AMG Publishers/Living Ink
Three years after my conversion, I grew dissatisfied with my spiritual growth—or what I considered my lack of it. The yearning became increasingly strong and persistent, and no matter how much I prayed or read my Bible, the hunger didn’t diminish. I finally went to talk to Pastor Arthur Dodzweit. In those days I didn’t know how to effectively express what I was feeling, but I recall telling him, “I want to grow and to live on a higher spiritual plane.”
He listened for several minutes and then urged me to read the Gospels and pay special heed to the words of Jesus. “Seek to be more like Jesus,” he said, “and follow his example.”
“Please don’t tell me to be like Jesus,” I said. “That’s impossible, because Jesus is perfect. He’s my teacher and my Savior, but I can’t identify with him in his flawlessness.” I pointed out that Jesus faced temptations, but he never experienced the taint of sin. Every time the devil tempted him, he stopped the aggressive move by quoting from the Bible. Jesus is the one I cry to in my need, and I know he hears me. “I love Jesus and follow him, but I can’t be like him,” I said. “I need to identify with someone who has experienced failure and sin and still keeps on.”
My pastor expressed shock. I assumed no one had ever responded that way before. Finally he asked, “With whom do you identify?”
I thought for several seconds before I answered, “I’d have to pick David. He was power hungry, politically motivated, immoral, and he did a terrible job of raising his own children. No matter how badly he sinned, however, he always turned back to God. In his writings, I’m deeply touched by the intensity of his desire for God. Yes, I could identify with David.”
Pastor Dodzweit suggested I read the Psalms and study the life of David. That ended our session. My pastor cared about me, and he meant well, but I didn’t find much encouragement through his suggestions.
Over the years since then, I have talked to others about my growth and where to find help. The most common advice has been “Read your Bible more.” Those answers imply that if I do more, I will receive more. Perhaps this is true, but I sensed there have to be better ways to be enriched and strengthened in my spiritual growth.
Just before the end of the twentieth century, I came to a significant crisis in my faith. My theology taught me that God loved me—me and everyone else. I didn’t doubt the biblical teaching. Emotionally, however, I didn’t feel loved. God “so loved the world” (John 3:16) and sent Jesus to die for sinners, and that included me. Even so, sometimes I felt as if I were picked up and saved as part of a package deal. God had gotten stuck with me because of a sweeping compassion for everyone.
One time I tried to express this struggle to a prominent Christian leader. In response, he hurled Bible verses at me and struck me with a number of pointed logical arguments to convince me that I was loved. I couldn’t break through to him that I knew the arguments. On a cognitive level, I agreed and could say amen to every affirmation. My problem wasn’t my theology or my intellectual grasp. My emotions simply didn’t agree. No matter how some belittle our emotions, they are powerful forces in our lives; often we act more from deep-seated feelings than from our reasoning ability.
The Christian leader admonished me to have more faith, to read my Bible more, and to pray more—typical, well-intentioned answers of the kind we tend to get. It’s always “Do more” of something. That was the prescription: If I did more religious activities, everything would be better. He couldn’t grasp what I was trying to say, and his response discouraged me from talking to anyone else.
One day I figured out a method that worked for me. It began over the same issue of not feeling loved by God. In my devotional reading I came across Romans 9:13, where Paul quotes God as saying, “Jacob I loved” (NIV). That verse struck me as odd, even though I’d read it many times. The impact of those words stayed with me, and I pondered them frequently over the next few days. What did Jacob ever do to deserve love? Of all the people in the Bible, he was one of the biggest scoundrels and least deserving, and yet God loved him. He did nothing to earn that love and should have received severe punishment for the dishonorable things he did.
Instead, he received God’s love. I wanted to be like Jacob. That is, I wanted to feel loved even though I felt unworthy and undeserving.
Pondering the story of Jacob caused me to think about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The father loved the younger son even though he demanded his inheritance, left home, and wasted all his money. When the son returned, the father embraced him, called for a feast, and gave him the best of everything. The boy wasn’t hugged and blessed because he deserved those things. The father simply loved him and couldn’t hold back his excitement. That’s why there was joy over his return.
I wanted to be embraced like the prodigal. Instead, I felt like the older brother who stayed home, did everything required of him, watched his brother waste a fortune, and felt angry when the rebel received the hugs and a big celebration.
For most of my Christian experience, I had done what Christian leaders advised me to do—I constantly tried to do more of the religious things. I wouldn’t have admitted to anyone during those years, and only much later could I admit to myself, that my frenetic activities were unconscious attempts to gain God’s love. Or maybe they were attempts to prove to God that I deserved the blessings I had received.
As I pondered the story of the prodigal and the life of Jacob, I faced one sad reality: I couldn’t earn God’s love. The best I could do was to accept that God loved me. I didn’t know how to do that, but I kept thinking of the deeply loved but utterly undeserving Jacob. To my amazement, one morning I heard myself praying in deep anguish, “I am Jacob. I am Jacob.”
The more I thought of those words and focused on what I was saying, I knew that was exactly how I needed to pray. “I am Jacob, whom you love.” Several times I spoke those words aloud.
