A Paint-By-Numbers Life

Sometimes I envy those of other religions. Really, I do. There are times I want a paint-by-number religion, one with a complete set of instructions as to how I am to please the deity we are creating with our brushes. All the 8s get green paint, while the 6s are filled in with yellow. That kind of thing. Give me a list of what I’m supposed to do, another list of what I’m not supposed to do, and I will try to act the way I’m supposed to act to the end of my days. Give me a religion where I get to be in control of me, please. One where I can manipulate my god by the things I do or don’t do.

But no. We Christians get a different kind of God all-together, one who insists on getting personal with us, invading our space, pushing himself in where he’s not invited and embarrassing us in front of our well-intentioned friends who are all ready to put blue in the number 4s. Our God is awkward to be around much of the time. He stays invisible and undetectable while asking us to believe that he is there. He doesn’t give us lists to follow–instead, he tells us to follow him.

There goes Jesus, walking down the street inconspicuously. There sits Matthew, the despised tax collector. Does Jesus rain down curses on this little imp’s head? Does he berate him for being a cheat and a liar? No. He simply looks at him and says, “Follow me.” We don’t even get the picture that he slows down. Matthew has to decide in an instant whether he will go with this rabbi or stay at his station. If he just leaves, well, he had better not hope for a good recommendation for his next job. And that’s just what he does—he gets up, leaves his job, his career, his life as he knows it and follows this little -known rabbi from some distant outpost. Where are we going? What will we do when we get there? Who is going to provide for us? These, I’m sure, were just a few of the thoughts running through Matthew’s head as he walked away from his life toward who-knew-what with this band of merry ragamuffins.

Matthew had to choose to do something that, to me, is the hardest part of our Christian walk. He had to choose whether or not to trust Jesus. I’m not talking about an intellectual nod that says, “Yes, I believe Jesus exists.” I’m not even speaking of saying, “I believe Jesus is alive and moving in our world today.” The kind of belief Jesus demands of us goes much further than that. He wants us to believe him with our feet and heart as well as our minds.

We know from Hebrews 11:6 that the only way we can please God is by faith. But faith in what? The writer of Hebrews leaves us hanging with a simple “believe that He Is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” “He Is?”  He is what? Some would say, “He is everything that I need when I need it.” Yes, I know he can meet our every need, but that still seems to be a god made in my own image. I think a much better explanation is this: “He Is Other.” God is Other. He is not like us only more moral. There is “otherness” when we are talking about God. And that “otherness” is a mystery to us. And we do not tolerate mystery well, do we? It is our nature to have to explain everything. We want to take it apart and label each piece.

We have succeeded in reducing the universe from a mystery to a measurement. By describing incredible distances in light years, we have made the unfathomable fathomable. Distant stars are measured and named, and thus we reduce the extraordinary to the ordinary. We do the same thing with God. We want to measure him by the Scriptures (“This is who God is. He always does this, and never does that.”) and we want to name him according to our needs. But the God Who Is always overcomes our attempts to label him. When Jacob wrestled with God all night near the river Jabbok, Jacob asked God, “Please, tell me your name.” But God wasn’t saying. In essence, his refusal to answer said to Jacob, “I am the nameless one who gives names to others.” In all of our attempts to reduce God to the manageable and the nameable, we utterly and miserably fail. But we keep on trying.

This brings me back to the hardest thing we have to do as Christians: Trust God. For true faith is not just something we believe in our heads. If that belief doesn’t touch our hearts, it certainly will never reach our feet. And without our feet in action as a response to faith, that faith is as good as dead.

Has God ever asked you to trust him for something impossible? Has he ever demanded from you trust in something that was ridiculous, insane, crazy, unimaginable? Has he ever asked you to believe him for something that went against all you were brought up to believe? He is asking that of me. And that’s why I have been pining for a different god. One that answers when I call. One that meets all of my needs and leaves me alone when all is well. One I can name and measure. Our God—the one Who Is—does none of these things, at least not when I want him to.

I asked Joe Spann recently, “What if I am believing God for something, but it is the wrong thing to believe him for. What then?”

He answered, “So what? So what if you’re wrong. When you focus on being right or wrong, you are focusing on you. This isn’t about you—it’s about Jesus. Set your eyes on Jesus, and don’t worry about being right or wrong.”

