Warm sun on the back of my stiff neck. Feet up and tucked in a cozy fleece-lined quilt. Laptop purring warm in my lap. It's easy to get into my little comforts and let the lethal impression settle in my bones that this life is all about celebrating me, or at least it should be!
There are an awful lot of books and media messages out there to help me along toward this conclusion. Strangely, even well-meaning Christian books on experiencing Jesus can leave me with this impression. It's as subtle as suggesting that Jesus wants to heal your pain (which He does), so come to Him--for relief. That Jesus suffered and died for you—so you don't need to suffer. That meeting Him will make your world revolve more smoothly-- around you… All these things are true, at least in part. But there's a subtle me-centricity to them which will come back to bite hard when relief is delayed, when I am called to suffer or when my world stops revolving around my dreams and ideals.
I've read two books on experiencing Jesus in the last two weeks. The first, a new book, emphasized the irresistible human personality traits of Jesus and how easy it is to fall in love with Him once we cast off the toxic fog of religion and its attendant qualms and duties. It was an enticing view but left me wary of a self-serving motive akin to the 'I love you because you make me feel good' notion that precipitates 'love, marriage, and the baby carriage'! Infatuation can get the ball rolling but it's only the bare immature beginnings. It may or may not materialize into a long rewarding relationship, depending largely on the expectations and commitment of the partners. What will happen when the 'feelings' fade? Is it just a matter of kindling and re-kindling feelings that assure me I am still at the center of the universe? To be fair, this author did briefly address the concept of surrendering our self-determination and a brief epilogue acknowledged the inevitability of suffering, but somehow this didn't undo the impression that experiencing Jesus is about my satisfaction more than anything else. [Curious? my full review is posted here.]
The second book I finished just last night is a wee thing I read when it first came out ten years ago. It drew me then, as it did again this week, by its title and conciseness: Simply Jesus ** In a mere eight-six pages Joseph Stowell affirms that yes, there is a reality of experiencing Jesus that goes beyond mere head knowledge and religious exercises. The first difference in his treatment of the subject however, is that he affirms regular Bible study and a life of prayer (religious 'duty' by some estimations) as essential foundations to this experience before he proceeds.
His descriptive list of what such an 'experience' is about gives clarity to just what we're after…
--It's about a deep and abiding sense of His nearness on the journey.
--It's about an unshakable confidence that only His abiding presence can give.
--It's about a closeness that enables your spirit to commune with Him, anywhere, anytime, regardless.
--It's about meeting Him in places you may have never dreamed of… in the most heated of seductions, in the midst of suffering, and in acts of unflinching surrender. (10)
That last point I found to be the most intriguing aspect of this book. It is the author's interpretation of Paul's professed passion to: 'know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death' (Phil.3:10) It doesn't fit the popular standard for how (or why) to know Jesus. In times of temptation? In suffering? In giving up what I crave? This is not a picture of using Jesus to fulfill my agenda. Are these the places I must go if I want to truly experience Jesus?
Here's where I found the most striking contrast in the two books. Both hold out the potential of a satisfying experience, but in one the motive seems to be my well-being, my peace and contentment and my feeling better about myself. It's heavy on emotional realities and light on the tough aspects of conforming my will to His. One holds my pleasure as the ultimate purpose for intimacy, suggesting that if I feel hurt I should 'forgive Jesus' and I'll feel better. While the other holds my conformity to Christ at any cost as the actual purpose of getting acquainted with Jesus. Both hold threads of truth but it was the latter one I needed this week.
Yes, I could likely use a more emotional connection with Jesus, but Stowell did me the favor of pointing out the barriers I raise that hinder making that connection. Stated bluntly, one of the greatest obstacles is self-absorption: "At some point, the sooner in life the better, we have to come to grips with whether "He" or "me" will be the main feature of our existence." Stowell adds a caution, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking "that you can be fully absorbed with yourself and in hot pursuit of him at the same time. But that isn't reality. You can't have it both ways." And just in the nick of time, before I squared up my shoulders to resolve (again) to 'work on that' (Ha! Like determining not to think about hulking gray elephants pirouetting in lacy pink tutus!) I was reminded this will have to be His work in me. Mine to acknowledge my shortfall. His to pour in the grace and ability to become so enthralled with Jesus that myself becomes a non-issue. Imagine it.
Well, then came two practical tips—a couple attitude shifts to practice:
#1 Rejoice in the Lord. Now, I've thought on that one many times but hadn't considered its opposite: "It's time to stop rejoicing in ourselves and start rejoicing in Jesus" (35) Well, that surely runs counter to popular psychology. Hmm… And before you start thinking Stowell a dull kill-joy, consider his reasoning:
“It's just that 'no matter how charming, witty, or profound we may be, we were not created to enthrall ourselves with ourselves for long periods of time." (22)
I had to chuckle at that. He clarifies that rejoicing in the Lord isn't about becoming a smile machine, or denying hard times. It's about 'living to brag on Jesus instead of ourselves'! (36) And it starts by taking that spark of joy that comes with personal blessing or accomplishment and turning it into a celebration of His provision and grace in my life. Unlike rejoicing in my attainments, rejoicing in the Lord is an endless source of boasting. Always fitting. Never growing old. If I will learn to take that impulse to make much of me and mine and let it spark appreciation for Him, I will be on my way to experiencing Jesus continually (and will spare myself hitting a self-absorbed dead end!)
