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The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows

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The Good and Beautiful God

Falling in Love

with the God Jesus Knows

James Bryan Smith

Formatio books from InterVarsity Press follow the rich tradition of the church in the journey of spiritual formation. These books are not merely about being informed, but about being transformed by Christ and conformed to his image. Formatio stands in InterVarsity Press’s evangelical publishing tradition by integrating God’s Word with spiritual practice and by prompting readers to move from inward change to outward witness. InterVarsity Press uses the chambered nautilus for Formatio, a symbol of spiritual formation because of its continual spiral journey outward as it moves from its center. We believe that each of us is made with a deep desire to be in God’s presence. Formatio books help us to fulfill our deepest desires and to become our true selves in light of God’s grace.

InterVarsity Press

P.O. Box 1400

Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426

World Wide Web:


©2009 by James Bryan Smith.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from InterVarsity Press.

InterVarsity Press® is the book-publishing division of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA®, a movement of students and faculty active on campus at hundreds of universities, colleges and schools of nursing in the United States of America, and a member movement of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. For information about local and regional activities, write Public Relations Dept. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, 6400 Schroeder Rd., P.O. Box 7895, Madison, WI 53707-7895, or visit the IVCF website at

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Lyrics for “Boy Like Me/Man Like You” used by permission of ; David Mullins on behalf of Rich Mullins’s family.

In some cases the names and situations of individuals described in this book have been changed to protect their privacy.

Design: Cindy Kiple

Images: Peaches with leaves: ©RedHelga/iStockphoto

ISBN 978-0-8308-7834-5

For my teachers

Dallas Willard and Richard J. Foster

Scribes of the kingdom who have brought

us treasures, old and new

Matthew 13:52



How to Get the Most Out of This Book

1 What Are You Seeking?

Soul Training: Sleep

2 God Is Good

Soul Training: Silence and Awareness of Creation

3 God Is Trustworthy

Soul Training: Counting Your Blessings

4 God Is Generous

Soul Training: Praying Psalm 23

5 God Is Love

Soul Training: Lectio Divina

6 God Is Holy

Soul Training: Margin

7 God Is Self-Sacrificing

Soul Training: Reading the Gospel of John

8 God Transforms

Soul Training: Solitude

9 How to Make a Pickle

Soul Training: Slowing Down

Appendix: Small Group Discussion Guide




when Jesus was asked what the greatest of all the commandments was, he quoted from the book of Deuteronomy: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38). In other words, the most important thing a human being does is to love God.

Do you remember mood rings? These were popular a long time ago. They changed color according to the mood of the wearer. (It was actually according to body temperature, but the sellers tried to pass it off as a mood change, and they made a lot of money; even some of mine.) What if someone made “love of God” rings that indicated the level of love the wearer feels for God? And what if everyone had to wear them? If dark blue was the color that indicated no love for God, and light blue was the color that indicated overflowing love for God, I imagine that a lot of people we see on the streets would have somewhat darkened rings on their fingers—and a lot of those people would even be Christians. To be honest, my own “love of God” ring would have been a rather washed-out blue had it not been for my good fortune. Thanks to God, I became the Forrest Gump of the Christian world.

Many Marvelous Mentors

In the movie Forrest Gump, the main character, Forrest, is an ordinary—somewhat challenged—man whose life is nothing special except that he has a good heart. Along the way, this “nobody” meets a lot of “somebodies.” Forrest is an accidental bystander who stumbles into some of history’s greatest moments (Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and greatest people (several U.S. presidents, celebrities, innovators). When I look back on my life, I feel like Forrest. I came from a Christmas-and-Easter-only Methodist family, and did not actually become a Christ-follower until my senior year of high school. I liked sports, pretty girls and Jesus—in that order. I was utterly average academically. I was literally three hundredth in a graduating class of six hundred. Not something to jazz up a resumé.

During my freshman year of college at a state university where I was playing sports and still pursuing pretty girls, Jesus began moving up the list. By the second semester he took over the top spot in my heart, so I decided to transfer to a Christian college. I chose a school called Friends University (I assumed they would be friendly at least) in Wichita, Kansas. I was an average student attending a small school in an out-of-the-way town, with no idea of what the future would hold. All I knew was that my yearning to know God was growing each passing day.

I did not know who Richard J. Foster was, or that he had written one of the most significant Christian books in the last hundred years (Celebration of Discipline). All I knew was that I had a class with him on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30-12:00. He was unlike anyone I had ever known. He was really smart, but also funny. He loved to laugh, and he knew God in a way unlike anyone I had ever met—like he was a friend. He would teach me ways to know the God he knew.

Years later a mutual friend told me that Richard had been praying for a student to come along in whom he could invest his life and wisdom, and that apparently, not long after meeting me, he told this friend I was the one God had chosen for this Paul-and-Timothy-like mentoring. All I knew was that Richard was giving me additional reading assignments, praying with me, allowing me to babysit for him and his wife, and taking me on trips where he was speaking. It was during those personal times that I learned the most from him.

During my senior year, Richard connected me to Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer, as I was trying to decide which seminary to attend. At Henri’s suggestion I applied to Yale Divinity School, and I got in. (Obviously, I had improved academically.) After seminary I served as a pastor in a local church, got married to Meghan, the prettiest and most down-to-earth girl I have ever seen (thank you, Jesus), learned some about how to lead a church, and found out quickly that being a pastor is really difficult. The one primary mission for a pastor should be to make disciples , but there are a thousand other pressing needs, problems and agendas that easily throw us off-track. Thankfully, my long association with Richard kept me focused on staying grounded in my own spiritual life.

A few years later I took a job teaching alongside Richard in the religion department at Friends University. While working as a professor I had another Forrest moment: a man named Rich Mullins, a famous Christian recording artist (he wrote and recorded “Awesome God” and “Step by Step”), took one of my classes. Having Rich in a class about God was like having Einstein in your math class—I was intimidated. But we became close friends, and eventually he lived in the attic apartment of our home for a little over two years. Through Rich I met Brennan Manning (author of The Ragamuffin Gospel). Brennan would also become a mentor and friend, and perhaps no one has taught me more about the love of God than he.

In 1987 Richard Foster invited me to help him build and launch a Christian spiritual renewal ministry called Renovaré. He told me the name he had chosen for this ministry one day while eating a plate of spaghetti. No one could say the name or knew what it meant. We would spend the next twenty years, along with some other amazing men and women, traveling across the country leading conferences, retreats and seminars in an attempt to help people learn how to live a deeper, more balanced life with God. Some people thought we were “New Age” because of our funny name and because Richard used foreign terms like contemplation and social justice, and sometimes we were even picketed. Oh, the joys of serving Jesus!

Through Richard and Renovaré, I met Dr. Dallas Willard (author of The Divine Conspiracy), who teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California. I have never known anyone as brilliant as Dallas. He, like Richard, is a true disciple of Jesus. In 1994 Dallas invited me to coteach a class with him at Fuller Seminary in the doctor of ministry program. I accepted, and went on to teach that class with him for ten years. The class met for eight hours a day for two weeks each summer. I was just a glorified teaching assistant; Dallas taught 90 percent of the class. This meant that I was able to sit and listen to him teach for about seven hours a day over the course of ten days—about seventy hours. And I did this for ten years, which means I have heard Dallas teach on God, the kingdom of God, the Bible, the spiritual disciplines and life in general for over seven hundred hours!

Some of the finest teachers have poured their lives and their teaching into me, a nobody from nowhere, and I am most blessed. I suppose that is the way Christianity has worked from the beginning. Jesus took twelve nobodies on a three-year camping trip and invested his life in them because he believed in them. The influence of all of these people—Richard, Henri, Rich, Brennan and Dallas—on me is so strong that I am not sure I have any ideas that were not shaped by theirs. Their fingerprints are all over the book you are holding. I have studied all of their books, listened to their sermons, songs and lectures on tapes and CDs, but I can honestly say that it has been the one-on-one time spent with each of them that has influenced me the most. The long hikes with Richard, letters exchanged with Henri, nightlong discussions with Rich Mullins, lingering dinners with Brennan and ice-cream-eating sessions with Dallas (he likes vanilla—who orders plain vanilla?) are deeply imbedded into my soul.

How This Book Came to Be

This book is the culmination of twenty-five years of learning from these great men. In particular, the idea for this book started soon after I began working with Dallas. He kept talking about the need to create “a curriculum for Christlikeness” for individuals and churches. His blueprint for such a curriculum can be found in the ninth chapter of his great book The Divine Conspiracy. Even as he was developing that chapter, I kept pressing him with the question, “Can this really be done, Dallas?” He would say, “Yes, of course.” Then I would ask, “Why don’t you do it?” and he would say each time, “Because I think you should do it, Jim.”

No pressure.

In 1998 I began creating a curriculum based on Dallas’s simple blueprint for a course in learning to live as Jesus taught us to live. In 2003 I went to the church leadership board of the church where I attend (Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, Wichita, Kansas) and asked them if I could invite some people in the church to go through this curriculum with me. They eagerly agreed, and the first year I led twenty-five people through the thirty-week course. Midway through that year I began to suspect that Dallas was right all along. Genuine transformation into the character of Christ really is possible.

