One evening, after decades of a Christianity driven by rules and performance, I came impulsively close to ending my life. Until that moment, my relationship with God had been primarily about Bible content and the discipline to obey. But that night, everything changed. Driving along a freeway in Detroit, I came face-to-face with my deep longing for intimacy with him—an overwhelming need to live surrounded by his love. There was no going back. Either God was more than distant holiness and a list of rules and commands clamoring for discipline . . . or I was done. I would not, could not live that way anymore. I had arrived in the land of desperation.
It was a profound turning point. I slowly began to understand that Jesus invites us to abide in his love, not sign up for spiritual boot camp (John 15:9). As I studied the Bible through this new lens, it soon became apparent that Scripture describes our walk with God, without fail, as inseparably linked to passionate desperation! David dances before the Ark of the Covenant “with great abandon” (2 Samuel 6:14), reflecting his psalmic declaration, “O God . . . my soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land . . . because Your lovingkindness is better than life” (Psalm 63:1-3). In Luke 7, a woman desperate for Jesus’ love passionately bursts through the door of a Pharisee’s home, and falls sobbing at Jesus’ feet. After an all-night fishing expedition, Peter launches his post-denial, guilt-ridden body into the Sea of Galilee, desperate to get to his beloved Jesus on the shore (John 21:7). And Paul, a murderer, was so desperate to know Jesus that he counted “everything else . . . worthless” by comparison (Philippians 3:8). In fact, Paul makes it unmistakably clear that our relationship with God isn’t chiefly about discipline; instead, he’s our kind Father whose love compels us to passionately “cry out, ‘Abba’” (Romans 8:15).
Eventually I realized that even the so-called spiritual disciplines—like Bible study and prayer—are less about discipline (usually accompanied by duty and shame), and more about a freeing invitation to spend time with the God we passionately love. The truth is, we’re created in the image of a passionate God to long for and search for someone to be desperately passionate about! Or, as George McDonald put it, “The soul God made is . . . hungering.” If we are not desperate for him, we will be desperate for someone or something else. Eventually the bright lights and compelling promises of other lovers will lure us away like Disney’s Pinocchio, who meant so well but ended up on Pleasure Island, braying like the donkey he had become.
And when the spiritual battle gets intense? During the Boxer Rebellion, Communist soldiers commanded a young village girl to trample the cross of Jesus. Instead, she lifted her hands heavenward, singing “Jesus Loves Me” as guns blazed, sending her to glory. Discipline moves us to accomplish much. But we will only die for One we desperately, passionately love.
So, what to do? Start by getting honest about the inability of other lovers—including “discipline”—to fulfill the longing of our hearts. On that life-changing evening years ago, I ran with abandon from a bleak religion of rules and discipline—and a lying lover named Performance—toward Jesus, who compassionately embraced me and smothered me with the kisses of the Father. Today I abide in Jesus Christ, not because I am painstakingly spiritual or remarkably disciplined, but because I’m madly, desperately in love.
J. Kevin Butcher was a lead pastor for 35 years—the last 16 in urban Detroit. He is founder and executive director of Rooted Ministries, which comes alongside isolated, wounded, and discouraged pastors and their families to help them experience the deep love of God through abiding in Jesus. Kevin is the author of Free: Rescued from Shame-Based Religion, Released Into the Life-giving Love of Jesus and Choose and Choose Again: The Brave Act of Returning to God’s Love. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Dallas Theological Seminary and has written numerous articles and shared the message of the Father’s love around the world. Kevin is married to his best friend, Carla, and has three grown daughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren.