“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” -Frederick Buechner
I recently read a really great book on living in the love of God called “So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore?” In it, a man named John approaches proselytizers on a street corner screaming at passers-by that they will be going to hell. He nears one of the accusers, and, full of sadness, says to him, “You really have no idea what motivates you, do you?”
It struck me as odd, this comment. Not because I’m not also put off by the accusers’ remarks, or by their apparent misunderstanding of the Scriptures or even the heart of God, but by the use of the word “motivation.” Reading through the story, I came to understand John as a man of God, a man who knows Him very intimately.
Over time, I realized that in that question John really cut to the heart of the matter, the same as Jesus often does in His approach to us. God is always interested more in what is in our hearts, the “why’s” and “what’s” and “what’s up’s” than he is in our actions, those “how’s” and “where’s” and “when’s,” at least at first. To the man at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus’ first remark isn’t “get up,” but rather, “Do you want to get well?” In other words, “What’s in your heart?” Only after the man engages Jesus with something of his heart does Jesus then call him to action.
I recently had a conversation with a friend named Jason where I read him the Fredrick Buechner quote above. Buechner essentially states that when we are thinking of a vocation for our lives, we should listen to the voice of our heart’s desire and, at the same time, pay attention to what is needed around us. Sounds good, but that’s actually a very difficult thing to do. It requires that we actually pay attention to our own hearts and that they become whole enough and free enough to desire the right things. And then it requires that we engage the world around us, the people we know and work with and the communities we live in.
Jason hates his job and is trying to discover what it is he is called to be doing at this point in his life. It’s a good thing to be wrestling with, though painful. Does he go back to school? Change professions? Update his resume and look online at job openings in other cities? In our conversation, he insisted that it is better to listen to what God says to do, and that paying attention to our hearts and to our own gladness isn’t only unimportant, but might even lead us astray. His problem, he said, is that he couldn’t hear God. God just wasn’t speaking to him.
I told him that what I thought Buechner meant by his statement is that Jesus will often speak to us through the desires written long ago in our hearts, that the calling on our lives will be where we feel the most passion and energy and where we hear the Lord speaking to us. Jason was asking God to talk, but then plugging his ears, shutting down the very organ that the Lord often speaks to us through. It’s tricky, to be sure. We don’t “follow our hearts,” which could lead us to do all kinds of crazy things. We follow Jesus. But we don’t follow the Lord without our hearts.
Jason could still only see the actions that Jesus calls us to, and not the motivation behind them. Behavior divorced from the soul. He just wanted God to give him the checklist, without having to engage his own deep heart. Possibly the most important question Jason and I were able to hammer out was, “What is it, exactly that God wants for me, not merely from me?”
If only the man known as the “expert of the law” had been able to see that question when he came to Jesus asking what was necessary to “inherit eternal life” (Luke 10). Jesus, probing his heart, asked him in return, “What’s written in the law? How do you read it?” (esus could very well have asked him, “You’re the “expert of the law,” right? Your identity is in knowing everything about God so that you can lord that knowledge over others, all the while stealing their God-given place of intimacy with me. So, you tell me. How do you read the law?” The man replied as he was taught, with the Scripture to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.”
And then comes one of the most confusing verses in all of Scripture. Jesus says to the man, “Yeah, that’s right. Do that, and you’ll have life.”
Now hold on. What is Jesus saying there? Do that? Do that? How does a man just “do” that, as if it were a task you could check off at the end of the day? For any of us who understand love even a little bit, it is not something you do, it is something that flows. That statement to us who have tasted love is equivalent of saying, “Yes, water is necessary to sustain life in our bodies. Do water and you will live.” It is nonsensical. How do you “do water”?
In the same way, how do you “do love”?
And that was Jesus’ point. You can’t. You don’t “do love.” You live it. You live with it. You feed it. You abide in it. You enjoy it. You let it grow. And love is not the point. Our place with God restored is the point. He is the vine, and we are the branches of that vine.
Immersed in a society that is task-oriented and consumer-driven, most of our ears have been deafened to the call of the heart, much like the expert in the law. We hear “love the Lord your God” as a call to action, not a call to intimacy. We’ve all heard the famous Mountain Dew commercials that declare “Do the Dew,” when, in fact, all you can “do” with Mountain Dew is to drink it. It actually “does” its thing in you – either to hydrate you or to give you a rush of caffeine.
The tragedy of that encounter in Scripture is that the man left thinking he could just add “love the Lord your God with everything you are” as another item on his checklist as something to do to inherit, or earn or get, real life.
