Intro: Comedian Pete Holmes grew up in a conservative Christian home. As he grew up, he was what many people would call a “good” Christian, that is, he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he didn’t have sex before marriage. He went on mission trips, he played bass on one of the worship teams at his church and his Mom wanted him to become a youth pastor. He got married and things were going well. Then his wife left him for another man and Pete ended up walking away from the Christianity of his youth. In an interview with CNN, Pete said, “I felt like the Lord had not held up his end of the bargain, and I was [angry].”[i]
What makes this story even more tragic is that Peter Holmes is not alone. Many people are leaving the Christian Church in these times because, as they grew up in the church, they were taught a view of Christianity that did not work later on, based on their personal experience as adults in the real world.[ii] They may have been taught, or they may have misunderstood, that if they do all the right things, God will give them a great life. But sometimes a person can do all the right things and life still throws you a curve ball, like when your spouse or a close friend betrays you, when someone you love very much is critically injured or seriously ill, or when you pour your life into a business or a job and it ends up being taken away from you. When your posture towards God is that you do the right things with the expectation that he will give you a good life, you don’t have a framework for life that works when life takes a challenging or tragic turn. So the conclusion that many people with this posture, this way of relating to God, often arrive at is that they have been taught something that isn’t really true.
Something is obviously wrong with this picture. One of Jesus’ followers, John, records Jesus in John 10:10 as saying, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” And yet there are people who have tried following Jesus, or are following Jesus, and they are not experiencing a rich and satisfying life. What is going on?
Answering that question is the reason for a new series of blog posts called “Life With God” based on a book by Skye Jethani titled With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. This series will look at the reasons why people are not experiencing the rich and satisfying life that Jesus came to give to us and also reflect on ways that people can experience the full, abundant life that Jesus came to give to us. In a nutshell, here is the main idea behind the series: People tend to adopt a posture or a way of relating to God that falls short of the way that God wants us to relate to him. When we are able, with God’s help, to abandon our present posture towards God and embrace the posture of what Jethani calls Life With God, a posture based on relationship, then we experience life with God in a much different and better way than we did with our former way of relating to him. As we live life with God, we will experience a peace, joy and richness from God that we would not otherwise have. The desire to share this life with others is the motivation behind this series called “Life With God.”
I. Religion as a way to deal with our fears
Let’s begin our reflections by looking at a very early phase in human history. As we look at the creation account in the Bible, we see that, in the beginning God created everything good. In fact, as he capped off his creative work by making the first human beings, God gazed upon his creation and said that it was “Very good!” (Gen 1:31). And God gave human beings a mission: They were to be God’s representatives in this world, taking good care of God’s creation and extending God’s good and gracious rule over all things.
But, as we read in Genesis, chapter 3, the first human beings were tempted into rebelling against God. The motivation behind their rebellion was to liberate themselves from God and become gods themselves. As a result, life became hard, full of struggle, strife, conflict, pain and suffering. Instead of living in peace with God and with each other in the Garden, human beings were now surrounded by and filled with chaos. Life became filled with fear and people began to turn to some form of human religion to try to deal with their fears.
People sometimes say that all religions, even though they begin in different places, lead to God. But it would be more correct to say that all religions begin at the same point, and then branch out in different directions and therefore end up looking quite different. And the common starting point that all human religions share is fear. Because we live in what many consider to be a dangerous environment, fear is a reality in our lives. This was especially the case in times past when human beings lived a subsistence existence, never knowing where their next meal would come from, and that is still a reality for people in certain parts of the world today. But fear still is a clear and present danger for us who live in first world conditions. We may not need to be afraid of a lion wandering into our village and taking away our children, but we might be afraid of that guy with a BC Lions sticker on his pickup truck who could wander over into our lane and cause an accident that would take our children away. We may not fear a crop failure and having no source of food, but we might fear losing our health and not being able to work and then losing our source of food. We may not need to fear being a casualty in an attack from a hostile neighbouring tribe, but we might fear being a casualty in a takeover from a hostile neighbouring company.
And the way that human religion works is that it seeks to deal with our fears by gaining control through a relationship with God. This results in four religious postures, or four ways of relating to God, that we find in all human religions, but the same thing can happen in Christianity when we take a secondary aspect of the Christian faith and made it the main way that we relate to God. It, in effect, becomes our religion and our activity becomes the way that we get what we want from God.
