Cultivate the Discipline of Astonishment


hen I sat beneath the evergreen at 15 years old, the stars twinkled their brilliance above me. I felt the rough bark against my back while tears streaked my face. I heard the gospel in its entirety (if one can ever hear such magnificence in one perfect package), and I was stunned to silence. I was small, broken, haunted by swirling memories of the past. I lived as a fatherless daughter searching for the Daddy who would never leave me. His bigness. His sacrifice on the world’s behalf. His ability to be everywhere, yet be concerned about me. His speaking things into existence from nothingness. I asked Him to please enter my life in the gentlest way. And He did.

When I think of Jesus-loving people, I venture back to this place of astonishment, this smallness of me compared to God’s immensity. I run back to that place where my mind was overwhelmed by God’s greatness. And I also think of others whose minds held big thoughts of God. I remember the people I met in Malaysia who couldn’t bow low enough to worship God. I remember my friend Su, tears on her face becoming her petition. Oh, how she loved. I think of an unnamed man I met in Urbana, Illinois, who practically beamed Jesus, but who spoke of Him with reverence and awe. Paul in Ghana comes to mind, how his eyes dance when he tells the story of God providing for him in spectacular and mundane ways. Holly, dear Holly, who calls out of the blue because she hears a whisper from God and she must pass His encouragement on to me.

In a world bent on human glory, folks like these stand out. They’re the bewildering kind who think much of Jesus, yet decrease into obscurity like John the Baptist. They understand the proverb, “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory” (Prov. 25:27).* They see beyond the veil of this world while they grasp the upside-down Kingdom where meek inherit and strong fall, while God reigns supreme overall. I watch these people. I long to be like them, to think like them.

What does it mean to live in the discipline of astonishment? How can we deify God yet subvert our claim to deity? How can we embrace the cliché, “God is God and I am not”? The answer comes from theology, the way we think about God. When you read the word theology, you may yawn a bit, dismissing the term as boring, something relegated to banter in seminary halls. But theology is dynamic. And it’s utterly important if we want Jesus to be our everything. In light of that, let’s build a campfire around five truths.

    Truth One: God Creates

When the world careens out of control, we can rest in the fact that God spun this world with a simple word. Matter from emptiness. Beauty from void. Community from chaos.

Remembering God as Creator reminds us that God is in the growth business. He not only created trees, sky, air, and dirt, but He also matures them: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). I’ve spent a great deal of my Christian life trying to manufacture what only God can flourish. Although I have a choice to submit myself before the Creator of the world, to be humbly repentant, adopting a posture of learning, I cannot cause growth. I must depend on His ability to bring sprouts, limbs, flowers, and fruit.

    Truth Two: God Is Other

God is far above what we can think or perceive or categorize. Remember Isaiah’s oft-quoted words: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9).

I remember the funny song “Please Don’t Send Me to Africa” from decades ago. I remember thinking, This song resonates with me. And yet, decades later, I found myself in Ghana, West Africa, with my then 12-year-old son, Aidan, who dared to believe in God’s otherness. He heard God tell him to dig wells, so he upheaved his comfortable sixth-grade life and followed Jesus’ footsteps to Africa. There we met others who follow this strange, amazing God, and we were forever changed. As I type this, Aidan again stands on Ghanaian soil, following the beckoning of God that woos a now 15-year-old to that same continent.

God is other. We cannot explain Him. We cannot have perfect theology (though we value theology). We cannot attempt to know the mind of God fully. But as believers, we have an eternal resource, the Holy Spirit, who makes known to us God’s intentions. When we consider the otherness of God, the overwhelming beauty and audacity of God to dwell within us can bring nothing but astonishment. The God who created, this otherly God, dares to stoop to such a place as our hearts.

    Truth Three: God Redeems

My friend pushed against God, against me, against anyone who would dare speak truth in her life. She seemed to relish rebellion, yet all the while saying she believed in Jesus. For several years I puzzled over her words and her behavior, so much so that I had to place a boundary on our friendship. Years passed. One day I received a call from her.

“I’ve met Jesus!” she said.

“What? I thought you were a Christian.”

“No, I only thought I was,” she said, I could hear the joy in her voice. “But I finally met Jesus, and I’ll never be the same.”

In that moment and in the subsequent years, I’ve seen radical redemption in my friend’s life. Her words challenge me. Her life shouts Jesus. Her heart, oh, her heart, is so very beautiful. And when she emails or calls, instead of dreading her as I once did,
I stop my day and hang on to her words.

God is a God who redeems. He sent His beautifully sinless Son to take our place, to satisfy for all time God’s wrath upon sin: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

    Truth Four: God Sees

When I traveled to Ghana, my son Aidan and I were part of a team that had already been assembled from another local church. Though I’m sure none of the members meant to exclude me, the nature of the trip and our addition later made it hard for me to fit in. As I stepped onto Ghanaian soil, I prayed, “Lord, help me know that You see me here.” I made a determination to be small, unnoticed. No longer an author or a speaker, I spent my time behind the scenes. But loneliness settled inside me like untreated malaria. I cried out to God from this small, small place.

God’s answer came late one night during a van ride over rough roads where sleeping sheep and goats served as living obstacles. I sat next to my new Ghanaian friend Paul and asked for his story. He shared his heart, how he walked with Jesus, how he met his wife, how he struggled to know whether he’d have another meal. I felt privileged to hear his words. I shared my heart in exchange. Then he said something that helped me know God sees. He told me my empathy encouraged him to share his story. I realized then that I had played a role in my trek to Ghana. To listen. And to hear an amazing story—proof that God saw me and would reward my smallness.

Hagar, maidservant of Sarai, had an encounter with God when she despaired of life, when her smallness bordered on despair. After Sarai mistreated her, she fled to the wilderness and sat down by a spring. An angel of the Lord appeared to her and encouraged her. She would have a son, and she was to name him Ishmael. He’d be “a wild donkey of a man,” and she would live to see him grow up.

After that encounter, she named God El Roi, “the God who sees”: “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said,

‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (see Gen. 16:7-14 NIV).

    Truth Five: God Inhabits

Our daughter Julia heard demonic voices when we lived in France. For several months, we puzzled over her behavior, thinking she simply had a hard time adjusting to the culture and language. But eventually she broke down and told us she heard awful voices telling her to be disobedient to us and mean to her siblings. At night the voices tormented her, woke her up. We prayed for her. We told her about Jesus, but she couldn’t seem to grasp Him or even reach for Him. A few weeks later, some friends from the States came to watch our kids while we went to a leadership summit in Lisbon, Portugal. We pulled them aside and told them about Julia and the voices. They promised to pray for her and be extra sensitive to her while we were away.

During the conference we received a voice message. Julia’s little voice piped through saying, “Mommy and Daddy? I just want to let you know that I asked Jesus to come into my heart.” I could hear the joy in her voice, but inwardly I feared. Would she still be tormented?

When we came home, I asked her how she was doing: “Are you hearing those voices?”

“Well,” she said. “I do hear a voice, but it tells me to make right choices.”

“That’s the Holy Spirit,” I told her. In the moment she met Jesus, He replaced the demonic voices with His Spirit. He truly lives inside our daughter. A few weeks later, she asked to be baptized in the Mediterranean Sea. The pictures are framed above her bed.

It is a discipline to think astonished. Often we are bewildered by the details of our lives, forgetting about the bigness of the God we serve. He made everything. He is utterly other. Yet He chose to redeem us. He sees us. And if we are His followers, He lives within us. We are simply His followers, dependent on Him for new life. The author of Hebrews summed up our need for astonishment:

“Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).