August 23, 2011
Skye Jethani: What is Life WITH God?
An excerpt from my new book. Are we desiring God or just using him?
To celebrate the release of my new book, WITH: Reimagining The Way You Relate To God (Nelson, 2011), I wanted to share with you a brief excerpt. In case you're not familiar with the premise of the book, and how could you be if it's just been released, I explore five "postures" of relating to God: Life UNDER God, Life OVER God, Life FROM God, Life FOR God, and Life WITH God. The book explains why the first four are very popular, including within evangelical churches, but how each fails to deliver us from fear or generate lives of faith, hope, and love. Life WITH God, however, stands at the heart of the gospel. Below is a brief excerpt.
Thanks to everyone who helped me with this project, including my colleagues at Leadership Journal and all the Urbanites who've read my posts over the years. Your comments and engagement with my writing definitely contributed to this book.
To begin we must understand how the life with God posture differs from the other four. Life under, over, from and for God each seeks to use God to achieve some other goal. God is seen as a means to an end. For example, life from God uses him to supply our material desires. Life over God uses him as the source of principles or laws. Life under God tries to manipulate God through obedience to secure blessings and avoid calamity. And life for God uses him and his mission to gain a sense of direction and purpose.
But life with God is different because it’s goal is not to use God; it’s goal is God. He ceases to be a device we employ or a commodity we consume. Instead God himself becomes the focus of our desire. But before we can really desire God we must have a clear understanding of who he is and what he is like. The reason most people gravitate to one of the other four postures is because they’ve never received a clear vision of who God is, and so they settle for something less.
My 6 year old son has a serious sugar addiction. I came to this realization when as a toddler he spotted a blotch of powdered sugar on the floor near a funnel cake stand at a minor league baseball stadium. He dropped to his knees and proceeded to lick the concrete. (His mother needed resuscitation.) Despite his obvious passion for sucrose, if I said to Isaac, “Would you like to try some creme brulee?” he would immediately decline. The words “creme brulee” might conjure images of vegetables or some other unappetizing adult cuisine in his imagination. But I know he would respond differently if I said, “Would you like some vanilla pudding, covered in sugar, and cooked with a blowtorch?” The idea of combining large quantities of sugar with the forbidden danger of open flames is too much for any boy to resist. Even more compelling than my description would be actually seeing the dessert and it’s preparation. I would have to bind him to his chair to keep him from leaping at it.
Words, ideas, and even images only makes sense when we have a frame of reference for them. While our problem of relating to God is far more than semantic, it has been my experience that when most people hear or think about God they have a less than complete, and sometimes entirely flawed, vision of who he is. As a result they tend to not desire him. At best they see him as a useful instrument for achieving something more desirous.
But if their vision was enlarged and corrected, if they could see his unrivaled beauty, grasp his unconditional love, perceive his radiant glory, and experience his untainted goodness, then it would become obvious that he is much more than a deity to tolerate or a device to employ. In other words, God would cease to be how we acquire our treasure, and he would become our treasure.
This was the great deception of the serpent in Eden--with his cunning questions he clouded humanity’s vision of God. He caused the man and woman to question God’s goodness and love. And with their vision of God blocked by shadows and distorted by lies, they settled for something less.
The same pattern holds true today. Those with an incomplete or tainted vision of God either want to use him or dismiss him. But when a full, clear, and rapturous vision of God is presented we will not settle for anything less than being with him. This complete vision of God and his character comes not from within us, but is gifted to us in Jesus who “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). And he makes this very point repeatedly when talking to those who would follow him. He often asks what they are willing to leave behind in order to be with him--their wealth, their other relationships, their professions? With these difficult and sometimes offensive questions Jesus is determining whether they are truly interested in him or just what he might do for them. Many, like the villagers who beg him to leave, still fail to recognize with worth.
And yet those who saw Jesus’ true value crawl over one another to be closer to him. This was particularly the case among the marginalized and forgotten in the society; the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who had been denied access to God by the other popular postures of the day. These undesirables swarmed Jesus wherever he went to the indignation of the religious leaders who had a vested interest in promoting their own posture of relating to God that excluded the hoi polloi.
The value of the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus equates with his own presence, is spoken of in similar terms. Jesus says:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46)
One of the diagnostic question I ask people when determining what posture they are living from is: What is your treasure? What is the goal and desire of your life? What would you give everything to possess? You can imagine the range of answers I have heard. But occasionally a person’s eyes will sharpen as if they are looking at something or someone past me. A subtle smile will appear. And they will answer, “Christ. He is my treasure.” That person has found the irreducible foundation of a life with God.
Sadly this is what many churches and ministries fail to understand. The primary purpose of our worship gatherings, preaching, and programs should be to present a ravishing vision of Jesus Christ. When people come to see who he is and what God is like, treasuring him becomes the natural outcome. But in many places a vision of Christ remains hidden behind shadows while lesser glories--often some variation on the culture’s values or church’s mission--are given the spotlight. And then we scratch our heads in bewilderment when people fail to engage or leave the church disappointed and unsatisfied. “My people need a kick in the pants to share their faith,” one pastor told me before starting a new sermon series focused on outreach. What his people probably need is a clear vision of who Christ really is--a vision I’m guessing the pastor needs as well.