Last week I found myself asking questions in one of the three small groups I currently lead. I was asking the group how they would fill in the blank in the following statement:
“Jesus is ________________.”
I thought it was a great question, one I had taken from Judah Smith who wrote an entire book on the topic. I hoped it would generate some good discussion and let people exchange some of their ideas about Jesus. It was working well, with different people in the room sharing how they would fill in the blank. And then something went wrong.
Someone asked ME how I would fill in the blank.
And I froze.
I stumbled around for a minute and even told the person asking that I was supposed to be the one asking questions (with a laugh, of course). I finally filled in the blank with a statement that I had used in a recent sermon to talk about Jesus’ mission to the world. Strictly speaking it was a good answer to the question; a good way to fill in the blank. I had spent a good deal of time crafting that exact statement so that it would be memorable and so that I could deliver it in the course of the message the way I wanted to deliver it.
It was on my tongue, but it wasn’t in my heart.
My laugh, and my discomfort with the question, and my inability to formulate an answer right away revealed something to me – something that it can be uncomfortable to admit, but that I have to own up to.
I had become a professional Christian.
I get paid (at least in part) to write and deliver messages. Much of my work week is spent in the Scriptures, studying, reading, re-reading and thinking about what the Scriptures are saying. I thoroughly enjoy the whole process of creating content for our church week to week, and I get a thrill out of delivering that content. But when that’s all it is, when I can’t answer fill in the blank to the statement “Jesus is __________” without resorting to some well-crafted line from a message, I think I’ve missed the point of all those messages and all that time spent in the Scriptures.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen all at once, but somewhere along the line I’d fallen into a pattern that I told myself I would never fall into: the pattern of doing ministry work without having a heart that was fully in love with Jesus.
Now, don’t take this to say that I stopped loving Jesus, or that I’ve stopped following Jesus, or even that I’ve gotten myself into some kind of sin and trouble. It doesn’t even mean that I stopped loving being a pastor. I love Jesus. I love being a pastor.
But as with any relationship, I found myself in that stale kind of place. You know the place where you’re just going through the motions of relationship, doing the stuff on the surface, having the conversations, but where somehow you’ve lost the heart of the matter. That one simple question from a person I was supposed to be leading helped lead me to the place where Jesus could show me some of the layers of duty and obligation that had crept over my heart.
So what now? Well, now is the hard part. Now is the part where Jesus shines the light of his own truth into all those places in my heart that may have accumulated in the dark corners when I just had surface level engagement with him. He gets to show me the difference between relationship out of obligation and relationship that is the result of true love and joy between us. That’s painful, because no one wants to be confronted with those truths, pastors least of all perhaps, even if we might be the ones most susceptible to that heart-hardening disease.
That means I’m going back to reading Scripture not just to find messages, or even to fill in the check mark on my daily Bible reading sheets, but to see it as the lifeblood of my relationship with Jesus. He’s re-teaching me how to pray, not just to parrot words, but to allow my conversation with him to become more rich and deep. It also means that when close friends or family members point out areas where I might be a little less Jesus-y than I think I am, I’m trying to listen without immediately getting defensive.
All in all it’s a little frightening. It’s uncomfortable for me to put this into a blog post. But I did it in the hopes that you might be reading this and feeling exactly the same way, like your relationship with Jesus has descended into a weird mix of obligation, responsibility and drudgery. I want you to know you’re not alone, and I want you to know that there is a way out. I want you to know that we’re walking that road together, and falling in love with Jesus again.