Can you imagine if a twig laying on the ground was thinking to himself, “Hmmm. I wonder how I can get nutrients. How can I grow?” He lays there baking and drying out in the hot sun. The trunk of the tree says to him, “You are a branch of mine. What do you think you must do to have life?” “I think,” replies the twig, “that I’ll go down my checklist. First, I’ll try to bury myself in the dirt…” and on he goes. The tree knows, of course, that the only way this branch will live again is to be grafted back into the tree so that the life-giving sap of the tree flows into him.
There is much action in the Kingdom of God. In fact, living the life of God is the most active and adventurous thing we do, but only as an overflow of the life of the heart. He loved us first, and our love is a response to His.
And then, we have life. It begins there, in intimacy with God, and it grows and it extends from it.
Picture Elijah. This fella was a prophet of God, which means that he was friends with God and that God entrusted to him His own heart and words to bring a nation back into fellowship and intimacy with Himself. And what kind of life did he get to live? Well, let’s just say he didn’t spend his life in La-Z-Boy flipping through channels. At one point, God called him to Mount Carmel, where he was about to have a showdown with one of Israel’s enemies. 1 Kings 18 describes that encounter.
But even Elijah drew his life and breath from the intimate time he spent with God. Just after the encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah fled in fear and weariness toward a cave. God tenderly ministers to Elijah, twice bringing him food and water. He travels to Mt. Horeb to hide and rest in a cave. God comes to him and listens to his laments. Elijah is worn out from simply “doing” and needs restoration. God sends a great wind to the mountain, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. But God was in none of these. Then Elijah hears a “gentle whisper,” and it is here in the whisper that he finds God. There, in that tender embrace from God, Elijah’s life is restored. He is not doing. He is, in fact, fainting into the embrace of his God.
In the ‘80s BMX movie Rad, Cru is trying to learn to perform a backflip on his bike. Bruised and worn out from slamming on his back again and again, and his girlfriend Christian finally tells him, “You’re letting your body move your head. Let your head lead, and your body will follow naturally.” On the next attempt, Cru lands his flip perfectly. (I can tell you from experience after watching that movie the first time at 10 or 11, attempting a backflip on a bike isn’t a good idea.)
We’ve all heard the phrases, “Use your head,” or “Get your head in the game.” That’s another way of saying, “Put your heart into this. Let this be your entire focus of energy and passion.” But what if you can’t? What if you cannot put your heart into the game? Can you still play well?
In the Kingdom, the answer is no. The heart is central. The heart is first.
That is why, I think, Hebrews tell us to keep our eyes focused on Jesus. We will follow with action and intention what motivates us in the heart. If our faces are set like flint on the life of Jesus and the love of God, and if we are experiencing them daily as we abide in Jesus, then the effects of love will shine through. Our motivation will be love. Love, and the life of God, will be our modus operandi.
It was the summer of 2003. I and a small band had traveled across the globe to a small village in what is now the new country of South Sudan where we would be shooting some footage for a film we were making on the life of persecuted Christians. Unable to sleep early one morning, I flipped through the Bible and landed on a verse that had before given me a lot of encouragement, Jeremiah 29:11, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Angry for reasons that I could not explain, I left the hot, cramped hut and walked outside. Due to the absence of electricity, I found myself enshrouded in a nighttime darkness I had never encountered before. There, under a billion brilliant stars in a sky that stretched wider than the continent, I lamented to God in despair, “I can’t! I can’t find you, then, because I can’t seek you with all my heart! I don’t do anything with all my heart!” I knew painfully well by that point in my life that my heart was broken, obvious to me by the ways I too often hurt people around me with careless remarks, the way I didn’t love others the way I really wanted to, the way my heart was still so easily caught up in cynicism and defensiveness, judgement and condemnation. I was broken.
I didn’t expect a response, but I got one anyway. It was a single word, one that has ricocheted and reverberated in my soul ever since, and one that pierced me with its finality and invitation. It was simply the word, “Exactly.”
And possibly for the first time that night on the other side of the world, I got it. I understand what the cross had really done for me. I am grafted back in. My primary role now is to simply abide there with Christ, and to let His life and love flow into and through me. Jesus was telling me that yes, indeed, my heart was broken and yes, indeed, I needed a whole heart in order to live full and love well and yes, that finally, there was a way to become wholehearted, through His active grace and presence within me.
In the years since that night, Jesus has done much to heal my heart, and I am living out of more of it now than I ever have, in a way that feels full and free. Those old abiding places of cynicism and despair and depression and anxiety are significantly diminished. I am becoming, in the words of Paul, “whole and holy by his love” (Ephesians 1, The Message), the mission of our God for which He sent Jesus as our Rescuer and Redeemer. The process of healing and restoration requires an intentionality and deliberate collaboration with Jesus on our part. But now, that action can be the result of a newfound energy and desire of the heart, a new modus operandi. “Oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him — endless energy, boundless strength” (Ephesians 1:19, The Message).