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Rekindling the Flame
to Know Him
I sat staring at the piano, feeling as if I had lost my way—as if I’d lost my world. I was stunned by the shocking unraveling of what, up to that moment, had been a successful career.
Just a few months before, I had been relishing my role as one of the leading youth pastors on the West Coast. I had been blessed to steer the course of a youth group that had grown from a relative handful to more than seven hundred young people who honestly felt that they could change their world.
We had done it all. We had produced full-scale rock operas and Broadway-type musicals, had designed high-octane ministry training programs that mobilized mission teams to all parts of the globe, had launched discipleship groups across the Silicon Valley. We had seen God do miracles on the streets of San Francisco, had pioneered new models of youth programming, and had trained some of the finest youth leaders in the Bay Area. For nine years I had worked to come to this point: I was in demand as a youth specialist, and we were poised to take our youth ministry to a national level.
Then it all just blew up. Vanished.
Serious failures had surfaced in my leadership team, which took me completely by surprise. The complexity of the situation required wisdom that seemed to be beyond my grasp. Matters quickly worsened when I was blamed for others’ mistakes that I had nothing to do with. I became the scapegoat. I felt betrayed. The youth leaders had distanced themselves from me, leaving me no choice but to resign my position. In a few short weeks, I was stripped to a Bible and one lone friend—my wife, Nancy. And there seemed to be nowhere to go.
I tried to make sense of it all. All kinds of emotions collided within me: bitterness toward the ones I felt had betrayed me, guilt over the way I had driven the youth group to accomplish my visions, fear of what all this might mean to my reputation, an aching emptiness at the thought of having worked so hard—only to apparently accomplish so little.
“It’s just so futile!” I screamed to myself.
So I sat there in my living room, staring at the piano keys. Music had always been a comfort to me, but not now. The worship choruses and songs I had penned were like echoes in an empty hall.
I closed my eyes. Grief seemed to course through my fingers as I began to play. And somewhere from the deepest recesses of my soul, words began to flood my mind.
Just the time I feel that I’ve been caught
in the mire of self
Just the time I feel my mind’s been
bought by worldly wealth.
That’s how I felt—caught. Bought out. My world had collapsed, and as the moments passed, I gradually began to realize that it was no one’s fault but mine. Once again, I had been seduced by the fast track, the lure of success, and the need to make my mark.
I’ve run the race—yet set my pace and face a shattered soul.…
I was the author of my misery, and I knew it. Worship had been an afterthought for a long time. Communion with God was running a distant second to climbing ladders. The feverish pace I had set had hooked me. Once again, I had become a driven man.
But all at once I felt a small drop of hope penetrate the thick despair that was suffocating my heart.
That’s when the breeze begins to blow—
I know the Spirit’s call
And all my worldly wandering just
melts into His love.
Jesus still loved me. Opportunistic, manipulative me. Self-centered, resentful me.
As overwhelmed as I was by what I had done—by the seeds of destruction I had sown because I cared more for my vision than for the sheep entrusted to me—I found myself suddenly buoyed by the simple truth that Jesus still loved me.
All at once it was as if I felt the Father’s arms envelop me, and I began to cry out:
Oh, I want to know You more! Deep within my soul
I want to know You, Oh, I want to know You
To feel Your heart and know Your mind
Looking in Your eyes stirs up within me
Cries that say, “I want to know You!
Oh, I want to know You more!”1
That was almost twenty years ago. In that span of time this song has perhaps been the most beloved song God has given me. Everywhere I go, people ask me to sing it. It seems to reso-nate within them, capturing their deepest passions for the Lord. This song has touched millions. It was forged in the crucible of rejection, in the wallows of loneliness. And it was written by a man who had lost everything he had worked for, only to discover that the greatest joy—the joy of knowing Him—can never be taken away.
Though we often find ourselves caught in the tug-of-war between our agendas and His desires, Jesus ever woos and pursues us, and the pull of His love is so much stronger than our intransigence. He is the Husband of our souls who, like the lover in Song of Solomon, strains to peer through the latticework just to get a glimpse of his estranged beloved, strives to catch our eye in a moment of mercy and remind us of the satisfaction we once knew (see Song of Songs 2:9).
Still, the pain of the heart that is no longer moored to His touch is agonizing.
God’s Finding Time
I realize now that those months of misery were what one of my mentors calls a “finding time,” a season in which God graciously crowds us into a corner where we have to face ourselves and the utter emptiness that haunts our hearts.
I had lost my passion for Christ. I had forgotten that I once had the heart of a bride who loved Him with passion and followed Him with abandon. How had my heart become so cold? I couldn’t recall a specific moment when I had turned my back on Him, but my passion for Him had dwindled to a faint flicker of what it once was.
The joy of His presence, the sweetness of His voice, had always genuinely satisfied me. And I knew that success was fleeting—the pursuit of a sense of personal significance nothing but a hollow odyssey. But knowing Him—desiring as David did just to behold the beauty of the Lord—was the one joy that never waned within me.
How can I now rekindle the flame of bridal devotion for Jesus? I asked myself.
As I looked back on the years leading up to this turning point, I realized that I had been slowly separating myself from God. Without meaning to or wanting to, I had inexorably wound my way down a path of unfaithfulness. For me, the pathway back to God began with remembering that my ultimate priority was to cultivate intimacy with Him.
As the days and all their incessant demands press on us, we must be ever vigilant to rekindle the flame of bridal passion for the Lord. Today it seems that more exists to distract us from this holy pursuit than at any other time in recent memory. The church is being distracted to death, and the distractions hit us from all directions. We are overloaded with e-mails, cable channels, cell phones, and hours on the freeway. New technologies allow us to be in more relationships, but often we find ourselves spending inordinate amounts of time adjusting our relational world, trying to make room on an already full plate.
Because our society creates environments in which people feel disconnected and alienated, a number of people are on the hunt for meaning and personal significance—PWAs (People With Agendas), as one of my pastor friends calls them. PWAs often enter into relationships more as a means of determining their self-worth than of simply fostering friendships, and in so doing end up using people without even knowing it.
Then there are all those opportunities afforded our children: ballet classes for the five-year-old, drama for the ten-year-old, soccer matches, basketball games, violin lessons. Sometimes these things seem to reduce parents to nothing more than veritable taxi services. And when we finally get our kids home, we have to monitor their on-line chat rooms, scrutinize the content of their television programs, and watchdog their Web surfing.
Bosses to please, new gadgets to test, kids to shuttle…
All this can leave us feeling utterly spent, and that’s when some of the subtlest distractions present themselves—those innocuous amusements we pursue in an effort to revitalize our numb souls. But golf courses, cineplexes, and shopping malls cannot replenish a depleted spirit.
The most insidious distractions of all are our own needs: the need to feel significant, the need to be successful, the need to be esteemed, the need to feel whole. These needs are subtle distractions precisely because they are so legitimate. And because we have these needs, we can find ourselves pursuing God more for our sake than for His.
When that happens, it’s time to make some changes.
Wanting Christ for Christ’s Sake
A few years ago, my family and I moved from San Jose, California, where we had lived for most of our lives, to Nashville, Tennessee. By that time, I had been involved in the Christian communications industry for a number of years. Many of the record companies were moving to Nashville in the early nineties, so we migrated there as well.
Once we settled, I had the opportunity to huddle with some executives from one of the more well-known Christian labels. They knew about my work and were interested in doing a recording with me. When they asked what kind of project I’d like to do, I told them that I wanted to write a worship musical that focused on the character of God—a collection of worship songs that would celebrate the many facets of His wonder.
The executives’ response was surprisingly cool. They told me that they would like to help but that, frankly, most believers would not buy an album about God. According to their demographic studies, such a project would not appeal to most Christians. I thought it strange that a recording that celebrated the very One who is our author of life would hold so little appeal to the average believer. But, of course, what did I know? They were the executives, and I was simply a songwriter.
A few months later, I had another encounter that mirrored the one with the record company. I was in the process of writing my first book and met with the editor who had been assigned to finesse my manuscript. I knew that he was one of the best editors in the business. Having worked in the past for some of the largest publishing houses, he had his finger on the pulse of the Christian marketplace. He asked me what I wanted to write about, and I told him the same thing I’d told the record company brass.
“I want to write about God!” I said. “I want to take snapshots of the many wonders of His character and just focus on Him.”
“I’d like to help you write that kind of a book,” he replied. “In fact,the Christian market desperately needs that kind of book. But honestly, the average Christian is not going to buy a book about God.”
It sounded like the same song and dance to me, but then he explained himself. "The only way you can get the average believer to read a book about God is to somehow show them how God benefits them," he said.
I sat there stunned. It wasn’t that I fully disagreed, for I knew that most people pursue God because they see Him as the One who satisfies their desires. But my editor’s words rattled me. Something didn’t sit well.
As I reflected on those two encounters, I realized that if these media mavens were giving me accurate information, then there was something gravely wrong in the church. Have we become so obsessed with ourselves, I asked myself, that we subconsciously perceive God as existing for us—and not us for Him?
In truth, many of us want to get to know God so we can be better parents, so we can be more successful businesspeople, so we can feel whole. Even spiritual leaders sometimes pursue God more from the desire for ministry success than simply the desire for God Himself.
