Did you know life was going to be this hard? I must have missed all the school assemblies devoted to disappointment and failure. I don’t remember any class on how to adult. At least sports were somewhat realistic. Neither the teams I rooted for nor the teams I played on experienced much success. More often than the thrill of victory I knew the agony of defeat. But ecstasy usually chased agony with a trip to McDonald’s for french fries and a McFlurry. Ah, the wonders of an 18-year-old metabolism.
A little later on I recited the vows. Better or worse. Richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. But how was I supposed to know what any of this meant at 22 years old? You’re too young to even understand you’re poor. Sickness? At our age? That only happens in summer blockbusters young men are obligated to take their girlfriends to see.
When life seems worse than expected, we’re told, “It gets better.”
But what if it doesn’t?
You need more than a cliché when real life dawns. Because life is hard. You don’t always know what will get you. You just know something will. Addiction. Depression. Unemployment. Student loans. Rejection. For me the hardship came in threes, one after the other: I couldn’t find a job. My wife and I couldn’t conceive a child. We lost much of our savings in the Great Recession.
I didn’t know if we were going to be okay. Nothing had been promised to me. Not the job I pursued after three years of additional graduate education. I left wonderful co-workers to follow what I thought to be God’s call. But what did I have to show for it? I hadn’t been promised a child, either. I wondered if my wife and I had waited too long. It seemed so easy for all our friends and family. They wanted a child, they got a child . . . or two or three or four. I wasn’t promised financial security. We made the right decision to buy a house. Until it wasn’t the right decision anymore. In fact it was the kind of decision you make at 23 that still haunts you at 33. And with student loans on top of it all, and no promise of a lucrative career, I didn’t know how to provide for the kids we couldn’t have.
When life seems worse than expected, we’re told, ‘It gets better.’ But what if it doesn’t?
I couldn’t change my circumstances. And that was the hardest part for me. I’m a fixer. A planner. I had been taught as a child that if you work hard enough, you can reach your goals. And for the most part that advice proved true. When I worked hard, good things happened. Until they didn’t. I had been responsible. I had been discerning. I had been diligent. No matter. The effect would have been the same if I had slacked off at work, binged on Netflix instead of studying, and gambled away my inheritance on those bad sports teams I still love.
What do you do next when your life’s motto turns out to be a lie? If you’re like me, first you turn to despair. I didn’t handle things well. I was lost. And the more I looked inside myself for answers and solutions, the more frustrated I grew. I found no resolution. I found no peace. After all, I’m the one who got myself into this mess. Why did I think I could get out of it by the same way? I wasn’t in control. And that was the hardest part of all for me to handle.
I learned there are many paths to lose your way. And only one way to find it.
Throughout this ordeal I knew myself to be a Christian. God had shocked me at age 15 with an experience of his grace. I wish I had the proper words to explain it to you. I just remember that one day I was a brooding teenager who didn’t understand himself and didn’t know how to fit in. And the next day I knew joy and belonging. I’m not sure at the time if I comprehended much more. At some level I finally felt the truth of what I had previously only been told: that Jesus loved me and had forgiven my sins, so I will live with him forever.
This conversion surprised me, because all I had known of church to this point was begrudging participation. I couldn’t wait to graduate from church. I didn’t understand the fuss. There are many good ways to spend your Sunday. Sleeping. Watching football. More sleeping. Unless this Christianity thing is real. But it sure didn’t seem real to most of the folks I knew at church. Why bother with the charade of dressing up and dragging yourself out of the house to hear old songs and a short message of questionable relevance? Jesus might have risen from the dead on the third day. But we didn’t know where to find him. Or bother to look very hard.
So it caught me, my friends, and my family off guard when suddenly I knew Jesus lived in my heart by faith (Eph. 3:17). And I was happy. That was the weirdest thing. I’ve always been known as a fairly serious person, even as a young child. It’s not easy for me to make fast friends through small talk. Jesus, though, made me happy. I felt as though I had found myself and the way I was meant to be. The truth is that I had been lost in myself, but Jesus had come to find me.
In my church growing up we had a big, beautiful stained-glass window in the back. Jesus held a shepherd’s rod in one hand and cradled a little lamb in the other. It’s the kind of symbolism you take for granted if your earliest memories include the church. But it’s understandably confusing if you’re reading the Bible for the first time and wondering about all these seemingly outdated images of God as a shepherd. Probably the most famous example comes from Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
We see here an image of a God who goes before his people and walks beside his people. The psalmist, David, understands God as an intimate companion, a reliable comfort. When Jesus arrives in human flesh in what we know as the New Testament, he picks up on this shepherd imagery of God. And he applies it to himself, as the good shepherd (John 10:11). But Jesus confuses the exact people who have been reading, reciting, and singing Psalm 23 their whole lives. You see, Jesus doesn’t approve of the religious leaders. And they don’t approve of him, because he prefers to hang out and eat with the sinners, the folks shunned by their polite religious society.
