we came to be in the first place. We have a sense of morality that the animals do not. We participate in charitable causes. Our religion tells us that we were made in the image of God and that we are his gardeners, his caretakers, his culture-making agents. My Christianity tells me that he (God) even sent his only Son as a sacrifice, righting humanity’s wrongs so that our mandate in the garden could be fulfilled. People feel this responsibility. It’s why they join social causes, participate in government, vote a certain way, serve at the soup kitchen or donate to charity. They, or rather “we,” are trying to bring about God’s shalom, his wholeness or his peace in the world little by little. They, you, me, we are far more religious than we think.

5. THOUGHTFULNESS: The best of religious writers are thoughtfully wrestling with meaning. In other words, they are thinking about God. This is true for philosophers, theologians and even for average people like you and me. After all, what speaks more of you as a person than your thoughts? Nothing. Your thoughts, more than anything, tell the rest of us who you are. It’s not your crooked nose, that weird birthmark or the fact that you are a little overweight. Sure those things can feed our sense of self in ways that are either helpful or harmful. But at the end of the day those things are just demographics. Who are you on the inside? It’s really who you are internally that works its way out, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus said. I think this sense of mindfulness towards self and God is something that all people have because, again, all people are religious.

You’ve heard the expression, “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” When push comes to shove people believe. They look outside of themselves for answers because they’ve come to the end of what they can do. I’ve talked to them. I’ve heard people (who say they don’t believe in God) tell me that they have prayed at some point in their lives during a moment of crisis. Have you? My gut tells me you think about God a lot more than you realize. You have to because you are wired that way. You were born. But you were also built. You, the rest of creation, and the laws of time and physics (which guide science) were engineered. Those things show us that our designer is real and he has a purpose for you. He has a path through which you can and will find happiness. That path is him. He was our beginning and he is our end. That’s why you think about the right thing to do in a situation or why you care about other people … well, maybe sometimes 🙂 The point is, these things are a form of prayer. They are ways of saying, “God, what should I do?” or “God please bless that person.” Our thoughts themselves are often religious in nature. We just don’t realize it because we think of religion as something that’s been relegated to fairytales and phony rituals. It’s not though. It’s part of you. And there might be no place where that is evident than in your thought life.

Religious faith is God’s gift: It has been said that faith is a gift. Yet I think it’s also true that we all have just the right amount of it. In other words, God gives each of us just what we need in order to find our own fulfillment. I’ve asked myself many times over the years, “Why do I do the things that I do? Why do I believe what I believe, or experience what I experience?” Maybe it’s just because of my individual psychology. Maybe it’s because of my upbringing or an inherent weakness (or strength) of some kind. Maybe it’s because I was too wrapped up in the narratives of my childhood, my culture, my family or my own misguided sense of uniqueness, or lack thereof. But even if I’m the product of all of those things, you are too. And this illustrates that we are the same. It illustrates our nature – the innate religious nature of all men and women. These things are part of your HEART, your core. And those characteristics point us to the fact that we search for God. We all long to see him at work in our midst and he is! He’s at work in our thoughts, our feelings, our relationships and our world in ways we can’t even imagine.

Faith Application: Earlier I mentioned my spiritual awakening as a teen. It happened for me as a read the Gospels – the accounts, teachings and life of Jesus that are contained in our Bible. One great place a lot of people have found inspiration to guide their faith is in the Sermon on the Mount contained in Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5-7). There, Jesus talked about an array of topics, like God’s kingdom, social justice, religion, true morality, hypocrisy, law, faith and comfort for the brokenhearted. Maybe something there will create a spark in your heart. Give it a try. I read those words for the first time when I was a child and they still inspire me today. May God greatly bless you on your journey as he has done for me through all these years. All you have to do is follow the leading of your true self, your religious heart. It will move you to God and help you find great fulfillment in all of your pursuits!

[i] Francis Shaeffer, Francis. “The Battle for Our Culture: An Interview with Francis Schaeffer,” New Wine Magazine, volume 14, issue 2, February 1982.

[ii] Westminster Shorter Catechism Question and Answer #1

[iii] See Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals. Oxford University Press. New York, New York: 2003.

7 REALLY Surprising Things about God

What emotions come to mind when you hear the word “surprise”?

