Maybe you are a Christian wondering what faith you signed up for. Or maybe you don’t believe anything and are daring someone—anyone—to show you a genuine example of authentic faith. Somewhere beyond the self-help formulas, fancy marketing, and easy promises there is a life-changing experience with God waiting. Searching for God Knows What weaves together beautiful stories and fresh perspectives on the Bible to show one man’s journey to find it.
“Like a shaken snow globe, Donald Miller’s newest collection of essays creates a swirl of ideas about the Christian life that eventually crystallize into a lovely landscape . . . [He] is one of the evangelical book market’s most creative writers.” —Christianity Today
“If you have felt that Jesus is someone you respect and admire—but Christianity is something that repels you—Searching for God Knows What will give you hope that you still can follow Jesus and be part of a church without the trappings of organized religion.” —Dan Kimball Author of The Emerging Church and Pastor of Vintage Faith Church, Santa Cruz, CA
“For fans of Blue Like Jazz, I doubt you will be disappointed. Donald Miller writes with the wit and vulnerability that you expect. He perfectly illustrates important themes in a genuine and humorous manner . . . For those who would be reading Miller for the first time, this would be a great start.” —Relevant
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The Gospel of Jesus
It Never Was a Formula
My friend Greg and I have been talking quite a bit about what it means to follow Jesus. Greg would not consider himself as somebody who takes Jesus seriously, but he admits to having questions. I didn't have a formula for him to understand how a Christian conversion works, but I told him that many years ago, when I was a child, I had heard about Jesus and found the idea of Him compelling, then much later while reading the Gospels, came to believe I wanted to follow Him. This changed things in my life, I said, because it involved giving up everything and choosing to go into a relationship with Him. Greg told me he had seen a pamphlet with four or five ideas on it, ideas such as man was a sinner, sin separated man from God, and Christ died to absolve the separation. He asked me if this was what I believed, and I told him, essentially, that it was. "Those would be the facts of the story," I said, "but that isn't the story."
"Those are the ideas, but it isn't the narrative," Greg stated rhetorically.
"Yes," I told him.
Earlier that same year I had a conversation with my friend Omar, who is a student at a local college. For his humanities class, Omar was assigned to read the majority of the Bible. He asked to meet with me for coffee, and when we sat down he put a Bible on the table as well as a pamphlet containing the same five or six ideas Greg had mentioned. He opened the pamphlet, read the ideas, and asked if these concepts were important to the central message of Christianity. I told Omar they were critical; that, basically, this was the gospel of Jesus, the backbone of Christian faith. Omar then opened his Bible and asked, "If these ideas are so important, why aren't they in this book?"
"But the Scripture references are right here," I said curiously, showing Omar that the verses were printed next to each idea.
"I see that," he said. "But in the Bible they aren't concise like they are in this pamphlet. They are spread out all over the book."
"But this pamphlet is a summation of the ideas," I clarified.
"Right," Omar continued, "but it seems like, if these ideas are that critical, God would have taken the time to make bullet points out of them. Instead, He put some of them here and some of them there. And half the time, when Jesus is talking, He is speaking entirely in parables. It is hard to believe that whatever it is He is talking about can be summed up this simply."
Omar's point is well taken. And while the ideas presented in these pamphlets are certainly true, it struck me how simply we had begun to explain the ideas, not only how simply, but how nonrelationally, how propositionally. I don't mean any of this to fault the pamphlets at all. Tracts such as the ones Omar and Greg encountered have been powerful tools in helping people understand the beauty of the message of Christ. Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the gospel. But I did begin to wonder if there were better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. After all, the pamphlets have been around for only the last fifty years or so (along with our formulaic presentation of the gospel), and the church has shrunk, not grown, in Western countries in which these tools have been used. But the greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree.
It makes me wonder if, because of this reduced version of the claims of Christ, we believe the gospel is easy to understand, a simple mental exercise, not in the least bit mysterious. And if you think about it, a person has a more difficult time explaining romantic love, for instance, or beauty, or the Trinity, than the gospel of Jesus. John would open his gospel by presenting the idea that God is the Word and Jesus is the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Not exactly bullet points for easy consumption. Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something.
o o o
Each year I teach a class on the gospel and culture at a small Bible college back east. This year I asked the students to list the precepts a person would need to understand in order to become a Christian. I stood at the white board and they called out ideas: Man was sinful by nature; sin separates us from God; Jesus died for our sins; we could accept Jesus into our hearts (after some thought, students were not able to explain exactly what they meant by this, only saying it was a kind of interaction in which a person agrees Jesus is the Son of God), and so on. Then, looking at the board, I began to ask some questions about these almost universally accepted ideas. I asked if a person could believe all these ideas were true and yet not be a Christian. I told them my friend Matt, for instance, believed all these ideas and yet would never claim to be a person who knows Jesus or much less follows Him. The students conceded that, in fact, a person could know and even believe all the concepts on the board and yet not be a Christian. "Then there is something missing, isn't there?" I said to the class. "It isn't watertight just yet. There must be some idea we are leaving out, some full-proof thing a person has to agree with in order to have a relationship with Christ." We sat together and looked at the board for several minutes until we conceded we weren't going to come up with the missing element. I then erased the board and asked the class a different question: "What ideas would a guy need to agree with or what steps would a guy need to take in order to fall in love with a girl?" The class chuckled a bit, but I continued, going so far as to begin a list.
