“The present, if it is full of God, is the only refuge I have from poisonous disappointment and even almost rebellion against God.”
– Frank Laubach
“But we have to say of the God whom we profess in Christ: that he is exactly where we are, and only there is he to be found.”
– Karl Rahner
“You are with God not by achieving certain devotional exercises in his presence but by daring to be your own self as you reach towards him.”
– Michael Ramsay
To review, our first two axioms are:
- God is always present and at work
- God is like Jesus
Our third axiom builds on this, and begins to lay the groundwork for the way in which we relate to and partner with this Jesus-like God who is present and at work.
It is this: God meets us in reality.
Therefore, in our spirituality it’s important to be “where we really are.” This means every moment is always the “right place” to meet the God who is like Jesus. The primary context for meeting with this God who is present and at work is our actual, everyday, ordinary lives.
Jesus spends a lot of time trying to get people to deal with him “straight.” Religious leaders came at Jesus with agendas, hustling him in one of two ways:
- They sought to trap/test him
- They sought to impress/flatter him
Jesus has little interest in or patience for people who insist on meeting God in falsity or pretense. (“Why do you call me good?” “Why do you call me Lord, Lord?” “And who is my neighbor?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?”) They typically go away confused, sad, or even ready to kill him. But those caught in adultery (John 8:2-11), or aware of their sinfulness (Luke 5:5-9), or found out while hiding in their badness (Luke 19:1-6)—the ones who get real with Jesus and lay down their relational hustles and hidden agendas—experience profound transformation in his presence.
Maybe this is why Jesus came eating and drinking with sinners: they were the only people who would actually be real with him. And Jesus delights to meet real people where they really are.
This is why Jesus almost never answers a question at face value, because he knows the question is rooted in some kind of agenda or hustle.
- “Why do you call me good?”
- “What do you want me to do for you?”
- “Go, call your husband and come back.”
- “Who are my mother and who are my brothers?”
Most people, it seems, tried to approach Jesus with some kind of hidden agenda. They tried to test Jesus, or impress Jesus, or hide from Jesus, or recruit Jesus for a self-justification project.
We call this “The Hustle.”
We use the word “hustle” because this dynamic is best identified by the two prevalent definitions of hustle: “busy movement and activity” and “a fraud or swindle.” To “hustle” in a spiritual sense is to expend lots of energy to try and gain something from God by hiding, performing, or pretending, instead of simply recognizing and expressing our actual state of being.
Scripture reveals that hustling is unfortunately prevalent in humanity’s attempts at interaction with the divine. We rarely shoot straight with God. We try to hide, or impress, or pretend, or dodge him, in an effort to avoid him or “get something out of” him. Why is this? Because coming face to face with God—right where we are, just as we are—is a humbling, terrifying experience (e.g. Luke 5:8).
But God is fiercely committed to calling us out of The Hustle and into meeting us in reality because he knows it’s the only way to make any progress in a real spiritual life. We could also say that God IS reality. As creator and sustainer of the universe, God is the “most real thing about reality” (a clunky way to say it). Because God is “so real,” by definition he won’t inhabit or submit to our illusions about reality. He insists on meeting us in reality.
Reckoning with reality
When we say “reality,” we aren’t so much talking about “how things are in the world.” We are talking about the internal reality of our hearts. We are talking about being where we really are, instead of pretending or denying.
Jesus was a master at helping people meet him right where they really were. He used questions, stories, miracles, and object lessons to help others drop their pretense; stop hiding, posing, and playing games; and just be where they really are, and say what they really mean. Why? Because he knew that God meets us in reality. So it’s necessary for us to be where we really are.
Those who encounter Jesus find that they must choose:
- Stay committed to their hustle, or meet with God.
- Wish they were somewhere/someone different, or meet with God.
- Demand God be other than God is, or meet with God.
Those who attempted to meet Jesus in pretense, self-justification, or illusion usually became hostile and angry at him when he called them into reality. For them, the power and presence of God’s grace and truth were lost.
“Almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we think up to hide them.” – François de la Rochefoucault
Being present to God in reality
The soul sickness that infects the modern person is one of living anywhere but the present moment. We live in the past (regret or nostalgia) or the future (worry or wishing), or we distract ourselves from the present with all kinds of things (entertainment, social media, food, alcohol, work, our task list, etc.).
But the only place God has access to us is right here, right now, right where I really am, as I really am. This is a profound truth that, when grasped, changes the entire shape of our spirituality. Two implications for our discipleship:
(1) “Should” doesn’t really help us at all
Most of us, when we examine our thought life, find much of our time spent in oughts and shoulds. We are aware of what we “should have done,” or what we “ought to think.” We may think, “I sometimes doubt God, but I know that’s bad.” This is a symptom of living with a guilty, toxic conscience. When it comes to our conscience (that inner voice/witness that points to sin or righteousness) many Christians have confused conviction with condemnation. The Holy Spirit convicts (John 16:7-11), but the accuser condemns (Rev 12:10-11). They’re very different verbs, but many Christians welcome and cultivate condemnation because they think it’s conviction.
For many, living under the tyranny of oughts and shoulds feels pious. We think that if we can just be hard enough on ourselves, we can stop sinning, and this will be pleasing to the Lord. The only way we know how to “take sin seriously” and “wage war against the flesh” is to be harsh, condemning, or punishing toward ourselves and others.
As we found in our second axiom (God is like Jesus), this is often how we imagine God: a demanding deity whose posture towards us is one of oughts and shoulds. So naturally, that is how we treat ourselves.
Can you relate to this? Having a conscious mind full of condemnation and shame? Ruminating on that over and over? There’s a big difference between being convicted of guilt and living condemned in our hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit brings conviction; the Accuser wishes us to live in condemnation.
So the insanity of oughts and shoulds is that we’re trying to overcome our failures, woundings, and brokenness by using the tools of our enemy: condemning ourselves and piling on more fear, guilt, and shame. Furthermore, if that actually worked to bring victory over sin (and it doesn’t), then Christ died for nothing. We don’t need the power of the Spirit to merely try harder.
When we have this kind of conscience, we can’t be where we are at, nor can we name what’s real about us without adding some statement that proves “we know it’s bad.” It sounds like this:
- “I know this sounds horrible to say, but…”
- “Isn’t that just terrible! I know I shouldn’t think that…”
- “I ought to be better than this by now; ugh!”
Our discipleship process is essentially the opposite of this! We will begin to notice how we apologize, shame, hide, or justify our behavior or beliefs. We will name where we are, own it, and trust that God meets us right there in that reality.
In the resurrection of Jesus we have the freedom and safety to be right where we are, to name it without fear or deception. We confess (which means to say the same thing as God) where we are, and we do so in the light of the cross and the resurrection. In the light of Christ there is no need for blaming, hiding, pretending, justifying, dodging, minimizing, or self-flagellating.
We trust there is grace for us to own our stuff and be right where we are. So there’s no need to say, “… and I know I shouldn’t do this,” or “it sounds terrible, but…” Without fear we can own where we are because this is where God meets us. Any attempt to justify or explain it only ends up moving us further away from where we are and thus away from God.
(2) God loves the actual you
There is a common adage that, because of God’s holiness, “he can’t look on sin,” and thus he cannot stand the sight of you in your sin. We want to affirm the truthfulness of Habakkuk 1:13 (“Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil, and cannot look at wrong”), but it is vital to do so in the context of how God actually relates to us in the narrative of Scripture.
Over and over, we see that God is not driven away by our sinfulness, but actually draws near to us in the midst of it. A few examples:
- Genesis 3:9, where God actually goes looking for sinners because they are not in his presence; God desires to find them!
- Luke 5:8-10, where Peter confesses his sin and tells Jesus to leave him, but Jesus gives Peter access to and authority in his Kingdom!
- Matthew 18:11, where Jesus describes his entire mission as seeking what is lost.
- Luke 15:11-31, where Jesus compares God to a father who watches and waits for the wayward son to return and runs to meet him even before any wrongdoing has been confessed.
As a young Christian, I (Matt) did not understand this. Every time I came into contact with my brokenness and sin, I felt shame and guilt that made me feel cut off and cursed by God. I assumed this feeling was basically “true” and, even more, “holy.” Every time I sinned, I felt that a chasm opened up between God and me, and it was up to me to overcome it, through the sincerity of my repentance and the intensity of my spiritual ardor.
This feeling of God’s absence was rooted in a story I was telling myself about God, myself, and my sin. Behind all of this toxic guilt and shame was the core belief that God only loves me when I’m good. I would never have confessed this because I knew it wasn’t “correct,” but my emotions were revealing what I actually believed.
I lived as a Christian with a toxic conscience (a “mind controlled by the flesh” as Romans 8:6-11 puts it). Guilt and shame become toxic when they become an identity, and therefore condemnation sets in (which, as we’ve seen, is different from conviction). While my mouth proclaimed forgiveness and salvation in Christ, my mind, body, and soul remained imprisoned in death.
The revolution began in my life when I understood and internalized the truth that God doesn’t love me when I’m good; God loves me because he’s good. The God who is always present and at work, the God who looks like Jesus—that God loves the actual me. Not the me on my best day, or the me I wish I were, or the me I think I ought to be. God loves the busted and blessed, broken and beautiful me. And unless the broken, busted me—the actual me—receives and experiences the love of God in Jesus Christ, I will never realize how blessed and beautiful I am.
God loves the real you. Really. The actual you, not the you that you wish you were, or the you your parents think you should be, or the you that you think you are supposed to be. The actual YOU, warts and all. This is the you that God knows and loves because this is the only you that actually exists! The false self, the ego, the self created by the sinful nature will always want to meet God in either pride or shame. But God waits to meet us where we really are.
So we can say: it’s safe to “get real” with God, because this is the you that God has always known and always loved. You’re not going to surprise God by getting real. The safest place in the world is to be who you really are before a God who is always here.
The starting line of transformation is naming what’s real
This means the starting line of transformation is naming what’s real. No lasting transformation will ever take place in our lives or those we lead until we get real. God waits at this starting line. You can try to convince him to join us in our fantasies and illusions. But he knows it isn’t doing you any good, so he will keep encouraging you to join him at the starting line of your actual life. Because God meets us in reality.
Due to this, we can be done with our “when/then” and “if only…” spirituality:
- When the kids get older…
- When I get married…
- If only I had stayed in college…
- When I overcome this sin…
- When I finally get a ministry job…
- When I finally become a…
These seemingly innocuous statements are actually ways we talk ourselves out of having a vibrant, living walk with Jesus right now. You will always be able to convince yourself of a better life situation for God to meet you in, but God will never be able to meet you anywhere other than where you actually are!
He waits for you there. And this is good news, because in reality, we’re always “right where we are.” God gives us this grace: we don’t need to achieve anything to meet with God. We just need to get real about where we are really at. And that’s where God is waiting to meet us.
We end with a few quotes that help us fill out what it means that God meets us in reality. Take some time to drink these in!
From Larry Crabb:
God meets us where we are, not where we pretend to be or wish we were. My job is to pay attention to where I am. When I enter my reality… He brings His reality, His truth, into mine. Truth is a two-way street. When I avoid my truth, I nod politely, and I might even smile or say amen when I hear His. But not much happens. God’s truth does not set free a pretending or hiding heart.
From Dallas Willard:
God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right’, we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life, for those situations and moments are our life.
From Todd Hunter:
The actions associated with discipleship can’t be added to an overly busy life. All of our daily existence is the grounds for and focus of discipleship.
From Eugene Peterson:
We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workplaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refining fire—our God is a consuming fire—and finding it all stuff redeemed for a life of holiness. A life that is not reserved for nuns and monks but accessible to every Dick and Jane in every congregation.
A Centering Prayer For Axiom #3
Take a few moments to pray this prayer* out loud and sit in silence for a minute or two.
Beloved of the Heart:
Underneath every burden I feel is a blessing that I do not.
Loosen with gentleness each emotional knot tied too tight in the tug-of-war called life.
In your silent grace, I receive the gentleness to hold my brokenness with acceptance and my dreams with trust.
You are with me despite the tensions made tight by the living of life.
Underneath each burden is your invitation to see with different sight.
Beyond the perception of the situation and the emotion of the moment is the deepest reality of all: I am with you and you are with me.
Help me affirm today that in Christ nothing can separate me from you – including my own thoughts and feelings.
* from Centering Prayers, by Peter Traben Haas (Paraclete Press: Brewster, 2013), pg. 8-9.
Exercise: Notice That
A few weeks ago, I (Ben Hardman) started my day with a difficult meeting. A friend I was working with said something that sounded snarky to me, so I came back with a zinger of my own. I knew it was wrong and immature of me, but I had a meeting to get to, so I jumped in the car, turned on one of my favorite podcasts, and began driving to my next meeting, which was around 45 minutes away. After about half an hour, I realized that for the entire drive all I had been doing was condemning myself for my comment. I went from being “inside my thoughts,” carried along by them, to being aware of my thoughts. I started noticing my thoughts, which were self-condemning, filled with oughts and shoulds.
- “You shouldn’t have said anything.”
- “Why haven’t you matured past the point of having to get the last word?”
- “You may have just ruined a relationship.”
- “Your foolishness is going to cost your business.”
- “You are always messing things up.”
- “You are letting everyone down.”
Then, I realized that the old, familiar lie had popped up within all these thoughts:
- “You are not enough.”
As I noticed what was passing through my mind unexamined, I realized that this wasn’t the voice of God! This was not the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but the condemnation of the Accuser. As I became present to this reality, naming it for what it was (instead of condemning myself for condemning myself!), I finally became aware that God was with me in that moment, ready to speak to me. I was reminded of what Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “All of your accusers are gone and I level no accusations against you. Go and leave your life of sin.” I called my friend, said I was sorry, and (tried to) let it go.
So the exercise this week is simply to “Notice that.”
It’s simply the practice of noticing what’s real within you throughout your day. You may want to pair it with the breathing exercise from Axiom 1 (and it’s an expansion of the exercise in Axiom 2—noticing how you experience God in your badness).
Just be present periodically to your thoughts and feelings, your inner dialogue, no matter how “ugly” or “bad” or “frivolous” or “weird” you think it is.
- If you find that you’re “shoulding” on yourself, notice that: “I’m shoulding on myself.”
- If you find that you’re condemning yourself for shoulding on yourself, notice that: “Now I’m condemning myself for shoulding on myself!”
- If you find that you’re worrying about an upcoming meeting, notice that: “I’m worried this upcoming meeting won’t go well.”
- If you find that you think a lot about your favorite sports team, notice that: “For some reason, I can’t stop thinking about the Portland Trailblazers playoff hopes today.”
- If you find you’re distracted from your work because of a recent news story, notice that: “I can’t focus today because I keep thinking about those kids separated from their parents at the border.”
- If you find that you’re condemning yourself for being so distracted, notice that: “Now I’m condemning myself because I can’t focus.”
You get the idea.
Remember that God is not in love with a future version of you with a cleaned-up life. He loves you right now as much as he is ever going to love you, and he waits for you in reality, no matter how messy that might be.
For more reflection on this axiom, check out the podcast episode below:
Gravity Leadership Podcast Episode 4: God Meets Us Where We Really Are
Resources for further learning
- Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now, by Greg Boyd
- Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt, by Austin Fischer
- Gravity Leadership Podcast Episode 20: Meeting God in Our Doubts and Dark Places