If you don’t feel close to Jesus, maybe this is why

I haven’t been feeling close to Jesus.

I know he’s there. I get that. And I know He never leaves me. I get that too.

But still. I don’t feel Him. I don’t sense His presence.

This is something I’ve really been wrestling with. And this is real time. I don’t have the answers to what I’m going to talk about. I didn’t go through this 10 years ago and now I’m looking back in triumph. I still struggle.

The empty feeling

This empty feeling started with a sense that something just isn’t right in my life, and in my relationship with God. I mean I read the Bible, I go to church, I feel like I’m learning and even growing.

I’m loving my wife and kids better, being more self-controlled, and on and on.

But still…something’s just off.

I read the Bible and there’s all these passages about how a group of believers prayed and all of a sudden the Holy Spirit shook the building. Or I read about how Paul was so in tune with the Spirit that he followed His leading all over the place, planting churches and spreading the gospel to the ends of the known earth at the time.

I read those things then look at my own life — and I’m not seeing that. I’m not seeing anything supernatural.

Again, I go to church, I read the Bible, I pray, I even invite people to church, and surely that’s enough, right? So why do I feel so off? Why do I not see the Spirit at work in my life?

Have you ever felt like that? Do you feel like that now?

I couldn’t stand it, so I started reading the Scriptures and reading other books trying to figure it out. And before long I put my finger on it.

And what it was shocked me. Because it was there the whole time, I’d just been missing it.

So what was it?

Why I was feeling this way

What I found out was that I wasn’t seeing the Spirit in my life because I wasn’t sharing my faith. Let me say that again: I wasn’t seeing the Spirit in my life because I wasn’t sharing my faith.

First of all, nothing we can ever do is enough. Our salvation isn’t earned by what we can do, it’s earned by what Jesus did do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Spirit is inside of us if we’re believers, the Bible is clear on that, so it’s not like He was gone. But at the same time, it sure seemed like He wasn’t very active. You might know exactly what I’m talking about.

Here’s why it works this way: The primary purpose of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to speak the gospel.

To speak the gospel. Don’t miss that. Meaning using our mouths to speak words to another person.

Not just invite someone to church, even though that’s a great thing to do and I encourage people to do that all the time, but actually speak the gospel to someone who doesn’t know Jesus.

That’s a big claim. But who cares what I say about it, let’s look at what God says.

Jesus’ amazing promise

And let’s start with the Great Commission. You may have read it a hundred times before, but don’t glaze over because I’m going to show you something you might not have noticed.

Remember, this is Jesus talking to the disciples following his resurrection. He said,

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

-Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

OK, so here we have Jesus commissioning his followers, and by extension you and me, to go all over the world and make disciples and baptize them. And then he gives us this amazing promise that he’ll be with us forever, to the end of the age.

And that’s the part I want to talk about.

When we read the Bible, context is king. Context, the words and paragraphs and chapters surrounding a particular verse give us insight into its meaning.

So look at where Jesus’ promise to be with us is located in the Great Commission. It’s at the end. So what comes before it gives us insight into what that sentence means.

Jesus is saying, “Go and make disciples of all nations and baptize them, and when you’re doing that, I’ll be with you.” That’s a much different understanding than simply thinking “Jesus is with me” in some touchy-feely kind of way. And the implications are entirely different.

Now, making disciples first involves sharing the gospel with someone so there is a person to disciple. And that, of course, means we have to be sharing our faith.

If we’re not sharing our faith and discipling people, then we won’t sense Jesus’ presence in the way He intends it because we’re not doing what he asks.

We might be doing some good things, but we’re not doing the main thing He asked us to do — we’re not carrying out the Great Commission.

Still not convinced? OK, let’s look at another Great Commission passage.

Why we have the Spirit

The Great Commission is actually referenced in more than one place in the Bible, though most of us just think of Matthew’s version. Acts 1:8 is the last Great Commission passage.

Again, same deal, this is the resurrected Jesus speaking to his disciples, giving them one final command:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

-Acts 1:8 ESV

Context is king, remember? So pay attention to which words are located in which part of the verse.

When do we receive power? When the Holy Spirit comes upon us.

And why do we receive the Holy Spirit? To be Jesus’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Now you’re starting to see it.

That word witness? It involves giving verbal testimony, actually speaking words from your mouth that attest to the gospel. Believe me, I looked it up several times because part of me didn’t want it to be true.

Get this: every time the Holy Spirit fills believers in the New Testament it’s for the purpose of them proclaiming the Word of God. Acts is the primary book we see the Holy Spirit mentioned, and in every instance of the Holy Spirit filling a believer it’s for the purpose of proclaiming the Word of God.

Let’s take a quick survey:

  • In Acts 2, the Spirit descends on the disciples and they begin speaking in tongues to the crowd, then Peter preaches the gospel and 3,000 are saved.
  • In Acts 4, Peter is filled with the Spirit and preaches the gospel to the high priest and counsel that dragged him before them.
  • Later in Acts 4, a crowd of believers is filled with the Holy Spirit and they continue to speak the Word of God with boldness.
  • Acts 7, before Stephen, the first martyr is stoned, the Bible tells us he was full of the Holy Spirit after boldly speaking the gospel.
  • Acts 9, Saul, who we know goes on to become the Apostle Paul, receives the Holy Spirit when Ananias lays hands on him for the purpose of boldly proclaiming Christ among the Jews and Gentiles.
  • Acts 13, Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel to the sorcerer Elymas.

“In every occurrence, the filling of the Holy Spirit is followed by an immediate proclamation of God’s glory”(Robby Gallaty, Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus’ Final Words Our First Work).

Now remember, the Great Commission was not just for 11 men who lived 2,000 years ago. It is for every person who believes in Christ. Jesus speaks those same words to us and gives us that same commission here today.

If all of that is true, if Jesus’s presence is somehow linked to our activity in disciple-making and the Spirit’s power is promised when we’re witnessing to the gospel, then you have to ask yourself the same question I asked myself: Do you feel like you’re not sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit? Do you feel like something’s missing?

Well, have you shared your faith lately? Are you making disciples?

If not, then it makes perfect sense that you’re sensing a nearness to Christ.

Men, where are your men?

Not too long ago, I was reading a book that referenced an old booklet someone had given the author about discipleship. It sounded interesting, so I looked it up and found a PDF and started to read it.

Most of it was things I’d heard before. But towards the end I read something that made my heart drop. Here’s what I read:

“Men, where is your man? Women, where is your woman? Where is the one whom you led to Christ and who is now going on with Him.

Where is your man? Where is your woman? Do you have one? Search your hearts.

Ask the Lord, ‘Am I spiritually sterile? If I am, why am I?’ Where is your man? Where is your woman?

What will it take to jar us out of our complacency and send us home to pray, ‘God, give me a girl or man whom I can win to Christ, or let me take one who is already won, an infant in Christ, and try to train that one so that he or she will reproduce!'”

I read that and honestly just wanted to vomit. Because I knew the answer to those questions. And the reality was devastating.

How this is linked to suffering

What’s interesting is that we won’t get the suffering and persecution sections of the Bible if we aren’t sharing our faith. Have you ever noticed how much about suffering is in there?

Early on in my Bible reading, I just thought it didn’t really apply to us because we live in a country where it’s not all that hard to be a Christian. Not much is required to be a Christian in suburban America. It’s pretty easy if we’re being honest.

It’s not the same everywhere of course. ISIS spray paints the letter “N” on the homes and businesses of Christians, publicly identifying them and telling them they have a simple choice: convert to Islam, leave, or die. And they do mean die.

The New Testament is filled with things about persecution and the suffering that comes from sharing the gospel. That doesn’t sound fun, but that doesn’t mean we’re not called to it.