So let’s take a brief look at each of these four religious postures.
The first posture that we are going to look at is called LIFE UNDER GOD. People with this posture see the cosmos as being ruled by the capricious will of God and the way to gain control is through ritual and/or morality. The goal of this posture is to manipulate God through our obedience to obtain his blessing in our lives and to avoid calamity from falling upon us. This is the posture that Pete Holmes had towards God. He felt that he had kept his end of the bargain by living a moral life, but God did not keep his by allowing Pete’s wife to leave him. The irony of the LIFE UNDER GOD posture is that it can make life in this world more dangerous, instead of less so, when entire faith communities life a LIVE UNDER GOD posture because then the disobedience of others can be understood as the cause of calamity for the community and so those who fail to measure up must be isolated and punished. The Salem witch trials and the 9/11 attackers both rose out of faith communities with a LIFE UNDER GOD posture.
The second posture that we are going to look at is called LIFE OVER GOD. People with this posture see the cosmos as being governed by unchanging rules or principles and the way to gain control is to discover those principles and then follow them. With this posture, you don’t even really need God once you have the principles. All you have to do is follow the principles to get the results that you want. This is the posture that Adam and Eve were drawn towards by the temptation in the garden. If, they thought to themselves, we simply eat the fruit from this one particular tree, we will be able to have what we want and we won’t need God anymore. The LIFE OVER GOD posture is somewhat ironic because there are both Christians and atheists who have this same posture. They would get their principles in different ways and they would see the results as coming from different sources, but the approach is the exactly the same. They see the cosmos as a being an interconnected web of cause and effect. When you do the right thing, you will get the result you desire.
The third posture human beings adopt to try to gain control in the face of fear is LIFE FROM GOD. This posture sees the self with its desires at the center of the universe. God’s purpose, it is believed, is to give us what we want and, by cajoling God to do that, we can gain control by amassing for ourselves large amounts of property and possessions which then we can use to protect ourselves in the event of calamity. This is the posture of the younger son in the story Jesus told in Luke 15. The goal of the younger son was to get his share of his father’s estate and he demanded it while his father was still living. This was something so shameful in that culture that a real-life demand like this could be punishable by death. The younger son did not care. He wanted the father’s stuff, but he didn’t want the father. LIFE FROM GOD is a common faith perspective in our self-centered, wealth-focused, consumer culture and proponents of what is called the Prosperity Gospel tap into this by promising blessings from God to those who believe.
People with the fourth posture towards God, LIFE FOR GOD, see God’s divine mission at the core of the cosmos and we gain control by using God and his mission to give us a sense of purpose and fulfillment. We manipulate God by appeasing him and we gain his favor and blessings through our faithful service. This is the posture of the older son in Jesus’ story. He said to his father, “‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’” (Luke 15:29-30) The older son also did not want the father. He wanted the father’s stuff, and he strove to get it through obedience.
II. God is a Relational God
Now we are going to look at a fifth posture, which is not religious because it is based on a relationship with God, not on our activity. This fifth posture begins with God. The God described to us in the Bible, the God who really exists, is a relational God. We see that in the first verses of John’s biography of Jesus. Using “Word” as a nickname for Jesus, John writes: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning (John 1:1-2). This passage tells us that Jesus was with God and that Jesus was God and this is one of the Bible verses that reveal to us that God is one God who exists as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three persons live in relationship with each other and they form a community of perfect, self-giving love.
Then this three-in-one God created the world and all that exists, including us, but there is a very significant difference between human beings and all other created beings. After creating all the rest of creation, Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us” (Genesis 1:26a). This means that human beings were created for relationship, relationship with other humans and we were created for relationship with God. And God’s passionate desire is for all human beings to have a relationship with him. In 1 John 4 we read, “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
God is inviting us to abandon our old religious postures and live life in ongoing communion with him. When we live life with God, then we do not need to be anxious or afraid because we know that we are precious in the eyes of our heavenly Father. He knows what we need and we know that he will provide for us (see Mt. 6:25-34). When we live life with God, then we do not need to let our hearts be troubled even when death comes to claim us or a loved one because we know that Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us in our heavenly Father’s house (see John 14:1-6). When we live life with God, then it doesn’t matter whether the value of our assets goes up or down, it doesn’t matter if our health is good or bad, it doesn’t matter what other people say about us or what they do to us. What matters is that we have God and God has us. That is the most important thing in our lives and nothing can ever take that away from us.
