I notice often, in America where I live, that the simplicity of following Jesus is sort of misunderstood. It is not that his words are hard to understand, most of them anyway (because some of them are quite mysterious and cryptic), or that, once you feel his presence, you don’t want to feel it again daily, or that following him won’t be solidly good (though hard sometimes) and full of abundant life.
No, none of these.
It is this attempt, on our parts, to quantify him, to sum him up. To control him. To be able to fully explain, and get a box that will contain him. And an insistence that it looks a certain way. As well as personal unwillingness to surrender what holds us back from continuing to grow. It is almost that we miss the forest for the trees. And we lose his fresh trail, getting lost in the woods. The good woods, perhaps, of belief and theology and doctrine and good works. Or perhaps he is the only “good” thing. We give up walking with him, to try to understand everything about him. Which is not the same thing. We stop pursuing the Person.
Honestly, I believe that the Bible can become an idol for some of us. What a shocking statement. But you can spend your whole life studying His holy Word, and come to worship it as your god, and fully miss out on a present tense relationship with the One who wrote it, who inspired it, who stands behind it. Do we dare to think that He is bigger than his Word, that He’ll speak to us indefinitely? If you feel that I am being blasphemous by saying that, let me tell you that I believe God’s Word is infallible, and perfect, and I treasure it. But it is the Person we are after, the One it is telling us about, describing, pointing to. And He is alive and speaking, right now. His Word will confirm what he is saying to us. But he is saying something to us. Most of us know this. Why are we afraid to listen?
This small fact of Him speaking has changed my life, spiritually, and completely. It has turned everything into an adventure. It has inspired me to do things differently. To take wild risks. To try to ignite this in others.
It is the whole premise for why we celebrate Easter, or Resurrection Day. He paid the price for us to have access to Him. He is risen! He sent us a Helper. He is leading us. Is. Present tense.
I have had conversations with people and shared the things I was praying for, the things I felt God speaking to my heart, the living God, the seasons I was in, and have been shut down cold because of someone’s interpretation of Scripture. Nevermind that the goal of the spiritual life is not precise execution of exegetical perfection, but a relationship with Jesus. That the greatest command is to love God. Love. This small word has been misinterpreted in a thousand different ways. And also, that there is a beckoning. Come to me. To a person. For a relationship. And relationships are kind of messy and well, real, and honest, interactive. Healthy relationships, where there is trust, can have misunderstanding, stubbornness, conflict, sorrow, forgiveness. And also we are moved, and inspired, and personally engaged. We interact. We love. We communicate and protect and hear and respond. But there must be freedom in order for a person to trust that they can come as they are. Acceptance. There must be love. God says his perfect love casts out fear. This is the kind of relationship he wants with me. Where I am not afraid to just be myself. He will show me what I need to do when I need to do it.
I read a book recently and the author said that a seminary professor told the first year students on the first day of class to stay away from the third and fourth year students. They were brittle and argumentative, and they would douse the fire that God had lit in their (first year students) hearts. Crazy! Why does this happen? How can someone who is intensely studying God’s Word grow this kind of fruit in their spiritual life? I will tell you how. By forfeiting a relationship with Jesus, in the true definition of the word, for an exegesis of His Book.
Really, both should be present. But you can’t put His words in the right place, without Him breathing on them, speaking to your heart, helping you understand, leading you forward. Without a heart that knows the Person, and is so in love with Him.
So when I say that I think that the first step to effective ministry is to follow Jesus, this is what I mean. A relationship with him. To follow him truly. Hearing his voice. Studying his words, and asking him to speak to us personally, today. And doing whatever he says. Sometimes it takes years to do the thing he says, because we hold back or make it complicated or get distracted. It is usually simple. He calls us forward in simple steps of faith and obedience, and one of the results of living like this is great peace and joy, even in the middle of troubles and tragedies. And sometimes, as we grow, he doesn’t speak right away. He teaches us to wait. Patience. It is always hard to learn patience.
So, my personal opinion is that if this isn’t the first thing we want for other people who we engage with in “ministry”, there’s something wrong. If our goal is to have folks learn how to “properly handle scripture”, or to emphasize that “faith without works is dead”, or to make everyone stop using profanity and drinking alcohol and wearing short skirts or reading 50 Shades of Gray or The DaVinci Code, the trees are getting in the way of the forest.
The goal is Jesus. Those other things follow, as we follow him. In the intersection of his timing and our willingness. The lovely thing is that our change is compelled by love, and our hearts are in it, when we are engaged with him personally. And as he speaks to us, the right things change at the right time, and we acquire wisdom and a prayer life and spiritual ears and eyes and grace for others. And beauty comes, as we behold His beauty. Really. God is glorified in our lives, not because we do a bang up job of presenting him, but because we let go of control and listen/follow, and simply, he is glorious.
I’ve come to believe that to follow him means he is in charge. He determines the timing, the season, the lessons, the fruit. I do not have to be anything other than what I am and to keep following. I don’t need to pretend. I will be my messy self, and ask him like a child for what concerns me, and I will let him show me what to do. Sometimes I wait too long to do it, and opportunities pass. I am (slowly) learning that his timing is best. But most of all, I need him in charge. He can open doors or close them.
This revelation has recently set me free (most of the time) from jumping through hoops, worrying about opinions, being insecure about decisions, having to explain everything to everyone.
It has also been the source of much inspiration, creativity, joy and grace. Feeling that I am okay with him, it changes the way I treat others. I know he is right here with me, unconditionally, and it does something special to the way I live.
Following Jesus. Are we following him today, personally? Are we helping others to follow him too, personally?
Where he is, what he’s saying, that’s where people can be free.
We can’t lead anyone where we won’t go.