In fact, we’re promised it. 2 Timothy 3:12 should be wrestled with by every American Christian when they evaluate what their life is like. It says,

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…”

The Greek word for “all” means the same thing as the English word for “all.” It means all of us.

I don’t think the church in America gets the parts of the Bible that talk about suffering because we aren’t doing the primary thing which brings about persecution, and that’s sharing our faith.

Because when we share our faith, there will be people who reject us, who reject the gospel, who might not want anything to do with us. And when that starts happening, all of a sudden those passages about persevering and suffering make a lot more sense.

We can get so caught up thinking about the “us” part of Christianity that we forget the Great Commission is about spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.

And for the most part, that happens person to person, sharing your faith with someone you care about, multiplying the Kingdom one person at a time.

Choices

It’s getting late and I’m exhausted from job hunting all day online. Looking for your first job is lonely enough, why did we have to add the internet? I shake the disappointment from my mind and get under the covers. Then I see it.

A book. Just a little one. Maybe 150 small pages.

I’ve just finished four years of undergrad, so reading for pleasure wasn’t high on my list. But I’m mentally tired, not quite physically, so I pick it up.

A Mind for God it says. Hmm…

It was a free gift from the church my girlfriend had been taking me to. She liked it. I liked her. So I went. And they gave out copies of this book. I like free things, so I took one.

And here I am. Reading this thing.

And slowly, page by page, something happens.

Well, shifts more than happens. My mind shifts from thinking about what I have to do to what I want to do. From caring about nothing to seeing I might care about something. From always wanting more to seeing there actually is more.

So I make a choice. A choice to spend the rest of my life pursuing what had the power to make those shifts, and the ones that would follow in my heart and soul.

I made a choice to pursue a mind for God, which turned in to pursuing a life for God.

*****

Here I am today, working at the church started by the man who wrote that book. Working for the man who wrote that book. And I wonder.

I wonder why I’m sitting here. I wonder what happened to all the other people that received that book – surely there were over a hundred. Why isn’t one of them sitting here instead?

But then  I see why. It’s because of choices.

Surely there is more to my story (and yours) than mere choice, but maybe not less.

We are where we are because of choice plus circumstance. I believe in a God that involves Himself in those circumstances, you may not. Regardless, only one of those things we can control, and that is our choices.

Choice has always fascinated me. I began to see several years ago that life is nothing less than a series of choices, though it is also much, much more. But it remains that our lives are defined by a series of choices, one after the other, each leading to a particular place, time and consequence.

I made the choice to read that book. It altered the path of my life.

I made the choice to believe a man named Jesus rose from the dead. I believe that changed my eternity (though my choice was not possible without his pursuit).

I made the choice to volunteer at a church. It altered my career.

I made the choice to have children. It changed my life for the better in every category (but sleep!).

Every one of those choices was the first step, simply setting the ball in motion. After that came the hard work. Figuring out what to do with my life, getting a job, quitting that job, figuring out how to be a husband and a father.

Some of the choices we make in life are good, some are bad. But it is making good choices, wise choices, that I’m interested in.  Because it’s the wise choices that have the power to shift our hearts and minds. It’s the wise choices that have the power to give you the marriage you want, the career you want, the life you want. (Again, we’re talking about what we can control here.)

When I think through the pattern of choices in my life, and if you think through yours, I start to see a pattern emerge. A formula even. A way to make a few better choices. And, like the best things in life, it’s quite simple.

First we recognize that we have choices to make every day, then we consider what the wise thing to do is. Lastly, we do what it takes to make that choice.

Recognizing that we have a choice to make sounds so obvious it might be insulting. But if you’re insulted, perhaps you’re exactly the kind of person that’s making poor choices. We have to see that each day we are presented with choices, some benign, others life-altering, but each day they’re there.

If we fail to recognize them, we will most often fail to make the wise choice. Instead, we must see that the choices when they arise.

We must see that a conversation with your spouse about what kind of parent you want to be is more than a way to pass the time – it’s a choice between looking back at children you are either proud or ashamed to have raised. An opportunity to do something that stretches you isn’t just an annoyance in your day – it’s a choice between growing as a person or staying the same.