1. A guy would have to get to know her.
I stood back from the board and wondered out loud what the next step might be. "Any suggestions?" I asked the class. We thought about it for a second, and then one of the students spoke up and said, "It isn't exactly a scientific process."
The Gospel: A Relational Dynamic
Perhaps the reason Scripture includes so much poetry in and outside the narrative, so many parables and stories, so many visions and emotional letters, is because it is attempting to describe a relational break man tragically experienced with God and a disturbed relational history man has had since then and, furthermore, a relational dynamic man must embrace in order to have relational intimacy with God once again, thus healing himself of all the crap he gets into while looking for a relationship that makes him feel whole. Maybe the gospel of Jesus, in other words, is all about our relationship with Jesus rather than about ideas. And perhaps our lists and formulas and bullet points are nice in the sense they help us memorize different truths, but harmful in the sense they delude, or perhaps ignore, the necessary relationship that must begin between ourselves and God for us to become His followers. And worse, perhaps our formulas and bullet points and steps steal the sincerity with which we might engage God.
Becoming a Christian might look more like falling in love than baking cookies. Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying that in order for a person to know Jesus they must get a kind of crush on Him. But what I am suggesting is that, not unlike any other relationship, a person might need to understand that Jesus is alive, that He exists, that He is God, that He is in authority, that we need to submit to Him, that He has the power to save, and so on and so on, all of which are ideas, but ideas entangled in a kind of relational dynamic. This seems more logical to me because if God made us, wants to know us, then this would require a more mysterious interaction than what would be required by following a kind of recipe.
I realize it all sounds terribly sentimental, but imagine the other ideas popular today that we sometimes hold up as credible: We believe a person will gain access to heaven because he is knowledgeable about theology, because he can win at a game of religious trivia. And we may believe a person will find heaven because she is very spiritual and lights incense and candles and takes bubble baths and reads books that speak of centering her inner self; and some of us believe a person is a Christian because he believes five ideas that Jesus communicated here and there in Scripture, though never completely at one time and in one place; and some people believe they are Christians because they do good things and associate themselves with some kind of Christian morality; and some people believe they are Christians because they are Americans. If any of these models are true, people who read the Bible before we systematically broke it down, and, for that matter, people who believed in Jesus before the printing press or before the birth of Western civilization, are at an extreme disadvantage. It makes you wonder if we have fashioned a gospel around our culture and technology and social economy rather than around the person of Christ. It doesn't make a great deal of sense that a person who went to Bible college should have a better shot at heaven than a person who didn't, and it doesn't make a lot of sense either that somebody sentimental and spiritual has greater access. I think it is more safe and more beautiful and more true to believe that when a person dies he will go and be with God because, on earth, he had come to know Him, that he had a relational encounter with God not unlike meeting a friend or a lover or having a father or taking a bride, and that in order to engage God he gave up everything, repented and changed his life, as this sort of extreme sacrifice is what is required if true love is to grow. We would expect nothing less in a marriage; why should we accept anything less in becoming unified with Christ? In fact, I have to tell you, I believe the Bible is screaming this idea and is completely silent on any other, including our formulas and bullet points. It seems, rather, that Christ's parables, Christ's words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, were designed to bypass the memorization of ideas and cause us to wrestle with a certain need to cling to Him. In other words, a poetic presentation of the gospel of Jesus is more accurate than a set of steps.
o o o
Biblically, you are hard-pressed to find theological ideas divorced from their relational context. There are, essentially, three dominant metaphors describing our relationship with God: sheep to a shepherd, child to a father, and bride to a bridegroom. The idea of Christ's disciples being His mother and father and brothers and sisters is also presented. In fact, few places in Scripture speak to the Christian conversion experience through any method other than relational metaphor. Contrasting this idea, I recently heard a man, while explaining how a person could convert to Christianity, say the experience was not unlike a person who decides to sit in a chair. He said that while a person can have faith that a chair will hold him, it is not until he sits in the chair that he has acted on his faith.
I wondered as I heard this if the chair was a kind of a symbol for Jesus, and how irritated Jesus might be if a lot of people kept trying to sit on Him. And then I wondered at how Jesus could say He was a Shepherd and we were sheep, and that the Father in heaven was our Father and we were His children, and that He Himself was a Bridegroom and we were His bride, and that He was a King and we were His subjects, and yet we somehow missed His meaning and thought becoming a Christian was like sitting in a chair.
