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Facing the Pain of Passionate Faith

People tend to consider me a passionate person.  

Maybe that’s why I love the word passion. In English, passion can mean to be fully engaged. The thesaurus lists the opposites of passion as indifference or casual interest. That’s because passion means to be committed with everything you’ve got. If you are passionate about something, all of you is wrapped up in it.  

As we look at our lives, usually the people who have had the most profound impact on us were passionate people. It’s passionate people who give the world symphonies and beautiful pieces of art. Our favorite books were written by passionate people. People of passion invent life-changing tools, discover life-enhancing medicines, and solve human problems. Passionate people aren’t conformers. They aren’t casually interested. They are completely immersed and give from the depths of their entire being.  

Jesus was a passionate person. He didn’t just engage the Pharisees in measured, polite debate; he challenged them, calling them hypocrites and a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7; 12:34; 23:33). He didn’t just quietly ask the Temple vendors to reconsider what they were doing; he overturned their tables, raging with a whip that they had turned God’s house into a den of robbers (Matthew 21:12-13; John 2:13-16).  

Jesus was full of passion, which makes following in the Jesus way a passionate endeavor. It isn’t easy. It’s not for wimps. It’s not about celebrating the joy of Easter every Sunday; it’s filled with Maundy Thursdays and Good Fridays.  

We can see the intensity of the Jesus way in Luke 22. Jesus goes with his disciples to the garden to pray. He has finished his last meal with his followers and is in need of some time alone. Jesus asks the disciples to pray that they might not be tempted (or as some translations say, that they might not enter into a time of trial). He then moves off by himself and begins to pray, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will, not mine” (Luke 22:42, NLT).  

In his humanity, Jesus was struggling. It was taking everything he had to come to grips with what lay before him. The struggle was great: “He was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44, NLT).  

Following in the Jesus way is not easy. It isn’t about getting what you want—not even for Jesus himself. In the garden, Jesus was pleading with God, “Do you have a ‘Plan B’? Can you think of some other way?” That sounds a lot like most of us. “God, this is what I’m facing; do you have a ‘Plan B’? Can you think of some other future that doesn’t involve having to go through this? Can you take this cup away?”  

So often we want a God who will soften the blow of our failures. I’m sure I am not the only one who has prayed for a life without pain. “Please, God, take this away from me. Protect me and keep me out of harm’s way. Make my children’s lives safe and secure.” But we can’t just celebrate the joy of Sunday and still follow in the Jesus way. We’ve got to experience sleepless nights.  

Jesus was experiencing a sleepless night in the garden. I’ve experienced sleepless nights, but usually I assume it’s because something is wrong. My assumption is that I shouldn’t have sleepless nights. The reality, however, is that following in the Jesus way with passion, becoming a passionate person for Jesus, involves losing sleep.  

As Christ followers, we often have certain preconceived notions about how life is supposed to be: If we do our part and play by the rules, life should turn out a certain way. The disciples felt the same way. They had been following Jesus for three years. They had left their jobs, their homes, everything they had. They had certain expectations about how the future was going to turn out; after all, Jesus was the Messiah. They had witnessed his miracles and healings, they had heard him preach and teach. He was the real deal. Now they were going to Jerusalem for Passover. What an exciting time this would be!  

But then they got this news from Jesus himself: “When we get to Jerusalem . . . the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans” (Mark 10:33, NLT). Great. That’s not what we expected. “They will mock him, spit on him, beat him with their whips, and kill him” (Mark 10:34, NLT). Wonderful. We can’t wait to get there.  

What happened is not what the disciples expected; and if we didn’t know the story so well, it’s probably not what we would have expected. From the beginning, it stunk. The betrayal stunk; the trial stunk. The disciples did what they never dreamed they would do: desert Jesus in his greatest time of need. To make matters worse, God was silent. Jesus, however, slips something in when he is telling the disciples about their upcoming weekend. He’s almost sneaky in the way he tacks it on at the end: “but after three days [the Son of Man] will rise again” (Mark 10:34, NLT).  

I think most of us are in favor of a God who brings people back from the dead. That’s our kind of God. Our problem is that we don’t always want God practicing on us. We want to skip the pain part. We prefer to pass over the death thing. Let’s just get right on to the eternal life part.  

But that’s not the Jesus way. God doesn’t dispense with death. God resurrects us from it. The truth is that the Jesus way isn’t about God taking pain away from God’s people; it’s about God providing us with strength, courage, and meaning, with abundant life, often in the midst of pain. We prefer to have no doubt, but God doesn’t make our doubt disappear; instead God gives us faith to cover our doubt.