Paul describes what it is like to live life with God in his words to us from Philippians chapter 3: Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ a nd become one with him. (Philippians 3:8-9a)
III. Treasuring, Uniting With & Experiencing Life With God
So how does a person live life with God? Here is an illustration that Skye Jethani uses in his book. [iii] Imagine that you want to buy a Mustang convertible. You begin by treasuring it. You think about it during all of your spare waking moments. Then you eventually save up enough money to buy it. You are then united with your dream car, but there is still one more step to go. You fire it up, put the top down, put it in gear and head out on the open highway and you feel the wind blowing through both of your hairs. Only when you have the experience of driving this car that you treasured and are united with. Only then will you have the experience of fullness of life with your car. So life with something or someone involves three steps: making it your treasure, being united with the object of your love, and then having the experience of being with them. We could say it is the same thing in marriage.
It is the same process in our life with God. First, God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world as his exact representation so that we could get to know God through Jesus. When we spend time with Jesus, get to know him and fall in love with him, we are also falling in love with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and then all three persons of the Trinity become our treasure.
Second, we are united with God because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to pay the full cost of forgiveness for all our sins so that we can be united with or reconciled to God. As Jethani writes, “[The cross] is more than a vehicle to rescue us from death; it transports us into the arms of Life. The cross is how we acquire our treasure. It is how we find unity with God.” [iv]
Third, we experience life with God through prayer. But we may need to change how we think about prayer because we tend to think about prayer exclusively as communication, that is, talking to God. But prayer is also communion, fellowship and being with God. And it is through prayer as communion that we experience life with God. We see this in the life of Jesus who would often go off by himself and spend long periods of time in prayer with his Father. But Jesus was also able to be in prayerful communion with his Father when he walked and taught and went about his daily life. Jesus was teaching us by his example how to live life on two levels. At one level, we are engaged with the world around us—talking, listening, and doing things—but at a deeper level we experience a constant communion with God. And the things that happen at that deeper level are the driving force for everything else that happens in our life. When Jesus would have his quiet times with his Father in the wilderness, his two levels would become one.
Now you may think to yourself, “That is impossible for me! Jesus may have been able to do it, but I certainly cannot.” At this point, I would say you are wrong. Let me show you why. How many people here have ever had the experience of engaging in an activity or carrying on a conversation with someone while, at the same time, worrying about something else? If you walk and worry at the same time, then you can live life on two levels. The key is to change your treasure from whatever it is now and make God your treasure. Then, knowing that you are united with God because of Jesus, you can use that back-of-mind function for communion with God instead of worrying about other things. This is what Paul meant when he called us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Conclusion: The Challenge that I want to leave with you today is to identify what is your present treasure. Ask yourself, what is it that you value most of all, what is it that you cannot possibly live without, what is it that you would give up everything in order to possess the object of your desire. And then, if your treasure is not already Jesus, then make Jesus your treasure. Spend time with him, fall deeper in love with him and let him work in your heart so that you love him more than anything else. Let him teach you how to live life on two levels so that you are able to live in ongoing communion with him.
In 1982, the Today show invited Billy Graham to come on the show for an interview. When he arrived, the producer of the show informed Graham’s assistant that there was a special room set aside for Mr. Graham to use for prayer. Graham’s assistant replied that Billy would not have any need for the room. Surprised, the producer asked why.
The assistant responded, “Mr. Graham started praying when he got up this morning, he prayed while eating breakfast, he prayed on the way over in the car, and he’ll probably be praying all the way through the interview.” [v]
Jethani writes, “Graham understood that his life with God was not on hold until his death. It was something to be enjoyed in the present through prayer. And while setting aside times of solitude for prayer was necessary, those minutes could not contain the fullness of his communion with God. He had learned to live all his life on two levels. On one level he engaged in the activities of the day, but on a deeper level he was in constant communion with his treasure.” [vi]
May it be the same for all of us. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on June 2, 2019.)
[i] Daniel Burke, “Comedian Pete Holmes was a good Christian guy. Then his wife left him, and things got weird,”CNN.com (Internet; available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/24/us/pete-holmes-comedian-religion/index.html; accessed on May 28, 2019).
[ii] Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 30.
[iii] Jethani, 107.
[iv] Jethani, 110.
[v] Jethani, 116.
[vi] Jethani, 116.