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William P. Smith, M.Div., Ph.D. Dr. Smith is a counselor and faculty member in the School of Biblical Counseling at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation in Glenside, PA. He currently serves as the director of distance education and is a frequent contributor to The Journal of Biblical Counseling. He also serves as director of Counseling Ministries at Chelten Church in Dresher, PA. Bill and his wife Sally are busy raising two young sons and a daughter. In his spare time Bill enjoys coaching his sons sports teams and renovating the family home.
Do you feel lost and confused?
Brandon was lost. Only a few minutes ago, he had been playing with his older sister; now she was nowhere in sight. His mom was missing too. They had all been shopping, but that quickly got boring for Brandon. He and Teresa had started a game of hide-and- seek among the clothes racks. Teresa hid first and Brandon quickly found her. Then it was his turn. Brandon was a champion hider. Being only two-and-a-half enabled him to stand inside the racks on the lower cross bars so no one could see his legs. Completely hidden by the clothes, he was undetectable.
At first he could hear Teresa though she could neither see nor hear him. Brandon giggled quietly as she came closer toward him and then veered off. As she moved farther and farther away, Brandon heard her voice growing softer. Then it was quiet. Too quiet. Boringly quiet. Brandon decided to liven things up by revealing himself and winning the game. He peeked out, his face full of triumph. Jumping out, he announced, "I win, Terri!" But Teresa didn't scoop him up or tousle his hair. She was gone.
Brandon's triumph turned to puzzlement as he looked around and saw no one he knew. Slowly he walked around the display and still saw neither his sister nor his mother. Then he struck out through the maze of merchandise. Soon, hopelessly confused, he began to panic in earnest. "Mama, Terri! Mama, Terri!" he cried. His legs carried him along though he was blinded with tears. Brandon was desperate. He didn't know where to go or what to do. All he wanted was for his mother and sister to come looking for him. He wanted to be found.
Have you ever been lost? I don't mean the ten-minutes-on-the-highway-with-a-map lost. I mean absolutely-no-idea-which-way-to-go lost, where all the points on the compass are equally meaningful and, therefore, equally useless. In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe describes a man who takes a wrong exit in New York City and ends up in a dangerous section of the Bronx. Wolfe captures this man's progression from cavalier confusion to barely bridled fear to irrational desperation. Have you ever been there? Do you know what it's like to know you need something, know you can't provide it, and only wish someone would come to find you?
For many of us, being lost has nothing to do with geography. Lost is not a place; it is a daily life experience. We can go through the motions of daily life fairly successfully, yet all along we feel as though things are not right. We are deeply dissatisfied with life, yet we have little or no idea what is wrong and certainly no idea how to improve our lot. Thoreau's conclusion that "most men live lives of quiet desperation" describes us fairly well. Existential lostness is a nearly universal experience after humanity's fall.
Desperate and Lost
Zacchaeus was lost (Luke 19:1—10). In his hometown, on a road he knew well, he was desperately lost. He just didn't realize how far gone he was.
He wanted to see Jesus, but so did lots of other people. He couldn't get through the crowd, so he climbed a tree for a better look. We might suppose his vantage point was similar to hanging out on a balcony to watch a parade; he was up above the crowd and had a better view. But trees and balconies don't share the same status. Typically, climbing trees is not something that wealthy men of the world engage in. Trees tend to be reserved for children.
My children love to climb trees and I don't blame them. I did too when I was a boy. But an adult in a tree draws attention. If you drive down a street and see kids playing in a tree, you smile and keep going. But if you noticed a grown man up there, you would probably slow down and wonder what was going on.
There's something about postadolescents in trees that suggests the dangerous (older bodies don't flex or heal as well as younger ones) and the ridiculous. Zacchaeus, a wealthy, feared government official, set himself up to be ridiculed for the rest of his life. Embarrassing stories tend to develop a life of their own. Even today Sunday school songs immortalize this man's peculiar behavior! So here's this little man, who probably already had endured his share of insults regarding his height, providing raw material for new, embarrassing stories. Why is he doing this?
It could have been simple curiosity that drove him to go looking for Jesus, but curiosity is not enough to drive someone to such desperate behavior. I have never endangered my reputation for the sake of satisfying simple curiosity. Something else drove Zacchaeus. Despite his wealth, his life was not going well. We're not told what was wrong, but as you consider the lengths he went to, you realize he wanted something more—something that even his wealth couldn't give him. He was dissatisfied with his life and his dissatisfaction drove him to seek out Jesus. To mix metaphors, Zacchaeus was up a tree without a paddle.
Poor Zacchaeus! His money can't give him what he wants so he embarrasses himself to see if Jesus can. Doesn't your heart go out to him as he tries so hard to see the Lord? As with Brandon, you want to scoop him up and help him. But the crowd apparently didn't feel the same way. No one moved aside so the little guy could see. I wonder why?
