People hear sound bites. God reads the long chapters that lead up to today’s headlines, and he knows our unfolding stories.
Don’t Edit Your Story
Soon after I started following Jesus, at the age of 20, I joined a Christian group on my college campus. It wasn’t long before I was asked to tell my story at an outreach event. But there were two stipulations: it had to be no longer than three minutes, and I had to write it out ahead of time so that it could be pre-approved by a staff member.
So I wrote down what happened to me.
I wrote about how a friend had challenged me to pray and ask God if I needed Jesus.
I wrote about the night when I was lying in bed and I heard the voice of Jesus, not audibly but unmistakably, saying, “Greg, you’ve been running away from Me long enough. Now, turn around and follow Me.”
I wrote about what happened next. I had a vision that lasted no more than a split second, and yet it seemed like it happened in slow motion. A white dove came down from a blue night sky toward me, leaving a trail of misty white light. Somehow I knew, from that moment, that I was going to live forever.
Then I wrote about the doubts I had the next day. Was it really a vision, or was it just my imagination? There was only one way to know for sure. I asked God to do it again. That night, I saw a light several times, but it came from the headlights of cars driving past my window. I was devastated after a sleepless night, but before I crawled out of bed, I saw a book on my nightstand that had been given to me by a friend months earlier. I picked it up and started reading, and in the first chapter there was a story about a man who had had an experience like mine, in which Jesus had appeared to him in the form of a light. Like me, he doubted the experience—until a friend said to him, “What happened to you is very special. It doesn’t happen to many people. But now you are just going to have to walk by faith.” Reading that word faith made me realize that it didn’t matter if I had a vision or not. What saved me was my faith in Jesus.
That’s my story. When I showed it to the staff member, he told me that I needed to take the story about my vision out of my testimony because it was a little too, you know, weird. Some people might think I was a nut. So I edited my testimony to make it more palatable. And I stood up in front of a group of people and told them, in three minutes, part of my story.
Afterward I was so convicted that I decided that I would never again leave out of my story all that God did. I know that some people may find it a little strange, but it’s the truth—and I believe that just telling the unedited truth gives people glimpses of the living God.
You can do that, can’t you? Whether you became a Christian because of godly parents or a persistent friend or a personal need or a life-changing experience, you have a unique story that can touch people in a way that no other story can. Just tell people the truth—the whole truth—about how you found your way home.
Your Best Life Later
If you are a Christian, your personal history may be dotted with moments when the Lord intervened in your life in unmistakable ways, and there have probably been stretches of time when you felt His love at every turn. But would you admit that there have also been some times when He didn’t do what you hoped He would? Have there been seasons when there was more evidence for His absence that for His presence?
There are many forks in the road of discipleship, but few are as determinative as the one that occurs at the point of disillusionment. That’s right where the disciples were in Luke 9. When they began to follow Jesus, a year and a half earlier, they did so because they believed He was the Messiah, the One who would fix everything that was broken in the world. And their dream was to be a part of that long-anticipated revolution.
But their dream morphed into a nightmare when Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:22-24)
Whatever their reasons were for following Jesus, this was the moment when they realized that it was not going to turn out quite like they dreamed it would. Here’s what Jesus promises to those who follow Him: suffering. Didn’t they tell you that when you signed up? It’s a realization that hits most of us some time after we pledge lifelong loyalty to Jesus. Something really disorienting happens that we thought didn’t happen to people who are sold out to Christ—and it is at that point that we can’t help but ask: “If this is what I get for following Jesus, why should I do it? What’s the use? What good is it doing me?”
That’s where the disciples are in Luke 9. And Jesus knows it. He can see it on their faces. They need an answer to the question, “Why? Why follow Jesus when doing so makes life harder instead of easier?”
His answer to that question comes, not through a conversation, but through a transformation.He took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. (Luke 9:28-32)
Why Elijah and Moses? I don’t know. How did the disciples know it was Elijah and Moses? I don’t know. All I know is, when the disciples saw these two heroes of the Jewish faith glowing and talking to a glorified Jesus about His return to heaven, it was a pretty convincing confirmation that they were following the true Messiah.
More than that, it was a preview of coming attractions. It was like a movie trailer. It was a foretaste of the full-length version of the kingdom of God. One commentator called it “a miniature and premature picture of the second coming of Christ.”
Do you know what that brief vision of the future did for those disciples? It reminded them why it is worth it to follow Jesus. It is worth it not because the road is smooth, but because the destination is unbeatable. True, following Him is not the way to get instant gratification, but it is the way to get ultimate gratification. It may be unspeakably painful now—but it will be oh so pleasurable then.
One young man who believed that was Kent Brantly, a student at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He did not train to become a doctor for financial reasons. He did it because, as a follower of Jesus Christ, he felt called to become a medical missionary. Other students at medical school remember him as someone with an unusual drive to help the less fortunate. One said, “He was driven by something extra-worldly.”
While in medical school Kent went on two mission trips, one to Honduras and the other to Nicaragua. He also participated in the school’s local clinic for the under-served. And when it was time for him to choose a residency, he opted to go to Liberia with Samaritan’s Purse, the relief organization led by Franklin Graham. He expected to help treat diseases for which there is no cure, but he did not know that after he arrived, so would the Ebola virus. He was put in charge of the Ebola care center in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, and even though he meticulously followed safety protocols, he contracted the Ebola virus, which has a 60% fatality rate.
Kent Brantly is 33 years old and has two young children. Some say that he is fighting for his life with unshakable faith, but he confided to a friend that he is terrified. No doubt so is his wife Amber, who is unable to be with her husband because it is simply too dangerous.
What kind of God lets His best servants suffer like that? A God who gives us glimpses of His glory and a foretaste of His love now, in this broken world, but who is saving the best for later.
Thank God for those fleeting flashes of glory that He graces us with along this path of suffering. They are reminders that even though following Jesus is not the way to get instant gratification, it is the path to ultimate gratification.
The Best Leadership Book I Have Ever Read I Found By Accident
Some moments feel more holy in hindsight.
It was 32 years ago. For some reason I see myself from above, there in that bookstore. Floor-to-ceiling shelves behind me, rows of titles up to my chest in front of me. It was a smorgasbord to my just-born-again spirit, insatiably hungry for truth.
Why that title, white text on a slender, gray-blue spine, caught my eye, I don’t know. A Harmony of the Words and Works of Jesus Christ. Maybe it was the word Jesus. Scan my bookshelves today and you will see a disproportionate number of Jesus titles. I’ve always been a sucker for them. I guess I was even then. I tilted it out and opened it, and what I found was nothing but Bible verses. The four Gospels, arranged chronologically, parallel passages side-by-side.
I had stumbled upon a treasure. The unaltered life of Christ.
It is still my favorite book. I read it at least once a year, sometimes twice. And whenever I am not reading it, I miss it. Its pages, graffitied with faded notes and fresh highlights, feel like home.
The spine gave out years ago. Now it is held together by a three-ring binder. I recommended it, every chance I get, as the best leadership tool I had every found. I study it, a page a week, with my staff. I have given it to every ministry leader at my church. I have studied it with my son.
I had no idea, when I walked into that bookstore three decades ago, that it was holy ground. But if I could return to it today, I just might remove my shoes.
Oh, how I love that book. Oh, how I love that Man.