The Word of God, as always, provides the necessary connective. In the book of Philippians, we catch a glimpse into Paul’s hunger for the Lord when he exclaims, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (3:10). When we read this verse, we don’t get the sense that Paul wanted to know God in order to be a better leader, a more effective church planter, or more highly esteemed by his colleagues. He wanted Christ for Christ’s sake, period!
This sentiment captures the essence of true bridal affection that we as a church should have for Christ. It is a craving for Jesus, a hunger centered on Him, not on our needs. That many of us have been shanghaied by what Christopher Lasch described as a “culture of narcissism”2—and have unsuspectingly adopted a self-serving form of Christianity—can be seen in the weariness many believers feel and the degree to which we are so easily distracted from our passionate pursuit of God.
The Quiet Place of the Heart
In his book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen addresses proper focus on Jesus Christ:
What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us…. It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own blind, petty ideas and feelings.… Our first and foremost task is faithfully to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to lost travelers.3
íuarding that inner fire is the challenge of twenty-first-century life. The drivenness that can so quickly quench the flame of intimacy with God can only be expunged by discovering what Catherine of Siena called the “cell of the heart.”
Catherine was alluding to the monasteries of her day. They were places where men and women could shut out the distractions of their world and focus solely on cultivating intimacy with God. But she saw that a person needn’t cloister himself away to center himself on communion with Christ, for that place of communion need not be farther away than one’s own heart, that inner sanctum that belongs only to the Bridegroom of our souls. An inner habitation where deep calls unto deep, where in the silence and the solitude of communion with our Beloved we touch the eternal and walk in the rest and peace that is to mark our lives in this Roller Derby world.
To tend this “inner monastery,” we must learn the supreme value of unplugging from the cacophonous buzz of life’s many distractions.
S. D. Gordon, one of D. L. Moody’s contemporaries, tells this story:
A gentleman was asked by an artist friend of some note to come to his home, and see a painting just finished. He went at the time appointed, was shown by the attendant into a room which was quite dark and left there. He was much surprised, but quietly awaited developments. After perhaps 15 minutes his friend came into the room with a cordial greeting, and took him up to the studio to see the painting, which was greatly admired. Before he left, the artist said laughingly, “I suppose you thought it queer to be left in that dark room so long.” “Yes,” the visitor said. “I did.” “Well,” his friend replied, “I knew that if you came into my studio with the glare of the street in your eyes you could not appreciate the fine coloring of the picture. So I left you in the dark room till the glare had worn out of your eyes.”4
In the dark and alone: the only way the visitor could appreciate such exquisite art.
In the same way, God desires to get us alone with Him. Not just the aloneness of a brief quiet time, but an inner solitude that can be known even in our busiest moments. This is a solitude born in a heart that focuses solely on Jesus. It’s a rest found when we see how passionately God wants us.
Scripture is the record of God’s passion for us. It is the record of a God who wanted to walk with Adam in the cool of the day, a God whose passion for Enoch—who delighted in God’s every step—was so great that in a moment of divine delight He raptured Enoch away.
He is a God who allowed Abraham to wait and wait for his promised son Isaac—perhaps simply for the joy of repeated encounters with His servant, or perhaps for the joy of unwrapping His promise over twenty-five years, to reveal layer after precious layer to a man who pursued intimacy with his God.
He is a God who dares to place Himself against every conceivable pleasure—wealth, fame, sexual desire—and says that He is the greatest reward of all (Genesis 15:1).
ýe is a God who pursues a swindler like Jacob, a God who wrestles the man until dawn even though He could have crippled him in an instant. And why? So He could bring Jacob to a place of such absolute dependence that his heart would be forever linked with His own.
He’s a God who called Moses from the fire and whose word became such a fire within him that Moses’ own soul thereafter could burn for nothing less than face-to-face intimacy with Him.
He’s a God who met with a young shepherd in the dark recesses of the night, inspiring in him song after delightful song, forever ruining him for the mere achievements of earthly giants.
And He’s a God who wanted us with such unquenchable desire that He became a seed in a woman’s womb, the smallest entity of life, in order to rescue us from our sin.
To be needed is a tonic for the soul that feels neglected, cast off, discarded. But to be wanted? Now there's a tantalizing elixir that can satiate the deepest yearnings of the heart. To be the object of another's desire, the sole focus of a lover's affection. To be wanted for no other reason save the adorer's passion to know us and be known by us.
To be desired not for what we have done, nor for what we have earned. To be wanted not for what we may have to offer another, nor for the services we might be able to render.
To be wanted for no other reason than the pleasure of another to simply lavish affection upon us. To be afforded the exquisite delight of revealing yourself in the embrace of unconditional love.
To be desired for no other reason but that you as you are immeasurably valuable.
To be wanted simply because you are of inestimable worth—that is heaven!
That taste of heaven is known only in the arms of Jesus, only in our times alone with Him where face-to-face intimacy is cultivated in worship.