I think this was Joe’s way of paraphrasing St. Augustine’s “Love God, then do as you please.” But he is right. When I get so wrapped up with, “Am I believing the right thing? What if I’m wrong?” then I am focused on myself, and not on Jesus who lives in and through me.

I want to be creative in my life, but only if it is safe to do so. (Read Cole NeSmith’s excellent article about creativity and safety for more on that topic.) So instead of trusting God for the impossible I want to gravitate to the safety of my paint-by-numbers set. Everyone ready? Red goes in the number 7s.

Only I can’t do that any longer. God has caught me in his snare. I can’t go back to paint-by-numbers Christianity. I have seen a glimpse of reality, and there are no numbers there. It is a wide, blank canvas waiting to be painted without the limitations of rules and regulations. (Ok, put down those rocks. I acknowledge that there are boundaries even to the blank canvas. And for you philosophy majors out there, I am not advocating the blank slate theory. Yes, I read Steven Pinker. Thank you.) God is other, and that sometime leads to some very messy theology.

Bob Sorge in his compelling book, Fire Of Delayed Answers, writes,

It’s interesting to see how God brings some of His servants to a point of theological crisis. God certainly did this with Abraham when he said, “Sacrifice your son to Me” (Genesis 15). Such a request didn’t fit Abraham’s theology of God. Abraham knew that God had given specific commands to Noah regarding murder—whoever kills his fellow man must himself be killed. But now God blows Abraham’s theological circuits and asks him to kill his son. Abraham had the choice: follow the voice he has come to know, or follow his theology. Although he must have known great inner turmoil, the Bible doesn’t suggest that Abraham hesitated even for a moment. He had tasted of the living words that proceed fro the mouth of God, and He chose those words of life.

Even our reading of the Bible at times can—read this carefully so you don’t trip all over yourself reaching for that “comment” button—seemingly keep us from following Jesus. I asked a pastor in England not long ago why it is that God seems to contradict his word.

“Oh,” he said, “God never contradicts his word. But he will often contradict my understanding of his word.”

That is a good word to remember. As Sorge says (and again, read this carefully):

It’s your choice: stay with the safety net of the verses you’ve always known, or go with the voice that is leading you forward. Go with His voice, and you’ll discover with the disciples that they are the words of life!

(I realize that with that one passage I have upset many of you, and the comments will all be about whether or not God still speaks to us today, and how that we can’t ignore Scripture in favor of some “voice in our heads.” How that Dunn is a heretic and needs to be burned at the stake while wearing his Cincinnati Reds jacket. I know that will come. Just try to chill a bit and read on, ok? If the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, then he has a voice to use to speak to us. And if there is no Holy Spirit living within us and all we have is a book to go by, then we are of all men most miserable.)

So what do you do when God calls you to follow him on path that would seem to lead you away from him? What are we holding on to that is more valuable than following the Living Christ? Family? Job? Status? What keeps us from trusting God and going where he calls? Our need for safety? Our need to understand before we commit?

I am not going to mince words. Following God will cost you your life. At the very least, you may be called on to sacrifice your reputation, your own goodness, your good name—all that you call your life. It may cost you more than that. There are brothers and sisters around the world even now who are facing death for confessing Jesus as their savior. Are you willing to follow knowing that could be your fate as well?

And about this path we are called to walk. If you think it will be nice and straight and easy to follow, well, you haven’t read what Solomon had to say about it. “Who can straighten what God has bent?” asks Solomon in Ecclesiastes. I read this to one of our elders at church recently. “Oh yes,” he said, “God takes our crooked paths and makes them straight.”

“That’s not what it says,” I said. I read it to him again. “It is saying that God takes our straight paths and crookeds them up. And that just doesn’t seem right to me.”

It still doesn’t. And right now God has me walking a path with him that makes no sense at all. It is full of twists and turns so that I no longer have any idea which way is which. I’d turn around if I knew which way to go back. I called my friend Cec Murphey last week and told him I was though trusting God in this situation. “I’m done, Cec,” I said. “I’m going back to running my own life.”

“No you aren’t,” he said.

“How do you know I won’t?”

