What are we simplifying for?

An army of people are urging us through their books and blogs to simplify our lives. The advice is the same, though it takes many forms: “Declutter your life.” “Throw away some clothes.” “Buy only what you need.” “Move into a smaller house.”

Minimalism is the heading under which most of this takes place. It’s been around forever of course, leading back to asceticism and the monastic movements (it should be noted that most minimalists would deny they’re after the same things as those movements).

But of late, minimalism found its home on the internet, starting with people like Merlin Mann, and more recently The Minimalists, a couple of guys that quit their jobs, got rid of lots of their stuff, and then moved to Montana. They’ve also brought joy to many of their readers’ lives, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Now the movement has broken out into more mainstream culture, with things like the documentary Tiny, a film that follows people who’ve abandoned typical housing arrangements in favor of “tiny houses” that are only a few hundred square feet. Late last year came an interview with Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker behind the reboot of the Batman franchise, Inception, and Interstellar, in The New York Times citing his decision to wear the same thing every day to help simplify his life.

In just the last week, another story of a daily uniform came in the form of an interview with Matilda Kahl, an art director who’s been wearing the same outfit to work for three years now. Before Kahl and Nolan there was Steve Jobs, who famously wore the black turtle neck and jeans for his daily garb.

The interest in pairing back possessions and wearing a daily uniform is fascinating to me, and I’ve been reading about it for years now. Take a look at the page you’re reading on and you’ll see I have a taste for minimal things. I don’t like clutter. I don’t like unread text messages or too many numbers in those little red bubbles on my iPhone.

In the past I’ve found myself sending loads of stuff to Goodwill, deleting old files, and feeling better in the process. But as anyone who’s ever undertaken this stuff knows, that feeling doesn’t last for long. Eventually, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we simplifying for?”

What are we simplifying for?

According to what’s out there on minimalism (at least everything I’ve read), the answer is usually “So you can live a more meaningful life.”

That’s a great bite-size answer that makes us feel warm and cozy. But what defines a meaningful life?

When you push past the catch-phrase you find out that what’s being promoted is a more meaningful life defined by making yourself happy. A more meaningful life is defined by being freed up to do what you love, live where you want, and be who you want, without the definitions your stuff gives you.

To be fair, the best of minimalism talks about getting rid of material things to make room for more noble things, like friendships. But even with noble intentions, this is nothing more than shifting our source of identity and meaning from having lots of stuff to having little stuff.

Promoters of the minimal philosophy would almost certainly disagree, but at the same time they’re promoting it to such a degree that their identities are literally wrapped up in the concept of not having things (i.e. – The Minimalists).

My intention is not to denigrate some of the actions that are promoted by minimalists and those advocating a simpler lifestyle, because, like I said, I actually find much of that advice helpful in my own life. But the ideology behind those actions is not enough to help us live a meaningful life, no matter how many closets we clean.

The real (deeper) problem

The problem with having too many (or too few) possessions is that we’re trying to find meaning where there is none. At one extreme, we’re trying to define ourselves by our iPhones, cars, and homes, and at the other we’re trying to define ourselves by our own happiness. But neither is sufficient to ground us in a world of earthquakes, cancer, and hunger.

I’ll put it this way (and this isn’t original to me, I heard it elsewhere, but the source escapes me): Imagine yourself in the midst of the Nazis in World War 2. If your meaning in life could be taken away by being put in a concentration camp, then it’s not enough.

That’s just one example, but it could be phrased any number of ways. If your meaning in life can be taken away by a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, then it’s not enough.

If your meaning in life depends on your circumstances, know that your circumstances will change. At some point, you will find yourself in a different set of circumstances that shakes the foundations of where you’ve staked your meaning.

You can find meaning in your possessions, but one day they’ll be taken from you.

You can find meaning in your beauty, but one day you’ll lose it.

You can find meaning in your happiness, but one day you’ll be sad.

So the problem is less that we need to decide between how much or how little stuff we have, and more about where we find our meaning in life. There are a myriad of suggested solutions to that problem, but let me suggest the Christian worldview as a way of solving it.

A solution to the problem of meaning

The Christian worldview has much to say about possessions, and its solution to the problem of where to find meaning is sufficient to hold us up through life regardless of our circumstances.

At the root of the Christian worldview is the idea that God himself came to earth in the form of the man Jesus and that man died for the sins of humanity, but he was resurrected after three days, defeating death in the process.

Christians see that saving act of Jesus as being the foundation for meaning in life. This can be seen throughout the Bible, but most clearly in the beginning of the book of John, one of the four biographical accounts of the life of Jesus. The book opens with this:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

John, the author, wrote that in Greek, and when he chose the word that’s translated as “Word,” he used a term that was absolutely loaded in that day. That term was “logos.”

Logos” didn’t simply mean “word”. The term was coined by a guy named Heraclitus long before John was writing, and he defined as being the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. Logos meant the reason for something, in this case the reason for life.

In Greek culture, the logos was where meaning and reason was derived from, and the whole universe was tied together by that logos. This is what philosophers and thinkers had been discussing up until the time John was writing.

Some of them decided that there was no meaning, no reason, no logos, in life. Others decided that their own pleasure, their own happiness was the logos (which we see today in any of the self-fulfillment philosophies).

It was into this setting that John redefined the term.

He said a couple really important things. First, he said the reason for life, the logos, was there in the beginning. Now, the Greeks of the day would have had no problem with that part, since it fit with their general understanding of the term. It’s the next part where John drops his bombshell.

He says, “the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” He said the logos, the reason for life, was a person. And this logoswas with God. But not only was he with God, but he was God, meaning he was the same as God.

When you go on to read the rest of this chapter in John’s book, you find out that when he uses the term logos he’s referring to the man Jesus Christ.

John’s saying that there is a reason for life. That there is a way to find meaning in life. But it’s not a philosophical principle – it’s the person of Jesus Christ.

And if you don’t know that Person, you can’t find the deepest meaning in life. If you don’t know that Person, you can’t find something that’s capable of standing up to what life throws at you.

Not only does the Christian worldview have the ability to provide us meaning in life that can’t be taken away, but it results in a healthier relationship with possessions than either the American Dream or the minimalists offer.

A better way to relate to possessions and people

The Gospel, the central good news of the Christian faith about Jesus taking judgement in our place, fundamentally changes how you relate to possessions, thereby changing your relationship with the meaning associated with them.

This entire argument is more than we have time for right now, but the essence of it is that the Gospel frees you from assigning meaning to possessions by showing you that you find meaning in Christ. You find meaning in the treasures of the world to come that will never fade away, instead of the treasures of this world that won’t last.

And that changes everything.

I love how David Platt, a former pastor and the current President of the International Missions Board, put this:

Think about it. Faith in Christ reconciles us to God, right? It’s the essence of the gospel. We no longer live for earthly treasure. We love our eternal treasure. God is our treasure. That frees us from the constant pursuit of stuff in this world, which means faith in Christ now reconciles us to one another because we’re not living any more for selfish gain. We’re free of that. Free to live with selfless generosity.

Finding meaning in Christ changes how you relate to possessions and, as you just read, how you relate to people.

The Christian is freed to live a simple and generous life. Both of which I think we’re all after, aren’t we? We want to live a life that isn’t defined by things we know won’t last, and we want to positively impact the world around us. But we won’t find those things by looking to either our stuff or our own happiness.

So what are we simplifying for? What are you simplifying for? And is it really worth it? Is it something that will bring real, lasting meaning to your life?

Do you like the person you’ve become?

I was on a run a while back, and I was listening to Bastille’s album Bad Blood. It’s not new at this point, but I really like their music. One of the reasons I like it is because they their songs bring up interesting spiritual questions, even if it they don’t provide any real answers.

As I was running jogging (it’s funny what we call a “run” isn’t it?), I was listening to the song called “The Weight of Living Pt. 2.” Here’s a taste:

It all crept up on you, in the night it got you

And plagued your mind, it plagues your mind

Every day that passes, faster than the last did

And you’ll be old soon, you’ll be old

Do you like the person you’ve become?

Do you like the person you’ve become? That’s a loaded question. So loaded that many of us don’t want to think about the question at all. But it’s an important question nonetheless. Because when we stop to think about it, many of us don’t like the person we’ve become.

We have really good intentions to stop being short with our families, start reading our Bibles more, or stop making the same relational mistakes. But when we take stock of our lives next to those standards we’ve created, we often fall pretty short.

No one is harder on us than ourselves, of course. So the weight we feel from not living up to those standards is both created by and shoulder by ourselves. And what we think of ourselves has the potential to suffocate us emotionally and spiritually.

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s first look at why and how we’re creating these standards in our lives.

All of us are trying to live up to something

We’re all trying to live up to some standard in life that we’ve either created for ourselves or that’s been created for us.

Much of that has to do with your family background or your cultural background. For instance, there are really two main value structures in our culture, two main ways we form our identity – the traditional and the Western.

If you’re in a traditional structure of identity formation then you draw your sense of self-worth from the community, or from your family. Your sense of value comes from what you contribute to that community and what your place is in it. This is more prevalent in other countries, but many families here in the US still have a strong sense of this.

If you’re in a Western structure of identity formation, then you draw your sense of self-worth from your individuality. You’re not concerned with the needs of the community as much as you are with your own needs. Your sense of self-worth is tied to what job you can get, what kind of life you can make, and what’s best for you. This is obviously the more predominant structure for identity formation in our context.

I should point out that neither is better or worse than the other; this is simply a picture of how the two structures work. It’s important to know because it helps us understand what we’re trying to live up to and why we’re trying to do it.

For instance, a person in a traditional setting is trying not to bring shame to their family or their community. How do you do that? Well, by carrying out your assigned role and accepting your place within that community. So the temptation in those settings is to try and live up to others’ expectations for your life.

“Others” might include your parents, your family, your friends, etc. Religion can fit into this category as well. They all have expectations for you and your life and what your place should be in the world, and in many cases there is honor and respect on the line so it’s a serious thing. The standards you’re trying to live up to have been created for you. In the traditional setting, you’re trying to become the person other people want you to be.

Now, in contrast, a person in a Western setting tries to live up to different standards. Some of the standards still have to do with other people’s perceptions, but the root of the standard lies in what you think about your performance, your relationships, your wealth, or any number of things.

The tendency here is to set up some standard for yourself – maybe it’s a certain job, a house on the lake, a particular relationship, or status – and then make that how you judge your value and self-worth. Then there are the standards that come from a society that tells us to look a certain way, behave a certain way, and live a certain way. In the Western setting, then, you’re trying to be the person you think will make you happy.

So regardless of how your identity has been formed, none of us is really free, as much as we like to think so. We’re all bound to something, we’re all trying to live up to something. Don’t you feel that in your own life?

The weight of living is crushing

If all of us are trying to live up to something, then sooner or later the weight will be crushing.

And there is a weight to life itself, isn’t there? All of us carry some kind of standard around that we’re trying to live up to, and each one of them is just another burden weighing us down. Many of those standards we’ve talked about are necessarily bad things, but when you make them your source of self-worth and value then you will always be crushed beneath the weight of them.

A guy that had been a struggling writer wrote about this once in The New York Times. His name was Benjamin Nugent, and he was reflecting on the maddening season in his life where he couldn’t write anything halfway decent, and he always had a sense of malaise about his life and his work. He said:

“When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane.

 For anyone that’s ever made their work everything, you know exactly what he’s talking about. He made the quality of his work the measure of his worth. If he wasn’t a good writer, he wasn’t a good person, and he couldn’t be happy. But of course that kind of thinking makes you so neurotic that you never think you’re a good writer, so you’ll never be happy. The weight of living was crushing him.

Are you making the quality of your work the measure of your worth? It’s worth considering.

Maybe you’re not making your work the measure of your worth, but there’s something else. Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright refers to these things that we’re making the measure of our worth as “life-lies.” These things we tell ourselves that if we can just get them then we’ll be happy. If I can just get that car, just get married, just get that house, then I’ll be happy.

Listen to what Ibsen says about this:

 “Take the life-lie away from the average man and you take away his happiness.”

Every one of our life-lies can and will be taken from us at some point. And when that happens we will be crushed under the weight of it. All the self-worth, all the value we assigned to ourselves because of those life-lies will disappear in an instant.

If all of us are under the weight of living and will eventually be crushed under it, then what can we do? If you don’t like the person you’ve become, what can you do about it?

Jesus can bear the weight and show us how to be the person we were made to be

Let’s see what Jesus said about this. And I think you’ll find it an interesting way of dealing with it. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says these words:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The first thing to understand in this text is the word “yoke.” A yoke was basically a harness that connected some kind of animal, like a donkey or an ox, to a tool of some kind. It might have been a till or a wagon-type apparatus that was used to transport something.

Regardless of what an animal was yoked to, it was a burden to them. People weren’t fastening animals to something that they could do themselves; it was something too heavy or straining for them to do alone.

Jesus is using that imagery to talk about the burdens and standards we’re trying to live up to that we discussed earlier. He’s saying, “I know you’re tired of trying to live up. I know you’re weary from the weight of living. Come to me, and I’ll show you how to take a real rest.”