Elijah: Faith that Acts

Committing ourselves to the Jesus way does not mean that we will be spared moments of crisis —moments when we are filled with fear and paralysis. However, we must be prepared and make use of the spiritual resources that God has provided. Elijah’s experience helps us understand those resources. 

God’s directions provide us with insight. God offers Elijah, and us, three specific spiritual resources: visioning, speaking, and acting

God’s third instruction to Elijah is significant for us: Act on faith 

God tells Elijah to go back the way he came (1 Kings 19:15).  

We cannot follow in the Jesus way until we act. Peter was transformed each time he acted on what he knew in that moment. Bit by bit, Peter’s actions of faith shaped and molded him into the true person God intended him to be—when he stepped out of the boat at the call of Jesus during a storm (Matthew 14:22-33; when he declared Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, at Caesarea-Philippi (Matthew 16:13-19); and when he began to preach to the crowds of Jerusalem (Acts 2:14-42).  

Holy Spirit power flowed though Peter when he acted on what he knew—offering the love of the resurrected Christ to all those who had rejected the earthly Jesus. Peter did not need to know it all, but he did need to act on whatever he knew at the time; and when he did so, his life was transformed.  

To follow Jesus up close, rather than at a distance, we must base our lives on the reality of faith rather than the reality of fear. We serve an awesome God, a God whose promises are steadfast and whose presence, while unseen, is everlasting. When we keep that vision of faith before us, when we declare our faith aloud giving it a life of its own, when we act on whatever faith God has provided us in the moment, we move to Jesus’ side; and we are able to walk with him in intimacy and power. 


Jesus in Real Time

Oh, there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not be presenting his own ideas; he will be telling you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by revealing to you whatever he receives from me. ~ John 16:12-14 (NLT)


One of our difficulties following Jesus is that we have co-opted Jesus for our own purposes, inviting him along on our journey rather than following him on his.  

Creating Jesus in our own image is an easy thing to do because for many of us Jesus isn’t real; Jesus is simply a two-dimensional caricature like those we have seen placed on felt boards to illustrate Bible stories—flat, lifeless, old-fashioned. We are tempted to recreate Jesus because Jesus is imprisoned in our memories, no longer an alive, vibrant part of our experience. Some would say that the church hasn’t helped us with this temptation, that in fact the church is often the very source of Jesus’ chains, having forged link after link of tradition to hold him. 

Many of us are confident we know Jesus because we know all the Bible stories about him, we have studied him, we’re familiar with what he did and said two thousand years ago. Because we know the Bible, we know what he said to the woman at the well. We know that he healed the blindness of Bartimaeus. We know that when he healed ten lepers, only one of those men came back to thank him. 

We know enough about Jesus to have trapped him, to have painted him as a still life: here he is blessing the children; here he is visiting with Mary and Martha; here he is frozen in time by the stories we know so well.

There were other folks who knew their Bible well too. They knew the stories of their faith. They knew the laws that governed their relationship with God. These folks brought a woman to Jesus. She had been caught in the act of adultery. She was the only one who was brought before Jesus by these people who knew their Bible so well. They knew that according to the Bible she should be executed for her sin, and they wanted to know what Jesus thought should be done (John 8:1-11).  Jesus’ reaction tells me that while these people knew their scriptures, they didn’t know him. Because after thinking quietly for a bit, doodling in the sand with a stick, Jesus challenged the one among them who was without sin to throw the first stone at the accused woman. Stunned, all in the crowd dropped their rocks and left.

On a later occasion, when two of Jesus’ disciples were walking to Emmaus, still reeling from the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, he made himself present to them, but they were unable to recognize him (Luke 24:13-16). What they knew was the past—Jesus had been killed—yet he was walking right beside them in the present, and they didn’t even realize it.

Are we like those two disciples? So much has happened to us, so much history has passed, that we are unable to recognize Jesus walking beside us in real time?  

Instead of experiencing Jesus’ presence, instead of hearing him fresh in our current circumstances, instead of tapping into the power that Jesus offers us right now, we’ve chained him to the past, draining him of his power for our lives right now and making him completely unrecognizable to us. It’s dangerous to live your life with a past focus, with a two-dimensional Jesus, because you may end up following a tradition instead of following Jesus, God’s living Word.  

Jesus promised never-ending presence—his Spirit, his power. He promised to provide us with a means for guidance, direction, and power, not just now but into the future, to the end of the ages. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not be presenting his own ideas; he will be telling you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.” (John 16:13, NLT)

If we are to follow in the Jesus way, we must recognize that Jesus offers more than sentimental memories and demands more of us as well. Jesus in real time is the only Jesus we can truly know. We can know about the Jesus who walked this earth two thousand years ago, but we can only truly know Jesus in real time through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Jesus we are called to follow, opening ourselves to his direction for our present and our future. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit that makes Jesus present to us now. It’s the Spirit that guides us into the future, outlining for us exactly how we are to follow. The disciples may have had the privilege of living in the presence of Jesus; but we have the privilege of having the presence of Jesus living in us.  

This is what Paul was desperate for us to understand when he said, “For this is the secret: Christ lives in you, and this is your assurance that you will share in his glory” (Colossians 1:27, NLT). Each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The problem for us as we follow Jesus is that we are looking “out there”—beyond us—when Jesus in real time, through the Spirit, is right here.

When we experience Jesus in real time, barriers are broken down, gates are opened, relationships are mended, bridges are built. When we allow the power of Jesus to escape the confines of statues and pictures, to actually touch us in the present and lead us into the future, lives are changed. Jesus calls us to follow him into the world. The test of our faith is not how it is contained within the church. The test of our faith is whether it can guide our experience in the world, in the here and now.  

We follow the one who has the power to set us free, to deepen our lives, to heal our wounds, to mend our relationships, to break down the walls that separate us and tear down the barriers that hinder us from loving each other. This is Jesus in real time; the Jesus who wants to be alive within you. The apostle Paul prayed for his churches constantly, asking God to “give [them] spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that [they] might grow in [their] knowledge of God” (Ephesians 1:17, NLT). 

How has the difference between knowing Jesus and knowing about Jesus played itself out in your life? Has your experience of Jesus been of the more two-dimensional variety, or have you experienced a living, dynamic Jesus “in real time”? In your own life, what gates need to be opened? What barriers need to be brought down? What relationships need to be mended? What bridges need to be built?

We follow the one who has the power to set us free, to deepen our lives, to heal our wounds, to mend our relationships, to break down the walls that separate us and tear down the barriers that hinder us from loving each other. This is Jesus in real time, the Jesus who wants to be alive within you.

“I pray that you will begin to understand the incredible greatness of his power for us who believe him” (Ephesians 1:18-19a, NLT). That light is the light of Christ, the light of Jesus in real time. That light is the light of Jesus, the Jesus who provides the power to love, the power to heal, the power to reach out.


Coming Face to Face with Jesus

Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

Matthew 25:37-40 (NLT)

The movie Motorcycle Diaries is the story of Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s life-shaping travels across South America as a young medical student. Toward the end of the movie, Che and his traveling companion Alberto are working at a leper colony. A river separates the sick lepers from the healthy nuns, doctors and others who provide care. In the evenings Che looks out over the river at the dim lights shining in the huts of the lepers. It is clear that the river is a metaphor for all that he has experienced on his travels – the separation between sick and well, rich and poor, landed and dispossessed, powerful and powerless, accepted and cast out. 

On the last night at the leper colony, they celebrate Che’s birthday with a party on the “healthy” side of the river. Late in the evening Che wanders out to the dock with Alberto and looks across the river. Suddenly he says, “I want to be on that side of river.”

I want to be on that side of river. That sounds like something Jesus would say. Jesus wasn’t about hanging out on the “healthy” side of the river, the side of the “haves.” Jesus was interested in what was happening on the other side, the side where sick people lived, and poor people, suffering people, outcasts and “have nots.”

There will always be times when each of us finds ourselves on that side of river – life is full of challenges, problems and suffering. But if we are honest, we will be forced to admit that most of us are likely not living life on that side of river – at least not continuously.

Following Jesus is difficult; if we are not already on that side of river because of personal circumstances, we are called to follow Jesus there. We are called to solidly stand on the other side of river, side by side with Jesus against injustice and in solidarity with everyone who is oppressed and we do it so that others can taste God’s justice and mercy.

Experiencing real, authentic faith is risky because following Jesus is all about relationships – our relationship with God and our relationships with others on God’s behalf. It’s risky because it requires that we make ourselves vulnerable so that Christ can be seen through us and Christ’s love can be reflected in our lives.

What if we think we’re standing on that side of river, but we’ve actually never left our side?


Your Cross to Bear

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me.Luke 9:23 (NLT)

Deep and authentic faith is what God desires for each of us. Deep and authentic faith is meaningful; but can be costly, challenging, even frightening. 

Jesus understands our difficulty. He never said it would be easy to follow him; in fact he warned us about the challenges when he described what it takes to be his follower—putting aside selfish ambition and shouldering our cross.

Rather than inviting us to something shallow, Jesus invites us to experience real, authentic faith – meaningful faith – by following, not at a distance, but by his side. He carries his cross, and we carry ours. How do you understand Jesus’ words that we must shoulder our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23)? How would you describe the crosses you feel you are bearing? 