The Gospel of Ideas
So removed is our understanding of the gospel as a relational invitation that recently, while teaching another class of Bible college students, I presented a form of the gospel but left out a key element, to see if they would notice. I told them in advance that I was going to leave out a critical element of the gospel, and I asked them to listen carefully to figure out the missing piece. I told them man was sinful, and this was obvious when we looked at the culture we lived in. I pointed out specific examples of depravity including homosexuality, abortion, drug use, song lyrics on the radio, newspaper headlines, and so on. Then I told the class that man must repent, and showed them Scriptures that spoke firmly to this idea. I used the true-life example I heard from a preacher about a man in Missouri who, warning people of a bridge that had collapsed, shot a flare gun directly at oncoming cars so they would stop before they drove over the bridge to their deaths. I said I was like that man, shooting flares at cars, and they could be mad at me and frustrated, but I was saving their lives, because the wages of sin is death, and they had to repent in order to see heaven. I then pointed to Scripture about the wages of sin being death, and talked at length about how sin separates us from God. Then I spoke of the beauty of morality, and told a story of a friend who chose not to cheat on his wife and so now enjoys the fruits of his marriage, committed in love to his wife, grateful that he never betrayed the purity and beauty of their relationship. I talked about heaven and how great it will be to walk on streets of gold and how there will probably be millions of miles of mountains and rivers and how great it will be to fish those rivers and sit with our friends around a fire beneath a mountain peak that reaches up into stars so thick we could barely imagine the beauty of the expanse. I gave the class statistics regarding teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, going into detail about what it is they would be saved from if they would only repent, and how their lives could be God-honoring and God-centered and this would give them a sense of purity and a feeling of fulfillment on earth, and that God would provide for them in relationships and in finances and in comfort. When I was done, I rested my case and asked the class if they could tell me what it was I had left out of this gospel presentation. I waited as a class of Bible college students-who had read books about Christian theology, who had read the majority of the Bible, all of whom had taken an evangelism class only weeks before in which they went door-to-door to hundreds of homes and shared their faith using pamphlets that explained the gospel, who had grown up in Christian homes attending strong evangelical churches, who had taken both New Testament Introduction and Old Testament Introduction-sat there for several minutes in uncomfortable silence. None of the forty-five students in the class realized I had presented a gospel without once mentioning the name of Jesus.
The story bears repeating: I presented a gospel to Christian Bible college students and left out Jesus. Nobody noticed, even when I said I was going to neglect something very important, even when I asked them to think very hard about what it was I had left out, even when I stood there for five minutes in silence.
To a culture that believes they "go to heaven" based on whether or not they are morally pure, or that they understand some theological ideas, or that they are very spiritual, Jesus is completely unnecessary. At best, He is an afterthought, a technicality by which we become morally pure, or a subject of which we know, or a founding father of our woo-woo spirituality.
I assure you, these students loved Jesus very much, and they were terrific kids whom I loved being with, it's just that when they thought of the gospel, they thought of the message in terms of a series of thoughts or principles, not mysterious relational dynamics. The least important of the ideas, to this class, was knowing Jesus; the least important of the ideas was the one that is relational. The gospel of Jesus, then, mistakenly assumed by this class, is something different from Jesus Himself. The two are mutually exclusive in this way.
This, of course, is a lie birthed out of a method of communication the Bible never uses.
The Golden Cow
When the church began to doubt its own integrity after the Darwinian attack on Genesis 1 and 2, we began to answer science, not by appealing to something greater, the realm of beauty and art and spirituality, but by attempting to translate spiritual realities through scientific equations, thus justifying ourselves to culture, as if culture had some kind of authority to redeem us in the first place. Terms such as "absolute truth" and "inherency" (a term used only to describe Scripture in the last one hundred years or so) became a battle cry, even though the laws of absolute truth must, by their nature, exclude ideas such as Jesus is the Word, He is both God and Man, the Trinity is both three and One, we are united with Him in His death, because these are mysterious ideas, not scientific ideas. In fact, much of biblical truth must go out the window when you approach it through the scientific method. God does not live within the philosophical science He made, any more than He is bound by the natural realities of gravity. There is moral law, to be sure, but moral law is not our path to heaven; our duty involves knowing and being known by Christ. Positive morality, then, the stuff of natural law, is but an offering, a sweet-tasting fruit in the mouth of God. It is obedience and an imitation of our pure and holy Maker; and immorality-the act of ignoring the conscience and the precepts of goodness-is a dagger in God's heart. Because we have approached faith through the lens of science, the rich legacy of art that once flowed out of the Christian community has dried up. The poetry of Scripture, especially in the case of Moses, began to be interpreted literally and mathematically, and whole books such as the Song of Songs were completely and totally ignored. They weren't scientific. You couldn't break them down into bullet points. Morality became a code, rather than a manifestation of a love for Christ, the way a woman is faithful to her husband, the way a man is faithful to his wife. These relational ideas were replaced with wrong and right, good and bad, with only hinted suggestions as to where wrong and right and good and bad actually came from. Old Testament stories became formulas for personal growth rather than stories to help us understand the character and nature of the God with whom we interact. In a culture that worships science, relational propositions will always be left out of arguments attempting to surface truth. We believe, quite simply, that unless we can chart something, it doesn't exist. And you can't chart relationships. Furthermore, in our attempts to make relational propositions look like chartable realities, all beauty and mystery is lost. And so when times get hard, when reality knocks us on our butts, mathematical propositions are unable to comfort our failing hearts. How many people have walked away from faith because their systematic theology proved unable to answer the deep longings and questions of the soul? What we need here, truly, is faith in a Being, not a list of ideas trailing behind to guard our thinking. And one should not think our current method of interpreting Scripture has an ancient legacy. The modern view of Scripture originated in an age of industrial revolution when corporations were becoming more important than family (the husband, for the first time, left the home and joined Corporate America, building cars instead of families), and productivity was more important than relationships. How can God help me get what I want? was the idea, not Who is God, and how can I know Him?
o o o
Imagine a pamphlet explaining the gospel of Jesus that said something like this:
You are the bride to the Bridegroom, and the Bridegroom is Jesus Christ. You must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood to know Him, and your union with Him will make you one, and your oneness with Him will allow you to be identified with Him, His purity allowing God to interact with you, and because of this you will be with Him in eternity, sitting at His side and enjoying His companionship, which will be more fulfilling than an earthly husband or an earthly bride. All you must do to engage God is be willing to leave everything behind, be willing to walk away from your identity, and embrace joyfully the trials and tribulations, the torture and perhaps martyrdom that will come upon you for being a child of God in a broken world working out its own redemption in empty pursuits.
Though it sounds absurd, this is a much more accurate summation of the gospel of Jesus than the bullet points we like to consider when we think about Christ's gospel.
In the third chapter of John, some Pharisees come out to talk with John the Baptist because Jesus has been baptizing people in a nearby river, thus threatening their position in the community as the people who do the baptizing. The Pharisees are furious and hoping to get John to join them in their hostility toward Jesus.
John answers them by saying, essentially, "Look, I told you I wasn't the Messiah, but rather the one who comes before Him to get everything ready. The One who gets the bride is the Bridegroom; by definition, but I am just His friend. I am like the best man in the wedding. And I am very happy about this. How could I be jealous when I know that the wedding is finished and the marriage is off to a great start?"
And Matthew in his gospel captures a conversation between Jesus and a group who were the disciples of John the Baptist. The disciples of John the Baptist are frustrated because they are fasting and Jesus' disciples are eating. They say to him, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus says to them, "The attendants of the Bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the Bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."
In this way, Jesus takes the spiritual disciplines, the steps and actions religious folks had come to understand as a sort of spiritual checklist, and explains them as being deeply connected to a relational exchange. We fast because we mourn the absence of Christ.
At Imago Dei, the church I attend here in Portland, the congregation is invited to the front of the church after each service to dip bread into wine, partaking in one of the two sacraments given to those of us who are following Christ. And yet often, as I wait in line, go to the table, take the bread, and dip it into the cup of wine, I forget that the bread and wine I eat and drink are of absolutely no spiritual significance at all, that they have no more power than the breakfast I ate that morning, that what Jesus wanted was for us to eat the bread and drink the wine as a way of remembering Him, the bread representing His flesh, that He was a Man who, come from heaven, walked the earth with us and felt our pains, wept at our transgressions and humbly beckoned us to follow Him; and the wine is a symbol of the fact that He was killed, that His body was nailed to a cross, and in so doing He entered into death, dying to absolve our need to die, our need to experience the ramifications of falling away and apart from God.
I confess that at times I have thought of Communion as a religious pill a person takes in order to check it off his list, and that the pill is best taken under the sedation of heavy mood music, or in silence.
How odd would it seem to have been one of the members of the early church, shepherded by Paul or Peter, and to come forward a thousand years to see people standing in line or sitting quietly in a large building that looked like a schoolroom or movie theater, to take Communion. How different it would seem from the way they did it, sitting around somebody's living room table, grabbing a hunk of bread and holding their own glass of wine, exchanging stories about Christ, perhaps laughing, perhaps crying, consoling each other, telling one another that the Person who had exploded into their hearts was indeed the Son of God, their Bridegroom, come to tell them who they were, come to mend the broken relationship, come to marry them in a spiritual union more beautiful, more intimate than anything they could know on earth.