Since that time I have led another seventy-five people through it, and the results have always been the same: significant life change. In church, spouses come up to me and say, “What are you doing to my husband—he is a different person! He is more patient and more attentive to our whole family than ever before. I don’t know what is going on, but you can be sure I am taking the course next year.” In addition, this curriculum has been used by high school students in youth groups and college students on campus. When people ask me who the target audience is for this material, I always say, “Anyone who longs for change—young or old, new Christian or mature Christian, male or female, it doesn’t matter.”

The Beginning of a Series

The book you have in your hand is the first book in The Apprentice Series, which along with two other books form a “curriculum for Christlikeness.” The aim of this first book is to help people discover the God Jesus revealed.

Each chapter deals with false concepts and the true one, namely, the narrative of Jesus. Each chapter also contains a soul-training exercise to help imbed the narrative of Jesus more deeply into our minds, bodies and souls. These exercises are not meant to make you more religious or impress God. They are meant to help you see and understand the world as Jesus did. At the end of the chapter there is a page that highlights the main ideas in the chapter. Throughout each chapter are questions that can be used for individual reflection or group interaction and discussion.

This book is titled The Good and Beautiful God because the focus is on the character of God and how we move into a life of intimacy with God. The second book in The Apprentice Series is titled The Good and Beautiful Life, which introduces the reader to the kingdom of God and focuses on our inward character, dealing specifically with the vices that cause ruin: anger, lust, lying, worry, judging others and so on. Following the Sermon on the Mount, this second book will look at the narratives behind these character flaws (for example, What are the narratives that lead to anger?) and will replace those narratives with Jesus’ narratives about life in the kingdom of God. As with this book, each chapter will contain an exercise that is aimed at helping imbed the proper narrative into our souls.

The third book in this series is titled The Good and Beautiful Community. The focus of this book is to help us learn how to live as apprentices of Jesus in our ordinary, everyday lives. How do I live out Jesus’ kingdom vision in my family? What impact will my life with God have on my life at work? In what ways can I, as a Christ-follower, change the world I live in? What will loving my enemies and blessing those who curse me look like in my daily life? Ultimately it all comes down to this: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6), at home, at work, in our community and on our planet.

But it all starts with knowing the God Jesus knows, and loving God with every fiber of your being. This is the spring and the foundation of the other two books, and in fact the entire Christian life. This may be the only book you read in this series, and if so, I pray that somehow your “love of God” ring brightens.

How to Get the Most

Out of This Book

This book is intended to be used in the context of a community—a small group, a Sunday school class, or a few friends gathered in a home or coffee shop. Working through this book with others greatly magnifies the impact. If you go through this on your own, only the first four suggestions below will apply to you. No matter how you use it, I am confident that God can and will accomplish a good work in you.

1. Prepare. Find a journal or notebook with blank pages.

You will use this journal to answer the questions sprinkled throughout each chapter and for the reflections on the soul-training experience found at the end of each chapter.

2. Read. Read each chapter thoroughly.

Try not to read hurriedly, and avoid reading the chapter at the last minute. Start reading early enough in the week so that you have time to digest the material.

3. Do. Complete the weekly exercise(s).

Engaging in exercises related to the content of the chapter you have just read will help deepen the ideas you are learning and will begin to mold and heal your soul. Some of the exercises will take more time to complete than others. Be sure to leave plenty of time to do the exercise before your group meeting. You want to have time not only to do the exercise but also to do the written reflections.

4. Reflect. Make time to complete your written reflections.

In your journal go through the questions posed throughout and at the end of each chapter. This will help you clarify your thoughts and crystallize what God is teaching you. It will also help with the next part.

5. Interact. Come to the group time prepared to listen and to share.

Here is where you get a chance to hear and learn from others’ experiences and insights. If everyone takes time to journal in advance, the conversation in the group time will be much more effective. People will be sharing from their more distilled thoughts, and the group time will be more valuable. It is important to remember that we should listen twice as much as we speak! But do be prepared to share. The other group members will learn from your ideas and experiences.

6. Encourage. Interact with each other—outside of group time.

One of the great blessings technology brings is the ease with which we can stay in touch. It is a good idea to send an encouraging e-mail to at least two others in your group between meeting times. Let them know you are thinking of them, and ask how you can pray for them. This will strengthen relationships and deepen your overall experience. Building strong relationships is a key factor in making your experience a success.


What Are You Seeking?

Would you like to have abiding peace? Would you like to have a heart that is filled with love? Would you like to have the kind of faith that sees everything—even your failures and losses—in light of God’s governance for good? Would you like to have the kind of hope that endures even in discouraging circumstances?

If this is the life you most deeply desire, then this book is meant for you.

A lot of people want to change and would answer yes to these questions, but many of them do not believe it is possible. After years of trying and failing, they lead a Christian life of quiet desperation, longing for change and yet certain it will never happen. So they sit in their pews each week, sighing silently, resigned to their fate.

I used to think that way. I tried and tried and tried to change. I prayed and prayed, pleading with God, begging God to change me. All to no avail. I wanted to become the kind of person Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount—a person who loved his enemies and never worried about anything. But when I looked into my own heart, I discovered that I not only did not love my enemies, I didn’t even love some of my friends, and I worried about everything.

Describe your own experience with trying (and perhaps failing) to change. Could it be that the problem was not a lack of effort, but a lack of proper training? Explain.

Change came when, through two gifted mentors, I learned that transformation happens through training my soul. Richard Foster’s understanding of how the spiritual disciplines work and Dallas Willard’s understanding of how we interact with the kingdom of God are unsurpassed. The passion of my life has been to find the answer to this question: How do we become like Christ?

I have come to believe that the problem is not that we do not want to change, nor is the problem that we are not trying to change. The problem is that we are not training. We have never been taught a reliable pattern of transformation.

Peace and Joy in an Airport

Craig is one of the people who took part in the experiment in developing a curriculum for Christlikeness. After being involved in an apprentice group, Craig began to notice some real changes in his life in the way he behaved toward his family, friends and coworkers. He is a zoo architect, which requires him to travel a lot. One day he and his business colleague were flying back to the United States from Germany when they got stuck in the Atlanta airport and were told their flight home would be delayed several hours. Those several hours passed, and a few hours more, and then finally they were told the flight had been cancelled. The delay meant that there were no options to get home that night, and they would have to spend the night in Atlanta.

The anger level in the concourse was reaching a fever pitch. All of the passengers were forced into a long line to rebook their flights. Craig and his business partner stood in line and watched as each person spoke harshly to the young woman who was trying to help them. When it was Craig’s turn, he looked at the young woman, smiled and said, “I promise I am not going to be mean to you.” Her countenance softened, and she said softly, “Thank you.” Their exchange was pleasant, and he got their flights booked for the next day. As they walked down the concourse, Craig was smiling despite the disappointment. His business partner had been watching him. He said, “Craig, I have known you for a long time. A year ago you would have been enraged by what we went through today, and you would have lit into that woman at the counter.”

Craig said, “You know what, you’re right. But I have changed. I know who I am, and I know where I am. I am a person in whom Christ dwells, and I live in the kingdom of a God who loves me and is caring for me. I’m frustrated, but I’m still at peace. We’ll get home tomorrow. There’s nothing for us to do. Anger doesn’t help anything. I figure we might as well enjoy this unexpected turn of events.”

His friend just shook his head in amazement. “I’m not sure what you’ve been eating or drinking, but you have really changed.”

It was what Craig had been doing and thinking for the last year that brought about the change. Craig had followed his desire to become a different kind of person by signing up for the apprentice group and training for transformation. Craig was not alone. His desire to do the work, and the changes he experienced as a result, occurred only because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Not by his own willpower.

False Narrative: We Change by Our Willpower

When people decide to change something, they muster their “willpower” and set about trying to change some behavior. This nearly always fails. Approximately 95 percent of New Year’s resolutions are broken by the end of January. Most people assume, when they fail to keep their resolution, that they did not have enough willpower. They think of themselves as weak and feel badly about their failure.

That is unfortunate. The reason they failed was not a lack of willpower. In fact, the will actually has no power. The will is the human capacity to choose. Should I wear a red shirt or a blue one? we ask ourselves. Ultimately we choose the blue one, and our will is the hinge on which the decision is made. But the will does not actually do anything. If I could look inside you to find your will, I would never find it. It is not next to your gallbladder! It is not an organ or a muscle that can grow or atrophy.

The will is more like a beast of burden that simply responds to the impulses of others. A horse does not choose where to go, but goes in whatever direction the rider tells it to go. The will works like that. Instead of one rider, it has several. The three primary influencers on the will are the mind, the body and the social context. First, what we think in our minds will in turn create emotions, which leads to decisions or actions. Second, the body is a complex inner working of impulses that influence the will. Most of our bodily system runs without our help, but when the body has a need (food, water) it expresses itself to the mind through feelings (hunger, thirst) and alerts the mind to send a message to the will: Get food now. Finally, the will is also influenced by our social context. We are highly influenced by the people around us. We call this “peer pressure.”

The will is neither strong nor weak. Like a horse, it has only one task: to do what the rider (the mind, influenced by the body and the social realm) tells it to do. Therefore, change—or lack thereof—is not an issue of the will at all. Change happens when these other influencers are modified. The good news is that we have control over those other influencers. When new ideas, new practices and new social settings are adopted, change happens.

Jesus’ Narrative: We Change by Indirection

Jesus understood how people change. That is why he taught in stories. He used narrative to explain his understanding of God and the world: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” “A man had two sons . . .” If we adopt Jesus’ narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow. And the opposite is true. We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. We change by the process of indirection.

Peyton Manning practiced indirection. He was the winning quarterback of Super Bowl XLI. It was a rainy night, and the ball was slippery. Rex Grossman, the quarterback for the losing team, fumbled several times. But Peyton Manning never fumbled. A few weeks after the Super Bowl a reporter discovered that every few weeks during the year Manning has his center (the one who snaps him the ball), Jeff Saturday, snap him water-soaked footballs. He practices handling wet footballs so he will be ready in case it rains—even though his team plays half of their games in a dome. Manning did what he could do (practice handling wet footballs over and over) to enable him to do what he could not without this preparation (play great in the rain).

We cannot change simply by saying, “I want to change.” We have to examine what we think (our narratives) and how we practice (the spiritual disciplines) and who we are interacting with (our social context). If we change those things—and we can—then change will come naturally to us. This is why Jesus said his “yoke” was easy. If we think the things he thought, do the things he did and spend time with likeminded people, we will become like him, and it will not be difficult. If someone had asked Peyton Manning after the Super Bowl, “So, was it hard handling that wet football?” he would have likely said, “No. I practice that all the time when no one is watching.” That is the perfect illustration of indirection.

I believe there is a reliable method of changing our hearts. It is not complicated, nor is it difficult. It does not rely on willpower. We begin with the triangle of transformation. It involves four basic elements: (1) changing the stories in our minds, (2) engaging in new practices (3) in reflection and dialogue with others who are on the same path, (4) all under the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Figure 1. The four components of transformation

Step One: Changing Our Narratives

We are creatures who live by our stories. From early on we are told stories by our parents, which help us interpret how life is or how life ought to be. We are naturally drawn to stories and must follow them to their conclusion because stories are exciting. Jesus taught primarily in story form. One reason might be that stories are memorable. We may not be able to remember many (or any) of the Beatitudes, but we all can remember the story of the prodigal son.

When we have a significant experience—one that shapes us—we turn it into a story. For example, a powerful experience from childhood may have been a special birthday party where you got the gift you had been hoping for. You do not remember the event in exact detail. You remember it as a narrative—who was there, what was said, how you felt, what the cake looked like.

Narrative is “the central function . . . of the human mind.” We turn everything into a story in order to make sense of life. We “dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.” In fact, we cannot avoid it. We are storied creatures. Our stories help us navigate our world, to understand right and wrong, and to provide meaning (“So the moral of the story is . . .”).

What comes to mind as you read about narratives that have formed your way of thinking about the world?

There are all kinds of narratives. Family narratives are the stories we learn from our immediate families. Our parents impart to us their worldview and their ethical system through stories. Key questions such as Who am I? Why am I here? Am I valuable? are answered early on in the form of narrative. There are cultural narratives that we learn from growing up in a particular region of the world. From our culture we learn values (what is important, who is successful) in the form of stories and images. Americans, for example, are taught the value of “rugged individualism” through the stories of our past (the Revolution, the pioneers). There are religious narratives—stories we hear from the pulpit, the classroom and religious books that help us understand who God is, what God wants of us and how we ought to live. Finally, there are Jesus’ narratives, the stories and images Jesus tells to reveal the character of God.

We are shaped by our stories. In fact, our stories, once in place, determine much of our behavior without regard to their accuracy or helpfulness. Once these stories are stored in our minds, they stay there largely unchallenged until we die. And here is the main point: these narratives are running (and often ruining) our lives. That is why it is crucial to get the right narratives.

Once we “find” the narratives inside our minds, we can measure them against Jesus’ narratives. Because Jesus is the preexistent and eternal Son of God, no one knows God or the nature and meaning of life more than Jesus. Jesus’ narratives are the truth. He himself is the truth. So the key is adopting Jesus’ narratives.

Jesus revealed his Father to us. The New Testament reveals a God who is pulsing with goodness and power and love and beauty. To know the God of Jesus is to know the truth about who God really is.

In order to change we first have to change our minds. Jesus’ opening line to his first sermon was, “Repent [metanoia], for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Metanoia refers to the changing of one’s mind. Jesus understood that transformation begins in the mind. The apostle Paul said the same thing when he proclaimed, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, italics added).

Our family, cultural and even religious narratives might have their roots in the kingdom of this world. As Christ-followers we are called to “set [our] minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). Most of all, we are called to have the very mind of Jesus: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Adopting Jesus’ narratives is a way we come to have the mind of Christ. Once we get the right narratives in place, change will begin. But getting the ideas and information right is only the beginning.

Step Two: Practicing Soul-Training Exercises

Once we have the right narratives in place, we need to deepen them in the rest of our lives through specific activities that are aimed at making the narratives real not only to our minds but to our bodies and souls. You can call these activities “spiritual disciplines,” but I prefer to call them “soul-training exercises.” The reason for this is because the spiritual disciplines are actually not spiritual at all. Thinking they are “spiritual” leads people to practice them as isolated activities that are done in an attempt at making a person more “spiritual,” whatever that means. They are done with no specific aim, and are often done legalistically to gain the favor of God or others. The spiritual disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness. But they are wise practices that train and transform our hearts.

Have you practiced spiritual exercises (such as prayer, Bible reading or solitude) in your life, and if so, with what intention and what result?

Athletes understand the necessity of training. They run and lift weights and practice over and over so that they can perform naturally, easily and with strength in competition. Paul compared our Christian life to the training of an athlete in several passages (1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Timothy 4:7-8; 2 Timothy 2:5). In the same way, when we engage in the spiritual disciplines as soul-training exercises, we are doing so to change how we live.

The spiritual disciplines are meant to have a therapeutic effect. People who undergo physical therapy engage in exercises such as stretches and limb lifts to improve their ability. The way we practice these soul-training exercises should be the same. We do these things (even if they hurt a bit) because we want to improve how we function. They are an essential part of our soul transformation.

Step Three: Participating in Community

Human beings are community-dwellers. Just as the eternal Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit) live in community, so also we who are made in God’s image are meant to live and love in community. Unfortunately, however, spiritual formation is often approached as a very individualistic endeavor. We may tend to think of our spiritual growth as a personal pursuit, and not a communal activity.

What has been your experience of Christian fellowship or community?

Spiritual formation happens most profoundly in the context of a group. Participating in a group allows the influence of others to spur us on and encourage us (Hebrews 10:24). The best way to use this book to make a complete and lasting change is to go through it with others. Of course, you can read it on your own and do the exercises as you please, but my field-testing of this material reveals that the solo approach has less of an impact.

Step Four: The Work of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is often the member of the Trinity that gets the least attention. We pray to God the Father, and when we read about Jesus in the Gospels we can picture him in human form. But the Holy Spirit is not often the focus of our lives.

I have come to believe that the Holy Spirit is not upset about this.

The constant aim of the Spirit is to point us to the Father and the Son, and not to himself. Everything that happens to us in our Christian lives, however, is the work of the Holy Spirit. We become discontented with our lives, and it is the Spirit who gently nudges us toward Jesus. The Holy Spirit orchestrates the events of our lives with the single aim of making us disciples of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives in subtle ways, ways we cannot often discern. But the Spirit is at work nonetheless. The components of change happen when the Holy Spirit is at work in the midst of them.

The Holy Spirit and narratives. Jesus told his disciples that upon his departure and ascension God the Father would send the Spirit to be their guide: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is our unseen teacher who points us to Jesus and reminds us of his words. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is the one who is helping us change our narratives to Jesus’ narrative. He leads us away from false narratives and replaces them with true narratives: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

Even our conversion is dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Our decision to follow Jesus and accept him as Lord and Savior is only possible because the Holy Spirit has guided us into this truth. When we replace a wrong narrative, such as “God is an angry judge who is poised to punish us,” with Jesus’ narrative that God is a loving “Abba,” that too is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul notes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15-16). I love that phrase—the Spirit bears witness with our spirit. The Spirit changes our false narratives by bearing witness to the truth. The two most important relationships we have are our relationship with Jesus as Lord (Greek kyrios), and our relationship with God as our Father ( Abba in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke). We come to know Jesus as our Lord and God as our Abba only by the work of the Spirit who offers us these narratives of truth.

The Spirit and soul training. The Spirit comes alongside us, within us and around us as we engage in spiritual exercises. Every soul-training exercise we engage in would be of no value if it were not for the work of the Holy Spirit. When we open the Bible and begin to read slowly and listen for God, the Spirit illumines our mind and gives us a direct word from God. Even prayer, which we often think we initiate, is really the work of the Holy Spirit: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). When we pray, we do not pray alone. The Spirit has subtly prompted us to pray, preceding us in prayer, and then prays with and for us.

When we practice solitude or silence, when we engage in service or simplicity, it is the Spirit who is aiding us and encouraging us. When we come to a new discovery or awareness during our time of prayer or reflection in our journals, once again it is the Spirit who is whispering truths that transform us. This is not easy to detect, and often we only hear the echoes of the Spirit, but as we give ourselves more and more to God through these soul-training exercises, our ability to hear increases. Still, all of these exercises and activities would be worthless were it not for the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and community. The Holy Spirit is like a symphony conductor, orchestrating our communal life of prayer and worship and praise. But unlike a human conductor, the Holy Spirit endows each of us with gifts and graces that are meant to be used for the benefit of others (see 1 Corinthians 12). When we hear a sermon that touches our hearts, the Spirit is at work not only in inspiring the preacher but in softening our hearts and opening our ears.

In the book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit in every story as the early Christian community learns how to live together and participate in the ministry of Jesus. One of my favorite stories is about how the Spirit prompted the community to commission Barnabas and Saul (Paul) to go on a mission: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). Notice the context: they were together (community) worshiping and fasting (engaging in spiritual disciplines) when the Spirit spoke to them. The Spirit could have spoken directly to any one of them, but instead chose to speak to the community. Then they laid hands on Barnabas and Paul and sent them off.

How do you see the Holy Spirit interacting with the three other components of change?

When we gather together in Christian fellowship, the Holy Spirit is once again at work, often imperceptibly, with the single intention of leading us to a deeper love of Jesus and the Father. When I was leading one group through this material, I felt prompted to stop and use the last fifteen minutes of our hour together simply to pray with one another in small groups of three. I encouraged the people to share a bit about what they would like prayer for and then spend a few minutes praying for those specific needs. Within only a few minutes I looked around and heard people sobbing. We had been together for about fifteen weeks, but it was only when we opened ourselves up to one another and let the Spirit lead us that real community began to occur.

Transformation: the Fruit of the Spirit

What Craig demonstrated in the Atlanta airport was none other than the fruit of the Spirit. Paul offers us a list of virtues that come into our lives as a result of the work of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). We cannot grit our teeth and become patient. We cannot muster our willpower and become kind. We cannot stress and strain our way to generosity. This “fruit” is the work of the Holy Spirit. Like the fruit on a tree, it is developed naturally from the inside to the outside.

When the Spirit has changed our narratives sufficiently, we begin to think differently. As a result we begin to believe in and trust a good and loving God who is strong and powerful. We begin to see how Jesus lived a perfect life that we cannot live and offered that life to the Father on our behalf, setting us free from having to earn God’s love and favor. And as we engage in soul-training exercises— especially in the context of community—our confidence that God is at work in and among us increases. This creates an inward change that manifests itself in outward behavior.

Now, when faced with an airport delay, we can take a deep breath and remember who we are. Like Craig, we can endure these trials with love, joy, peace, patience and kindness.

Come and See

I love the story of how Jesus meets two of his first disciples. They had been disciples of John the Baptist, but John encouraged them to follow Jesus. When Jesus discovers they are shadowing him, he stops and asks a telling question. “ ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” (John 1:38-39).

Jesus simply asks what they are seeking. This is such an important question, one we should ask ourselves over and over. What is it that you really want? What we truly desire, what we are most passionate about, will determine how we organize our lives.

Notice the strange and illogical answer—“Rabbi, where are you staying?”—the disciples give to Jesus’ simple question, “What are you looking for?” Jesus, however, knows their hearts. They are following him because they are passionate about living a good and beautiful life, and they are hoping Jesus will lead them to it. Jesus answers with a simple yet profound answer: “Come and see.” He answers both questions—the one about where he is residing, and the one about what they are most seeking. He knows that if they follow him they will find what they truly want in life.

Jesus has called you to be one of his disciples. I know this because you are reading this book. The Holy Spirit has led you thus far through your desire for a deeper life, a more authentic faith and a more certain hope in the God Jesus knows. Jesus has invited you to become one of his apprentices. This is not because of your strength or skills, but because he knows that if you learn how to think as he thinks and to do the kinds of things that he did, you can live an amazing life. You may not move mountains or walk on water, but I have confidence that you can begin to learn how to be patient and kind, how to forgive those who have hurt you, and how to bless and pray for your enemies. That is just as miraculous as walking on water.

May you fall in love with the God Jesus knows.

Soul Training


The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion. We are living beyond our means, both financially and physically. As a result, one of the primary activities (or anti-activities) of human life is being neglected: sleep. According to numerous studies, the average person needs approximately eight hours of sleep in order to maintain health. This tells me that God has designed humanity to spend nearly one-third of our lives sleeping. This is a stunning thought. We were made to spend a large portion of our existence essentially doing nothing. The failure to do so results in damage to physical health, loss of energy and decreased productivity. And our sleep deprivation often hurts others. More people are killed each year by drowsy drivers than by drunk drivers.

In Dr. Siang-Yang Tan’s excellent book Rest, he quotes Arch Hart, who says simply, “we need rest more today than ever before in history.” Dr. Tan goes on to show how in the 1850s the average American slept 9.5 hours a night. By 1950 that number dropped to eight hours a night. Today the average American sleeps under seven hours a night. We have dropped under the needed amount of sleep, and we are suffering for it on several levels. A poll done by the National Sleep Foundation showed that 49 percent of American adults have sleep-related problems, and that one in six suffers from chronic insomnia. A physician friend told me that the most frequent prescriptions she writes for her patients are for sleeping problems.

In contrast, a study was done by the National Institute of Mental Health in which participants were allowed to “sleep as much as they could” each night, and on average people slept 8.5 hours. Those who participated in the study said they felt happier, less fatigued, more creative, energetic and productive. God designed us to be stewards of our lives—body, mind and soul. We must begin with caring for our bodies, which apparently require seven to eight hours of sleep each night. To fail to do so obviously results in fatigue and, consequently, failure in other areas of our lives.

What does this have to do with Christian spiritual formation? The human person is not merely a soul housed in a body. Our bodies and souls are unified. If our bodies suffer, so do our souls. We cannot neglect the body in pursuit of spiritual growth. In fact, neglecting our bodies necessarily impedes our spiritual growth. Everything we do in our lives, including the practices of spiritual formation, we do in and with our bodies. If our bodies are not sufficiently rested, our energies will be diminished and our ability to pray, read the Bible, enter solitude or memorize Scripture will be minimized.

The focus of this chapter has been to show how spiritual formation is a combination of our action and God’s action. We must do something, but we rely on God to provide what is needed in order to change. Sleep is a perfect example of the combination of discipline and grace. You cannot make yourself sleep. You cannot force your body to sleep. Sleep is an act of surrender. It is a declaration of trust. It is admitting that we are not God (who never sleeps), and that is good news. We cannot make ourselves sleep, but we can create the conditions necessary for sleep.

I have stressed that the disciplines are not ways to earn anything from God, but wise practices that allow God to teach, train and heal us. Sleep, therefore, is a kind of “anti-discipline” discipline. Begin with this exercise and continue practicing it throughout the time you work through this material (and, I hope, for the rest of your life). You will never come to a point where you are above the need for adequate sleep.

The Discipline of Sleep

At least one day this week sleep until you cannot sleep any more. If you need to, find a day when you can sleep in. Your aim is to sleep, or to stay in bed, until you can finally say, I am completely rested. I do not need to sleep or stay in bed a minute longer. You may need to solicit the help of others if you have family members who need your care.

If you are unable to do this exercise, try another: aim to get at least seven hours of sleep at least three times this week. This may require going to bed earlier than usual. The following are some tips to help you fall asleep:

Go to sleep at a consistent time each night.

Try not to engage in activities that increase stress (such as, perhaps, watching TV or spending time on the computer) right before bedtime.

If you are affected by stimulants (caffeine, spicy foods) avoid them in the evening.

Do not force yourself to fall asleep. If you do not feel drowsy, read a book, meditate on a psalm, listen to soft music, or sit up and gaze out your window until you do feel drowsy, and then go back to bed. Until your body is ready for sleep, tossing and turning in bed will not work.

If you awaken in the middle of the night, but do not have to get up, stay in bed. Give your body a chance to fall back asleep.

Even with these tips you might still have trouble getting sufficient sleep. If so, it might be helpful to consult your doctor to see if there is a medical explanation. You could also see a sleep expert for more advice, or perhaps visit a counselor or therapist to see if there is an underlying emotional problem that might be hindering you from sleeping.

For Reflection

Whether you are going through this material alone or with others, the following questions might be helpful as you reflect on your experience. Either way, it might be a good idea to answer these questions in your journal. If you are meeting with a group, bring your journal with you to help you remember your insights as you share your experiences.

Were you able to practice the discipline of sleep this week? If so, describe what you did and how you felt about it.

What, if anything, did you learn about God or yourself through the exercise?


God Is Good

I remember the first time I was invited to speak at a church that uses “call and response” in their worship services. The worship leader would yell out something, and the congregation would respond by shouting something back. Sensing that I might not be used to this, the pastor introduced me to the congregation and then said, “In order to prepare our guest for how we do things here, let’s engage in an antiphonal response we say every Sunday, and then let him try it so he can get his heart ready to preach.”

The pastor paused, then shouted, “God is good!” and the congregation shouted back, “All the time!” and the pastor then countered, “And all the time . . .” and the congregation finished, “God is good!” Then he said, “Jim will now lead us.” He pointed to the pulpit microphone where I, not used to shouting or being shouted at, squeaked out, “God is good.” To spur me on the people shouted back very loudly, “All the time!” Filled with either the Holy Spirit or adrenaline or both, I shouted back, “And all the time!” at which they yelled back, “God is good!”

In those days it was easy for me to shout “God is good!” Up until that point my life had been characterized by success and blessing. I had no trouble telling anyone that I believed God was good, truly and utterly good. I had lots of evidence: a loving family, health, a beautiful and wonderful wife, a healthy young son, a great career. Some twelve years earlier I had become a Christian, and from that moment on God had been moving in my life in obvious ways. Saying, or even yelling, that God is good was easy and natural for me that Sunday morning. But all of that was about to change.

“Who Sinned?”

The news was stunning and breathtaking. The doctors told my wife and me that the little girl she had been carrying for eight months had a rare chromosomal disorder that would likely cause her to die at birth. We went home completely disoriented and full of tears. The doctors were so matter-of-fact in announcing this bad news that I wanted to grab and shake them and say, “This is our daughter you’re talking about, not some medical malfunction!” Up to that point in my life nothing terrible had happened to me. Now I was faced with one of life’s worst problems—dealing with the coming death of a child. How does a person survive this kind of news? How do you move from painting your child’s nursery to planning her funeral? How does a Christian, one who believes in the goodness of God, respond to something so tragic and heartbreaking?

It turned out the doctor’s prognosis was wrong. She did have a chromosomal disorder, but not one that was immediately fatal. Our little Madeline (ironically, her name means “tower of strength”) survived the birth but weighed only a few pounds, had a heart defect, was deaf and could not keep food down. The medical experts then told us she would not live more than a year or two. During that time both my wife and I felt as if we had been kicked in the stomach—repeatedly. It just would not end. One day a pastor I had known for years took me to lunch in an effort to comfort me. While I was in the middle of eating my salad he asked, “Who sinned, Jim, you or your wife?” I said, “Excuse me . . . what do you mean?” He said, “Well, one or both of you must have sinned at some point to have caused this to happen.”

I began thinking about the bad things I had done in my life, wondering which one of them could have made God angry enough to give us a child born with terminal birth defects. Could this pastor possibly be right? I wondered. I could think of at least a half dozen fairly egregious sins, but nothing illegal or highly immoral and certainly none worth making a baby pay for it. Then I thought, Maybe it was my wife! After all, he said one or both of us! Maybe she did something bad—what could it be? I let my mind wander in this fashion the rest of the afternoon and sank deeper into a mixture of remorse and sadness, anger and suspicion. As my mind wandered down this path, it seemed that Madeline’s birth was the sad sum of a simple cause-and-effect equation: God was balancing accounts or had some reason behind his actions. And to question or judge the rightness of God’s actions would be to add even more sin.

Have you ever been through a situation that made you doubt God’s goodness? If so, describe what happened and how you felt.

Madeline lived for just over two years, and then her little body finally gave up the fight. Over those two years, and the year after, people said some outrageously ignorant and tactless things to us. During the viewing the night before Madeline’s funeral, a woman said to my wife, “It’s okay honey, you can have another child.” The comments that started to bother me the most were the theological ones explaining what God was up to in all of this. “Well, I am sure the Lord had a reason for this,” several people said. “I guess God just wanted her in heaven more than he wanted her here,” said another. “Sometimes children are too beautiful for this earth,” said yet another. The God they talked about was too mean or too small. They wanted and needed to believe that there was a divine plan, but this plan painted a picture of a God who cared more for himself than he did for me. I was led by these Christian friends to believe that God was cruel, capricious and selfish.

Why does the author believe it is so important for our belief about God to be consistent with Jesus’ belief? Do you agree?

According to his journal, George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Quaker movement, sat down by a creek and sensed the Holy Spirit whisper these words to him: “There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.” I believe that Jesus can and does speak to our condition. My “condition” was obvious. I—along with my wife—had been faithful (though imperfect) followers of Jesus, and we were faced with one of life’s most painful experiences: burying our child. I have learned to ask myself this question when it comes to choosing the right narratives about God: Is this understanding of God consistent with the God Jesus revealed? What would Jesus say about our situation? Would he conclude, as did my pastor friend, that our daughter’s condition was the result of our sin?

An Ancient Narrative: The Angry God

The pastor who asked the question “Who sinned?” was operating from a narrative that has been around for several millennia. Nearly all ancient religions were built on a narrative that says we have to do something in order to get the blessings of the gods, and conversely, if we anger the gods we will surely be punished. The narrative can be summed up as, “God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished.”

Have you ever wondered how and when you would be punished by God for a particular sin? Or have you ever had something bad happen to you and wondered what you did to deserve it? Explain.

Not only is this narrative found in most primitive religions, it is also seemingly found in the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus 20:5 we read the following warning about idols: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” The rabbis in Jesus’ day taught this, and it was the dominant narrative among the people Jesus associated with. Bible scholar Raymond Brown notes, “The rabbis spoke of God giving men ‘punishments of love,’ i.e., chastisements which, if a person suffered them generously, would bring him long life and rewards.”

Though it has ancient Jewish roots, this narrative is also held by modern Christians. Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, two popular Christian televangelists proclaimed that God was punishing the United States, and New York in particular, for its sinfulness. Apparently the God of Jesus was so fed up with gays, lesbians, strippers, gamblers and drug dealers that he inspired a group of non-Christians to fly planes into buildings for him.

“God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished.” Do you agree with this state-ment? Why or why not?

This narrative is believed by more than a few people on the fringes of the faith; it is the most prevalent narrative about God among Christians. A study conducted at Baylor University concluded that this is the way most conservative Christians think about God. Approximately 37 percent of Christians believe that God is both “judgmental and highly engaged in the affairs of humans.” Like a divine Judge, God is watching us closely, eager to punish us for even minor infractions.

I have to confess that for many years I believed in this narrative. If I did something especially good—prayed for a long time or spent a day in community service—I would wonder, What blessing is God going to give me for my good works? If, on the other hand, I did something bad—lied to a friend or skipped church to play golf—I would secretly speculate when and how God was going to punish me. It was not until I was faced with the situation of dealing with my daughter’s congenital illness that I confronted this narrative. Surely our little Maddie had not sinned and caused this disease? And what possible sin could my wife or I have done that God would force a small child to suffer for it? Our situation drove me to look deeply into what I really thought about God. I went straight to the best God storyteller I could find. I turned my attention to Jesus.

Jesus’ Narrative

Jesus boldly proclaimed that his heavenly Father is good—good like no other: “There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:17). In all of his stories, Jesus describes a God who seems altogether good and is always out for our good, even if we cannot understand it. And what about the narrative that says God punishes bad people? Jesus was asked about this on two occasions. The first came when he was asked to explain two horrific events, one caused by human cruelty and one caused by a natural disaster.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)

You can hear the “punishing God” narrative in the question, Did they suffer because they were worse sinners? Jesus unequivocally says no. He shuts down this way of thinking. If there were any correlation between sin and punishment, he could have easily said yes. He used the tragedy not to explain how God punishes people but to remind them that there is a fate worse than death.

“Rabbi, Who Sinned?”

The second time Jesus confronts the “God punishes sinners” narrative hits close to home for me. Jesus encounters a man who was born blind, and is asked a question by his disciples: “ ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’ ” (John 9:2-3).

When confronted with someone’s suffering, have you ever wondered, What did they do to deserve that? Why is this response so common?

The rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that illnesses were caused by the sins of the parents or of the person who was suffering. Because this man’s blindness is congenital—he was born blind—they would assume that the blindness was caused by the parents. But some rabbis taught that a child could actually sin in the womb, so perhaps the man was at fault after all. Other ancient peoples who believed in reincarnation held that a sin in a previous life was the reason for congenital illness. Blindness, it was believed, was caused because the person had killed his mother in their previous life.

So how did Jesus respond? Did he affirm the passage in Exodus 20:5 and say that the blindness was caused by the man’s parents? Did he endorse the rabbinic position that perhaps this man committed a sin in the womb? Or did Jesus step outside of the typical Jewish narrative and say that the blind man must have done something bad in a previous life?

Jesus was given an opportunity to affirm the dominant narrative, but he refuses to affirm it. His statement that “neither this man nor his parents sinned” seems odd at first because I know no one who has never sinned. But that is not what Jesus means by this statement; he is making it clear that there is no correlation between someone’s sin and his or her infirmity. He could have said, “Yes, it was his parents’ fault. They ran after other gods, and my Father is taking it out on their child.” He could also have said, “It was his own fault. When he was in his mother’s womb he had some covetous thoughts, and so God made him blind.” Let me emphasize again: Jesus did not say anything like this.

What is more, Jesus heals the man of his blindness. The implications of this are far-reaching. If Jesus believed the man’s blindness was a fair and just punishment for his sins (or his parents’ sins), he would have walked away. Justice would have demanded it. Instead, Jesus healed the blind man, and so revealed the power of God. New Testament scholar Merrill Tenney concludes:

Jesus refused to accept either alternative suggested by the disciples’ question. He looked on the man’s plight, not as retribution for some offense committed either by his parents or himself, but as an opportunity to do God’s work. Jesus did not consider the blindness as punishment or a matter of irrational chance; it was a challenge to manifest God’s healing power in the man’s life.

It Rains on the Righteous, Too

Jesus clearly abolished the notion that we “get what we deserve.” According to Jesus, God is not in the business of balancing some eternal checkbook. In another place Jesus uses a famous phrase to show that God treats all people the same: “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

Jesus is telling us an obvious truth: just as sunshine and rain are given equally to saints and sinners with no distinction, so God gives blessings to all without regard to their behavior. Terrible things happen to wonderful people. Wonderful things happen to awful people. We cannot look around the world we live in and build a case that sinners are punished and righteous people are blessed. Reality simply does not bear this out.

There Is No Justice in This Life

I think I know why the narrative of the “punishing-blessing god” is so prevalent and popular. We like control. This narrative allows us to live in the illusion that we can control our world, which is very appealing in our chaotic existence. This, though, is a form of superstition—don’t walk under a ladder, break a mirror or let a black cat cross your path. We know deep down that superstitions are silly, but that does not prevent us from believing in them.

The belief that God punishes and blesses us for our actions is not only superstitious, there is no evidence to support it. Augustine of Hippo, living in the fourth century, points out an obvious problem. He wrote:

We do not know why God’s judgment makes a good man poor, and a wicked man rich. . . . Nor why the wicked man enjoys the best of health, whilst the man of religion wastes away in illness. . . . Even then it is not consistent. . . . Good men also have good fortune and evil men find evil fortunes. . . . So though we do not know by what judgment these things are carried out or permitted by God, in whom is the highest virtue and the highest wisdom and the highest justice, and in whom there is no weakness nor rashness nor unfairness, it is none the less beneficial for us to learn not to regard as important the good or evil fortunes which we see shared by good and evil persons alike.

I love Augustine’s honesty—we do not know why God allows this to happen. And he also points out that good things do happen to the good, and bad things also happen to those who are bad.

Name some of the “peculiarly good” consequences (character, disposition, reputation) that are a part of the lives of those who do good.

Take infertility, for example. I know some really fine, faithful couples who cannot conceive a child, and it brings them pain and shame. Today I read in my local newspaper about a mother who prostituted her little girl for drug money. Why was that woman blessed with the ability to conceive, while my friends were not? So should we conclude that good people always suffer and bad people never do? Of course not. Bad people also suffer, and good people prosper. Clearly there is no way to make sense of it all, no system to explain the whys.

The Good Only the Good Know

Even so, Augustine still continues to believe that God possesses the “highest virtue and . . . wisdom and . . . justice,” and that God is neither weak nor rash nor unfair. He concludes by saying that it is not “beneficial” to spend our time worrying about why good or bad things happen. It is not worthwhile because we simply cannot know. And more importantly, it will keep us from focusing on the right things. Augustine concludes, “Rather we must seek out the good things peculiar to the good, and give the widest berth to the evils peculiar to evil men.”

We should focus our attention on “the good things peculiar to the good.” What does that mean? It refers to the blessings that are given only to those who strive to do good. That is the only justice, in a sense, we can count on.

For example, as I am writing this I am in Brazil working with two pastors. For years both have been serving, preaching to and offering love to the people in Rio de Janeiro and Campinas. Though I do not speak fluent Portuguese and cannot understand what people are saying to them, I have watched throughout the day as dozens of men and women who have been blessed by their ministries come forward to hug and thank them. Pastor Eduardo’s and Pastor Ricardo’s faces radiated with joy.

This is something unknown to those who do wrong. Those who are selfish and spiteful and mean will never know the feeling those two pastors know. It is something peculiar to those who do good.

Conversely, Augustine says that we should also “give the widest berth to the evils peculiar to evil men.” Those who are selfish and spiteful and mean are intimately acquainted with guilt, loneliness, remorse and self-hatred. They know what it feels like to have darkness surround and overtake them. This does not solve the problem entirely, but it gives us a glimpse into the goodness of God. God promises that those who love and serve, and are honest and faithful, will know a kind of joy and peace that those who are evil never will.

Still, God Is Just

We never know, in this life, why anything happens to any of us. If we are honest and objective we will have to admit that there is little justice in this life. Augustine offers one last word of wisdom about suffering. He tells us that one day we will understand:

When we come to Judgment Day not only will the judgments passed there seem to be most just, but all the judgments of God from the beginning will be likewise clearly fair. Then too it will also become clear how just the judgment of God is in causing so many—in fact, almost all—of his judgments to evade men’s grasp of understanding. Those who have faith will not fail to realize that such hidden judgments are just.

Does the fact that God has the final say in all of life offer you comfort? Hope? Frustration? Why?

If Augustine were my pastor he would say, “We cannot know these things here and now—they are beyond our grasp. But I believe that one day it will all become clear. One day you will fully understand why God allowed your daughter to be born with a birth defect and why she died young, and I believe that when you understand why, you will see that God was not only just, but good.”

Jesus Believes When I Cannot

I want to state clearly that it is not just the narratives of Jesus that have helped me, but Jesus himself has carried me along through my grief and doubt. Jesus not only explains suffering, he experienced suffering. He endured the worst kind of alienation possible as he hung on the cross, feeling that his Father had forsaken him. When we received the news about our daughter Madeline’s condition, I too felt forsaken by God. Jesus understands.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote this moving narrative: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

If you look closely at your Bible when you read this verse, you will probably notice a footnote after the phrase “faith in the Son of God.” The footnote in most modern translations reads, “or can be translated ‘the faith of the Son of God.’ ” This is because it seems to be a more accurate translation, and your Bible translators want to be honest. So why do most translations not read that way? I think it is because we tend to emphasize our faith in Jesus, and are not used to thinking about Jesus’ faith for us.

Jesus said his Father was good. Jesus also refused to affirm the idea that external rewards and punishments are given by God on the basis of our good or bad works. Rain falls on the good and the bad. Sometimes we pray for rain (for our crops), and sometimes we pray that it will not rain (for our picnics). Both good and bad people get rained on, whether they want it or not. Jesus faced suffering, rejection and alienation, and the people jeered at him as he hung on the cross, questioning whether God was really with him. And Jesus believed. And he believes for me. He believes even when we cannot. He prays even when we cannot. We participate in his faith.

I affirm with Paul that I have been crucified with Christ. I do not understand that mystery, but I know that Jesus is closer to me than I am to myself. Christ lives in me, and I live by his faith. I am not alone. This is something more than simply getting my narratives right. It is allowing Jesus to live in and through and for me. The love of the Father, the redemption of Jesus and the communion I have with the Spirit are not based on anything I do. It is a gift from the Holy Spirit to believe in a God who is good even when things look bleak.

A Reason for Hope

A few years after Madeline died I was in the middle of a day of solitude. My mind went over the last few years, thinking about the pain of hearing the news from the doctors, the countless sleepless nights on hospital floors, and the dark and rainy day we placed her body in the earth. I turned to God and said, without thinking, “Maybe it would have been better if she had never been born.”

That was when I received one of the clearest experiences of God responding to me that I’ve ever had in my life. On this day, at that moment, a little voice penetrated my mind, the voice of a little girl, a voice I had never heard but immediately recognized as Madeline’s. “Daddy, you should never say that. If I had never been born, I would not be here now. I am so happy here in heaven, and one day you and Mom and Jacob will come and see me, and we will live forever together. And there is more good that has happened because of me that you can’t see now but will one day understand.”

I immediately repented of my despicable thoughts and crumpled to the ground in tears. I was thankful to hear such words. Another narrative had entered my mind—the story about the promise of heaven. I was beginning to see how a person could face tragedy and still say “God is good to me,” to understand how Job could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15 kjv), and to know how Jesus could tremble in a garden and still call his Father “Abba.”

Two years after Madeline’s death my wife, Meghan, became pregnant. For eight months we lived with a lot of anxiety, mixed with a little faith. When it came time to have that final sonogram, our hearts were in our throats, bracing for bad news. The technician, who did not know our story, kept saying things we loved to hear: “Perfect hands . . . perfect heart . . . your baby looks just perfect. Do you want to know the gender?” We said yes. “It’s a little girl.” We both smiled. “What are you going to name her?” she asked.

At the very same moment we said, “Hope.”

In This World You Will Have Trouble

It has now been a decade since Madeline died. So much now seems clear to me in regard to the nature of God. God’s goodness is not something I get to decide upon. I am a human being with limited understanding, and as I grow and mature in my walk of faith I increasingly see how little I understand. In the end, I have the testimony of Jesus to stand on. My own experiences of disappointment with God say more about me and my expectations than they do about God. The goodness of God, I now see with greater clarity, is vast and consuming. Jesus never promises that our lives will be free of struggle. In fact, he said quite the opposite: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 kjv).

We should expect to go through heartache and pain, suffering and loss, because they are part of what it means to be human, and they can be useful in our development. As James said, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

I have grown much more through my trials than I have through my successes. I do not ask for trials, and I am not as deep in God’s kingdom as was James, so I don’t consider trials “nothing but joy,” but I am learning to trust God in the midst of them.

To be sure, I have been through a lot of trials over the past few years. I have not been asked back to preach at the “call and response” church, but I do not need a pulpit to proclaim that God is good. I know with certainty that God did not punish my daughter with a congenital illness because of the sins of my wife, me or my daughter. And I know that God is just. And I also hold fast to the hope of heaven, a place where wrongs are made right and where I will understand fully. I believe all of this because of the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. No matter where I am I can say with confidence, “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good!”

Soul Training

Silence and

Awareness of Creation

What can we do to help us know and experience the goodness of God? What kind of practices can we do to help us become aware of the God Jesus knows? There are two exercises that will help us begin to experience the goodness of God. The first involves slowing down, becoming quiet and learning to be present in the present moment. The second entails paying attention to the beauty that surrounds us.


