What you need: Astonishment

Sep 20, 2012Everything book

As you know, if you preorder Everything today and forward your receipt to EverythingPromo@ThomasNelson.com, you’ll get cool freebies.

What you’ll get:

I’ll end this campaign by sharing the first chapter of Everything with you. It deals with becoming astonished by God’s bigness. I pray it truly, deeply blesses and challenges you today.

Chapter One: Cultivate the Discipline of Astonishment

This, after all, is the goal of the American dream: to make much of ourselves. But here the gospel and the American dream are clearly and ultimately antithetical to each other. While the goal of the American dream is to make much of us, the goal of the gospel is to make much of God. –David Platt

When I sat beneath the evergreen at fifteen years old, the stars twinkled their brilliance above me. I felt the rough bark against my back while tears streaked my face. I heard the gospel in its entirety (if one can ever hear such magnificence in one perfect package), and I was stunned to silence. I was small, broken, haunted by swirling memories of the past. I lived as a fatherless daughter searching for the Daddy who would never leave me. Under the stars, the ground beneath me, God astonished me. His bigness. His sacrifice on the world’s behalf. His ability to be everywhere, yet be concerned about me. His speaking things into existence from nothingness. I asked Him to please enter my life in the gentlest way. And He did.

When I think of Everything Christians, I venture back of this place of astonishment, this smallness of me compared to God’s immensity. I run back to that place where my mind was overwhelmed by God’s greatness. And I also think of others whose minds held big thoughts of God. I remember the people I met in Malaysia who couldn’t bow low enough to worship God. I remember my friend Su Phuong, tears on her face becoming her petition. Oh, how she loved. I think of an unnamed man I met in Urbana, Illinois who practically beamed Jesus, but who spoke of Him with reverence and awe. Paul in Ghana comes to mind, how his eyes dance when he tells the story of God providing for him in spectacular and mundane ways. Holly, dear Holly, who calls out of the blue because she hears a whisper from God and she must pass His encouragement on to me.

In a world bent on human glory, folks like these stand out. They’re the bewildering kind who think much of Jesus, yet decrease into obscurity like John the Baptist. They understand the proverb, “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory” (Proverbs 25:27, ESV). They see beyond the veil of this world while they grasp the upside down kingdom where meek inherit and strong fall, while God reigns supreme overall. I watch these people. I long to be like them, to think like them.

What does it mean to live in the discipline of astonishment? How can we deify God yet subvert our claim to deity? How can we embrace the cliché, God is God and I am not? The answer comes from theology, the way we think about God. When you read the word theology, you may yawn a bit, dismissing the term as boring, something relegated to banter in seminary halls. But theology is sexy; it’s dynamic. And it’s utterly important if we want to live like Jesus. In light of that, let’s build a campfire around five truths.

Truth one: God creates.

The Triune God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—created everything we see, touch, taste, perceive, and think. All things originate from Him. We see this clearly delineated in Scripture: “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it (John 1:1-5, NLT). When the world careens out of control, we can rest in the fact that God spun this world with a simple word. Matter from emptiness. Beauty from void. Community from chaos.

Remembering God as Creator reminds us that God is in the growth business. He not only created trees, sky, air, and dirt, but He also matures them.

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7, ESV). I’ve spent a great deal of my Christian life trying to manufacture what only God can flourish. While I have a choice to submit myself before the Creator of the world, to be humbly repentant, adopting a posture of learning, I cannot cause growth. I must depend on His ability to bring sprouts, limbs, flowers, and fruit.

Truth two: God is other.

In college, as friends prayed for me to heal from the brokenness of the past, my heart bent toward revival. I read Leonard Ravenhill and listened to the late Keith Green. I prayed up a storm, and read about great college prayer movements. And I discovered the book The School of Christ by T. Austin Sparks. In the first chapter he writes about the otherness of Christ.

I’d often thought about what those head-scratching disciples must’ve made of Jesus. He rarely responded the way they anticipated. His line of thinking confounded and confused them. Why? Because they tried to measure Christ by human standards. Christ was fully human, but, paradoxically, was also fully God, which made Him wildly unpredictable and downright strange.

Consider Sparks’ words: “The first thing [the disciples] learned was how other He was from themselves. They had to learn it. I do not think it came to them at the first moment. It was as they went on that they found themselves again and again clashing with His thoughts, His mind, His ways. They would urge Him to take a certain course, to do certain things, to go to certain places; they would seek to bring to bear upon Him their own judgments and their own feelings and their own ideas. But He would have none of it.”

How other Jesus is. How other God the Father is. How other the Holy Spirit is. Our triune, mysterious God is far above what we can think or perceive or categorize. Remember Isaiah’s oft-quoted words: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV).

And yet, we falsely believe that we can manage just fine without Him. We cherish our own uniqueness, our clever thoughts, forgetting that Wisdom and Power and Holiness personified empowers us. God as other is untameable, unmanageable, unpredictable. Which is why growth can be a frightening prospect.
Does your thinking fall far short of the otherness of God? I know mine does. I spend hours pondering issues, forgetting to consult God. I try to be the answer to my own prayers. I insulate myself, minimizing risk so I don’t have to fling myself into the arms of this wild God.

I remember the funny song, “Please Don’t Send Me to Africa” from decades ago. I remember thinking, This song resonates with me. And yet, decades later, I found myself in Ghana, West Africa with my twelve-year-old son Aidan who dared to believe in God’s otherness. He hears God tell him to dig wells, so he upheaved his comfortable sixth grade life and followed Jesus’ footsteps to Africa. There we met others who follow this strange, amazing God, and we are forever changed. As I type this, Aidan again stands on Ghanaian soil, following the beckoning of God that woos a now fifteen-year-old to that same continent.

God is other. We cannot explain Him. We cannot have perfect theology (though we value theology). We cannot attempt to know the mind of God fully. But as believers, we have an eternal resource, the Holy Spirit, who makes known to us God’s intentions. When we consider the otherness of God, the overwhelming beauty and audacity of God to dwell within us can bring nothing but astonishment. The God who Created, this otherly God, dares to stoop to such a place as our hearts.

Truth three: God redeems.

My friend pushed against God, against me, against anyone who would dare speak truth in her life. She seemed to relish rebellion, yet all the while saying she believed in Jesus. For several years I puzzled over her words and her behavior, so much so that I had to place a boundary on our friendship. Years passed. One day I received a call from her. “I’ve met Jesus!” she said.

“What? I thought you were a Christian.”

“No, I only thought I was,” she said. I could hear the joy in her voice. “But I finally met Jesus, and I’ll never be the same.”

In that moment, and in the subsequent years, I’ve seen radical redemption in my friend’s life. Her words challenge me. Her life shouts Jesus. Her heart, oh her heart, is so very beautiful. And when she emails or calls, instead of dreading her as I once did, I stop my day and hang onto her words.
God is a God who redeems. He beautifies even the most haggard. He rescues us from pits far too deep to scale. We, the helpless creation, must look to the Only One who is able to free us. Consider how the following verses aptly sum up these first three aspects of God—the God who creates, who is other, who redeems:

“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. [creates] He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. [other] For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross [redeems]” (Colossians 1:15-20, NLT).

We cannot fully satisfy a holy God. Our redemption is an outrageous, initiating act accomplished by God alone. He pursued humanity to such an extent that His feet landed on earth, and He chased after us until He rescued us at the cross. We did not climb onto those wooden beams. We could not receive the nails that pierced those holy hands. We who are not kingly wore no thorn crown. We could not drink the cup of God’s wrath. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6, NASB). God did what we could not. He sent His beautifully sinless Son to take our place, to satisfy for all time God’s wrath upon sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV).

God transforms. He who creates, He who thinks otherworldly thoughts, dares to redeem an obstinate world. If we camp in that place, remembering the gift we could never ever pay back, we will live astonished lives, and our growth will be the best kind—the kind that emerges from gratitude from thinking rightly about God.

Truth four: God sees.

When I traveled to Ghana, my son Aidan and I were part of a team that had already been assembled from another local church. Though I’m sure none of the members meant to exclude me, the nature of the trip and our addition later made it hard for me to fit in. As I stepped onto Ghanaian soil, I prayed, “Lord, help me know that You see me here.” I made a determination to be small, unnoticed. No longer an author or a speaker, I spent my time behind the scenes. But loneliness settled inside me like untreated malaria. I cried out to God from this small, small place.

God’s answer came late one night during van ride over rough roads where sleeping sheep and goats served as living obstacles. I sat next to my new Ghanaian friend Paul and asked for his story. He shared his heart, how he walked with Jesus, how he met his wife, how he struggled to know whether he’d have another meal. I felt privileged to hear his words. I shared my heart in like exchange. Then he said something that helped me know God sees. He told me my empathy encouraged him to share his story. I realized then that I had played a role in my trek to Ghana. To listen. And to hear an amazing story—proof that God saw me and would reward my smallness.

Hagar, mother of Ishmael and maidservant of Sarai, had an encounter with God when she despaired of life, when her smallness bordered on despair. After Sarai mistreated her, she fled to the wilderness and sat down by a spring. An Angel of the Lord appeared to her and encouraged her. She would have a son. He’d be a wild donkey of a man, but she would live to birth him and see him grow up. After that encounter, she named God El Roi, the God who sees: “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’ That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.” Beer Lahai Roi means “well of the living One who sees me” (NASB).

We forget, don’t we? We place God in our small boxes, limiting Him to humanness, forgetting His omnipresence. He is everywhere. Of course He sees. He not only sees the entire world and universe, but His vision becomes myopic too. He can focus on one of us at a time, even if we travel far away from home and comfort. He can encourage in us-shaped ways and sends folks our way to prove He is good and He sees our needs.

Psalm 8:3-5 reminds us of our seeing God. The first few verses of the Davidic psalm speak of God’s greatness and majesty, His power over creation. Then we read this glorious insertion: “When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor” (NLT).

We are small. He is big. And yet He sees. That should spur us toward crazy growth, rugged trust, and reverential awe.

Truth five: God inhabits.

Our daughter Julia heard demonic voices when we lived in France. For several months, we puzzled over her behavior, thinking she simply had a hard time adjusting to the culture and language. But eventually, she broke down and told us she heard awful voices telling her to be disobedient to us and mean to her siblings. At night the voices tormented her, woke her up. We prayed for her. We told her about Jesus, but she couldn’t seem to grasp Him, or even reach for Him. A few weeks later some friends from the states came to watch our kids while we went to a leadership summit in Lisbon, Portugal. We pulled them aside and told them about Julia and the voices. They promised to pray for her and be extra sensitive to her while we were away.

During the conference we received a voice message. Julia’s little voice piped through saying, “Mommy and Daddy? I just want to let you know that I asked Jesus to come into my heart.” I could hear the joy in her voice, but inwardly I feared. Would she still be tormented?

When we came home, I asked her how she was doing. “Are you hearing those voices?”

“Well,” she said. “I do hear a voice, but it tells me to make right choices.”

“That’s the Holy Spirit,” I told her. In the moment she met Jesus, He replaced the demonic voices with His Spirit. He truly lived inside our daughter. A few weeks later, she asked to be baptized in The Mediterranean Sea. The pictures are framed above her bed.

God is present. And if we have given our lives to Him, He, as Holy Spirit, resides in us. He makes His home inside our lives. Seeing His brilliance and power, understanding His ability to create, realizing His might, contrast wildly to the truth that this God, this amazing God, inhabits us. Because of this, we who want to grow need to remind ourselves of His constant, abiding presence. Like Brother Lawrence, the monk who joyfully washed dishes with Jesus beside Him, we can practice His presence every single moment.

In my frenetic pace of life, I’ve forgotten His presence. It’s a choice in those times to cry out to the God who lives within me, asking Him to lift my head. This beautiful, inhabiting God breathes encouragement into me, reminding me I am His child, worthy of His sacrifice. I don’t need to wallow in a place of stress because He understands. He is Emmanuel, God with us, sees us—an astonishing fact. Simply meditating there will change our growth patterns forever.

It is a discipline to think astonished. Often we are bewildered by the details of our lives, forgetting about the bigness of the God we serve. He made everything. He is utterly other. Yet He chose to redeem us. He sees us. And if we are His followers, He lives within us. We are simply His followers, dependent on Him for new life. The author of Hebrews sums up our need for astonishment. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29, ESV). May our thoughts be consumed with our awe-worthy God. And may those thoughts translate into astonishment-based living, where we live to make much of God and less of us. That is the heart of the gospel, after all—the six-letter-word that should change our thinking forever.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
• How does knowing God created everything from nothing influence your behavior? Or does it? Why or why not?
• What aspect of the otherness of God do you find hard to grasp? How do you act in an “otherly” way most days?
• Looking back over the past four months, what parts of your life has God redeemed?
• How does realizing God sees you right now help you cope with your current circumstances? Or does it raise more questions?
• When was the last time you truly felt the Holy Spirit living in and through you? What were the circumstances in your life during that time?