He’s pointing out again that we’re all burdened by something, the weight of living is on us all. We’re all yoked to something.

But what he doesn’t say about burdens is that we don’t have to have any. Did you notice that? Jesus didn’t promise for us not to be yoked to anything – he promised to give us rest, relief, from the weight of living, if we yoke ourselves to him instead.

We’re always going to be yoked to something, after all, so Jesus is telling us to yoke ourselves to him so we can learn from him. So we can see how to live our lives unburdened by the expectations and standards of others.

Those things aren’t going away, of course. So what’s going on here? Jesus is offering us a way out of making those things our sense of self-worth and our sense of value.

He’s saying, “If you don’t like the person you’ve become, maybe it’s because you’ve got yourself yoked to the wrong thing. You’re trying to become the wrong person. Yoke yourself to me, watch me, learn from me, and I’ll show you how to find rest and be the person I created you to be.”

Jesus alone can bear the weight of our standards. He alone can give you a meaning outside yourself, outside of others.

*Note: I’m indebted to Tim Keller for much of the thought and structure behind this post.

3 thing you can’t miss about community

We need community. And I think most people would tell you they want community.

But very few people actually have it, even within the church.

It’s easy to get caught up in wondering why that is, and jump straight to how to fix it. But if we do that, there’s a good chance we’ll miss the point altogether.

Instead, it’s best to start by examining the foundation for community, because the foundation makes all the difference.

So let’s jump in and see what God would tell us about community:

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:23-25

This text tells us three things about community:

  1. Its foundation
  2. Its nature
  3. Its importance

1. Community’s foundation

First, its foundation. Verse 23 says “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” What hope do we profess?

The Church professes the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That man is sinful and in need of a savior, and that God, in His mercy, sent that savior in the form of the man Jesus Christ. And that man died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, taking our place and receiving God’s judgment despite living a sinless life.

The Bible tells us in Romans 3:23 that,

“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

All of us. Each of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.

And because of that, we stand convicted before a holy God, who by his very nature has to carry out justice. And He does.

Romans 2:6:

“God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’”

Hearing that you’re a sinner is hard to take. It doesn’t feel good to be told that you rebel against God every day, even in the deepest recesses of your heart.

But not only is this God’s truth that’s revealed to us in Scripture, it’s the reality we see and feel every day.

Each of us has an inner sense of right and wrong that was etched in our hearts by God when He created us. Now, you can say instead that you determine what is right and wrong for yourself, but as soon as you do you can find an example that proves you wrong.

For example, if you think right and wrong depends on the person, that each person gets to decide what is right and wrong for themselves, then what do you do with genocide? Is that wrong, or is just up to the person? What about slavery?

These things are wrong. Of course they are. And that sense travels across cultures and time.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are in need of a savior because aa sinful person cannot save themselves from sin.

But…

The God that is righteous and just is also merciful and loving and personal. And because of His love for us, He sent His Son Jesus to step in front of us and take the blame for our sin.

He sent the Savior we needed to make the sacrifice we could not make.

And when Jesus died on the cross and atoned for our sins, paid for our sins, it became possible to enter into a saving relationship with the God of the universe.

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

2 Corinthians 5:21

If you’re a Christian, this is your reality.

Imagine this: when you stand before God to give an account of your life, He has a book filled with details of your life. Your good deeds and bad. Your thoughts and desires. Your action and inaction.

And if you’re like me, that’s not good. You know what comes next because you know what you deserve.

But, just as He’s about to bring down the gavel to condemn you for the sins you’ve committed, someone grabs His arm and stops him. God turns to his right to see who dared to grab him, and it’s Jesus.

And Jesus says, “No. I know them. They are sinful, yes, but they believed. Here – take my book instead.”

And God opens Jesus’ book and sees His sinless life and His righteousness instead of your sinful life and your unrighteousness.

That is the hope we profess. That is the gospel we proclaim.

And it’s the foundation for Christian community that we hold unswervingly to. Because God is faithful, and He will save those who call on His name.

2. Community’s nature

If that’s the foundation for community, let’s turn and look at the nature of community.

Community is an interesting topic today. We live in an ironic time where, as researchers have observed, we’re more connected than ever, but more lonely than ever.

Stephen Marche, writing in The Atlantic, put it this way:

“We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment… Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.

Hear me on this, Twitter and Instagram and email are not necessarily bad things. But when they become our sole source of community this is the kind of society we are left with.

But it’s not just about technology. It’s about our schedules and how we live our lives.

