FAITH: Goodness near God
"When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name." — Luke 19: 5a (NLT)
This summer, I had the privilege of being a camp speaker for junior high kids for the month of June. I was tasked with sharing a gospel proclamation series, and over the course of that month, thousands of middle schoolers came through our Young Life property. Camp speaking for middle school kids is probably everything you imagine it would be — wonderful, frightening, honoring, embarrassing and challenging.
One evening after talking about the cross and the hope that can be found in Jesus, a boy approached me on the stage. He was probably a seventh grader, a small, lanky kid, and he was crying.
"I feel so happy here at camp," he told me, "but I don't know how to feel happy at home." We sat down together, and he continued to sob. "I just want to be happy like this all the time. Why won't Jesus make me happy all the time?"
After talking for a while, it came out that his parents were getting a divorce, he was bullied regularly in school and his older brother wanted nothing to do with him. His pursuit of Jesus in his short life had been all about masking the pain that came out of those circumstances. The question he was asking is a question I think we all ask at some points in our faith journeys: Weren't we made for goodness? Shouldn't we be experiencing the best things in life, not these crumbs we're so often offered? God, why is it so hard here?
There are stories of plenty and abundance, stories of miracles, stories of joy — and I think in the way that all humans are creatures of habit, after a time, we begin to expect that life with God should only feel like the best feelings and things we've experienced. Why should goodness and love Itself still allow for pain and suffering? Why shouldn't Jesus make us happy all the time?
I'll be honest, I've asked that question before. Sitting on the stage beside that little boy, I wasn't a stranger to the things he was wondering. There have been times in my life when I believed that being a person of faith would lend itself to a more joyful or even easier life experience. And perhaps you, too, have asked and wondered such things — with Jesus, why can't I be happy all the time?
One of my favorite parts about camp speaking this summer was that I got to share stories about Jesus and the people around him, but not just to tell of how he healed them or performed miracles, but how he showed up. One of my favorite moments was recounting the life of Zacchaeus — a guy who was despised, lonely and ridiculed. He was a thief, a cultural traitor, and his stature made it all too easy to pick on him. I told campers about the way Zacchaeus just wanted to glimpse Christ, not even know him, just take a look at him. But Jesus, Jesus is always surprising. He didn't walk past Zacchaeus when he showed up on that road. He didn't ignore him. He stopped beside the tree Zacchaeus was in and he looked up. Jesus noticed him, saw him and called him by name.
Zacchaeus's life was changed by his encounter with Jesus, yes, but it began to change from that moment he was seen, and his name was said aloud. I think if we're really honest, it would be nice to be happy all the time, but our questions run a little deeper than just that. It's not just, why can't I be happy all the time? It's, don't you like me God? Don't you care? Do you see me? Do I matter? Will you notice me?
In Psalm 73, the psalmist complains and rails against God about the unfairness of life. They are devastated by their own hardships and the seeming ease of the lives of corrupt people around them.
"I get nothing but trouble all day long," they pen (v14a). It is as if they believed that in following Jesus, they would only find peace, joy and prosperity, and they have finally reached the point of reckoning, not unlike my young friend at camp. Is following Jesus worth it if I don't get exactly what I want? Is following Jesus worth it if I don't understand everything?
This Psalm closes with a beautiful remark: "But as for me, how good it is to be near God" (v28a). As we sat on the stage that night, I invited that boy to encounter Christ in that way -- not as some sort of magical genie or akin to winning the lottery but a person who might look you in the eyes and say your name. Despite all of his circumstances and struggles, I told him what it has taken me some years to learn — and honestly, what I'm still learning: Maybe it's not that God would fix everything right here and now the way we want him to; maybe it's that God comes near to us. Maybe there, beside Jesus, is fuller happiness -- not some cheap all-the-time sort of happiness but rather God as a friend with me in my pain kind of happiness.
I invite you to do the same today. Have you felt how good it is to be near God? Despite the bad around us, what a wonder, what joy — Jesus sees you, friends. He stops. He looks at you. And he is calling you by name.
Bella Bonanno is the area director for Crook County Young Life. She can be reached at 541-325-9862.
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