Once we begin to recognize these moments, these choices, for what they are, we then have to decide what the wise choice actually is. This is not always easy. Our mix of presuppositions, morals, values, religion, and families make our choices less clear than we’d often like.

But. Each of us has the ability to look at a choice we’ve been presented with and discern what the wise to do is. Some of us might be more keen at making wiser decisions, some of us the opposite, but we can smell the difference between wise and foolish.

And when we know what the wise thing is, it’s time to do what it takes to make it happen. And this is more difficult than even knowing what’s wise. Because now you must do hard things, have the difficult conversations, make the big changes.

Maybe you’re staring at one of these choices right now. Maybe reading this is keeping you from it. Odds are you probably know the wise thing to do, but you’re scared to do it. Don’t run from it. It only makes the next choice harder.

Instead, recognize the choice. See the wise decision. And do the work to make it happen.

Why saying “truth is relative” makes no sense

I read the following on a blog recently:

“You don’t get to decide the truth. Other people have their own experiences, just as valid.”

This is the predominant mindset in our culture today. And I understand why. How can one person say their truth, their experience, is any more meaningful than any other person’s? Isn’t to say so simply immoral?

The first sentence of that quote pronounces the view that you don’t get to decide the truth. Translation: there is no truth (if no one can decide it, it must not exist).

The second statement reveals the breakdown: “Other people have their own experiences, just as valid.” What’s being said here is that everyone’s truth claims and their experiences are valid. They are all just options on the buffet of truth.

But the issue is that to say there is no truth or that all truths are valid is to make a truth claim. It is saying that I have the truth, and if you disagree with me then you’re wrong, because you’re outside the truth – which is exactly what this mindset wars against.

To say that all truth is relative and that no one gets to decide on it is to make the most selfish truth claim of all.

You really don’t get to decide the truth. But that isn’t because everyone has it. It’s because it comes from outside any of us.

The Four Kinds of Spaces

I’m reading through Mark Waltz’s Lasting Impressions (great read so far, thanks Mark!), and in chapter 4 he summarizes something intriguing he read in Joseph Myers’ The Search to Belong. Mark synthesizes Myers’ work to explain that there are 4 kinds of spaces: public, social, personal, and intimate.

When you stop and think it it seems obvious. But what might not be obvious is that the church should actively work on cultivating each of these environments. I’ll discuss each of them and let Mark’s much wiser words connect the dots:

Public

Public space is your weekend services, or anytime you draw a crowd. People are comfortable enough to chat with each other afterwards because they at least have in common that they attended the same service. Like Mark says, “They don’t have to be friends to share in this kind of exchange. It’s public space.”

Social

After public spaces, you move into social ones. I’ll let Mark take over:

“The second space of human interaction is social space. The space can exist in a variety of sizes and crowds or groups. A defining characteristic is small talk – light but connective conversation about common life experiences…Our ability to enter into transformative relationships is actually dependent on lighter conversation.”

Personal

Personal space is that which is shared between a smaller group of people, though not necessarily in a “small group” setting as we typically define it. To use Mark’s example, if you did a series on finances and encouraged people to meet together during the week to continue the conversation, personal space would exist around a group of men who decide to talk at Starbucks on Tuesday mornings. In this space, conversation goes deeper than the surface, but it does so to a limit. Failures, successes, struggles, and personalities may be discussed here.

Intimate

The final space is intimate. Perhaps two of the men in the group mentioned above realize they really hit it off and they start to meet regularly. They become more and more open as time goes on, and discuss their greatest fears, biggest failures, and largest hopes. “That level of relationship…is slow to develop and hard to find,” Mark writes. “[Myers] suggests that most of us will have only five to six intimate relationships in our lifetimes – and up to half of those will be with relatives.”

The big picture

What I realized reading through this is that a) it makes a lot of sense, and b) the church has to have each of these stages in mind and respect people in each of them. When I think about my own journey to Christ and his church, I can remember passing through each of these stages, from years of showing up on Sunday to holding a door, to joining a small group, to volunteering every weekend at a new multisite, to joining staff.  Each step was massive for me at the time, and I would do well to remember that feeling.

It’s important for the church to keep each space in mind for a variety of reasons, so I’ll just name a few here:

  • Knowing which space you’re trying to create dictates how you design the environment. You wouldn’t put couches in the auditorium, but you might put them outside a coffee shop or in a lobby. The auditorium isn’t conducive to conversation because it’s a public space, not a social one.
  • People are ready for each space at different times. If more than half of the people in the world are introverts, then we can’t expect them all to walk up to strangers and start connecting. It’s just not going to happen right away. But it will happen. As a member of a church staff, it’s our job to identify which space the person is in, and help them move towards the next space as they’re ready for it.
  • Each of the 4 spaces is necessary for life-change. It’s easy to say life-change happens in the personal and intimate settings, and that may be true. But without the public and social spaces people would never end up in personal or intimate ones. Each space deserves attention as we seek to move people closer to Christ.

Realizing the 4 spaces and paying attention to them is an important part of creating a loving community.

The New Default Community

We’re spending more and more time on our phones, tablets, and computers. More than that though, we’re trying to fulfill our need for community through all these digital channels. That’s why almost everyone in the world is on Facebook, some are on Twitter, and still others are on Instagram.

Let me start by saying digital community isn’t all bad. I really enjoy the small community I’ve built on this blog. I’m not really interested in listing out the good versus the bad when it comes to digital communities.

The new default community

What I’m more interested in is what happens now that the new default for community is digital (online) instead of analog (in person). What happens when we need to organize a group of people in our communities but all we know how to do is organize people with texts, tweets, and blog posts?

My wife told me about an interesting example from a book she’s reading. The author was telling a story about how they use to plow snow at Notre Dame. Originally, they would just post that help was needed and some students would come with shovels and handle it.

Once the population became higher brow and stopped wanting to do that kind of work, workers and eventually machines were brought in to take care of it.

At some point, a storm came along and buried them in snow. So much so that the snow plows and other machines couldn’t make it. Their new default wasn’t working, so they fell back on their old default. They wrangled up some students and had them meet in the middle of the campus.

And they did. About 100 students showed up to help remove the snow. The problem was they only had 5 shovels to go around.

No one had the tools necessary to do the work because the new default (the machines) meant they didn’t need them anymore, so they didn’t have that to fall back on.

What happens when we need to fall back on the old default?

I wonder if we’re not setting ourselves up for something similar with moving community almost solely online. I’m not suggesting an apocalyptic scenario will happen and we’ll have to revert. I’m saying what does it look like to be a human who’s not exactly sure how to do one of the most human things there is – connecting with other people in community?

I find it very easy to try and let digital community replace analog community in my life. I can do it from the couch and there’s no risk of discomfort (something my introvert brain loves).

But that’s the problem.

There’s no risk of discomfort where I can push myself to do something that stretches me and helps me grow as a person. There’s no risk of getting connected to someone in a way that matters.

Sure, there’s emotional risk involved with face-to-face connection, but I think we’re all smart enough to know the upside is far bigger.

The real conundrum

The biggest source of tension in creating a healthy church community based on a biblical foundation is that it’s in many ways at odds with the new defaults in our culture.

Just think about getting in touch with someone. We used to just pick up the phone and call them, and that was that. Now there’s email, texting, and Facebook. Those are all great tools, but the real connection that’s possible by hearing someone’s voice is lost over those mediums, especially if you don’t already know the person.

The kind of community the church is trying to create will go against the societal grains here. The tendency is to disconnection personally and to connect digitally. We as the church need to know how to create spaces for people to connect digitally so that it helps to move them to connect personally and drive relationships into the deeper realms that are ripe for spiritual growth.