I recently had the privilege of speaking at PTM 2017, on the theme: AUDACIOUS GRACE. The attendees were a remarkable group of individuals involved in caring for global workers.
If you want to listen to my final message, click here.
What words enter your mind when you think about God? Creative? Comforting? Provision? Protection? What about playful? At first glance, this last word might seem irreverent or profane. Most people tend to resist characterizations that restrain the Creator of the universe. Yet alongside the more common attributes it ascribes to God, Scripture also offers ample evidence of His playfulness, of the delight the He takes in creation.
This is showcased on day five of creation in Genesis 1:20-23, when both the earth and sky began teeming and swelling with living creatures. Since then, swarms of acrobatic starlings and pods of frolicking dolphins have delighted all admirers, especially their Creator. A right conception of God reveals that He is the most winsome of all beings and inherently playful.
Consider Psalm 104:1-35, a celebration of God the Creator and Provider of all things. This stirring song takes up many of the bold word pictures of the creation texts. And an interesting footnote to this witness to God’s unrivaled power is in verse 26, where “Leviathan,” sometimes portrayed as a chaotic monster threatening creation, is pictured as merely a playful creature—perhaps even God’s pet.
Sometimes I’m still surprised, a little stunned even, to find Scripture describing God as such a whimsical Creator. It’s a far cry from the grumpy disapproving God of my childhood. So, rather than a God who is rigid, temperamental, and extremely hard to please—who expects much and excuses nothing—we’re introduced to a God who delights in us. A God who’s inviting us to come out and have fun. And the invitation is spoken by the same voice Jesus heard at His baptism, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
Several years ago, while our family was vacationing on the North Carolina coast, I headed out on a solo walk along the crowded beach. It was one of those walks to nowhere, with nothing particularly on my mind (I’ve been told that men excel in these endeavors). Eventually, I noticed a young, darkly tanned boy having a grand time in the shallow surf. Guessing by his size, he appeared to be about 9 years old. I stood there and watched him play, completely absorbed in what I thought looked like the definition of fun. Suddenly, he turned, and as our eyes met, I could see that he had Down syndrome. At that moment, his precious face burst into a smile, and he began to scream what must have been the name of the person he mistook me to be. Then, with our eyes still locked on each other, he began running toward me with his arms opened wide. Without time to sort out how to best respond, I knelt and opened my arms to him. With his arms wrapped tightly around my neck, he began smothering me with a kiss. After what felt like forever, he loosened his grip, tilted his head back, and with his eyes riveted on mine, his face burst again into a smile.
For the next few days, my mind didn’t travel far from that encounter. Still, I was not certain why it had so impacted me. Finally, a few evenings later, as I sat alone in the darkness, God spoke to me: “Fil, that little boy was a picture of My playfulness and My wild and reckless love for you.”
Is it any wonder I am utterly convinced Jesus is the most fun-loving being in the universe?
What do you know about playfulness?
Just look across the landscape of our culture and you’re bound to see that leisure is a major industry, yet most people know very little about it. In fact, it is a concept most of us don’t easily welcome.
Often what we refer to as play is loaded down with competition and compulsion. Many of us live for the weekend, thinking of it as the opposite of work—the after-hours activities we engage in to recover, relax, and unwind. We approach play as something that enables us to return to work invigorated and renewed. Or maybe work is something we do that enables us to return to our diversion. Either way, this view turns fun into work, which is not what God intended.
I believe that Christians today are just as overwhelmed, stressed-out, and unfocused as the rest of our fast-paced, frazzled, secularized culture. Lifelessness and terminal seriousness are the sins most readily tolerated by the church. But if we sincerely believe the things Scripture reveals about God’s nature and character, don’t you think we’d lighten up?
The God that Jesus came to reveal, that we encounter in Scripture, gives us the power to live, move, and be who we are; He is the God who is always with us, who celebrates, sings, and refreshes our life with His love. The One who loved the world enough to experience all its pain and sadness—the God who loves us so much that He’d rather His Son die for us than live without us.
What do you know about Jesus?
Lots of people I know have a one-dimensional, words-on-paper understanding of Jesus instead of seeing Him as a three-dimensional Savior whose humanity is real and whose personality is inviting. For instance, I believe Jesus was as playful as He was prayerful. Surely He knew how to laugh and cry from His gut—how to be serious about life but not take Himself too seriously. Jesus came to save us from our sin and our legalistic, performance-based view of God—the false picture of a father who stands with crossed arms and a disappointed scowl, applauding when we get something right and judging us when we do wrong. Jesus came to make something clear: God’s unmerited favor is more than a one-time gift that applies exclusively to eternal security; it’s a daily gift that keeps on giving.
What relief would it give us to know that the pressure’s off and God delights in every facet of our life—in our working and resting and praying and playing? What peace would it bring to understand that the inherent nature of God is relational and whimsical?
