Emmanuel means “God with us”. Christmas celebrates God coming to live life with us. But how do we live life with God?
My journal has an entry from a walk in the woods one lovely fall day. I wanted to enjoy my walk, but I felt rushed by other things calling me back to busyness. A little sideroad toward the water beckoned to me and I paused. And a voice whispered, “Don’t let doing things for me overshadow doing things with me.”
There’s a story in Luke1 of two sisters hosting a dinner party for Jesus in their home. Martha scurries around in preparation and Mary chooses to be with Jesus. And Jesus states that “Mary has chosen what is better.” Which seems contrary to what we’ve learned about helping, serving and putting others first. But being “with God” is apparently the better choice.
And at Christmastime I am again reminded of the importance and the blessedness of being “with” God. It’s so easy for us to settle for less. It’s easier to follow traditions and routines that seem to honor Jesus without actually including him. Especially at Christmas, we can be distracted from opportunities to be present and reverent.
The nativity begins the earthly portion of God’s story when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God’s long and careful plan to come be with his children was finally taking place! After all the careful preparation for this heavenly visitation so many missed out on the immensity of this gift, just as we do today.
A Relationship with Jesus?
One little-known book that has made a tremendous impact on my Christian thought is “With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God.”2 Author Skye Jethani unravels for me some of the confusion of what Christian life is supposed to look like. Ever since I could remember – throughout my church experience as a child, as a student at a Christian college, as a young mother – I was forever struggling to wrap my head around this strange concept called “having a relationship with Jesus.” Is it possible? What could it look like? Why didn’t anyone else seem to model this for me? Why couldn’t I hear Jesus speak?
In “With”, Skye Jethani unpacks four postures that we can embrace in our Christianity that keep us distracted from achieving our full purpose which is abiding with Christ. As I looked at these four postures, I knew I had experienced every one of them and been frustrated with the results. This Christianity thing wasn’t turning out like I had expected. I knew that Jesus was the Son of God, and I appreciated the gift of salvation. I absolutely believed that God’s Word, the Bible, was true. But where was the peace and joy?
Just as with any relationship, if we come with different expectations than the other party, we are bound to be disappointed. Often we come to Jesus expecting that we can profess him as Lord, reap benefits from Christianity, and retain absolute control. This isn’t what he had in mind. I can try to manipulate things to my own advantage, and I found out it was highly probable that I was carrying this over to my faith.
A Look at the 4 Postures
Skye Jethani identifies four postures that we as Christians can fall into that lead to disappointment. They are LIFE UNDER GOD, LIFE OVER GOD, LIFE FOR GOD and LIFE FROM GOD. The fifth way that he proposes as our aim is LIFE WITH GOD.
Without going into them too deeply, let me explain each. If they sound confusing, please refer to the book for greater clarification. Several of these sound good and biblical. I can identify good Christians and Bible characters living these out. But each of these four good postures carry a common pitfall and set you up for disappointment.
Life Under God
LIFE UNDER GOD believes that by following certain rules and adhering to rituals, we can expect to be rewarded and blessed. Essentially, our actions meet the demands of a contract and as such, we expect certain compensations. “If LIFE UNDER GOD was intended to reduce our fears and provide greater control over our unpredictable world, it has proven to be an utter failure. Any way of relating to God predicated on fear and fighting for control cannot deliver us from what plagues humanity – namely, fear and fighting for control”3
Life Over God
LIFE OVER GOD seems obviously problematic. This would be a posture similar to that carried by non-believers, but it can also creep into Christian theology. It’s the idea of God being like a watchmaker – setting the world in motion and then letting it run on its own. Whereas the LIFE UNDER GOD seeks to appease God through rituals, LIFE OVER GOD sees the Bible and God’s laws as a blueprint that can be followed without involving God. “(I)n our zeal to honor the importance of God’s Word and extol its usefulness, we may unintentionally do the opposite. We may reduce the Bible from God’s revelation of himself to merely revelation of divine principles for life.”4
Life For God
LIFE FOR GOD sounds good. Shouldn’t this be our aim? But we humans can very quickly make idols even of good things. “This is the first failure of LIFE FOR GOD – it puts God’s mission ahead of God himself. Paul, the most celebrated missionary in history, did not make this mistake. He understood that his calling (to be a missionary to the Gentiles) was not the same as his treasure (to be united with Christ). His communion with Christ rooted and preceded his work for him.”5
I’ve goofed this one up before when I’ve tried to serve others out of my own strength rather than out of an overflow of God’s love. Can we say burnout? “LIFE FOR GOD takes our fear of insignificance and throws gasoline on it. The resulting fire may be presented to the world as godly ambition…But when these flames are fueled by fear, they reveal none of the peace, joy, and love displayed by Paul. The relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.”6
Life From God
LIFE FROM GOD views God as “a divine butler, a cosmic therapist, a holy vending machine who dispenses the wares and wisdom they desire.”7 If you’ve ever considered the dangers of America’s Name-It-and-Claim-It gospel, you understand the danger of approaching God with a consumer mentality. God’s highest aim is not my comfort nor does he wish to play Santa Claus.
The common flaw in all these postures is a struggle with God for control because we fear being out of control. “Faith is the opposite of seeking control. It is surrendering control. It embraces the truth that control is an illusion – we never had it and we never will.”8
The book of Hebrews explains faith like this, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”9 Did we come to Christianity seeking him? Often we come to God because we recognize our need for what he offers – the free gift of salvation. We long for love, joy, peace and hope, but we assume that we can come in fear to claim them. Instead, the Bible teaches that these fruits of the Spirit come from being connected to Jesus, the vine. They come from life with God.
Skye Jethani’s LIFE WITH GOD
The book goes on with beautiful thoughts and illustrations pointing us toward living LIFE WITH GOD. I love Henri Nouwen’s example of our lives being like trapeze artists. We are free to fly, but the real star of the show is God, the Catcher.
Jethani explains, “It is experiential knowledge of God’s love – his unyielding goodness toward us – that delivers us from fear and gives us the courage to surrender to him. Real faith, real surrender is only possible in the LIFE WITH GOD posture. As John said, ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’10 With promises of God’s boundless love, LIFE WITH GOD breaks the endless cycles of fear and striving for control. Living in rich communion with God, we are set free to fly, knowing that the Catcher will never let us fall.”11
My own LIFE WITH GOD
Learning to trust God has taken some time. Trust takes time in any relationship. Even before I read “With”, I was taking steps toward intentionally living a life that acknowledged God’s control and his constant presence with me. I longed to experience all that God intended for a life of full communion with him. In my walk and experience the following practices have paved the way to growing my ability to surrender control. And when I can remember surrender and communion, I find the joy and peace that I was looking for. They can never be found when I’m striving for them, but only when I rest in Jesus and receive them freely.
Daily habits of Bible reading, meditating on what I’ve read, prayer and worship are the stepstones toward knowing God. If you want to live a life centered on Christ, you have to make a daily priority of focusing your heart on him. It’s essential to make space for this.
Read the Bible. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. You don’t need a plan or a reading schedule. They can be meaningful, but don’t wait for a plan. Just open the Bible and begin. The Gospels are a good place to start.
Meditate, which simply means take the time to think about what you’ve read. What does it mean? What does it teach you about God? What does it teach you about yourself? How can you obey the Word of God, the Bible, today? I like to journal my thoughts and questions.
Pray. Prayer doesn’t have to be complicated, it is simply talking to God. Ask him about what you read. Tell him what you’re worried about. Listen and see if he has anything to speak to you.
Worship. We often miss this one. Worshiping is admiring the awesomeness of God and expressing it back to him. Worship can be singing, but it doesn’t have to be. And singing a worship song doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re worshiping. Worshiping is celebrating God’s nature. You can do this with music, with prayer, with giving, with service, and probably with other ways I haven’t even thought of.
Trust and Obedience
I recently rediscovered the old hymn “Trust and Obey”. These words make simple the Christian life that I’ve often made so complex. I’ve complicated living God’s will for my life, hearing God, and wrestling with the theology of predestination, when instead my Christian walk could be reduced to simple surrender. It’s like KISS (Keep it simple, stupid), just do the next thing that God tells you to do, trust and stop worrying.
When I can trust, I am accepting God’s message about his nature, his salvation and his love. I am accepting the Christmas story that God came to earth to be born human and experience our messed up world with us. I am accepting that although I can never be good enough to be a friend of God, that my selfishness, ego and wrongdoing can’t survive his glorious presence, that Jesus took away my shame and sinfulness. He paid the price for it when he died on the cross. He took my sin and gave me his righteousness so that God can accept me as he longs to do.
When I obey, I am walking toward becoming like Jesus. That is where the joy resides. That is where the freedom is, in becoming holy as he is, without the weight of deception, fear and shame.
Nativity is about God coming down to be with us in death. Obedience is about us rising with him into life.
Practicing the Presence of God
There’s a tiny book written by a 17th century monk named Brother Lawrence that has also helped me reimagine what a relationship with God can look like. Again, it’s all about faith, surrender and simplicity. After reading “The Practice of the Presence of God”, I began to add prayer throughout my day.
Remembering that prayer is simply talking to God, doesn’t it make sense that we should be doing this as consistently as the Bible recommends? Although I set aside time for focused prayer during devotional time, I can also be communicating with God throughout my day. I don’t need to close my eyes. Or bow my head. I can communicate with him as I would with any friend, involving him in my life at the moment. And that has been a wonderful way to spend my entire day with him simply by talking to him as I would any friend.
If we know God is with us everywhere, all the time, why would we ignore his presence by giving him the silent treatment? Continual, natural prayer is a rewarding practice.
The Season of Emmanuel
As we enter into the “most wonderful time of the year”, we know that it can quickly deteriorate into the most stressful, busy time of the year! I’ll be honest, after Christmas is over I can feel further away from God than ever! I am excited to read through Ruth Chou Simons new advent book this season called “Emmanuel: An invitation to Prepare Him Room at Christmas and Always.” She is an excellent author and artist, and I know this book resonates with what I have expressed here.
Don’t miss out on experiencing the joy of Emmanuel, God with us, during this season. Make room for him in your heart and your life this Christmas. Praying that God will truly bless you with the peace and joy of his presence.
- Luke 10:38-42
- Jethani, Skye. With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2011.
- Jethani, With, 35.
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- Hebrews 11:6
- 1 John 4:18, English Standard Version
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