The Christian life — and by this I mean the true one, not the outward one where time is spent engaged in church activity — consists of a connection with the Spirit. This connection can ebb and flow, and when it ebbs, the goal is to draw close again. My goal is to be in constant contact with Jesus. That is the whole point of the Christian life.
I pause here because it is easy to nod and say “Yes” to such a statement but walk away with an entirely different understanding of what it means to be in contact with Jesus. It is easy to think of following Jesus in a metaphorical sense alone. As if to follow Him means to do what we think He would want us to do, or what we think He would do Himself, or even do what others who speak for God say we should do. And we call that “following Jesus.”
But such efforts will only drive us to utter boredom, emptiness, and most likely, a good deal of anxiety. This is because we weren’t designed to have a metaphorical relationship with Jesus; we were designed to have an actual relationship with Jesus, through the presence and Person of the Holy Spirit.
Doing so requires first that I recognize, or rather remember, what Scripture affirms: Christ lives in me. He did not before I was a believer, but He does so now that I am one, and He has from the moment I accepted His forgiveness and surrendered to Him. He communicates to me at a deep level. He fills me. He leads me and guides me. He manifests Himself in power. He is not a metaphor; He is a Person.
Once I understand this, then understanding that my point as a believer is to draw close and remain close to Him is not difficult. It may require work to cultivating a deep and intimate connection with Him (what great effort does not?), but it will not be difficult in the sense that I find myself engaging in much activity, expending much effort, thinking I am doing God’s work, only to find myself no closer to Him than when I started, wondering where He went. That is difficult.
I would guess every Christian has experienced at one point or another the sense that he or she is far from God. We sometimes refer to it as a desert experience, but I think that is a terrible term to give it, because it suggests our distance from the Lord is not only an acceptable thing but actually God-ordained. As if the same God who said, “That they might be one as we are one,” also would say “But not all the time.”
Some cite the fact that the children of Israel were led by God forty years in the desert as proof that God will lead us into a desert experience. But it is important to note that when God led the children of Israel, though their surroundings were barren and deprived of the comforts of the familiar and outward abundance, the one thing that did not leave them for those forty years was His presence. It is often the refusal to be led by God into the desert that causes my distance from Him, not the desert itself.
But will God actually lead us to places we do not wish to go? We like to think that He would not. We like to think God will only enrich, not refine, that He only will add to, not take from. We have entire theologies dedicated to all the good that God wants to do for us, and I cannot say I deny that message. But we also must realize that God the Blesser is also God the Gardener: He prunes. Whatever in us is not from Him is removed so that even greater fruit will be brought forth. His aim is abundance, but his means are refinement, and this implies places in time where what is familiar is stripped from us. We enter the desert, and our hearts are reduced, and the things within them we have relied on to survive.
Does this mean I should throw out any notion that God wants to bless me? Resign myself to a life of self-denial and misery? Not at all. The goal is to draw close, and remain close. To that end, as far as God leading us into a place we do not wish to go, we simply must be open. We must not allow our first-world comfort to block us from seeing where God is leading us, any more than we should allow our first-world unbelief and religious low-esteem of God block us from seeing all that God wishes to do for us. Both will prevent us from following. God is both Healer, Provider and Gardener, and the path is glorious. The goal then is not to allow anything rob me from that path, especially any preconceived ideas of what He will and will not do.
All that said, there is a point in the process of trying to follow where good intentions and good teaching themselves block us. That is, in trying to consciously follow God, I may ironically find myself going a different direction. This is different from having an attitude of “God would not do that” that prevents us from following. It is rather an attitude of “God certainly wants me to do that” that puts me down a path that He is not on.
Let me give an example from my own life. I was a young Christian and felt I had greatly disappointed God because I was not as public with my faith as I should be. I therefore forced myself one day to go with a group of fellow Christians to hand out tracts (pamphlets that talk about Jesus) in public. I picked a spot on a walking bridge spanning the river that ran through that town. I mechanically began to give out tracts to all the passersby who would accept them. I was petrified. I was way beyond my comfort zone. I was doing the hardest thing I personally knew to do. And I was certain this is what God required of every good Christian. After all, he does not want us just pretending to obey the Bible; he wants us to obey it. And does it not say, “Go! Preach the gospel”? So I was certain this is what was required of me. And there I was, fulfilling the Great Commission — at my wits’ end.
But something simple, subtle and certain took place. My eager conscientious feelings to the contrary, I had this sense that this was not what God was looking for from me.
I felt like Elijah who was taken to an isolated place with the Lord. He heard a mighty wind and an earthquake, but did not hear God in them. But when God spoke in a still, small voice, Elijah heard Him. I put myself out there right in the middle of my own personal windstorm and earthquake, but surprisingly felt as though God were saying to me, “I am not in this.” Not that He is not into the gospel being spread, or tracts being handed out. I believe He likes His good news spread. But each of us are unique, on our own separate paths, and it seems He was not into me, at that particular point in my life, proving my obedience by handing out slips of paper on a bridge.
The moral of the story is: Just because it costs me something, even if it lines up with Scripture, it does not mean I am supposed to be doing it.
I am not called to obey; I am called to follow. And where the Spirit leads, though the path at times may be uncomfortable, there i will find life, and that abundantly.