I prayed exactly those words every day for months. As I prayed, I allowed myself to envision what those words meant. I could picture a son being embraced by a father. In my mind, no matter how much the wastrel protested, the loving parent kept saying, “I love you and that’s what counts.”
One day I was nearly through with a six-mile run, and instead of saying, “I am Jacob, whom you love,” I heard myself say, “I am Jacob. I really am.”
I had focused on being Jacob for so long that I had become like Jacob. That is, I knew I was loved. The powerful assurance was there in a way I had never experienced before. In that sense, I was indeed Jacob.
As I finished my run, I thought of “The Great Stone Face,” which I had read during my teen years. I realized that the story presented exactly the concept I had now grasped. I went to the library and checked out a collection of Hawthorne’s stories to read it again. Ernest had focused on one thing, and eventually he embodied the qualities he yearned for.
I’ve also thought of two of Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians. In one place he writes, “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:15, 16, NIV, author’s italics). He didn’t imply that he was sinless or perfect. But he zealously followed Jesus Christ. If the Corinthians, in turn, followed Paul, he would point them more fully to Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1 the apostle writes almost the same thing: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (NIV). If we were to say this, it would sound like boasting. But Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to know that if they followed his example and his lifestyle, they would see an embodiment of godliness that pointed toward the perfect godliness of Jesus Christ.
What would it be like to imitate the example of Paul? Or the examples of other outstanding believers in the Bible? What if I saw qualities in them that I yearned for in my own life? How could I embody those same qualities? I knew I was moving in the right direction. For a long time, however, I didn’t tell anyone about what I called my “experiment.”
I thought others would laugh at what I was doing. Yet I knew that this method had worked for me, and I had changed. After that, I began a series of further prayer exercises. For periods at a time—often just a few days, but usually lasting several weeks—I chose one individual in the Bible whom I admired. I created a mental image of that person as if I could see him or her standing in front of me.
I tried not to ignore any of the person’s shortcomings, because those made the character more human. I focused on a single, major quality I respected about that individual. If I was going to be like biblical characters, I wanted the experience to be like that of Ernest, who unconsciously turned into the Great Stone Face.
Each day, as I prayed, I imagined myself taking on the quality I had selected. This may speak of my weakness, but I just couldn’t—then or now—focus on Jesus as the role model for the qualities I wanted. I needed flesh-and-blood, sinful-but-saved creatures who embodied the attributes I sought to develop.
I write this even though I still hear people quote “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?). That doesn’t work for me. Their question comes from a novel written more than a hundred years ago called In His Steps. A dozen people covenanted to ask, “What would Jesus do?” before they made any decision. Why didn’t that work for me? “I have no idea what Jesus would do,” I said when I had to defend my nonuse of WWJD.
“Jesus is perfect and without sin. I’m blinded by my own selfish, hidden desires.” Sometimes I added, “I have an amazing ability for self-deception. Too often my heart is so filled with my desires that I’m not open enough to hear the voice of the Savior.”
I did discover, however, that I could relate to other flawed human beings. The Bible is filled with them—and many of them stand as our leaders or guides to spiritual maturity.
For example, I suspect Paul was a hot-tempered zealot whose words sometimes cut his enemies to shreds. I have some of that quality in me, so I understand his struggles. In spite of that, he also embodied a boldness for God that I yearn for. Some may have trouble with my approach. They can’t easily say, “I am Jacob.” I could have said, “I want to be loved like an undeserving Jacob,” which is what my words meant. But to explain to God (who needs no explanations) and to unravel all the words for greater clarity made my prayer cumbersome. The simple concept worked for me. “I am Jacob” sounded direct; it enabled me to focus.
Each day, as I prayed, I envisioned more clearly what it would be like to be fully embraced by God’s loving arms. The more unworthy I felt, the more I could appreciate that love. In my case, this went on for months before the realization struck me that I had become like Jacob. That is, I felt deeply loved and fully accepted, without any qualifications and despite my shortcomings. Those simple words changed my life and escorted me along the path of closer intimacy with God.
Here is how I pray every day now. As I become aware of a need to change, I search for the desired quality in a biblical character. Each day I continue to pray in my shorthand form. Or sometimes when I’m reading the Bible, I’m struck by the quality of a person and I think, Yes, that’s how I want to be. In each of the chapters that follow, I have selected one quality that I yearned for in one flawed biblical character. I erased the gender lines. “I am Miriam.” “I am Hannah.” Those prayers flow just as easily as “I am David” or “I am Samuel.”
I invite you to experiment in prayer with me. As you focus on a quality you want to cultivate—love, kindness, boldness, or contemplation—focus on one of the giants of the Bible, and make it a matter of daily prayer to be like that person.
At the end of each chapter, I’ve included a few sentences to amplify the idea. For me, these express the yearning of my heart. They are a prayer to God. I’m like Ernest, staring at the Great Stone Face, but with a difference: I want to be what I see. (If you are uncomfortable praying, “I am Jacob,” then pray, “I am like Jacob.”)
I am [like] Jacob, whom you love.
I don’t deserve your love. I can’t earn it.
Thank you, God, that I can accept it.