As I a pastor, I have sat next to many people who, despite their many years of sitting in church, feel as though God is distant and far off.. They share with me the loneliness they feel as they look around on a Sunday morning and wonder if they are the only one who is missing it. The only one who isn’t being fulfilled. The only one who wonders if Jesus and the church and all the stuff that goes with them matters.
For these, Jonathan Merritt’s new book Jesus is Better than You Imagined offers hope. From the very beginning of the book he makes it clear that he is going to be honest about his faith as he invites us to sit next to him in a church. Sadly, this brutal honesty is rare in church. As we sit next to him, he shares with us how empty he feels, how cynicism is choking out his faith, and how dry it all feels. With pastoral kindness and story Jonathan says the one in the middle of the dark night, “Me too.”
Too often it seems that, when we are in the midst of a dark night of the soul, where we question and wrestle and doubt, we feel isolated and fearful of sharing our thoughts with other Christians. Sure, we can share them once we get through it and the story has a nice tidy bow on it. But in the moment – the grind-it-out, grit-your-teeth moment of hanging on to your faith – well, that seems to make others uncomfortable.
That’s why I so deeply enjoyed Jonathan Merritt’s new book Jesus is Better than You Imagined. Jonathan gives the reader permission to ask the questions and wrestle it out by sharing his journey in the midst of doubts, frustrations, and cynicism. The courage he musters up to talk about abuse, and the effect that abuse had on him, is down-right disarming. I resonated with Jonathan because I share much of his story. Sure, the details differ. But the essence is the same. I have wondered if God has left me. I have questioned whether I was called into ministry. And in the midst of it all, Jesus is better than I imagined.
For all the things Jonathan could point us to, he points to the one thing that matters: Jesus. By using his experience to reawaken his love of old scriptures, and using scriptures to make sense of his experience he reminds us that all of us points us to Jesus. I disdain books that use story to reduce our experiences to bullet points and axioms. That never happens. Rather, Jonathan just keeps pointing and inviting us to try it on. Try on solitude and see if Jesus meets you there. Try on a re-exploration of the scriptures and see if you don’t see Jesus differently. Try on looking for Jesus all around you and see if he hasn’t been waiting for you the whole time.
One passage spoke personally to me as I am learning to embrace mystery. Jonathan writes:
When I’m in the wilderness of life wandering in search of my personal promised land, I face a choice. Either I will run from God because of His elusiveness or I will praise Him because of it. Will I reject the paradoxes and seeming absurdity of life or will I choose to exercise faith, clinging to God in the absence of answers? When I operate in certainty, I hold tightly to myself and my ability to reason well, but when I embrace mystery, I’m forced to tie myself to the ship mast of God’s presence and hold fast even as life’s storms rage.
This is me. This is where we will all be. No one gets through life without encountering the storm. The truth behind the parable of the man who built is house on the sand and the man who built is house on the rock is that both men encountered storm. No one gets through life without some wind and rain beating the up. And we can either shake our fists at God in the storm or we can “tie [ourselves] to the ship mast of God’s presence.” I’m learning to do the latter.
Don’t be fooled though, the book isn’t just about doubts and frustrations, but also has these high moments of excitement that read like an action novel. Surprising? Yes. Reading about nearly being kidnapped by armed bandits in Haiti isn’t an everyday occurrence in the Christian non-fiction genre.
Jonathan will be a breath of fresh air for those who have grown cynical about their faith. It isn’t an argument to keep the faith, rather it is an invitation to fall in love with Jesus again. It gives the reader permission to leave behind pat answers and pretense, and experience anew that Jesus is better than we imagine.