Let me ask you about the subtitle of your book, "Trading Life's Good for God's Best." Can you explain the difference between those two?
There's a lot of good things in life, you know? We Christians tend to contrast evil and good, don't we? And that's a fair thing. But there is the good of life, things that are going well, that are not evil, they are not wicked, they are not sinful. But there is a higher life, there is a greater potential. So what I'm trying to say is that life has many good things, but if we walk with Jesus Christ and look at God's best, it's a level higher than just "good."
What literally is God's best?
It is having Jesus Christ running your life, staying close to him on a daily basis, and letting his power work through you. That's a quick version. But it covers all sorts of different angles of life. God's best is that God has beautiful things for our lives that even the good things of life often pale by comparison.
By good things for our lives, do you mean materially?
How did you come to realize that God wants such a joyful and abundant life beyond what we think of as happiness and goodness?
When I was in Argentina, I was born there, you know. And I went to an excellent church. The Bible was taught fantastically well, but there were a few things missing. We worked very hard at being good Christians. In fact, sometimes we felt we were killing ourselves. All-night prayer meetings every Friday night, and we loved it-but after six or ten months, we began to feel, wow, this is really a super effort.
I believed I was forgiven. I believed I was going to heaven when I died, no question. But when it came to living every day, every week, it seemed like it was a terrible chore. A lot of my friends in our church began to drop out.
Then I came to the U.S., and I was about 25, and I understood it at the seminary where I studied here in Portland, Oregon. I realized, it isn't what you're going to do for God as much as what He will do in you and through you. It isn't so much killing yourself to please God, but relying on His power.
I suddenly heard a message-Christ lives in you. I had read it a hundred times, but it hadn't sunk in. I went to my bedroom and I said Lord, this is it! It's not me, Christ lives in me. And it was the beginning of a great liberation.
So faith should be easier than what you were practicing?
Absolutely. In my case, I really never quite understood that in fact, Jesus Christ actually lived within me.
We're talking about God's best, but what would you say to somebody who's facing really hard times, who would say, I'd settle for "good enough" at this point.
There's a lot of people who feel that way, and I've gone through those days in the past, once in a while in my adulthood also. I would say this: God's best isn't always what we think is best. You think of Joni Eareckson [Tada]. She must be 55 by now. She was paralyzed in a teenaged accident, diving into a lake, she hit bottom, broke her neck, she's in a wheelchair. But instead of being bitter, though she went through a few moments of feeling that way, she settled it and said, "OK, God somehow has a plan for my life that is better than my dreams." She thought she'd never get married until she met her husband, who's a fantastic guy. She sings, she paints by putting a brush in her mouth, she ministers to people. She's being used of God to touch millions of people in China who are paralyzed like her. So God's best isn't always what the world considers good.
Some people say happiness is conditioned by what's happening around. If what happens around you is not to your pleasure, then you're unhappy. Whereas joy is geared and bound to the "Rock of Ages," which is Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "Ask and you will receive so that your joy may be complete."
How do you personally deal with moments of doubt or disappointment?
I learned early on, watching my mother's reaction to my dad's death. I was 10 years old when my dad died. To me, he was perfect. He was a great Christian, a successful businessman, and a loving dad. He disciplined me, in those days they pulled the belt and hit your bottom, and it did me a lot of good.
His death left a terrible vacuum. I have five sisters-one wasn't born yet, she was on the way-but my mom rested in Christ, quoted the scriptures, believed that God has a purpose, did not despair. She cried, but it wasn't the tears of despair, anger, shaking a fist at God. It was basically the loneliness. I watched her, and I learned a lot from her.
Then my wife and I, we've been married many years. And she had breast cancer, and she went through that. We had four little boys, and boy, to see her resting in the promise of God, singing the old hymns that brought her reminders of the rock-bottom reality of the living God.... She felt, "I am protected by the Lord, I am held by the Lord."
You learn to say, Lord, I don't like what I'm going through, I don't know why you are putting me through this. Lord, you know what's best for our family, you know what's best for us. I'm going to keep my mouth shut, and wait on the Lord.
How do you communicate these ideas to what I imagine are sometimes cynical audiences at your evangelistic festivals?
The way I approach it is simply, "God likes you as well as loves you." I think a lot of people feel, "God loves me because he has to. But does he like me?"
God actually likes you. He made you, and he's got a beautiful purpose for your life.
I talk to kids a lot. I say, "God wants you to have an overflowing life. He doesn't want to dump religion on you, he wants to come into your life and make you a full person. If marriage is in his plan, he will bring you the best person for you. Wait on him." I try to show that Christ really wants them happy. To do so you have to remove the problem, which is our selfishness and sin and improper behavior-I always go back to the cross and the resurrection.
And thirdly I say, "God wants everyone to go to heaven when they die." So on those three basics, I then speak about the cross, the resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit to live in you, which is God living in you, you become a temple of God. And I find that people realize you love them, and therefore they figure God loves them.
You've preached the gospel in 75 countries around the world. What do you find distinguishes Americans from those you preach to elsewhere?
In the so-called developing world, the not-so-wealthy countries also happen to be the more religious countries. Therefore to them, to talk about spiritual issues is very natural. If you talk intelligently, kindly, not attacking, simply building on what they know and what they have, and you present your case why you're so enamored of Jesus, why you take him so much to heart, they listen intrigued. The Hindus do, the Buddhists do, the Protestants in many places of the Third World, the Catholics do. Even the Muslims if you are in the right context, love to hear what you have to say if you first listen to them.
Western Europe is very hard because they have become hardened. I figure it's because of the two world wars, I think it's because of secular, atheistic philosophers whose anti-God teachings have infiltrated universities. Much of Western Europe is very very hard. It's almost impossible to talk about God. Some of them don't even know what in the world you're talking about when you say God.
I also wondered about your perspective over time, since you have been preaching since the 1960s. How have the questions people ask changed?
In the 1950s, most Americans after World War II had gone to Sunday school. So they heard some of the stories of Jesus, some of the biblical stories, Jonah and the whale, David fighting Goliath, the death of Jesus, the resurrection-these things were there.
In today's generation, a high percentage think they know what the Bible teaches but in fact they've never cracked the book. They've heard about Jesus on the radio, television, everywhere, much of it mocking.
So we have to start from scratch. In the old days you could make reference to Adam and Eve, and the old generation knew you were talking about the first created man and woman. If you quoted Adam and Eve today, they'd think it's a rock group or something.
Do you have a favorite prayer?
If anybody connected to Beliefnet wants to open their heart to Jesus Christ, bow your head and pray this prayer. Jesus said, "I stand at your door and knock. If you hear my voice," Jesus said, "I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me." So if you want him to come into your life, and your spirit come alive to God, then pray this prayer along with me:
O God my father, I believe that you created me, that you love me, that you even like me, O God, and even though I don't deserve it, because I sinned against you, I have broken your moral laws, I believe that you sent your son, Jesus Christ, and that he died on a cross to take away all my guilt, to wash me spiritually, and Lord Jesus I believe that you rose from the dead, that you hear my prayer, and right now I open my heart to you. Please come into my life, Lord Jesus, make me your child, give me the assurance of eternal life, fill me with your holy spirit, and I will serve you, and I'll obey you until I see you face to face in heaven. Thank you, Father, I am yours forever because Christ lives in me. In his name I think you, Amen.