I became a Christian at 18. I just realized this week that with me being 28 years old, I am 10 years old in the faith. A decade with Jesus.
Most people that knew me before age 18 are surprised when I say I became a Christian in college. I grew up in the church and therefore assumed I was believer all the while. The truth was this: I knew a lot of Bible trivia and spiritual-sounding answers; I didn’t know God.
I didn’t know the whole Jesus-deal. I thought he was a kind dude that forgave everybody their mistakes. It was like Andy Mineo sings, “Jesus was a nice guy, but wasn’t no friend to me.” I knew he “died for sins,” but wasn’t aware of what that really entailed. I soon learned He was much better, and much more scandalous than just a nice guy way back when. However, that’s all a post for another time.
Today, I want to make sure and record the Top 11 Lessons I’ve learned these past 10 years: One for every year and and another for good measure. Today will capture the first five. My next post will be the remaining lessons. Here goes!
1. I’M A JOKE. AND GOD ALREADY KNEW THAT.
No really, I’m a big, fat, ridiculous joke. And this isn’t me feeling sorry for myself or dealing with self-hatred. This is me looking at myself in the mirror and coming to grips with the fact that I still deal with the sin I dealt with 10 years ago, and God still loves me enough to walk me through each instance like a good father would. This is me saying I had 5 years in professional ministry and I still forget what I should remember and remember the things I should forget. I mess up all the time and the Lord is kind and gentle and patient with me in my messes. Having it together is overrated, because then you don’t get to experience who God is and the kind of power He has. I’m finally okay, after 10 years, to say I’m a mess. He knew those things about me—all the under-the-surface-jacked-up stuff—and He walks with me all the same.
Though you may stumble, you will not fall, for the Lord upholds you with His hand. (Psalm 37:24)
2. MATURITY REQUIRES GOD. AND TIME.
Jesus always used analogies in His teachings that centered around plants for some reason, or farming, or vegetation of some sort. Seeds, plants, trees, bushes, stalks. You name it, Jesus told a story about it. WHY? Was he all about the community farming movement? Was he a vegetarian? What’s the deal with all the Veggie Tales, Jesus? I never knew why in the world He always used plant-life examples until recently.
He used those analogies because plant growth is entirely slow and unflashy. It takes a lot of watering. It takes a lot of sun. It takes a lot of environmental elements being just right. You can’t sit watch a plant grow and expect instant changes, but it grows all the same. After a while, it’s actually kind of boring to watch a plant. That is how He grows us up in our faith. Every time I look back in areas of my life that I asked Him to grow me in, He has, though I can’t remember the exact day or time. It wasn’t a flashy, miraculous moment. After a lot of consistent and monotonous work, my faith grew stronger over time, just like a plant or a human body does. It wasn’t glamorous or quick.
Also, the more I grow, the more I realize it all comes from God. I don’t prove to God that I can grow in my faith all by myself. I beg God to do the growing in me Himself. It would be like a plant trying to grow without the farmer’s care and intentionality. If the farmer never made the effort to put the seed in an environment that’s good, the seed had no shot of growing in that little packet sitting in Lowe’s. The growing isn’t the cool part; it’s the Grower who’s pretty awesome. He’s who makes it happen. When a certain sin starts feeling heavy in my heart and I need to do something about it, when I randomly run into that person that says just the right thing, when I got invited to a Christian gathering at age 18 and the lightbulb came on, when I all of a sudden have a thirsty desire to know God’s Word, when God places someone in my life to spur me on and challenge me, when my random blogpost gets found by a renown professor and results in me writing a book (what?!), when someone randomly texts me that they are praying for the very thing I’m struggling with (but I never told them!). These are all pieces of my life that have helped me grow, but as I look back, it’s clear that God orchestrated them all. He’s committed to cultivating my heart and developing me as His child. He’s a good Farmer and a good Father.
I planted the seed [of the Gospel] in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. (1 Cor. 3:6)
3. ISOLATION = CRAZY PLACE
Anytime I isolate myself from the healthy pillars of the Christian life, I travel to a land that I call the “Crazy Place.” Here’s what the Crazy Place looks like: I marinate my brain in what-ifs, I compare myself to other people, I get over-jealous, I covet other people’s circumstances, I believe wrong ideas about beauty, my choices become more and more selfish, and life becomes all about me. I get stuck inside a self-obsessed mind palace.
The Crazy Place is like any other place: it’s simply an environment. The only way out of the Crazy Place is to enter in a better environment. Think of it this way: the difference in an dead acorn lying a dry desert and a thriving acorn growing a lush forest has nothing to do with the acorn’s ability to grow. It has everything to do with environment.
Every human soul has the ability to grow spiritually, but a lot of us don’t choose the proper environment so our souls can take root. An acorn needs sun, water, soil, and time. A human looking to grow in Christianity needs consistent interaction with the Word, a like-minded community desiring to grow as well, a local church, some sort of vehicle for prayer, and time. God set it up that way and tells us explicitly in the Scriptures that that’s the design in which a Christian can grow. We can get mad at the design, be proud and try to live outside of it, or thrive inside of it.
God’s power is found in His word and His people. When I isolate from those things, it’s no wonder I don’t feel God’s power in my life. It would be like getting angry at an acorn for not growing in the desert. That’s never going to happen. It’s in the wrong environment. Are you in the Crazy Place? Look around at your environment. What are you isolating from?