Jesus turns religious expectation on its head. The head of the line is actually the back. Only the lost will be found. Even the most insignificant person in the world’s eyes matters infinitely to God.
Jesus turns religious expectation on its head. The head of the line is actually the back. Only the lost will be found. Even the most insignificant person in the world’s eyes matters infinitely to God. Jesus explained by telling the religious leaders this story:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4–7)
Only the lost will be found. And the 99 who don’t realize they’re lost will never find their way home to God.
I don’t know whether you know Jesus or not. I don’t know if you grew up in church or in another religion or in no religion at all. Whatever your background, I want to ask: Have you ever really met Jesus? Have you ever heard him speak in the pages of his Word? Do you know his good news, or do you only hear of him through his self-appointed spokesmen on cable news?
The Jesus of history—the Jesus who lives yesterday, today, and forever—might surprise you. He surprised everyone he met during his 30-some years walking among us. And no wonder. No one ever spoke like he did, then or now. He spoke with authority and yet also with the gentle touch of an intimate and sympathetic friend. He spoke with consistency, across the years and among different audiences. Our record of Jesus comes from witnesses who followed him for years. These witnesses believed in him, though they didn’t always understand him. Not until his death on the cross, his resurrection on the third day, and his subsequent appearances among them did they begin to truly grasp his purpose, his message, his gospel. But once they learned, they never forgot. Once they realized they were lost, he found them.
Jesus taught his followers many things during three years of public ministry. But none of it really made sense until they emerged from the daze of disappointment during those dark days in the shadow of the cross. After his resurrection, Jesus helped his followers discover their true selves. It had been his plan all along. And that plan involved his own death. He told them:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there my servant will be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24–26)
By all appearances Jesus lost on the cross. His mission was thwarted. The religious leaders finally caught up to him. The Roman authorities added another notch to their gory, bloody belt. But Jesus tells us that’s not the way of God’s kingdom. Death brings life. If you live only for today, you’ll dread tomorrow.
Today we’re told to find ourselves by looking within. We’re told that love means accepting everyone else just as they are. But it doesn’t work.
You’d struggle to find any clearer teaching from Jesus, as confusing as he may seem to modern ears. Today we’re told to find ourselves by looking within. We’re told that love means accepting everyone else just as they are. But it doesn’t work. Sometimes we don’t do what we want to do. We hurt others. And they hurt us. We plan. And others thwart those plans. We rage against the evil of this world. And the evil seems to grow. What can break the cycle of hate?
“Whoever finds his life will lose it,” Jesus tells us, “and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
What does he mean? Anyone can love someone who loves them back. Anyone can thank God when things are going well. But what would give you the power to love and even forgive and reconcile with someone who hurt you? What would cause you to feel thankfulness even when you don’t get the promotion, when you don’t get the scholarship, when you don’t get the girl? The same power that led Jesus to cry out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Only the kingdom of God can help us find hope in a lost world. When we pick up that cross and follow him, we find the meaning of a life worth living.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus told his disciples. At this point he hadn’t yet gone to the cross. So they didn’t understand. But they never forgot. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
You need good news that will sustain you even in your worst nightmare. When all your planning is for naught. When yet another pregnancy test is negative. When you don’t know when the next paycheck will come. When you don’t know how to pay the mortgage. When you look inside yourself for answers and emerge only with despair. When all the affirmation of the world can’t help you love yourself. When the clichés of youth slip like sand through your fingers.
And you need this good news even more when everything’s going well. When you get the girl. Land the job. Buy the vacation home. Because Jesus tells us that when you feel at home in this world, you won’t enjoy the next.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus told a crowd. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?’” (Mark 8:34–36; see also Luke 9:23–25).
In order to find your life, you must lose it for the sake of Jesus. To discover your true self you must forsake this world. This book, Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves, aims to help you understand and believe these words from Jesus. We want you to know how you can endure any hardship with faith and peace. We want you to see how love overcomes evil with good. We want to introduce you to the One who brings healing and hope and purpose to life. We want you to lose your life so that God would find you.
I’ve never found that life gets easier. Or better. But I have found that God is with me. That Jesus walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death. That he will leave the 99 in order to find me when I call out to him. That he promises me nothing in this world except that the God of the universe sees and knows and loves me, and that in the next world I will see him face to face, when he lifts the burden of my sin and the evil of this fallen world.
Once I was blind, but now I see. Once I was lost, but Jesus came and found me. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! It saved a wretch like me.