I know all about these dead-ends. I've been hitting my head against one just lately. How, for instance, did I come to be slumped in a disheartened 'funk' first thing this morning despite the early sun rising in a cloudless sky promising the coming of a beautiful day?
I was pouting really, sick and tired of not being able to 'make happen' what I want (and I'm confident Jesus also wants) to see happen, sick of asking for enabling and still feeling powerless, sick of feeling like a failure… Hmm… the rejoicing in me runs out pretty quickly!
What was that other attitude shift I needed?
#2 Value Jesus above Everything
Just last night I sat half-heartedly scrawling notes about that in my journal: "My greatest treasure must be Jesus. Attaching my heart to any lesser thing will limit my ability to experience Jesus. What do I really value most? Does it show up in the way I live?" Well, at this moment my focus was not on valuing Jesus but on my frustration at not getting answers or apparent help for my mission in life… I sat in the quiet chill of my 'woe-is-me'-ness this morning journaling—what does this quick descent to apathetic weariness (again) reveal about what I value most? Can I not 'persevere in doing good' without tangible instantaneous rewards and affirmations? When I don't get what I want when I want it (now) can I not rejoice in the Lord and cherish all He is to me in every circumstance?
The house was cold. My tummy hungry. My body sapped of energy from my mental gloom… I would really have preferred to curl up and close my eyes than face this need for soul restoration. Yet that is in fact why I climbed out of bed in the first place!
And the question came to mind from the previous night's reading: Can I experience Him here—in the midst of frustration and disappointment? And I began to reflect on Jesus' temptations and potential frustrations… Was He ever tempted to self-pity? After all He had disciples that were forever bumbling cluelessly despite the best of teaching and modeling. He walked alone when it came to the hard choices, to setting an example, to going the extra mile or taking the path of greatest resistance…
He got hungry, tired, cold and surely was tempted to wallow in discouragement sometimes? But He had one thing clearly in mind. He hadn't come to this sin-sick earth to please Himself. The deprivation and struggle of his earthly mission wasn't something He'd volunteered for out of self-interest. So what was to be done but to persevere in 'seeking and saving that which was lost', enduring 'for the joy set before Him', 'loving His own' no matter what slow learners they were… washing feet, touching lepers, taking time to teach, living a lifestyle of interruptions, inconveniences, unpleasant confrontations, criticism and rejection but saying and doing what needed to be said and done anyway.
So can I experience Jesus in my place of temptation today, in my miniscule 'sufferings'? And know that He fully sympathizes with my frustrations and my weakness? (It gives His strength a place to shine!) Can I re-commit to this path chosen for me, this calling that isn't all sunshine and hollyhocks?
You were where I am, only without the pity party, the slumping shoulders, the 'woe-is-me'. You knew Your calling—the joy of 'bringing many sons to glory', so you kept on in the face of opposition, entrusting yourself to 'Him who judges justly' (I Pet.2:23) and doing the next thing step by step… I have overlooked the possibilities of experiencing You in the now, 'as is' of my life, in the process of life as it comes…It's not about finding you in some sacred 'other' state of mind, but about realizing that you are at the door at this moment, waiting for my invitation to meet me here and share in this conversation with my heart's 'self-talk'. Like the 'stranger' on the Road to Emmaus, you show up to interject Your perspective to open my understanding, to help me see what you see... It is enough.
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want….He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul… (Ps.23:1,2)
"…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil.3:13)
I must tuck in some quotes that speak volumes:
"It's time to stop turning our backs on Him in pain and flee to His embrace.
But we are only free to do this when we have ceased to live to rejoice in ourselves. If we are intent to celebrate 'me' in life, we will resist trials and quickly become embittered when they settle in for the long haul—to say nothing of the difficulty in meeting Jesus in pain when we have valued comfort and peace more than nearness to Him. If He is the supreme value in our lives then we will be willing to meet Him in times of trouble." Stowell—Simply Jesus, 71
"If we really desire to experience Him, we need to stop blaming God, reverse our self-centered demand for release, and realize for the first time in our lives that we are getting a firsthand experience of what he felt and experienced as He suffered for us. Stop and identify the type of trouble you feel. Think through Christ's suffering and identify where His pain meets yours. Ask Him to forgive you for feeling that you should be exempt. And as you feel His pain in yours, thank Him that He loved you enough to suffer like this for you." (70)
"To experience Him in the midst of our pain requires that we stop whining about our trials." (70)
**All quotations from: Simply Jesus: Experiencing the One Your Heart Longs For by Joseph Stowell (former president of Moody Bible Institute), Multnomah Publ., 2002.
*[I am indebted to Amanda Spencer for this irresistibly bright hollyhock watercolor. View more of her work here.]