God is not only present in our lives when we see clear evidence; He’s also there when we have reasonable doubt. He hides in our disappointment, difficulty, despair, and failure—in all of the stories of our lives. Whatever situation, whatever state of grace or disgrace our lives are in, God is with us—invisible and waiting for us to discover and learn from Him, in the darkness as well as in the light. But God not only hides—He also seeks.
Years ago, burdened by how little time I had spent alone with the Lord, I decided to get up extra early the next morning, guaranteeing no interruptions or distractions. Shortly after settling into my chair, I heard feet on the stairs that signaled one of the children had awakened. Frustrated and disappointed, I asked God, “What’s it going to take for me to find some time to be alone with You?” The next moment the door opened and our son Lee peeked inside the room. Reading the disappointment on my face, he said, “I just want to be with you.” In a moment of grace, I gave up on my time alone with God and chose instead to be with my son. Settling into this tender time of companionship, I believe I heard God speaking to me: “It’s all right, Fil. You give him what he needs and let Me give you what you need.” Once again, God found me.
Life In Play
The capacity for play seems to be built into the basic design for our life by a creative God. What this should indicate for us, if nothing else, is that unless we are playful, we’re not living. All of us go through periods where lightheartedness is difficult. However, if a month has passed and you have not been amused in any significant way, you need to take an honest look at your life. If God’s creation is any indication, you may not be doing what you were designed to do!
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (NIV). Another translation says, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” It has been suggested that both “be still” and “cease striving” really mean “have leisure.” I think God is often saying to me, “Hey, Fil. It’s time to relax and know that I am God.”
Consider the words of Jesus, the One who stood upon the stormy sea and stilled it: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). When you find the Lord who is mightier than the stormy chaos you face, new possibilities emerge that were previously hidden from view. You discover that life doesn’t simply exist; it plays beneath the surface realities of our daily existence. When you lose your fear of the stormy sea, you may just find that Jesus is inviting you not only to face the sea with courage, but also to walk upon it. Perhaps even to dance!
Week after week, bewildered people come to me with frustrated desires and earnest questions: “What is wrong with me? Why do I feel so distant from God? What must I do to get closer?” Having done everything they know or deem themselves able to do, they now feel weary, discouraged, and orphaned in their relationship with God. Although they’ve tried their best to follow Jesus, they have lost sight of Him or figure that He’s nowhere to be found.
An exhausted, overextended executive asks, “How can I escape always feeling spiritually numb?” A lonely student wants to know, “What can I do in order to know that God is with me?” A woman in recovery who reads the Bible every day wonders, “Why doesn’t reading Scripture help me stay strong when I’m desperate for a drink?” Feeling ripped apart by the relentlessly competing demands of his too-busy life, a spiritually demoralized pastor pleads to feel closer to God. A single mom, grieving her son’s tragic death asks, “Has God now abandoned me because of something I did or didn’t do?”
The raw honesty of their questions reveals something the executive, the student, the addict, the pastor, and the mom have in common. In the midst of harried and hurting lives, they desperately long to experience the reality of their belonging to God. This desire gnaws at their souls while they continue searching for what they must do to make it happen.
I understand their desperation. After nearly 50 years of trying to follow Jesus, I feel that I am nowhere near becoming the person I thought I’d be by now. When I was younger, I assumed my failures and inconsistencies were due to my youth. I believed that when I was older, I would have learned what I needed to know and would master the art of Christian living.
Now I am older—a lot older—and the secrets are still secret from me.
However, I’m no longer embarrassed or afraid to admit I’m unfinished, incomplete, and imperfect—a work in progress. Neither is God surprised or disappointed with my lack of development. God’s work in my life will never be finished until I meet Jesus face to face. Desiring to follow Jesus isn’t about being complete and perfect; it’s about doing my best and trusting God to finish what He began.
Plus, I believe my longing to please God (no matter how great or small the longing) does please Him. Despite my stumbling, bumbling, clumsy, and erratic efforts to follow the Savior, any measure of desire is irrefutable proof that God is at work in my life. I would never yearn to follow Jesus if the Holy Spirit did not first pursue me.
Jesus responds to desire, never attempting to restrict or ignore its expression. He answered people who interrupted Him, yelled at Him, touched Him, screamed obscenities at Him, barged in on Him, and crashed through ceilings to get a friend to Him. Jesus cares deeply about our desire. Just look at the gentleness and concern He demonstrates over and over in the Gospels, as He welcomes people who want something more. That is not to say the Lord is some sort of cosmic vending machine. However, He responds to desperate people, allowing their desire to draw Him into their sense of neediness. Pleas to the Savior for help of any kind engage Him at a soul level. Whether they are misguided, self-serving, and destructive, or sincere anxieties and yearnings, Jesus sees them as opened doors to relational connection.
Who is a disciple?
A disciple is someone who understands and does specific things. Yet far more fundamentally and profoundly, a disciple is someone who loves a specific Someone—the Someone who wants more than a close personal relationship with us. The wild, raging, consuming love of God deliberately draws us into a symbiotic fusion, a oneness so substantive that once we wake up to it, we realize, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Following Jesus is the greatest opportunity and highest challenge ever afforded the human race. Despite the undeniable difficulty or complexity involved, our heart’s desire for real life—life as God intended—will never be satisfied until that desire transcends all of the questions, insecurities, and dizzying concerns that accompany the decision to be a disciple.
Perhaps a risky self-disclosure will help clarify what I mean: When my wife and I got married, truthfully, I had a lot of fundamental, unanswered questions: Can we afford to be married? Are we mature enough? Will we regret the decision? Yet my longing to experience a lifetime of oneness with her trumped all of my concerns. Following Jesus into a lifetime of one-ness is like that but on a much grander, eternal scale. Our destination, safety, survival, or future condition are not the primary issue. The focus, goal, and reward lie not just in following but in following Jesus. Thus, the essence of what it means to be a disciple is the same as the starting point—which is simply living in the reality of our oneness with God.
After three years of doing life together, Jesus’ apprentices must have found His departure a huge adjustment: It forced them to learn new ways of keeping company with Him and letting Him live in every dimension of their lives. Their aim was the ongoing transformation of their spiritual core—the place of thought and feeling, of will and character. For Christians ever since, there has been a vital link between the desire for real life, keeping company with Jesus who lives within, and devotion to spiritual disciplines.
What is a spiritual discipline?
The day that you and I accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, our heart became His home. At that moment, in ways beyond our ability to comprehend, we each became a brand-new person inside. We’ve never been the same since. Because this is true, being a disciple is less about “trying” and more about “training” as we settle into the reality of God living within us. Therefore, the point of practicing spiritual disciplines is not to strive for something we don’t yet have but rather to enjoy what we’ve already been given.
If this is true, then our motivation, approach, and practice of spiritual disciplines shifts dramatically. Instead of striving to get closer to God or earn His approval and affection, we’re free to enjoy them. This helps us to understand that our spiritual practices—our habits and routines involving prayer, Bible study, service, and community that we incorporate into our lives—are like points on a map, leading to a priceless treasure. Yet it is essential to realize they are not the treasure itself.
The point of practicing spiritual disciplines is not to strive for something we don’t yet have but rather to enjoy what we’ve already been given.
We must devote ourselves to our spiritual disciplines. However, we miss the point and endanger our souls when we think of spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves. Spiritual practices exist to create space in our lives and open us to God. They are never the be-all and end-all of discipleship. Ultimately, following Christ is about cultivating a loving trust of—and obedience to—the God who is both within us and beyond our very best efforts.
As important as they are, spiritual disciplines must never become a substitute for following Jesus and living in oneness with God. Yet we’re susceptible to making this mistake because the self-absorbed search for a way to be in control of our own well-being is the natural energy in every human soul. And whenever we yield to that desire, our spiritual practices lose some of their power.
Thus, practicing various spiritual disciplines is like “working on your tan.” There is “work” for us to do, but that “work” is mostly about positioning ourselves so that God can do what He does naturally—transforming us into the image of His Son. This is why some speak of the disciplines as “the path of disciplined grace.” Prayer, Scripture reading, solitude, silence—these are graces because they are freely given to us. Yet they are disciplines because there is something we must do. And that something has more to do with positioning than striving; more to do with conformity to Jesus’ way of living than our huffing and puffing to become like Him.
The life God uniquely designed for us to live and for which our hearts yearn cannot be achieved by our own efforts, no matter how disciplined we may be. Instead it comes only by way of a few prepositions: with, in, and for, what Eugene Peterson calls “prepositional participation.” These prepositions join us to God and His action. They are essentially the ways and means of being in on—and participating in—what God is doing.
My desperate huffing and puffing to please God, scrambling to win His favor, and thrashing about to fix myself were, in fact, an enormous insult to Him.
It’s essential for our experience and central to our understanding that we trust God and remain assured that we are neither now nor ever alone. We can trust that God is with us always: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). Furthermore, Jesus dwells in us: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Finally, we can trust that God is for us: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31). With, in and for. These are the authoritative connecting, enabling, union-forging words that set us on the course God designed us to follow.
Although I spent years tipping my hat to the idea that God “is at work in you” (Phil. 2:13), my life was utterly consumed with overcoming my weaknesses, getting rid of my hang-ups, and achieving intimacy with God by sheer grit. I was oblivious to the reality that my desperate huffing and puffing to please God, scrambling to win His favor, and thrashing about to fix myself were, in fact, an enormous insult to Him.
One of the greatest discoveries of my life is the mysterious and liberating reality of my oneness with God, who unconditionally loves me as I am. Far from perfect, I’m nonetheless dazzled by the diminishment of my restless striving to earn God’s approval and grow closer to Him. Instead, my life is being radically renovated, from the inside out, by the One who lives within.