The Vital Importance of Encounter with God

Job’s questions didn’t matter anymore after God showed up!

Francis Chan said in a recent interview that many people walk away [from Christianity, faith, religion] because they have never really had an encounter with God. They walk away from their belief system or their parent’s belief system.

“If you really encounter God”, he says, “You don’t do that.” Moses didn’t walk off Mount Sinai arguing about a belief system. Job didn’t return to his belief system or his parents’ belief system. They had real encounters with God, and those encounters changed them.

I have thought for several years about the odd fact that Job had a million questions for God until God appeared. When God showed up, He didn’t provide a single answer to any of Job’s questions, but Job no longer had any questions!

Job’s questions didn’t matter anymore after God showed up!

When Job demanded answers, he wasn’t looking for a belief system. He was desperately seeking an encounter with God, though he might not have known it at the time. If Job had settled for a belief system (or a systematic theology as we might call it), his questions would have continued.

People will argue about belief systems, but we don’t argue about an encounter with God. You might not understand my encounter with God, but you can’t refute it. You might question my experience, but I know what I know.

Belief systems don’t change people. Encounters with God change people. A belief system is not the crux of Christianity. If we think it’s all about having a systematic theology, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are accepting a shadow of the real thing, which is God Himself.

Francis Chan ended his train of thought with the words of Isaiah in 29:13:

“[T]hese people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men….” 

Christianity has no life or vitality if it is nothing more than a commandment taught by men. The essence of Christianity is Jesus. Jesus is God who became man. In Jesus, we encounter God. Jesus said,

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:0)

We do not know God if we have never encountered Him. Mental ascent is not the same thing as an encounter with the living God!

Jesus urged people to seek God. He didn’t urge people to seek to know the truth about God. He urged them to seek God, the Person!

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He didn’t say, “I can show you the way”; or “I can teach you the truth”; or “I can give you the life”. He said, “I AM the way, the truth and the life!”

The way, the truth and the life resides in the person of Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father, who offers himself to us through the Holy Spirit, that we might know God intimately and personally.

We settle far too often for mere knowledge and belief systems. What we need is encounter and relationship with the Living God. What we need is the Living Water and Living Bread Jesus offers to us in himself.

On the Willows There

One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

Continue reading “On the Willows There”

God’s Order for Living Beings, Human Beings and His Grand Design

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind….'”

I am starting a new Bible reading plan for the year, and so I am back to Genesis. Reading through the rich text of Genesis 1 again I am seeing some things I hadn’t really noticed before. Consider the following (with my emphasis added):

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them‘; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:11-12

“God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’

Genesis 1:21-22

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind‘; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”

Genesis 1:24-25

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….'”

I color-coded the various provisions that form the pattern that informs my thinking today. The provisions in each color correspond with the other provisions of the same color.

Now, let me see if I can put all my thoughts together in a coherent whole.

First of all, God ordered (in the sense of designed) all living beings to multiply after they own kind. We see this everywhere in nature: apple trees bear seeds that grow into new apple trees; asparagus plants bear seeds that grow into new asparagus plants; lions beget lions; polar bears beget polar bears; yellow polka dotted salamanders beget yellow polka dotted salamanders; bluefin tuna beget bluefin tuna; and purple finches beget purple finches.

This is the order of living things. Not only that, but we now know that something (call it evolution or something else) works powerfully within living beings to reproduce and even to adapt with changes over time.

Every living thing bears seed or otherwise reproduces more of its kind. Human beings included, but only humans are made in the image of God. (Hold that thought.)

God “blessed” the living things He created, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:22) He also blessed man who He made in His own image, and gave similar orders: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….” (Gen. 1:28)

Note that God “ordered” (as in designed) the living things He created to reproduce after their kinds and to be fruitful and multiply, but God ordered (as in not only designed, but commanded) man to do the same. The difference is an important key to understanding what God is doing.

Unlike the other living creatures which are designed to reproduce and multiply after their kinds, humans have some agency in the matter. God designed them for the same purpose, but He also commanded them to do it because humans are created in the image of God who has agency – the ability to exercise will and to do (or not do) things.

Humans, of course, had no choice in their creation, but they do have choice in whether to “participate in God’s design” and how they would participate in God’s design. This choice was demonstrated in the one tree in the garden that was forbidden to them.

It was a real choice, and it had real consequences. It had to have real consequences or it wouldn’t have been a real choice. That choice was part of what it meant to be made in the image of God. Without the ability to choose, humans would have been just like the other living things God created. The ability to choose set humans apart.

As the story goes, humans ate the fruit of the one tree that was forbidden.

They exercised the choice God gave them. In eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans opened up their world to all the ways they might choose to go against the order of creation.


Throughout Genesis 1, we read over and over again that what God did “was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If what God designed was good, choosing to operate counter to that design would be evil (the opposite of good).

None of this is very revelatory so far, but I am getting there.

Genesis 1 reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says:

God gives [all living things] a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.

1 Corinthians 15:38-39

The order/design of life – of reality – is immutable. Life is ordered the way God created it, though humans have some choice (within limits) of whether to align with God’s design or to buck against it. Indeed, the story of the fall is the story of humans exercising that choice and of an adaptation that God built into His design to accomplish His ultimate plan.

Continue reading “God’s Order for Living Beings, Human Beings and His Grand Design”

Jesus Wept with Mary, Though He Knew the Joy to Come

We live in a world in which Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead.


NT Wright commented to Justin Brierley in the 39th episode of Ask NT Wright Anything, “We live in a world in which Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead.”

Jesus was able to identify with and feel the crushing sorrow and the intense grief that the family and friends of Lazarus felt. When Jesus saw Mary, the sister of Lazarus weeping, he wept too. (John 11:32-33) Jesus felt her grief, and it moved him to tears.

Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, of course, reveals his humanity, his empathy and the fact that he felt the range of human emotions that we feel in our own lives. Imagine God taking on our form and experiencing what we experience!

The most remarkable aspect of this story, for me, is that Jesus felt the grief of the loss of a loved one and was moved to tears even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. He wept with grief though he know that joy would follow the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

In this way, we see that God doesn’t minimize our grief and suffering. He is able to identify with it because he felt the crush of it as we feel it.

He felt the crush of human grief even though he knew the miracle he was about to perform.

Perhaps, Jesus was weeping for all the people who feel grief without assurance or confidence or hope. Surely, Jesus had more than merely hope. He knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he also realized that his friends, the friends and family of Lazarus, didn’t know or appreciate what he was about to do.

Even though Jesus told the friends of Lazarus that he was doing “to wake him up” (John 11:11), and he told Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” they didn’t fully understand or appreciate what Jesus was saying. (John 11:23) They didn’t feel the assurance or confidence or hope that Jesus had.

I imagine Jesus also thought in those moments of all the people in the world who mourn without assurance, confidence or hope in the face of death. This is the human condition, and Jesus fully embraced it. He fully felt the weight of it, and it caused him to weep with them.

Continue reading “Jesus Wept with Mary, Though He Knew the Joy to Come”

Learning How to Die


Dying is a topic most us would rather avoid, but Jesus didn’t shy away from the subject. In fact, he focused on it – maybe because He came to die for us.

I guess I would probably be a bit fixated on the subject if I knew that was the fate that awaited me…. Wait a minute…. that is the fate that awaits me!

Well, maybe it was different for Jesus because it wasn’t just the fate that awaited him; it was among the primary purposes for which he became a man. Though he existed in the form of God, He didn’t hold on to His superior position. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and was born a man. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Simply put – Jesus came to die – for us.

As Jesus neared the time when He would be betrayed into the hands of the tribunal that would seal His death warrant, He said:

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”” (John 12:27-28)

For Jesus, death wasn’t inevitable. He chose to die. This does make him different than us: He chose to become one of us and die for us. And because He chose it, could it have been any different for Him?

Is it really different for us?

Maybe not. If you believe what Jesus said.

Continue reading “Learning How to Die”