Our world is noisy and hurried, and few of us stop to be still. The God who is good can only reach us when we are quiet. To paraphrase the psalmist, we must be “still” to know that God is “good.” This week I encourage you to try to find five minutes each day to sit in silence. Get a cup of something warm and delicious, find a comfortable chair, and just sit quietly. That’s all. It is not terribly difficult, but it yields great benefits. Some tips:

Look for little free spaces in your day, such as a break between activities.

Get up a little earlier or leave for your next appointment a little sooner so that when you arrive you will have extra time to find a quiet place and “just be.”

A lot of people find that their thoughts run to and fro during this time of silence. This is normal. Your mind is used to helping you solve problems; it is not used to being still. Here are two tips that will help with the crazy “thought monkeys” that plague the discipline of silence:

Have a notepad nearby to jot down things that may come to your mind, such as a phone call you need to make or the laundry that needs to be done. This will help quiet your mind.

You may want to “ease in” to the five minutes by reading the Bible for a minute or two.

It may seem challenging at first, but with a little effort you should be able to do this easily every day. I suspect that soon you will find this exercise increasingly important to your daily life. It will help you slow down and become present, more able to focus on God in your midst. It might lead you into a regular practice of developing “rests” that make the notes (your actions) in your life become beautiful music.

Awareness of Creation

Historically, great theologians have cited the created world and its beauty as the first sign of God’s goodness. Paul said as much in the opening chapter of his epistle to the Romans. Creation speaks of the goodness and glory of God through dazzling colors and intoxicating scents. The sunrises and sunsets are grand spectacles that happen twice each day and are seldom noticed by people too busy to look. God could have made an ugly world; he was not obligated to make a world that inspires awe. Beauty has a lot to do with order. Simply gazing at a daisy reveals the mind of God.

In her book Experiencing God’s Tremendous Love, Maureen Conroy advises us to “become deeply absorbed in creation” as a way of experiencing God’s goodness and love. She advocates this exercise experience: take a walk outside and pay great attention to the sights, sounds and colors of nature. If you have access, go to a park or some place that is relatively untouched by humans. Take something to write on and act as if you are on a mission to canvass a small area, jotting down everything you see. Pretend you’re trying to communicate what you are seeing to someone who has never been able to go outdoors and experience the beauty of the created world. Note the color of the birds, the symmetry of the leaves and the sounds of the wind. Think of God as a great artist and yourself as the art student, paying close attention to the detail of the artwork.

For Reflection

Whether you are going through this material alone or with others, the following questions might be helpful as you reflect on your experience. Either way, it might be a good idea to answer these questions in your journal. If you are meeting with a group, bring your journal with you to help you remember your insights as you share your experiences.

Were you able to practice any of the exercises this week? If so, describe what you did and how you felt about it.

What, if anything, did you learn about God or yourself through the exercises?

Was it hard for you to find five minutes for silence each day?

What stood out for you as you paid closer attention to the created world around you?


God Is Trustworthy

When my son, Jacob, was six years old, I took him to an amusement park. There were only a few people in the park that day, so we went from ride to ride without having to wait. We came upon a ride that I had never ridden before but I assumed was fun. After all, we were in an amusement park. We got in our seats and a teenaged boy buckled us in. Soon the ride started whirling and spinning us, faster and faster, jerking us around and up and down. I held on to Jacob as hard as I could, afraid that he would fly out of his seat. With white knuckles and gritted teeth I prayed the entire ninety seconds for the ride to end. I looked over at Jacob, who was laughing and having a great time.

When we got off the ride, I saw the name of it in bright red paint: The Scrambler, which was appropriate. Jacob said, “That was fun, let’s do it again!” I said no. (What I felt like saying was, “Not a chance! Ever again! I am the worst father ever! Please forgive me.”) We sat down on a nearby park bench, and I asked, “Weren’t you scared? That ride was pretty wild. Why did you get on a ride like that?” He answered with childlike honesty, “Because you did, Dad.” Right or wrong, that little guy trusted me. I was and am clearly not worthy of such trust. I love him and would do anything for him, and I would never put him in harm’s way intentionally. But I am a limited, finite, ignorant human being. In his eyes, however, being with me meant he was completely safe.

How would you describe your trust level when it comes to God? Have things happened to you that made you doubt that God is trustworthy?

That illustrated for me why it is so essential that we understand that God is trustworthy. The God Jesus reveals would never do anything to harm us. He has no malice or evil intentions. He is completely good. And the fact that God is also all-knowing and all-powerful makes his goodness even better. I can trust God, even if things look bleak. It does not matter that God is all-powerful or all-knowing if he is not all-good. If he isn’t all-good, I will never be able to love and trust him.

False Narratives

Not everyone believes that God is trustworthy. One afternoon I received a phone call from a young man who sounded as if he could not breathe. At first I thought he had just witnessed or been involved in a tragic accident. I was not well acquainted with him; he had heard me speak at a conference a few months before and found my teaching to be contrary to his own beliefs (our narratives collided). He called because he could not start his car. There was nothing wrong with the car; he was the problem.

“Dr. Smith, I need to know if what you said about God is true.”

“What, specifically, are you referring to?”

“You said that God is entirely good and loving and trustworthy and out for our good. I wrote down every word you said. Are you sure I can trust God?”

“Yes. I am certain. Why do you ask?”

“I haven’t been able to drive my car for the past few days.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m afraid that I might have some bad or evil or lustful thought in my head, and in the next instant I might die in a car crash. I’m sure that God will send me straight to hell because I won’t have time to repent.”

After we talked for a while, I probed to find out what kinds of stories he had heard about God while growing up. He told me that from the time he was a young boy, he heard his pastor—a man who represented God and spoke on God’s behalf—begging people, week after week, to stop sinning before it was too late. And if they did sin, they had better be sure to repent before it was too late. God hates sin so much that he would send a person—even a baptized believer—into everlasting punishment for committing a single sin. This narrative of the nature of God that had filled the young man’s mind from an early age was ruining his life.

I invited him to tell his story. The god of his narrative was not worthy of trust. To trust someone is to believe that he or she has your best interests in mind, that the person will protect you from harm and is reliable. This was not true of the god the young man had been exposed to. Instead of inspiring confidence and courage, his god made him afraid to drive his car. In the process of relating this narrative, he realized that the narrative he had accepted was not necessarily the truth about God.

Jesus’ Core Narratives

I encouraged this young man to compare his narrative of God with the God Jesus knows. Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Luke 10:22). Jesus revealed an enormous amount of information about his heavenly Father through a single word: Abba.

God as Abba. In the garden of Gethsemane, during his final hours before the crucifixion, Jesus addressed God using a unique title: Abba. This is key because Jesus’ use of this title reveals something important about the nature of the God he knew. Abba is best translated “Dear Father.” It is a term of intimacy, but it also contains a sense of obedience. The fact that Jesus addressed God with the word Abba tells us that, to him, God was not distant or far removed, but was intimately involved in his life. It does not in itself tell us that God is good (neither dear nor father necessarily means good), but as New Testament scholar C. F. D. Moule notes, “The intimate word conveys not a casual sort of familiarity but the deepest, most trustful reverence.”

What does Jesus’ use of the word Abba tell us about his relationship with God the Father?

Jesus uses this title in his address to God while facing the most difficult hour of his life. He prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Jesus is facing torture and death. In the Gospel of Luke we are told that he was in so much anguish his sweat became like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Yet he prays, “not what I want, but what you want.” How can he speak to God in this way at such a difficult moment? The only answer I can see is that he trusts his Father.

God is a good and loving Father, Jesus is telling us, and he is so good that we can obey him no matter what. But some people may ask, Why did Jesus doubt at all? He was God, after all! True, he was God, but he was also fully human. Incarnation (becoming human) implies limitation. Because he was fully human, Jesus experienced everything we do, which includes fear and doubt. But notice: even in the midst of doubt, in the moment of his deepest suffering, Jesus trusted in his heavenly Father.

God as Father. Jesus not only addressed God as Abba but also as Father. This has raised questions for some people: Does this mean that God is male? And what about people who have a bad, abusive or absent earthly father? What if they have a hard time addressing God as Father? And how can God be a father to Jesus? Did Jesus also have a mother?

At the end of a day of teaching on prayer, I closed the meeting with a prayer that began, “Dear heavenly Father . . .” A woman came up to me afterward, full of tears, and said, “I loved all that you taught us today about prayer, but when you started your prayer by calling God ‘Father’ you lost me. I had a terrible father, and I cannot think of God as my Father.” While I felt badly for this woman, not using the word Father is not the solution. The problem is that we begin with our understanding of what father means and then project that onto God.

How would you respond to a person who says, “I have trouble calling God ‘Father’ because my biological father was not very good”?

That is not how it ought to work. When Jesus describes God as his Father, we have to let him define what fatherhood means. Karl Barth is helpful here: “It is . . . not that there is first of all human fatherhood and then a so-called divine fatherhood, but just the reverse; true and proper fatherhood resides in God and from this fatherhood what we know as fatherhood among us men is derived.”

What does Barth mean? The Trinity existed before the world was created. Long before God made humankind “in his image, . . . male and female,” God existed as Father, Son and Spirit. The relationship between Jesus and God has been defined—by Jesus—as that of Father and Son. Their relationship existed before any human male had offspring. God as Father and Jesus as Son existed before any human father and son (or daughter) existed.

Therefore, fatherhood is first defined by God and Jesus, not by Adam and his children. This has tremendous implications—and a great deal of healing—for us. Many people, like the woman I mentioned previously, have been deeply wounded by their biological fathers, and this makes thinking about God as Father very difficult. The solution is not to abandon the term father but to let Jesus define it. Though Jesus tells a few parables in which there is a father (notably, the parable of the prodigal son), I think it is better to look at how Jesus prayed to his Father to understand what his Father is like.

Our Father

Jesus reveals the nature of the God to whom he prays in the content of his prayer. His disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, presumably because Jesus’ prayer life was vibrant and passionate. Jesus responded to the request by teaching them a prayer that is familiar to many:

Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)

He tells us to begin our prayer by addressing God as “Father,” which is what he did, but note this: the fatherhood of God is defined by his prayer. What do we learn from his prayer?

First, we learn that God is near: “Our Father in heaven.” In Jewish cosmology heaven did not refer to a place that is far away; heaven referred to the surrounding atmosphere, the very air they breathed. (Remember at Jesus’ baptism when “heaven” was opened? It was not far away!) In short, God is present.

Second, we learn that God is holy: “hallowed be your name.” Holiness has to do with purity. Jesus is teaching us that there is nothing bad about God. God can neither sin nor participate in evil. In one word, God is pure.

Third, we also learn that God is the King who rules heaven: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Kings have power over others, and God is “the King of kings.” In short, God is powerful.

So far we are not told anything that would lead us to believe that God is looking out for our good. People have believed in many gods who are in their midst, who are holy and powerful yet not necessarily caring. It is in the next few petitions that we discover the compassionate nature of the God of Jesus.

Fourth, we learn that God is one who cares for us: “Give us . . . our daily bread.” We have a God who makes rain and sunshine and a great bounty of food for all of his creatures—even the birds of the air. Thus we learn that God provides.

Fifth, God is one who forgives our trespasses. As Richard Foster notes, “At the heart of God is the desire to forgive and to give.” God loves to forgive, even more than we long to be forgiven. In a word, our Father pardons.

Sixth, we learn from the Lord’s Prayer that God rescues us from trials and evils—“do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” God is present and powerful because he longs to protect us. Though we will suffer problems, accidents or trials, God gets the last word. Nothing can happen to us that God cannot redeem.

Jesus’ Father is nearby, holy, powerful, caring, forgiving and our protector. These attributes provide strong images of who God is and what fatherhood means. And we now have a way to define the Father’s goodness. We also have a way to measure what true parenthood ought to be. A good parent, be it a father or mother, ought to possess these six characteristics.

Of the six aspects of the nature of God the Father (present, pure, powerful, provides, pardons, protects) as seen in the Lord’s Prayer, which do you most need to see and understand about God?

As a father, I try hard, but often fail, to reflect each of those six characteristics. I am near to my children, but sometimes I am distant, preferring to read the newspaper than play with them. And my work sometimes takes me far away for weeks at a time. I also try hard to be good and pure, but I fail miserably at times, snapping at them for minor infractions and being petty and selfish. I try to be strong for my kids, but sometimes I am scared and confused, just as they are. I do a decent job of providing for them, but sometimes I provide too much and spoil them. I forgive them, but I catch myself bringing up their past mistakes. And I try to protect them, but I am woefully aware that I cannot protect them from all enemies that lurk about. My children, my wife and most of my friends would rate me as a decent father. Every Father’s Day both of my children write me cards and say, “You are the best dad ever.” But I am aware of my deficiencies and pray that my children do not suffer because of them.

My point here is that God’s fatherhood must define what human fatherhood ought to look like, and not the reverse. The “How to Be a Good Dad” booklet I keep on my bedside table has some nice tips (“Play with your kids” and “Listen to them”), but I would do a lot better drawing near to my heavenly Father and allowing him to shape my heart into his image. The way God is Father to me teaches me how to be a good father to my children.

The woman who could not pray to God as Father had a horrific childhood, marked by an abusive and distant father. When she projects her idea of a father onto God, she sees someone she could never love or trust. Telling her to just “get over it because Jesus called God Father and so must you” would be cruel. The better solution is to encourage her to let Jesus define what Father means and thereby come to know the God Jesus knows. In doing so, she might find healing.

The God that Jesus reveals is not only a perfect reflection of what fatherhood ought to be but motherhood as well. Sometimes we think of fathers as strong and stern providers, and mothers as gentle and meek supporters. But in Jesus’ description of the Father we see a perfect balance of all of these characteristics. A good mother would be one who is near, whole, strong, giving, forgiving and protecting. In fact, a good person, male or female, single or married, with or without children, possesses these characteristics. Jesus is also a reflection of the Father, so when we see him we see God the Father. In Jesus we see a perfect balance of all of the characteristics of goodness. Jesus is indeed gentle, but he is also strong when needed.

Finding Our True Father

I met a pastor from England whose own story beautifully illustrates what it means to trust God as our Father. I asked Carl how he came to be a Christian. He said that when he was growing up he seldom went to church. He was very close with his dad, though. When he was fourteen, his father died in a tragic accident at work, which completely shattered Carl’s life. To numb his pain, he started getting into a lot of fights at school and soon was abusing alcohol. But nothing seemed to work.

When Carl was seventeen a friend invited him to what Carl thought was a party, complete with binge drinking, so he agreed. It was actually a “Christian house party,” which is common in England and is more like a retreat. People go to a big home and hang out for a few days of conversation, worship and recreation. When he found out, it was too late to turn back. After the first two days he still felt bitter toward God. But during a time of worship on the final day, Sunday morning, he heard a distinct voice that said, “I am your Father. Come to me.” Carl said he immediately began to sob, and for the first time since his father died his heart began to heal.

All of us have to face pain and difficulty, sometimes even tragedy. As we come to know and draw close to the God Jesus knows, we find a new kind of strength to deal with our struggles. If we do not know God as our Abba Father, then we will never have the courage to face our problems. But as we come to know the good and beautiful God that Jesus knows, our struggles take on a whole new meaning. If God is truly good and is looking out for our good, then we can come to him with complete honesty. We can practice honesty when we pray—baring our soul and confronting those hurts that make us doubt God’s goodness by handing them over to him for healing.

What Is Your Cup?

What is your “cup”? How have you dealt with it? What did you learn about God or yourself through that experience?

Earlier in this chapter I mentioned how Jesus faced a difficult situation in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked his Abba to remove his “cup” from him. The cup represents the things that are forced on us in life. We all must ask, What is my “cup”? What aspect of your life makes it difficult for you to trust God? Were you hurt by a divorce? Have you suffered loss? Are you unable to find a life partner and struggling with the prospect of lifelong singleness? Have you experienced the death of a loved one? The death of a dream? The loss of a business? The loss of some physical capacity?

A “cup” is anything that we struggle with accepting as our lot in life. And our cup is usually the thing that makes it difficult to believe God is good. Being told by our doctors that our daughter would be born with terminal birth defects was the first of many cups for me. Like Jesus, I faced something that conflicted with own desires. I wanted a healthy daughter. Would I be able to say, “Abba, Father” when I prayed?

Some years later I read Thomas Smail’s interpretation of what Jesus was going through in the garden of Gethsemane, and how he was able to trust God in the midst of his pain. It helped me understand something important about trusting God, and it answered a question people asked of me: “Jim, how can you still trust God after what you went through?” For years I did not know how to answer this question, but now I do. Smail explains:

The Father that Jesus addresses in the garden is the one that he has known all his life and found to be bountiful in his provision, reliable in his promises and utterly faithful in his love. He can obey the will that sends him to the cross, with hope and expectation because it is the will of Abba whose love has been so proved that it can now be trusted so fully by being obeyed so completely. This is not legal obedience driven by commandment, but trusting response to known love.

He states it well: our relationship to the Father is a “trusting response to known love.” Jesus knew he was loved by his Father and was therefore able to trust him through the pain. The reason Jesus could trust God in his darkest hour is because he had lived closely with his good and beautiful Father for all eternity. I now see how love that has been proved can be trusted even when things don’t make sense. So when I encounter a world full of tsunamis and child molesters, airplane crashes and methadone-addicted moms, I don’t try to force myself to say all is well. Rather, I say, “Jesus trusted his Abba, and I will also trust in the God I know to be good.”

Joining Our Narrative with God’s Narrative

The day that our daughter died came unexpectedly. She had not responded well to surgery, and her body began shutting down. Madeline had done this before but always managed to recover. Still, I came quickly to the hospital from a worship service, and fortunately I was accompanied by my friend Father Paul Hodge, who is a priest in the Orthodox Church in America. As Madeline lay dying, Father Paul prayed with my wife and me. From his prayer book he chose a prayer with ancient roots and deep theological teaching. The following is the exact prayer he prayed:

Our thoughts are not Your thoughts O Lord, and our ways are not Your ways. We confess to You that we cannot see Your divine hand in the suffering of Madeline. Help us, we beg You, to see that in this evil there is some purpose, beyond our grasp and comprehension. Our minds are con