Marche goes on to say that today,

“We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years… By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

If that’s true, then only 1 out of every 4 of you has someone you can talk to in your life about those things that are most important.

This reality is devastating to our mental, spiritual and even physical health.

The funny thing about all of this is that we seem to know that how we’re living is not good for us. We seem to know that living life less connected to each other, though it seems far easier, is actually far worse for us. So why do we do it to ourselves?

Later in that same article came the haunting conclusion that,

“We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely.”

We spend more time in front of screens and less time in front of people. We live further and further from where we work and spend our time. We search for what we think is freedom, and end up with isolation.

I’ve seen this in my own life. I can go a whole day, relatively easily, without having any real interactions with people. And it’s easier that way.

But when I do that, I always feel worse. I always feel drained, lonely, like my day was a waste.

That is not the nature of community that God created us for. Look back at verse 24, which says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

In a biblically functioning community, in a healthy community, people will be spurring one another on towards love and good deeds, and, like it says in verse 25, encouraging one another.

The word “spur” is interesting, because when you read it in this context it sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? It really means “to incite,” or “irritate”. To spur one another on means to bring sharp disagreements before someone. It’s uncomfortable, even irritating.

If you have a brother or sister, you know that they figure out very quickly how to push each other’s buttons, right? They know exactly how to poke and prod and get their siblings to lose their cool.

That’s what spurring one another on means, except in this case it’s being used in the positive sense, not the negative.

So in Christian community we are to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. We are to push each other’s buttons in such a way that it makes us more loving and more apt to do good deeds.

It means that sometimes we come to sharp disagreements with each other when we’re living in such a way that it is not in line with the hope that we profess.

Which means we have to actually have people in our lives that we grant permission to do such a thing. Have you ever thought about that?

Do you have people in your life that you’ve granted permission to call you out when you’re being out of line according to how God tells us to live?

Do you have people in your life who can come to you honestly and give you good advice when they know you’re about to make a terrible mistake, or make a decision that will be hurtful to you in some way?

And what about encouragement?

Do you have people in your life that are there to encourage you when you’re down? That are there to encourage you not to give up and to be there to build you up? People to celebrate good times and grieve bad times?

If so, then rejoice! If not, then there’s reason for hope.

Because Christian community is not something we have to manufacture. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, said,

“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

Rejoice that community in Christ is not something you have to do on your own; it is something you simply need to participate in.

The nature of community as expressed in the Bible is one in which we have people in our lives that come alongside us to challenge and encourage us, and where we look for ways to do those things for others. It’s not something we have to realize, but a reality we get to participate in.

3. Community’s importance

We’ve seen community’s foundation and its nature. Now let’s look at its importance.

Why does verse 25 tell us “not to give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”? Why is meeting together so important?

Well in order to do what we’ve been told in the earlier verses, spurring one another on in love and good deeds and encouraging one another, we have to be meeting with each other.

We have to be putting ourselves in situations where that kind of community is possible. We have to make space for it, otherwise it simply won’t happen.

Ecclesiastes 4:9 and 11 say,

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work…

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

When Jesus called people to follow him, he also called them into the community he was building, which gathers as the Church.

Throughout history, people have thought they could be a Christian on their own, growing spiritually while isolating themselves from the Church and the people in it. One of those people was C.S. Lewis, the guy who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, but he eventually changed his mind.

Listen to what he said about this:

“When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches… I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in boots…in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

Being in community with others keeps you honest about your spiritual life, while putting you in a context where you can serve others. Both go against our natural grain, but both are spiritual realities we’re called to.

I want to make sure and spell out that simply going to church on the weekend does not constitute the kind of community we’re talking about here. Sitting in a service doesn’t make space for spurring one another on or for encouraging one another.

Those things take place outside of that context, while still taking place under the umbrella of the church. They take place in groups that meet in homes, classes that meet at a church, teams that serve in a community.

Each of these kinds of things puts you in front of others in a way that creates the possibility for biblical community and are vital for your spiritual growth.

C.S. Lewis sums this up well. He said,

“[God] works on us in all sorts of ways… He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences…But above all, He works on us through each other.

Men are mirrors…of Christ to other men…That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important….”

The community of the church is rooted in the gospel, and that gospel is the hope we profess and the hope we hold onto. When the people of the church are living that way they’ll be spurring one another on to love and good deeds. They won’t be isolated and trying to be a Christian on their own. They’ll be joined with other Christians who are coming alongside them to encourage them.

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.