Maybe you have a good memory associated with a surprise birthday party or an unexpected blessing … but that’s not always the case. Life is full of surprises, both good and bad. In my experience, it’s like a roller coaster. Sometimes you just don’t know what kind of news the day will bring you. At some points, I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude. At other times, I’ve been left helpless and breathless, faced with difficult decisions and heart wrenching realities that just don’t make any sense. Yet in the midst of those ups and downs, I’ve been continually surprised (in a good way) by God. He’s someone I set out to know more fully over twenty years ago. Sure, it’s all been his work but I’m glad it happened and I’m better for it … all of it and here are seven pleasantly surprising things that I’ve learned about God though life’s triumphs and trials (the roller coaster) in which we so often find ourselves.

1. God is REAL: Sometimes it might not seem like it. I’ve been skeptical before, especially when I first committed my way to Jesus, a man who lived 2,000 years ago and whom I’ve never physically seen. Sound crazy to you? If not, it should. Because that’s what we people of faith are doing. We’re trusting that the things in which we believe are firm, that we can stand on them without falling. Well, twenty years ago, it kind of freaked me out. After all, it’s one thing to have sentimental feelings about the cute baby in the manger at Christmas time. But it’s something else entirely to commit your heart and soul to that baby, to that King. But that’s what I (and many of you) did. Can you relate with that feeling? Sometimes I’d wonder, “What if none of this is real?” or “What if God isn’t real?” Well, I can assure you (along with my twenty-year-younger self) that he is! God is so real and, to be honest, I think it far more unreasonable and irrational to believe otherwise.

In recent years, the complexity of life has challenged and changed traditional origin theories. In other words, many scientists (atheist or otherwise) have moved away from a belief in blind chance-inspired life and postulated, instead, that we are the product of intelligent design … at least “intelligent” as in the extraterrestrial kind. That’s right, aliens. This might in turn lead you to ask, “Who created the aliens?” That’s my first question, as I’m not a believer … in aliens that is. Another good question is, “What or who caused the first effect in the universe (the big bang, maybe)?” I’m certainly not scoffing, just asking … thinking, hopefully critically. Nonetheless, here’s my point: It is far more reasonable to believe that a supremely intelligent and all-powerful “God” created the complexity of all that we see and know in the universe. The delicate balance of life as we know it and the functionality of our solar system are inexplicable without that core concept, without God. Imagine someone telling you that your wristwatch or (in modern terminology) your smart phone just magically assembled itself by chance, without any help. That’s right. All of the pieces just came together without anyone creating it, without anyone thoughtfully designing it. It doesn’t make any sense, right? In philosophical terms, this reasoning is called the teleological argument for the existence of God or the “watchmaker theory” championed by people like Isaac Newton. So the surprisingly simple truth is this: God is one hundred percent real. He’s like the concrete blocks that keep the roller coaster frame firmly fixed in the ground. At many points in my life, I’ve only had him (a giant concrete block) to stand on. And just like me, you can rely on his “realness” wherever you’re at in the midst of life’s ups and downs.

2. God is REALISTIC: I think that one of the unfortunate sides of church life, or religion in general, is that it can make God and his desires for us seem completely unrealistic. That’s what we got from religion: a list of dos and don’ts. God, on the other hand, wants an actual relationship with you. He’s not an overzealous school teacher that just doesn’t want you to have any fun. God’s grander narrative informs us that things won’t always be the way they are now. Yes, it’s unfortunately true that this opens the door to suffering and pain in this present world, or at least, until God changes it. On the flip side, since things aren’t now what they will eventually be, we can also embrace the fact that God has realistic expectations on us in many senses. God, for example, isn’t surprised (or offended) by your doubts. I didn’t catch him off guard twenty years ago when I questioned his existence. Likewise, you don’t surprise him today with your fears, questions and range of emotions. He’s not shocked that you yelled at your kids yesterday. He’s not horrified that you wondered if he’s all-good, all-knowing or all-powerful because of that terrible story that just came across your newsfeed. Quite frankly, he’s not surprised by anything, ever. He knows about your difficult situation and he’s helping you in it. Those HUGE expectations you have are not from God but from you, your religion, your friends or your crazy out-of-control culture that is great at telling you that you’re not good enough. Instead of causing me to question God, life’s unique challenges have helped me understand the opposite. God is reasonable and he loves me. Maybe you deal with the same things I have. If you do, maybe you just need to hear that you are doing a good job. And maybe, the person telling you that all along has been the one you didn’t even know was there, God.

