A few years ago, I found myself in a time of profound spiritual emptiness. I’d been working in the church world for many years and my time of service was a period of sweet struggle. Crafting sermons, trying to make much of Jesus. Calling people to faith, and reminding those who found it to keep doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
But somewhere along the way ministry had become a job. Another waypoint in my efforts to save the world. I spent more time talking about God than talking to Him. More time describing God’s presence than bathing in it. I had become a travel agent pointing to God like a far-off tourist attraction when I should have been traveling there myself.
I tried to balance my increasing workload with budding writing opportunities, a juggling act that often left both efforts unfinished. I was moving bricks from one stack to another. Worse still, I was moving farther away from the God I wanted so badly to draw near to.
So I decided to take a journey to meet the God of the Bible. What I discovered is that Jesus often shows up in unexpected spaces. Here are four places I learned to encounter Jesus that may surprise you as much as they did me:
1. Silence: When Western Christians want to encounter God, we usually make sound. We sing or preach sermons or pray or attend a Bible study discussion to speak an “Amen.” But Christians for centuries have often found God in silence and solitude. When we stop talking and start listening, God often shows up and takes us off guard. “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness,” Mother Teresa once said. “God is the friend of silence.”
2. Waiting: The most trying spiritual periods of life are often the in-between times when we feel stuck in the chasm between divine promises and divine provision. But God often exists in between where we are and where we want to go. The Psalmist sang “my soul waits in silence for God” and Isaiah said, “Those that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” Periods of waiting are not passive, hands-in-pocket interims. Rather they are the times in life when God is preparing us for a spiritual upgrade. Learn to look for Jesus in these trying times.
3. Absence: What do you do when you pray and hear nothing in response? When you reach for God but God feels just beyond your fingertips? We all experience moments when God seems distant, when we feel disconnected from God, when we find it difficult to communicate with God. Absence describes the periods of spiritual darkness or spiritual silence when God seems to have left us. But the seeming absence of God is not like a noisy motor on the car you kept two years too long. Instead, it’s like a fingerprint on a foggy window. Divine absence often serves a divine purpose by reminding us that something once pressed against the windowpanes of our lives and one day will press in again if we’ll wait for it.
4. Sacrilege: You cannot be culturally engaged and not find yourself in sacrilegious spaces. But what I’ve noticed is that often the people and places labeled “sacrilegious” are merely mocking the thin shell of pseudo-righteousness often painted over those things. They are pointing to the holy emperor and telling the crowds the truth about his nakedness. Rather than be repulsed by such things, maybe we should reflect: What religious maladies does this expose in my heart? This question transforms the sacrilegious to the sacred. “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred,” said Madeleine L’Engle, “and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
If we believe in a God who shows up in floating axe heads and talking donkeys and water desert rocks, we believe in an unexpected God. Start looking for Jesus in the detours and distant places of life and you’ll likely find—as I have—that the answer to your spiritual emptiness has been in front of you all along.
For a deeper exploration of these themes, see Jonathan’s new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined.