Sometimes the only way to get a new life is by running your old one completely into the ground. I learned that lesson in the most costly way: personal experience.
Reflecting on my life fifteen years after my Young Life career began I’m reminded of the tragic death of professional golfer Payne Stewart. Departing central Florida, the Learjet in which he traveled flew a ghostly journey halfway across the country. Anyone watching the jet overhead would’ve been unaware that something was tragically wrong on the inside. Apparently set on autopilot, its windows iced over and its occupants incapacitated, the aircraft presumably ran out of fuel and crashed nose-first into a grassy field. Everyone aboard was killed.
This tragic image serves well as a metaphor of my life back then. To the casual onlooker, my life appeared quite good. I was flying high. My Young Life work was effective and highly praised. And it wasn’t all for show. God was working; people’s lives were changing.
But something was wrong inside me. My life was on a deadly course with an incapacitated soul. My ability to see clearly was nil, outside efforts to get me to change course were refused, and my last bit of fuel was being depleted.
While in this desperate state I began reading The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. This powerful book turned my world upside down. It was as though Jesus was whispering to me from every page, “I’m not playing games. Fil, I really, really love you.”
With the cheese sliding off my cracker, I finally reached out for help. I went on a guided silent retreat, a kind of detox center for the soul. For the next four days a spiritual guide prayerfully companioned me into the hidden harbors of my heart where fear, loneliness and resentment had dropped anchor. His unconditional acceptance infused me with courage to imagine that God accepted me too. His persistent emphasis on God’s relentless love was the flint and steel that enlightened my vision to begin to see and believe that God “loves me as I am, not as I should be, since I’ll never be the person I should be.”
I came away from those four days with a profoundly new orientation that continues to frame my life: Until the unlimited, unbridled and unrelenting love of God takes root in our life, until God’s reckless pursuit of us captures our imagination, until our head knowledge of God settles into our heart through pure grace, nothing really changes.
Recently I’ve been riveted by the story about Jesus’ baptism, when the audible voice of God was heard to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 NRSV). As I’ve pondered this declaration, I find God’s timing its most intriguing aspect. How much more sensible and appropriate it would’ve been for God to affirm His delight following the Sermon on the Mount or another extraordinary moment in Jesus’ ministry that’d left the crowds reeling with astonishment! However, God deliberately chose to declare His pleasure when Jesus had yet to preach a sermon, heal anyone or walk on water! How much clearer could it be that God’s love for us isn’t contingent on our performance?
Nothing has been more effective in slowing the relentless, deadly pace of my driven life than a clearer picture of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Hearing God affirm to me that I’m truly loved saved me from the consequences of busyness. Now I know that nothing I do will ever cause God to love me more or to love me less.
When was the last time you heard God speak to you? Perhaps now would be a good time to stop and listen. Hear what Jesus says:
“Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly" (MT 11:28-30 MSG).