3. God is REACHABLE: Have you ever felt like God is just out of reach? I have. This spiritual isolation is also another unfortunate side effect of empty religion. Rules, rituals and regulations make God seem unreachable. But exactly the opposite is true. I don’t know if you realize it but the cross is a sign of peace. It means that we can be friends. We’re not at war anymore, with God that is. Or at least he’s not at war with us. Did you ever wonder why things are the way they are out there, at least the bad things? There is an ancient narrative that explains where all the bad things in the world come from. The good news is that things won’t always be this way. But that story also tells us that things weren’t always this way either. In the beginning things were good and harmonious. Then this thing called “the fall” happened. Among other things, people were separated from an intimate connection with their Creator. But they (our ancestors) knew there was still a problem. That’s why they created religions of all kinds. These religions tried to connect them to God and, at times, included stuff like extreme measures of sacrifice. The cross, however, shows us that God wasn’t interested in our human attempts to know him. Instead, he sent his Son in the fullness of time as a peace offering to be received by faith. God has reached out to us. He has made himself near, touchable, reachable, through Jesus. Yes, he did all of this through that man that I, and you, have never seen. That man is right there with you right now. He always has been. Maybe you just didn’t notice him. And if you simply ask, he will reach out to you in a special way. He will! He’s been doing it for me over the last twenty years and he’ll do it for you too!

4. God is a REBEL: Typically, though not always, God is portrayed by different faith traditions as the ultimate authority figure, force or sense of karma in the world. Through cultural perceptions, he, she or it establishes, defines and upholds justice in the world. So regardless of your religious background, it might be kind of surprising to think of God as a rebel. This is, however, exactly what God is. God stood radically opposed to the established cultural order of his time. And he did it publically and often. Jesus did things that people didn’t expect him to do. He was kind to those who had been cast out. To others, like religious leaders, he engaged in spectacular verbal debates that eventually got him killed. Read about it. It’s in Matthew chapters 21-27. The last week of his life began with a quickly escalating argument that went on for days while Jesus taught his disciples in the temple. Crazy! Yet he never backed down. He was hard core. Dare I say it, Jesus was a little bad a–! Yes he was! I couldn’t have done it. I’m not that tough and neither are you. He rebelled against the established systems of the world that were so upside down and oppressive. He rebelled against those who had hijacked God’s system – his system – the system that pointed so intimately to his coming. And he’s still a rebel today. He’s alive, remember. King Jesus is righting wrongs. He’s tearing down the powerful and lifting up the powerless. Right now at this moment, God is governing the people groups of the world in a rebellious way – a way that doesn’t make sense to us because he’s not us. He’s better than us and he loves people so much more than we do. This surprisingly rebellious side of God has caused me to look harder and deeper at myself and my love for people, ALL people. I hope it does the same for you too!

5. God is RESPECTFUL: I don’t know about you but I’ve had more than one encounter with a rude, arrogant or judgmental person. These kinds of people make you wish you never knew them in the first place. They’re like Job’s friends.[i] In their eyes, they are doing some incredible service to God. In reality they are hurting you, me and others. They are misguided, misinformed and clueless. Well surprisingly, yet thankfully, God isn’t like that at all. I find it amazing that in the midst of his righteous zeal, Jesus never could be characterized as disrespectful. “Seriously?! I though you just said Jesus was a rebel?” Yes, it’s true that Jesus was a rebel. Never, however, could Jesus be branded rude … and neither can God for that matter. God is the ultimate respecter of persons. Jesus was always incredibly loving, inviting and accepting of those who crossed his path – including the violent thugs he engaged in the temple during the last week of his life. Don’t forget he prayed as he was being martyred that God would forgive them – his enemies. “That just doesn’t make any sense!” I know. It doesn’t make any sense to me either. He should have judged them all … at least hurled some juicy curses at them. Right? To be honest, he should have just allowed our fallen humanity to tear itself apart since we’ve messed things up so bad through the years. But he hasn’t. He doesn’t. And he never will. He’s patiently winning us over one at a time (or sometimes in groups and in waves) to see him and to know him more. His great respect for you is a significant reason to show that same respect to others whom he loves just as much. Though I wish I were better at it, this surprisingly superior quality of God has helped me to more frequently engage others (specifically those I perceive as enemies) with humility and grace. If we can behave like that, we’ve already won our battle.

6. God is RELEVANT: Religion practiced wrongly makes God irrelevant. In reality God is very practical. He meets us where we are. Thank goodness! If he didn’t, we could never meet him where he wants us to be. That’s the point of the whole virgin birth thing – the whole God-made-flesh thing. God condescended to our circumstances, to our hurts. God’s not into irrelevant rules. He’s into real relationships, real life. He’s into practical application. The good news, in this regard, is that God’s great condescension means our ability to have right relationships with one another. It means our ability to put Jesus first in our relationships – not politics, religion, ideology, social standing, money, appearance and so on. No. Instead, we can put Jesus first and people first all the time. That’s the Gospel – God’s great Gospel – in a nutshell. Our Gospel informs us that God is uniting all the people of the world through faith in him. For you right now, that means you can have good relationships with others through him because you are both in him and have been accepted by him. God’s relevance means that God cares about the practical things, the simple things you do every day and (especially) how you relate with other people.

7. God is REVEALING: I always tell people that when I was a kid I thought God was on the far side of the universe somewhere. That really doesn’t make complete sense because I’d still pray to him at night before I went to sleep. Nonetheless, that’s how I pictured him. For a lot of people though, God can seem confusing or at least unknowable. Where is he? Who is he? He’s not necessarily someone we can see, smell or touch. Or is he? Maybe, like I’ve been saying, he’s a lot more active in our lives that we know. Maybe he does reveal himself to us often. The problem is that we just didn’t know how or where to look. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ life in the Bible, there is an interesting story about two men who walked a few miles down the road with a stranger. During his life they knew him, or at least they knew of him. They were sad because of the events that had recently taken place on Good Friday. Well, the two men didn’t realize it but they were walking with Jesus who had risen from death. They didn’t know until they arrived at their destination and ate with him. They didn’t know until he revealed himself to them. Yet, the entire time they walked something drew them more and more to this man. Something about the way he spoke drew them in, welcomed them, and gave them a deeper sense of fulfillment on the inside, “true life” as Jesus put it. Then, once he opened their eyes to perceive him, he disappeared. And they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road?”[ii] What a surprise it must have been! Maybe you’ve had similar surprises in your life. I have and those experiences have reminded me that God’s not done with me yet.

In our lives, we experience both tragedy and triumph. Sometimes we don’t understand why. At least I sure don’t. But don’t doesn’t mean won’t. The last book of the Bible is commonly referred to as John’s “Revelation” – It’s a revealing of things. It explained to an ancient audience the passing away of the Old Covenant order and the emergence of God’s glorious kingdom along with the present reign of King Jesus. It explains why the temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, for good. Today we are the temple and the earth belongs to the God. Today God is revealing himself to people all over the world on a scale that would have been unthinkable in generations past. In that book, God says to not conceal his message.[iii] In the words of Paul the Apostle (quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah), “Today is the day of God’s favor!”[iv] In the fullness of time God revealed Jesus. In the fullness of time he’s going to reveal his plan for this broken world and for you as well. In the meantime, every expression of faith on our part in his is just such a revealing. It’s an illumination of sorts. God caused that faith in your heart. He’s got a great plan for your future. But he also wants a great relationship with you so that’s why he doesn’t show you all at once. As you walk with him day-by-day you learn to trust him and to love other people more, just like those disciples he walked with on the road to Emmaus. God changes you. He reveals each day what you are becoming until the time comes that you know him in full.

Faith Application: Were any of these things surprising for you? I feel with each passing year as though God surprises me more and more in amazing ways. So where does that leave us? How do we expect the unexpected from God? Well for one thing, it should teach you to count your blessings and to be more humble in your relationships. Maybe for a next step, read about Jesus’ encounter with those two men traveling from Jerusalem in Luke 24:13-35. Ask yourself what that story says about the nature and plan of God in the midst of seemingly tragic things (like the cross). Does that story make you look differently at your life, particularly the unexpected parts of it? If you’d like, leave your own God-surprise in a comment. I’d love to hear about it!

[i] In the Bible, Job’s “friends” tried to help him with good advice and common wisdom. Instead, they only hurt him though placing blame and carrying a judgmental attitude.
[ii] Luke 24:32 NIV
[iii]
Revelation 22:10
[iv] 2 Corinthians 6:2