My army officer father once taught me a trick for seeing things at night. The retinas in our eyes have two different types of cells. The first are cone cells, which require lots of light to process vision, similar to how a camera operates. The second type are called rods.
Rods work in an opposite fashion. They contain Rhodopsin, called “visual purple,” a protein cell which allows you to see at night. When you understand how the rods in your eyes work, you can actually develop pretty good eyesight for low light situations, such as when military personnel are deployed outside at night.
The technique that my father taught me is called “off-center vision.” Rod cells are not located in the center of the retina; the most dark-sensitive region is located six to ten degrees off-center. So if you want to see something, don’t look at it directly, but look slightly away. For example, to see someone’s face, look at their ear. To see the door of a house, look at a window.
Sometimes, to see something, you have to look at it from a different angle.
This was the case when I was making a major life decision in 2016 whether to accept a position at a new church or not. In my mid-40s, with four children in school, uprooting a home for a job change had become a big deal. Here’s how I discerned whether or not to take the position.
The most important first thing was to not focus on the decision itself. Instead, I focused on seeking after God. In a previous season of life several years ago, following a time of intense prayer and questioning, God had revealed a simple phrase to me (when I say that, what I mean is that the phrase kept popping up in my head over and over while praying or thinking about my problem). The phrase was, “Seek first,” which is a summary of Jesus’ encouragement in the Sermon on the Mount, mixed in my head with an old worship camp song from my 70s childhood.
So last year as I entered into another season of discernment, I remembered that phrase, and began to do some study around it. I was amazed to discover how critical it is to the human relationship to God. In both books of Chronicles, the writer judges the kings of the kingdom of God’s people not by their ethical or moral choices but by how much they “sought God.” This is how King David could commit adultery and then murder and yet be a man “after God’s heart.”
The injective to “seek first” became a realization for me that, rather than trying to move away from bad things, like we were taught as children, it’s more important in our followership to focus on moving toward God.
The second thing is that, in seeking, I wanted to hear everything God had to say, to see if there was something that would answer my question.
So I began a deep daily search of God’s word. I started a one-year Bible plan, knowing that it would take a long time to complete. It has turned into a 3 year Bible plan, and I am still doing it. What typically happens is that I finish about half of a daily reading, or a little less, because as I go I write commentaries and notes into my Apple Notes app, and make marks so I can search the app later. I have written several future blog posts and teaching pieces this way, because I’ll get caught up in a concept and explore it and an hour later realize I have only made it through 3-4 verses.
My goal is to create a search database of personal comments on every chapter and book of the Bible. I’m about 25% of the way done and it’s already the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in Scripture reading.
Also, one day, I saw an ad for a pre-order book release for a book called Jesus Speaks, by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. The book was a very helpful guide for listening and discerning my life decision. (Here is my blog post review of it.)
As I read Jesus Speaks, one of the big takeaways that emerged from their work was that God is a gracious and loving God. Sounds trite, perhaps, to say that, but I began to realize that I had been holding on to an old idea that there was a single life choice I needed to make or I was left to rot – rejected from a pure, binary version of God’s divine plan. I came to recognize that old “stinking thinking” and was able to root it out.
The story that identified that for me was the story of Jesus on the beach, talking to Peter. Sweet writes about this story in his book. After the crucifixion, Simon Peter had returned to his day job. I guess he didn’t know what else to do. Perhaps he’d told himself that he’d made a big mistake abandoning his entire business assets and inventory back on the beach when he’d decided to follow Jesus in the first place. Perhaps he’d even re-invested in new boats and nets. Regardless, he was out fishing again when the resurrected Messiah appeared to Peter on the shore. I cannot imagine how Peter felt, but the story tells us that Jesus asked Peter, do you love me? He asked him this question three times, and after Peter’s third affirmation, Jesus calls him to “feed my sheep” – a metaphor for his call to begin the work of carrying on Jesus’ ministry, which meant for Peter developing into the role of the leader of a new movement.
What was most interesting about this story to me, however, is Jesus’ choice of words for “love.” In Greek, there are four loves. In Jesus’ first two questions, he used the word agape, which is the highest form of love – a love that acts, that sacrifices – an unconditional love. In his third question, he chooses a slightly lower form of the word in philia. This is the one that Peter responded to best. Sweet suggested that even if Peter was unable to get his heart and mind around a life of agape love to the world, he could at least embrace philia love. Jesus meets us where we are and uses what we can offer to accomplish his purposes.
There were other nuances and moments in this multiple month process. For example, my colleagues at my old church position kept preaching about stepping out, leaving, starting over, and so on. They were perhaps preaching about the change brought on by our senior pastor’s retirement, but my wife and I heard through their words a calling to move toward a new future.
But this basic process is in summary what happened. I believe that I could have made either choice – to stay or to go – and God would have blessed it. Much of our final decision came down to less spiritual factors such as proximity to extended family, compensation, and so on.