For many of us, Jesus’ words about shouldering our cross have come to represent the bad things in our lives. We see the bad things that we feel to be unique to our lives as the crosses that we have to bear. To be sure, there is an element of truth in this concept of shouldering our cross. Jesus does not want us to run from suffering. We must deal with it head on and look to God for strength as we persevere. 

That truth, however, is only part of what Jesus means when he tells us that to be his followers we have to shoulder our cross. A deeper meaning lies in how we follow. We are to follow in the same way that Jesus leads. We abandon selfish ambition in favor of service in the Jesus way. As Jesus gave himself, we give ourselves. We reach out to others just as he reached out to others. As Jesus loved, so we love. As Jesus sacrificed himself for us, so we sacrifice ourselves for others. We follow by picking up the cross. Jesus’ cross becomes our cross; his love becomes our love; his sacrifice becomes our sacrifice.  

As much as Peter fumbled and bumbled in following Jesus, when he finally realized that real faith required that he follow Jesus side by side rather than at a distance, his life was transformed. It wasn’t that difficulty suddenly disappeared; it was that power suddenly appeared. 

Jesus promised the disciples the Holy Spirit. While Jesus’ followers were gathered together the Holy Spirit appeared and came upon them. Peter preached boldly and many people believed in Jesus as a result.

It can be challenging to carry the cross of Jesus. Yet when we take that risk and pick up that cross, we are promised the power necessary to meet the challenge. The power of the Spirit of Jesus enervates us, giving us not only the strength we need to carry the crosses that we encounter in our lives, but the boldness we need to live our lives fully, recognizable by all as followers of Jesus Christ.

What is your experience of power as you follow Jesus? Ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit upon you as you seek to shoulder the cross of discipleship.

What to Do with Your Shortcomings

Peter didn’t always know what it meant to follow Jesus.  

When he witnessed the astonishing event of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah on the mountain during Jesus’ transfiguration, all he could think to do was to offer to build shrines, places for each of them to live. When he sees Jesus walking on the water he boldly climbs out of the boat, seemingly full of confident faith, yet when the wind and waves appear too much, he flounders in fear.

When Jesus offered to wash Peter’s feet, he felt completely unworthy and so declined; yet when Jesus responded that it was necessary in order for Peter to be a part of him, Peter’s love poured forth: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9, NRSV)

Peter was a searcher with a good heart. He stumbled but tried to follow as best as he could, always open to growing in his relationship with Jesus, even if that growth involved some pain. He was full of emotion, giving himself completely to Jesus at one moment, but then fearfully retreating from Jesus the next.

Peter was genuine in all of his interactions with Jesus. He boldly declared his belief that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16), and then turned around and questioned and chastised Jesus for talking about the suffering that lay on the horizon (Matthew 16:22). It may have been bumbling and inappropriate, but it was genuine. Peter genuinely offered Jesus his entire being – the good and the bad. 

Peter genuinely desired to follow Jesus, even if he didn’t always know exactly what that meant; and he was willing to offer his entire self, even his shortcomings.

If you reflect on your spiritual walk, how do Peter’s various responses to Jesus resonate with your experience? How willing are you to offer your entire self to God – including your shortcomings? Peter was willing to offer Jesus his entire self – shortcomings and all – because intuitively he knew that Jesus had created safe space between them. His intuition was correct. Jesus had created safe space, because Jesus understood Peter. He knew how truly human Peter was. He knew that deep down in his heart Peter desired to follow him, even though Peter’s understanding and capabilities were dramatically limited.

Jesus knew Peter well enough to call him the rock upon which he would build his church; yet also knew him well enough to predict accurately that before the rooster crowed twice, Peter would deny three times that he even knew him at all.

We are like Peter. We too are truly human, with all of the frailties and limitations that brings. And just as he understood Peter, Jesus also understands us. Jesus knows that there are times when we want to follow; yet there are other times when we choose to shy away. But Jesus’ call to Peter was to follow, not at a distance—not in the shadows, afraid of what might happen next—but to move into the light and follow boldly, whatever came his way.

This is Jesus’ call to us as well. Jesus knows how limited our resources are. He knows that life is full of choices, temptations, complex situations where we become confused and frightened. Yet he desires our faith to be real and authentic, and he calls us to follow him anyway, closely and not at a distance.  

Do you sense a “safe space” between you and God? If not, as you enter into a time of prayer, bring that experience honestly before God. Be open to the way the Holy Spirit might move in response to your need. Step out in courage, knowing Jesus understands that you are fully human, with all the frailties and limitations (but also with all the creativity and boldness) that brings.