Jesus + Nothing = Everything
I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to the gospel. It burns inside of me. And it seems to get hotter every day. I can’t stop thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it, reading about it, wrestling with it, reveling in it, standing on it, and thanking God for it. For better or for worse, my focus has become myopic. My passion has become singular. Lesser things don’t distract me as easily. I’m not as anxious as I used to be. I don’t fret over things as much. I’m more relaxed. What others think of me (either good or bad) doesn’t matter as much as it used to. I’m enjoying life more. The pressure’s off. I’m beginning to understand the length and breadth of the freedom Jesus purchased for me. I’m beginning to realize that the gospel is way more radical, offensive, liberating, shocking, and counterintuitive than any of us realize. And that’s beginning to be okay with me. Like Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the gospel is good but not safe. Let me tell you about something that happened to me during the most painful year of my life (2009) that stoked this fire for the gospel in my heart and set me free.
Crescendo of Pain
Never had I experienced anything so tough. I could hardly eat, had trouble sleeping, and was continually battling nausea. I felt at the absolute end of myself.
It was the summer of ‘09, the low point in the most challenging and difficult year of my life. Thankfully, at the end of June, as we always did, my family and I left home to go on vacation for a couple of weeks. Never had I needed it more.
Just a few months earlier I was riding high. The church I planted back in 2003, New City Church, located just outside of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (my hometown) merged with the well-known but declining Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church twelve miles down the road. The merger process itself took many grueling months to finalize but in March 2009, the elders from New City and Coral Ridge agreed unanimously on the merger plan that a joint team had drafted. After a congregational vote to approve the merger, the two churches became one new church on Easter Sunday, 2009.
Though we all expected some tough times as two very different congregations merged into one, I had no idea how ugly and messy it would become.
With the merger and the leadership transition, a small but vocal group of long-time Coral Ridge members immediately began voicing opposition to practically any and every change we initiated. Blogs were posted, letters were circulated—some anonymously—with false accusations about me. Just three months after I arrived, a vigorous petition drive was started to get me removed. Battle lines were drawn, rumors raced. There was a crescendo of misunderstandings, frustration, and pain.
The virulence of opposition was more than I could bear. I was undergoing the shelling of my life—and I was ready to quit and escape elsewhere. It would be so easy just to walk away and never look back.
All that is what I was going through when, mercifully, vacation time rolled around in June 2009.
On our first morning away, I woke up still saturated with the misery that had been intensifying for so many weeks. I opened up my Bible; in the reading plan I was following, it so happened that the day’s passages included the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
Desperate for help from God, I read those verses and my eyes were opened to see the incredible sufficiency of Jesus with greater clarity than I’d ever experienced.
Losing My Idols
In my misery I demanded an explanation from God. After all, I had done what he asked me to do—I had put “my baby” on the altar. And now this? Like Jonah in the belly of the great fish, I was arguing with God and making my case for why God owed me rescue. Worn out, afraid, and angry, I insisted that God give me my old life back. The gentle but straightforward answer from God that I received from the pages of Colossians that morning was simple but sobering: “It’s not your old life you want back; it’s your old idols you want back, and I love you too much to give them back to you.”
You see, I never realized how dependent I’d become on human approval and acceptance until it was taken away. For the first time, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being deeply disliked and distrusted. I was realizing just how much I’d been relying on the endorsement of others to validate me—to make me feel like I mattered. In and of itself, human approval and acceptance are not bad things. They are, in fact, a gift from God. But I had turned them into idols by making them my primary source of meaning and value and worth and significance, so that without them I was miserable and depressed.
God began rescuing me from my slavery by forcing me to more fully understand exactly what I already had in Christ. I was learning the hard way that the gospel alone can free us from our addiction to being liked—that Jesus measured up for us so that we wouldn’t have to live under the enslaving pressure of measuring up for others. His good news met me in my dark place, at my deepest need. Through his liberating word, I was being transformed . . . freed . . . refreshed.
The verses that set me free, specifically, were Colossians 1:9-14. In those verses the Apostle Paul says (my summary): You will grow in your understanding of God’s will, be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, increase in your knowledge of God, be strengthened with God’s power which will produce joy filled patience and endurance (v.9-12a) as you come to a greater realization that you’ve already been qualified, delivered, transferred, redeemed, and forgiven (v. 12b-14).
What those verses liberatingly taught me was that because of Jesus’ finished work for me, I already had the justification, approval, acceptance, security, freedom, affection, cleansing, new beginning, righteousness, and rescue I was longing for. I started to see the many-faceted dimensions of the gospel in a more dazzling way. I was realizing in a fresh way the now-power of the gospel—that the gospel doesn't simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future. It also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance.
That June morning was when Jesus plus nothing equals everything became for me more than a preachable tagline. It became my functional lifeline!
It was rediscovering the gospel that enabled me to see that:
Because Jesus was strong for me, I was free to be weak;
Because Jesus won for me, I was free to lose;
Because Jesus was Someone, I was free to be no one;
Because Jesus was extraordinary, I was free to be ordinary;
Because Jesus succeeded for me, I was free to fail.
Sunday morning September 20, 2009 was the morning when, as a result of the petition drive to force my ouster from our church, a congregational vote regarding me was being taken after the service. I was there to preach before that vote took place; to say the least, it was an awkward environment. Pockets of people were there to take me down. As I preached, they stared at me with looks that could kill. I preached my guts out—it was the freest I’ve ever been in the pulpit. I was realizing in the moment that no one in the room that morning could take away anything I’d received from Jesus, which was everything. I was completely free!
As it turned out, the congregational vote that day was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping me as the church’s pastor. And since that time, I’m pleased to say that God has seen fit to launch a gospel “riot” at Coral Ridge. The everything of God’s gospel is setting people free, creating great joy, and reaching our needy city.
But what was far more important that day than any “victory at the polls” was the ever-freeing, presently empowering dynamics of the gospel I had rediscovered through the book of Colossians. This began to define my life anew in bright and liberating ways.
I believe God wants this liberating truth to define your life as well.