There have been three times in my adult life where I have experienced deeply profound paradigm shifts that completely changed the way I live and relate.
The first was when I surrendered my life to Christ in 1989. The year following was one of sweet fellowship and deep immersion in the Scriptures. This resulted in a desire to train for full time ministry and enrolling in four years of Bible College that, among other things, gained me a bride and a calling.
The second shift was in 2002-2003. We had moved to Louisville in 2001 with plans for me to work toward a Ph.D and train for a teaching vocation. To keep a long story short, these plans and dreams were shattered through a series of breakdowns, both internal and external, that left me reeling. I was introduced to a deep kind of suffering that St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a radical (radux, to the root) restructuring of all that I have believed and valued up to that point.
As darkness surrounded me and I questioned everything, I was desperate for new categories to understand what was going on so that I could survive the process without killing others or myself. All my old familiar pathways of following Jesus shriveled up and died. I clung to any authors or teachers that offered new ways of thinking and living, anything to give a sense of hope to the despair, anything to lighten the darkness that threatened to consume me. Authors like Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Larry Crabb and John Eldredge provided solace for my tormented mind and heart.
The presence of Jesus through all the years of darkness has provided me with a tenacious faith in the Lord’s tenderness toward the broken, and a profound distrust in all religious pretension (false selves) as a means of getting by in the world.
I am in the middle of the third shift. 2012-2013 brought deep structural changes to my personality and habits. Mostly these occurred apart from anything I was directly seeking or doing, which was confusing, though gratefully received. God’s usual way of working has been to break a stronghold in an area, giving new freedom and joy that was once bereft of life and blessing. I then invest great amounts of time and energy trying to understand and catch up with God’s activity, so that I might give him thanks and more intentionally enter into it. It seems that a thousand tiny decisions in the dark to trust Jesus with little or no external support yielded new possibilities of thinking, feeling and acting in mid-2012. Most of these changes involved my body and mind.
For example, I lost 90 lbs, and for the second time in my adult life attained my goal weight (ironically, at least to me, the first time was in 1989 right after I became a Christian). This was only possible because of habits being broken, habits of reliance on food, violent TV and porn as means of comfort in times of distress.
As for changes in my mind and thinking, the profoundest change came in understanding and applying the gospel. I came to see that the gospel I had received, though correct as far as it went, was not big enough for me to live in. It was narrow and cramped, provoking constant frustration and even despair. It was the “gospel of forgiveness of sins,” which boils down the gospel to the legal and forensic work of Christ on the cross. Through men like Dallas Willard, and months of marinating in The Divine Conspiracy and his last lectures given this side of eternity in February 2013 at the Westmont Dallas Willard Center [You can order these lectures here]. I spent hours listening to these lectures, many of them 30-40 times each. I just couldn’t get enough! I learned something new almost every time. Such a profound paradigm shift was happening that I needed daily deconstruction in my soul and my relationship with God to be able to see clearly what God was up to and be open to a new renovation.
I have come to see Jesus and the gospel through new eyes, as the “gospel of the Kingdom of God,” which begins with forgiveness of sins but cannot be contained in it, at least as it is currently articulated (the Reformers and some of the Puritans were able to hold it as a “gospel for the whole life” better than we have been able to). The gospel that Jesus actually preached was the availability of the Kingdom of God to every person.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)
The forgiveness of sins provided by Jesus on the Cross leads us into LIFE lived with God as disciples. Everyday, mundane life lived in and with Jesus is the Kingdom of God. He calls me to be his disciple, his apprentice, in learning from him how to live eternally now. I committed myself to him for the first time as a disciple, with daily settled intention to learn from him how to live. I am still very green and ignorant, but I see progress, and my joy and peace are increasing.
Quotes like the following from Willard deeply challenged all that I had learned about God and the gospel, but it described better than anything else I have ever encountered what God was doing in my life.
“He is able to penetrate and intertwine himself within the fibers of the human self in such a way that those who are enveloped in his loving companionship with him will never be alone.” (Hearing God, 43)
“The advantage of believing in the reality of the Trinity is not that we get an A from God for giving “the right answer.” Remember, to believe something is to act as if it is so. To believe that two plus two equals four is to behave accordingly when trying to find out how many dollars or apples are in the house. The advantage of believing it is not that we can pass tests in arithmetic; it is that we can deal much more successfully with reality. Just try dealing with it as if two plus two equaled six.
Hence, the advantage of believing in the Trinity is that we then live as if the Trinity is real: as if the cosmos environing us actually is, beyond all else, a self-sufficing community of unspeakably magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge and power. And, thus believing, our lives naturally integrate themselves, through our actions, into the reality of such a universe, just as with two plus two equals four. In faith we rest ourselves upon the reality of the Trinity in action - and it graciously meets us. For it is there. And our lives are then enmeshed in the true world of God.” (Divine Conspiracy, 318)
“We must understand that God does not "love" us without liking us - through gritted teeth - as "Christian" love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core - which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word "love.” (Divine Conspiracy, 64)
As 2013 gives way to 2014, I am amazed at the deep changes brought about by God in my life. Deep habits have been overturned; strongholds broken, new habits developed and new waters have been tasted. Not since I first came to Christ (1989) have I seen such fundamental shifts in my thinking and living. For all this I am beyond thankful!
I feel on the verge of adventure, a life lived with and in God, as he lives on earth through my life. If 2013 was the “year of the disciple,” then I hope that 2014 will be for me the “year of surrender.”