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Today, it's difficult for us to imagine what that meant to people then. I dislike paying taxes as much as (or possibly more than) the next guy, but I don't hate the people who work for the IRS. Nor would I try to keep one out of church or away from a public event. But even if I did, I'm still only one person; he could get around me. Here's a case, however, where an entire crowd collectively prevents one man from getting through. They really didn't like him. Whatever he'd done must have been really bad to get that reaction.
And it was. Tax collectors were not just civil servants, they were also professional thieves. Not only did they collect the tax Rome imposed, they imposed additional levies to feather their own nests. Their job gave them an opportunity to rob people using the weight of Roman authority. Zacchaeus stole from his own people. When Luke tells you he was a chief collector, and a rich one, he's making it clear that Zacchaeus had stolen a lot of money from a lot of people.
Rich people who live at the expense of others end up shrinking their own souls while they squeeze others' pockets. Sadly, the news media regularly reminds us that greed isn't restricted to fiction or ancient history.
Many people seek to better themselves at the expense of others. Can you name "ministers" who beg for money from people on fixed incomes to build lavish mansions for themselves? How about executives who plunder company profits and assets so that they grow wealthy while bankrupting the employee pension funds? Others trade stocks based on insider information—making a killing while your investments take a beating—effectively emptying your bank account into their own. You can do little against such people who knowingly undermine, impoverish, and hurt you.
Zacchaeus was a small man, but his was not a pitiable shortness. Rather, he was monstrous, a parasitic man who grew fat on the blood of others, fully aware that his theft made their lives significantly worse. He idolized money, but instead of getting what he wanted, he harvested the rotten fruit of the crowd's hatred and his own dissatisfaction. He was getting what he had coming to him. Kind of served him right, didn't it?
Yet out of the entire crowd, Jesus singled him out and chose to go to his home. Why? There must have been more deserving people present. Jesus could have had a decent meal without raising questions of conscience. Many in the town were probably eating dry, moldy bread that night because the money Zacchaeus stole from them went to fund Jesus' dinner. Yet Jesus chose to break bread with this odious traitor.
What did Jesus see in the man that drew him—some redeemable trait, some inkling of love for God, or latent drop of humanity? Was that why Jesus moved toward him? If you look for such things in the passage, you'll be disappointed.
Luke 19 notes none of these things as the reason Jesus demanded to eat with him. Many people were seeking Jesus; what made Zacchaeus stand out? Jesus explains his choice simply by saying that he came to seek and to save the lost (v. 10). The quality that drew Jesus to Zacchaeus was the fact that he was a lost man.
In seeking out Zacchaeus, God shows you his heart. So often we talk about what Jesus did or said but ignore his attitude toward us and what drives him. Your God is passionate. He's on a mission. Jesus came to look for those who wander through life dazed and confused, often by their own fault. He searched them out intently, looking beyond those who clamored for his attention to locate those who had no hope. Jesus was not put off by Zacchaeus's despicable sins. He did not recoil from him. Rather, Jesus saw his lostness and found him.
Jesus is the same today. The same grace that moved him to leave heaven and cross time and space to find one pathetic conniver half-hidden in a tree is the same grace that moves him to look for you. He looked for you when you first came to know him and he looks for you even now. Desperate people—lost, confused, frightened—need to know that God searches for them.
That's good news. I don't have anything to commend myself to God to make him notice me. But I know he is compassionate toward people who struggle to make their lives work. That's what I need. I need a God who will come looking for me when I choose making friends with TV characters over spending time with my wife, when I throw myself into work to avoid demanding children, or when I lay around bloated by my lack of self-control, yearning to be entertained. I need a God who comes looking for me when I'm lost. And that's what I have.
Maybe you don't believe that Jesus comes and seeks you out. Sure, you know that it is true theologically. You certainly believe God searches for other people. You even agree that it might be hypothetically possible that he would look for you. But when you're floundering in your sins, feeling desperate, you don't believe he's working diligently to find you. You don't believe that anyone would want to look for you when you're hurting other people, lost in your sin, and don't know what to do.
If that's the case, it's time to fight the fight of faith. Will you allow yourself to believe that Jesus wants to find you right now? That he's looking for you this very moment and won't quit until he finds you? What does the faith battle look like? Often it's a simple acknowledgment: "Jesus, I don't really believe that you want to find me. Please help me believe. Please find me. I want to know that I matter enough to you that you would seek me out when everyone else pushes me away."
Being found made Zacchaeus a joyful man. Notice that nothing external about his life had changed. He was still a chief tax collector. He had still ruined people's lives. The crowd still hated him ... he was still short! Yet suddenly he's joyful because Jesus loved him and had entered his life. Jesus alone produced an explosion of joy in him.
Have you lost your joy? Then you've likely forgotten, or little realized, how dreadfully lost you were. Perhaps you've forgotten how wonderful it is for the God of the universe to want to be your Father, Savior, and friend. Sometimes we treat him as the consolation prize: "Well, I don't have a girlfriend, a job I like, or a BMW, but at least I have Jesus." No wonder we have trouble being joyful! Joyless, dried-up people have forgotten where they've come from, which means they've forgotten how Jesus has treated them. Now they take him for granted.
Zacchaeus points the way for joyless people. Spend some time remembering how badly lost you were. Think back to the time before you knew Jesus and how kind he was in searching you out. Think back to your lostness this morning when you criticized your husband, picked a fight with your roommate, or swore at another driver. Then consider how good Jesus is to keep searching for you, knowing he will find you. When you meditate on the two realities of being lost and having a Savior who doesn't quit until he finds you, you can't help but experience joy.
On Your Own
1. How do you experience being "lost"? What thoughts or feelings describe your experience: "I feel empty inside," "Something is missing," "I don't know where I'm going," "I can't stand myself"? Why do you think you feel lost?
2. What makes it difficult to believe that Jesus comes looking for you? Things you've done? Things you haven't done? Who you are? Spend some time confessing the ways you believe you've disqualified yourself from his search.
3. How many Scripture passages can you remember that show God seeking out his wayward or troubled people until he finds them? Here are a few to get you started: Genesis 28:10—15; Exodus 2:23—25; Judges 6:11—12; 1 Kings 19:1—9; Luke 15:1—7; and Acts 9:1—19. When have you experienced God seeking you? Thank him for being a God who looks for his children.
4. When was the last time you felt joyful? Since true joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit, you can always experience more of it. Welcome joy—ask for joy!—as you meditate on your God's pursuit of you in your lostness.CHAPTER 2
Do you think God is out to get you?
Being found produced joy in Zacchaeus. But sometimes being found can be a frightening experience. Our cat, for example, though fairly well socialized into the Smith household, retains her preference for nighttime activities. She hunts for things that come out at night; sometimes she decides she'd like company and tries to rouse one of the children. Since she's not very graceful, her nocturnal activities occasionally wake me up. However, unlike our children, I don't like being disturbed by a playful pet. My (ungodly) response to such interruptions is to try to make her think twice about doing it again.
The other night I awoke to an odd noise. It was the cat again, scrabbling at the carpet under my daughter's bed. Arming myself with a pole, I successfully dislodged the nuisance (much to my daughter's bemusement, who pretended to be asleep). But at 5:00 A.M., I was infuriated, not bemused, so after getting the cat out of my daughter's room, I continued my pursuit. Having been on the receiving end of the hunt before, the cat bolted down the stairs searching for a place to hide.
The chase began in earnest as I closed potential exit doors behind me, turned on lights, and peered under furniture. The cat ran vainly from closed door to lighted room, with me hot on her trail. Cats are incredibly fast, but I was incredibly—comically—determined.
In full sprint, but sensing her rapidly diminishing options, the poor creature suddenly stopped, looked at me, and mewed plaintively, her anguish obvious in posture and voice. At that moment, chastened by her distress, I allowed her to slink away unmolested.
Clearly, if you are a restless cat in the middle of the night, I am a dangerous person to have come looking for you. You don't want me to find you. But if you are a rebellious human, God is a very safe person to have search for you. You want him to find you because he will not leave you frightened or dismayed.
A Kind Finder
Adam and Eve didn't expect God to be safe when they rebelled against him (Gen. 3:1—24). They knew what he sounded like when he came walking in the cool of the day, and when they heard him, they went the other way. Not anticipating a positive meeting, they attempted to hide. Notice how quickly these people, who had never experienced a negative moment with their Creator, expected an unpleasant encounter. Sin strikes quickly and dramatically at relationships!
Unfortunately, the effect of sin on relationships is all too common an experience for people who sin against us. We can hardly blame people for wanting to run and hide when they're in the wrong. Think about the ways you react when your children refuse to get ready for bed, or when your husband embarrasses you, or your employee misses a deadline.
Some believe it's their right to pour out their anger when another sins against them. "After all I've done for you, this is how you treat me? This is how you repay me?!" Others run out of breath listing all the ways the person has hurt them. Others resort to ridicule, aiming to humiliate the person in front of people close to him or her. There is almost no end to the crushing ways we handle each other's failings. We provide powerful incentives for others to run and hide rather than confess what they have done wrong.
But God is different. He doesn't swoop down on Adam and Eve and start demanding, "What were you thinking?!" He doesn't berate, badger, and interrogate them. Nor does he hold himself aloof, waiting for them to make the first move. Instead, he comes to them. They know they have ruined everything, and they have no idea how to make things right. They're not even sure they can. God knows they're afraid, and so he comes to them.
Excerpted from Caught Of Guard by William P. Smith. Copyright © 2006 William P. Smith. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
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