“Because you are talking to me,” he said. “If you were going to quit, you wouldn’t have called me.” Then he said something that was really below the belt. “Jeff, you are the one who talked with me about following the dangerous God. Just what gave you the idea it would be easy?”


So it looks like I have no choice. I must trust God to do as he has said to me he would do. I must trust that he will make all things right in the end, even if now it all looks wrong. He doesn’t seem to have left me any other out. And to be honest, I don’t really want an out. I want to trust him. I want to come to him in faith, believing. Even if it is just a baby faith at first, I’m sure he will be patient as it grows.

So on I go, following Jesus, trusting that he knows the way. I have nothing to lose—except for my life. And even that is a good thing.

Faithful iMonk writer Joe Spann contributed to this article as well.

26 thoughts on “A Paint-By-Numbers Life

  1. I understand some of this, but I find myself confused. Not being a Christian, I don’t understand what sort of things God could ask of you/call on you. While I understand that asking for specific examples probably won’t be useful, part of this entire conversation has passed me by. Is there anyway I can understand it, or am I limited in my understanding of this as I am in discussions of a highly technical field that I know very little of?


  2. I just read the entire chapter of Ecclesiastes 7 using the online biblegateway to read it in various translations.. Interesting stuff. He has less good things to say about women than he does men. It always makes me a little sad when I am reading along in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes or other books of the Bible and things are going along fine and then we get to a point where the author starts bad-mouthing women in a general way. I know that there are Proverbs praising women too, but it is usually because they are being such obedient, dutitul wives.

    I think God making things “crooked” just means that the path we travel is filled with things that may not make sense to us, like the good dying young and the wicked having long, happy lives. The writer talks about that in this chapter.


  3. An 85 year old retired missionary gets a break from me too….you are lucky to have him.

    Ecclesiastes 7:13 would generate a good, meaningful discussion.


  4. Yes. He said, “Oh.” He is 85 years old, a retired missionary. I give him a break for not catching it the first time I read it to him. And when I want someone to pray for me, I go straight to Merland. He hears from God, and God hears him.

    But when I re-read the passage to him, he just said “Oh” and looked at the passage with me.

    The verse, by the way, is Ecclesiastes 7:13. Perhaps we should make it a Difficult Scripture someday…


  5. And another thought….to the Elder at your church told you that “God will make our crooked paths straight”; what did he have to say when you told him that’s NOT what the text says? Did he have any reply?


  6. “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those who knew Him not.

    He speaks to us. He speaks the same word, “Follow me”, and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill in our time.

    He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts and the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship.

    And, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

    Albert Schweitzer (St. Mark 1: 17 & St. John 8: 31-32, 10: 27)


  7. Jeff, you just channeled Michael Spencer. This could have come from his (virtual) quill. God is no celestial vending machine giving us what we ask for because he’s a good “Daddy” and we’ve painted obediently by the numbers. I’ve come to believe that he’s like the character “Griz” in the movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. He locks us up with a grizzly bear and sends us in another when we’ve finished skinning that one. Over and over again. And maybe in the end he’ll tell us, “You done good pilgrim.”


  8. James, I have a couple of recommendations. If you haven’t read Ragamuffin Gospel, that should be at the top of your list. What about St. Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis? Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton is another must-read. Anything by Thomas Merton.

    That should get you overseas. Now for the books that will bring you back…


  9. Hmm, fascinating.

    My employer is sending me out of the country for several weeks. When I went last year I took several books with me, mostly based on recommendations from here. The feeling I’m getting is, this year my journey will be less cerebral and much more personal; the “topics of discussion” are looking like spiritual disciplines and my willingness to step out in faith and follow my calling.

    Again, most fascinating. And of course, I can blame it all on Chaplain Mike and Jeff Dunn. 😉


  10. Mmmmm, theological crisis…. Now we’re talking about the real God! If God doesn’t regularly strike us as being puzzling or make us uncomfortable, we might want to consider whether we’re inventing a lot of our experience of him. And that goes double for our Bible reading.


  11. OK, these posts are getting weirdly coincidental. My meditation this morning was on Luke 1, and the “For nothing is impossible with God. I am the Lord’s servant” verses of Mary jumped out at me. That caused a very difficult present situation in my life to wander into my mind. The message was God is handling that, and I will continue to cooperate in prayer and whatever other prompting he has in store for me. Then an unconnected future scenario wandered in that would cause me to walk away from all that is comfy.