Whoever isolates himself only cares for himself; he lashes out against any sound wisdom or common sense. (Proverbs 18:1, ESV & NLT)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving 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 10:24-25)
4. KNOWING STUFF DOESN’T MAKE ME LOVE GOD; GOD MAKES ME LOVE GOD
I sacrificed my life on the altar of “ministry” for 9 years total. I also attended seminary classes and even wrote a book on biblical dating. Those were great years and I learned a lot. But guess what? None of that stuff saved me from those moments when life crushed me with multiple, unexpected blows. And another thing: none of those things made me love God, or like Him for that matter. I was frustrated with myself. Why am I struggling with this?! I know better than this; I have all the training, all the ministry success. I’ve studied this stuff for years! What’s going on? Where did all my trust go?
Yes, I knew the right theological answers, but when I’d spit them out, they were mechanical. They were studied, practiced, and sterile. They didn’t comfort my soul in the rough seasons. They were just factoids floating around in my mind. It took the Spirit of God to penetrate to a heart-level, to make them real. No human is able to simply muster up deep, bone-level, unflinching belief in the things of God. Not even the ones that know a lot about Him. The transformation of merely hearing the words of Scripture and then joyously believing them with your whole being is a miracle just as much as water turning into wine. It has to be granted to you. I know this to be true.
You can fill your head with sound, good, theologically-solid principles from accredited sources, but it takes the hand of God Himself to make your heart cherish, rejoice, and live by them. There have been bitter, sad seasons where I’ve been stocked full of knowledge, yet hollowly void of God’s presence and joy and light. I’m not saying good theology is bad; everyone who knows me knows I love learning. I’m saying that it doesn’t enable a human being to love God or feel God. No command or fact can make a human being love. Love has to come from another place.
Newsflash: We can’t love God. Not without God allowing us entrance into those kind of affections. He grants us that kind of ability. We are far too busy spending those affections on futile things that will pass away eventually. We’re all distracted like toddlers with their heads on a swivel, grasping at the next shiny thing that passes our gaze. Our hearts are easily pleased with stupid things that inevitably fail us. At least that was my story. Nothing but God Himself, in the quiet, honest moments of the most simple prayers, can satisfy and calm my heart or ignite love for Him. He Himself is the power behind my love for Him. You and I, we just have to ask Him for it. He even tells us in Scripture that if we want to have a heart that pleases God, He’s the one that empowers that change:
For it is God Himself working in you, giving you both the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. (Philippians 2:13)
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life.
(Jesus talking to the religiously educated in John 5:39)
I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord. (Jeremiah 24:7)
5. SUFFERING DOES NOT MEAN GOD IS MAD AT ME. IT MEANS THE WORLD IS BROKEN.
This one has taken me a long time to understand, and I still struggle. We live in such a formulaic culture. Input A and B, and you get C. When you do bad things, you get punished. When you do good things, you get rewarded. God’s grace goes beyond these formulas we have created.
I’ve learned over the years how narcissistic it is to believe that I shouldn’t have to go through the ordinary frustrations of life just because I’m a Christian. I have dealt with many tragedies in my relationships over the years, riddled with betrayal, adultery, abuse, materialism, and addiction. And this is what I’ve come to find: we all have to deal with the reality of a fallen world. The world is flawed and we are all equal opportunity sufferers. When sin entered the world, it came after all of us equally and we all deal with the ramifications of our choices and our lifestyles. The presence of suffering doesn’t mean God is angry or that He’s not merciful. It means He lets people operate in their free will and He doesn’t violate their ability to choose, even if their choices are not God-honoring. By extension, He allows those choices to produce the full extent of their consequences. And we all know consequences don’t just hurt the committer.
This is my peace: God would be violating free will if he didn’t let people make all sorts of decisions, whether good or bad. And He wouldn’t be just if He didn’t let those decisions bear their appropriate consequences. And I get affected by some of those consequences, whether they stem from my own bad choices or the choices of my family and friends. God is not punishing me. He’s teaching me how to live in a world that burns me sometimes, and that I’m not exempt from what the rest of the world deals with on a daily basis. And let’s remember the truth: the world burned Him, too. On a bloody cross, on a hill, for everyone to see. He’s not far removed from suffering. He’s the one being that experienced the highest intensity of it.
He’s teaching me that He’s not a God that shields me from reality, but empowers me through it. He’s a good Father, who instead of sheltering His children from the big bad world, prepares them for it. He’s the God that walks with me and can always relate, for He has experienced the worst injustice of all: being innocently crucified. Jesus Himself didn’t expect shelter from the harsh reality of the world, but instead, He met the world head-on and gave His life to see it restored. The Christian life is not a hideout from the sharp realities of the world. The Christian life is a call into the mess to see it change for the better. And so I expect to get cut by life sometimes. My view is this: If I come out unscathed, I probably didn’t enter in the important battles.
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
(1 Peter 4:19)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope in the Spirit of God who does not leave us ashamed. (Romans 5:3-4)
These are my first 5 lessons learned. I’ll be adding the remaining in my next post, but until then, feel free to comment and let me know your thoughts. Or add things you’ve learned that may help me as I grow! Much love.