I remember when I first read this many years ago. It struck me as completely backwards. Of course it is backwards, or upside down, or counterculture, but it just didn’t make any sense to me. I pretended to understand it but I had no clue what Jesus was talking about. Even years later when I preached this verse, the meaning of it was still lost on me.
I was looking for God in all the wrong places.
I grew up without much of a father figure, my biological father chose a life of booze to a life with his son, and my step-father who raised me spent most of his time working on projects in the garage. This vacuum of male affirmation created in me a longing to feel valued, to believe that my life mattered.
At the age of 15 Jesus rescued me and baptized me into his family. For the first time I heard I was loved unconditionally, and that I was accepted apart from my performance. But I didn’t believe it. Not fully anyway.
In fact I spent the next 20 years clawing and scratching my way into acceptance. I entered the pastorate because I wanted to help people, but it was really me who needed help. I had believed the gospel to secure my salvation in the future, and I was preaching the gospel to save people from their sins, but I was rejecting the gospel in my own life. The gospel was having little to no impact upon me as a man. The gospel was an abstract truth that I truly believed was real, but it was doing little for me existentially.
Then around 2010 my life, and my ministry began to unravel. My family and I had moved to a new place, we had no friends, and we were experiencing significant failure. After our first church plant failed we were left with little money, and even fewer people.
I tried to start a business…it was a disaster. We were broke, and the dream that I had clung to for so long had turned into a nightmare.
It was in this place that I found Jesus. Of course I knew him before this, but it wasn’t until I had nothing that I really found him…or that he found me. It was here that I discovered his beauty and power in a way I had never known. I didn’t know how much I needed Jesus, until Jesus was all that I had.
Jesus was no longer a commodity to sell to those who needed to be fixed, Jesus was God in human flesh. The God who meets us where we least expect to find him; in a manger, with the marginalized, on a cross.
The God I was trying to find in all the wrong places (my efforts, my performance, my success) was revealing himself to me in a place I least expected to find him, my failure. I had believed the lie that God reveals himself in our strength and success and for the first time I truly understood what Paul meant when he said, “my grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise, Jesus said he would reveal himself by the cross, through his death, but like Peter, we as his followers desperately want to find him somewhere else. Like Moses and Philip we want to see the Father in all his glory, and God keeps pushing us back on Jesus…his death, his resurrection. This means that we too must die, that we must allow him to kill us in the waters of baptism. A place we must return time and again to be reminded that the Christian life and anything is not about the Christian and him improved, it’s about Christ and Him crucified.
This doesn’t sit with us very well. At least it didn’t with me. So I kept trying to find God in other ways, mostly through my efforts to impress him, to perform for him, to make him see that my life had value. It wasn’t until everything I had attempted to accomplish came crashing down in failure that I finally understood what he meant when he said, “if you want to find true life, you have to give up yours.”
If we want to see God, which I believe we all do, then we have to find him where he’s revealed himself…in death, at the cross.
Will you meet him there? You won’t find him anywhere else.
“If you seek God outside of Christ all you will find is the devil.” — Luther