    Sometimes I think we talk in platitudes about trusting God, but then when reality hits, we rationalize our way out of it as not God’s will. Perhaps we can have an i-monastery Joshua festival (“be strong and courageous”), peppered with a few real life dangerous examples, big and small, of God stories with some not so happy endings by world standards.


  12. Not to speak for Jeff, but my reaction was that “other religions” mean the Christianity I was taught. I had let it obscure my view of God so much that I found him boring, mean and far away. He thankfully reached out, grabbed me and shook me up. The result was that my life went to crap by world standards but improved radically in what really matters.


  13. Uh, dude….what other religions are you talking about? None that I know of.

    This sounds like a bit of a straw man.


  14. With Peter we find ourselves saying, “Lord, to whom will I go? You have the words of eternal life.”


  15. Great post , Jeff. I like your friend Cec, sight unseen. He reminds me of the DI “counselor” in the GEICO commercial. Friends like that are pure gold. They will help you not to bail.

    Holding you up to the Father of lights today


  16. I love how Flannery O’Connor describes Jesus in Wise Blood….”He [Hazel] knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

    I think it was Brennan Manning that said something along the lines of, “Jesus always takes you where you want to be, but never by path you thought you would travel.” Our faith is filled with so much paradox…if you want to be something, make yourself nothing; if you want to be rich, make yourself poor; if you want to be first, make yourself last…It fascinates me.

    Jesus is never boring. No doubt about it…

    Great post!


  17. Amen Jeff. Amen. I do not know how God puts the same thoughts into the minds of His children in different circumstances. But He does. I will post those similar thoughts when I get back on the PC where I left it (gotta use Dropbox more so Droid can be more powerful). Keep an eye on my blog in the next few daya.


  18. Yeah JD. This post is good for and to me.
    My comment is:

    “Follow me.” Jesus says.
    “Where are we going. ” I respond.
    “To my Fathers house.” he replies.
    Moments later I ask, “Isn’t His house over there?”
    “Yes.” he answers.
    “Then Why are we going this way?” I respond.
    “You don’t really think you can go in there like you are now do you? You have to be like me to enter in.” he says in a slightly combatant tone.
    I get agitated and scream “Tell me how to be like you then!”
    After some time has passed Jesus turns and says in a calm but stern voice, “FOLLOW ME.”
    I put down the Bible and start to pray several times and the answer I get, from the Holy Spirit, is always the same.
    Jesus is right and I need to grow up and do as I am asked. Oh how I wish the paint by the numbers routine was right. So I follow Jesus and now find myself asking the most ridiculous question I can ever ask.
    “Am I like you yet?”


  19. “Just what gave you the idea it would be easy?” This is too true — as Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult, and left untried. But too often, we have been lured by well-meaning people into thinking it IS easy, and then berated (often by ourselves) when we fail at it.

    But as Joe Spann said — and his line got immediately copied & pasted into my “statements to remember” file — when we focus on being right or wrong (on failing or succeeding), we take our eyes off Jesus whom we’re supposed to be following. May I fail a million times, Lord, as long as afterward I keep turning back to you …


  20. I have been hanging out with the Internet Monk for years-reading it daily, being provoked and challenged, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. I have rarely felt compelled to comment and I never have commented until tonight.

    This post is as if you have stepped into my life Jeff, sorted through all of my thoughts, untangled the doubts and questions and coherently put into words what I have been wrestling with for the last several years. I know that I don’t serve a God who can be placed within the confines of the numbers but I find myself constantly seeking to live a “normal” life. The numbers are killing me.

    Thank you for being honest. Thank you for putting yourself out there. I imagine the comments could be all over the place but, as for me, I am encouraged.

    Keep standing up and moving when He says “Follow Me” as He walks by.



  21. A gorgeous and compelling post, Jeff. Crookeds our paths– I can’t believe I haven’t seen that before! He just turns all our ideas and preconceived notions — even our “Christian” ones — on their heads — thanks for a thoughtful and thought provoking post. I


  22. I hate to say it but I think you’re following the same God I am. And He scares me but I can’t leave him. There will be pain whether I follow Him or not, but without Him I will not see the beauty that goes along with it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: