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What's Next?: The Journey to Know God, Find Freedom, Discover Purpose, and Make a Difference
by Chris Hodges
Learn More | Meet Chris Hodges
I’ll never forget that place.
Even now, decades later, I vividly recall how different it felt: a bit scary yet appealing at the same time, bigger than me but personally inviting as well. I was fifteen and had agreed to visit a friend’s church after he told me a lot of girls our age would be there. Not the best of motives, I admit, but at least it got me there.
Church was nothing new to me. I’d grown up in a formal denominational church. I was familiar with liturgy and loved being part of a community filled with my family and friends. As long as I could remember, I had always loved church. But what I realized that day while visiting my buddy’s church was that I didn’t love God— because I didn’t really know him. Basically, I had been going to church to try to earn my way to God.
This church was different from anything I had experienced before. While the pews and pulpit looked about the same, and the hymns and Bibles were also the same, something electric and alive, invisible but tangibly present, charged the atmosphere. There was real passion in the congregation’s worship. The preaching was good, but it was the congregation’s response that stood out. Other young people were taking notes and highlighting their Bibles, fully engaged and nodding in agreement with the pastor. Adults did the same, punctuating their attention with an occasional “Amen!” or “That’s good!”
This was not what I was used to experiencing on Sunday mornings, let alone the Sunday evening service. But these people made the Christian faith attractive. They had something I didn’t, something I wanted. The message pierced my heart that night in a way no other preaching had touched me before. So many thoughts and feelings swirled around inside me. What is going on here? Is my church teaching the right way to know God? Or is this church? And what is the difference? More importantly, what is the right way?
I went home that cold December night determined to find the answers, determined to pursue God the way he wanted, even if it wasn’t the way I had been taught. I closed the door to my room, plopped down on the shag carpeting at the foot of my bed, and began to think. I knew enough to realize that I couldn’t just trust what someone else said or how I felt in this new church or my old one. There had to be a better, more definitive source.
Fortunately, I knew the Bible well enough—one good thing about my church’s approach—that I quickly saw it was the only authority I could trust for the ultimate truth about how to know God. The answers had to be in God’s Word. That’s why God gave it to us, right? As familiar as it was, though, the Bible still seemed so big, so intimidating. Where to begin? The answers were probably there, but how was I supposed to find them?
I started with the words of Jesus himself. It made sense to me that Jesus had people around him in his day asking the same basic question I was asking: How do I know God? Fortunately, I had one of those classic red-letter editions of the Bible with the words of Christ printed in bright crimson in contrast to the rest of the black-and- white text. Surely that red ink had been used for such a moment as mine!
Skipping through the Old Testament, I nervously turned those thin, almost tissue-like pages until I began to see words and phrases printed in red. I was only a couple of pages into Matthew when one passage in particular jumped out at me:
- “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter
the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the
will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to
me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in
your name and in your name drive out demons and
perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly,
‘I never knew you.’ ” (Matthew 7:21–23)
That passage sent chills down my spine.
It seemed to describe me perfectly, because I had spent my whole life calling him “Lord” for no other reason than that’s what everyone told me to do. I had confessed with my mouth that I wanted to be saved, but something crucial was missing. I had never surrendered my heart. I had invited God to come inside but had left the door locked.
That night I realized the truth for the first time. God wasn’t looking for my religious actions or waiting for me to attend the correct church. He never wanted me to do things for him to earn his love and forgiveness and grace. He wanted to know me.
I quickly hit rewind on fifteen years of perfect church attendance in my memory. All the Sunday school classes, Scripture memorization, choir rehearsals, Bible studies, prayer meetings, and worship services—I had been part of those all my life, yet I still did not know God personally. Tears welled in my eyes, and my heart drummed so fast I thought it might burst through my chest. I got on my knees and threw my arms over my bed in surrender.
“If you’ll give me another chance, Lord, I’ll love you,” I said. “I want to know you. Really know you.”
Something extraordinary happened then; some kind of spiritual ignition fired within me. I fell in love with God. I felt the presence of his Spirit within me. In that moment he became more than the God I had read about or the Creator of the universe. He became my Friend, my Savior, my heavenly Father, my Daddy. He became mine.
KNOWING AND BEING KNOWN
Fast-forward almost forty years later, and I find myself standing in front of people several times a week telling them about this God I know and his love for them. About his Son, Jesus, and the gift of salvation. About the Holy Spirit who wants to empower them and guide them. And what I’ve realized is that a lot of people are like I was on that cold Sunday night so long ago. They aren’t looking for church or religion, for good preaching or a friendly small group. They want to know God.
Now that I’ve graduated with degrees from Bible school where I studied the original languages of Scripture, I understand that the word Jesus used for “know” in that passage that jumped out at me from Matthew is an intimate term. The Greek word, genosko, goes beyond intellectual knowledge or mental awareness to imply personal, firsthand experience. It’s the difference between “I know who the mayor is, but I’ve never met him,” and “I know who the mayor is, and he’s my best friend.”
This kind of knowing is personal and relational, familiar and deeply connected. It’s the kind of intimacy we usually associate with marriage. In fact, the Hebrew equivalent that we often translate as “know” refers to the way a woman knows a man before she conceives a child. The word’s emphasis is not on the physical, sexual dimension of knowing and being known so much as on the way two people are connected and bound together spiritually.
Why is this important? Because God is the only one who can know you at your deepest levels. He made you and knows the purpose for which you were designed. He alone holds the book on your life and knows the number of your days. You can never find fulfillment and true, lasting joy apart from knowing him. You cannot begin to know what step to take next in your life without him.
Knowing God is the key to life.
And that’s what this first section is all about. It’s not only the first step in your spiritual journey, but a recurring process of walking with God throughout your life. If you marry someone, your marriage doesn’t end after the ceremony or on your first, second, tenth, or golden wedding anniversary. It’s an ongoing dynamic relationship, a process of continuing to know each other longer and deeper, closer and closer.
Knowing God is quite similar. You can know his voice by praying, talking, and listening to him. You can know his ways by reading, studying, and applying them.
Maybe as you read these words, you’re realizing you don’t really know God personally. Like me, you might have grown up in the church and spent your entire life learning about God without ever knowing God. You have all kinds of knowledge and have served your church, but you’ve never felt intimately close to God. Or maybe you’ve never been very religious or had a positive experience with the churches you’ve encountered. But something still draws you, compels you, pulls at your heart to open yourself and give God a chance to enter your life and transform you with his love. Maybe that’s the prayer on your lips right now. Wherever you are, whatever you’re going through, the fuel for your spiritual journey comes from a real, dynamic, personal, close relationship with the living God.
SURRENDER TO LOVE
Before we can dive into building a deeper relationship with God, we first must establish the foundation for that relationship. Whether you’re willing to open your heart to God for the first time or ready for revival and a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit, knowing God is founded on the simple but crucial understanding that he loves you. You may have memorized this truth or seen it on posters or billboards at ball games, but nothing sums it up better than John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Next, out of his immense love for you, God has a unique plan for your life. He wants you to experience the excitement, joy, and contentment that come from doing all that he created you to do. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (10:10).
If God loves you and wants you to enjoy an abundant life, then why do you feel lonely, disappointed, afraid, and angry so much of the time? Why is it that so many people are not experiencing the abundant life? Simply put, because there is a big problem. We’re separated from God by our inherent sinful nature: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
God is holy, and we are not. Our sin—our selfish tendency to always want what we want, when we want it, the way we want it—gets in the way. Left to our own devices and desires, we prevent ourselves from knowing God and experiencing the fullness of the abundant life he wants to give us. Our sinfulness results in death, but God wants us to have eternal life with him. We can’t close this gap or change our sinful condition with good works or good intentions. There’s only one way: through Jesus Christ. God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us and overcome our sin once and for all. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23).
So often people tell me, “God isn’t fair!” And I tell them that I agree with them—God isn’t fair, and, boy, am I glad he isn’t! The truth is we don’t deserve anything good—including heaven. We went our own way, and bad things happened as a result. God didn’t abandon us, though, and instead sent Jesus on a rescue mission. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8 nkjv). That’s why this gift is called “salvation.” We’re saved from what we deserve and given the gift of new life—an eternal life we could never provide for ourselves. Thank goodness God isn’t fair!
If God were fair, then you and I would have to pay for our sins ourselves, which we can’t do! We don’t get what we deserve—we get new life, good gifts and abundant blessings, and eternal life with the God who loves us as his children. He was the only one who could take care of our sin problem and the only one to offer the solution. Which explains why Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He was the only one qualified to help us, because he didn’t have his own sin. He took on our debt of sin and paid it in full. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
This gift of salvation requires a response, however. As with any gift, we can choose to accept it, or we can leave it unopened and unreceived. So, there’s a choice to be made, a commitment to be determined. “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 nlt).
God’s Word doesn’t stop there in explaining what we must do to accept and activate this gift. How do we believe and accept Jesus into our hearts and lives? The Bible tells us, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Romans 10:9–10).
If you’re reading these words right now, I believe God is dealing with you. He’s speaking to your heart, pursuing you, wooing you, gently and persistently knocking on your door and waiting for your response. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him” (Revelation 3:20 nkjv). If you’re already in a relationship with God and have opened your heart to Jesus, then it’s time to find out what’s next on your journey; it’s time to experience the joy, peace, and purpose you can know as you grow in your faith.
Do you want to know God? Or to grow deeper in love with him?
He wants to know you—deeply and intimately.
Surrender to his love.
Whether for the first time or the eighty-first, give Jesus all areas of your life.
Then you can discover what’s next on your incredible spiritual journey!
The Wedding Band of Christianity
I was so excited. The girl I had searched for my whole life was getting ready to be my wife. Now, more than three decades later, I can’t think about that day without smiling and feeling exceedingly grateful. Next to my relationship with God, my relationship with Tammy remains my most important connection. Marrying Tammy is still one of the best decisions I ever made.
I had dated quite a bit growing up— I’ll save those stories and regrets for another book— but I did learn something. Dating relationships can be close, but, ultimately, they’re not committed. Each person has an escape hatch that allows them to keep their options open. At any time, either one can change their mind.
Marriage, on the other hand (the left hand with the ring on it!), is different. It closes that escape hatch and excludes all other options. When you marry, you’re making a vow that declares, “From this day forward, I’m forsaking all others to be with you and only you.” That’s the commitment to each other—and to God—that Tammy and I made that day in the middle of May all those years ago.
Our wedding was similar to many couples’ weddings, I’m guessing. We invited a couple hundred people to join us at our home church to witness our vows and celebrate our union. We played music, including the traditional processional when Tammy came down the aisle looking so beautiful in her white wedding gown. Our pastor talked about the significance of marriage according to God’s Word and then led us through our vows to the moment of placing rings on each other’s fingers.
Tammy and I still wear those wedding bands today, and they mean the same thing now that they did then. They provide an outward expression of the inward devotion we maintain to one another. They signal to everyone around us that we’re taken, committed to each other, bound by our vows of marriage.
Similarly, when we commit to following Jesus, we take on a symbol to demonstrate our devotion.
In fact, you might say it’s a slam dunk.
WHY GET BAPTIZED?It’s important that any covenant is sealed in the presence of witnesses, and salvation is no different. Baptism serves as the wedding band of the Christian faith, an outward symbol of the internal commitment we’ve made to God. When anyone asks me why they should get baptized, I usually give them three reasons, all based on what we see in the Bible. First and foremost, we follow the example set by Jesus himself. Before he began his public ministry, Jesus went to Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. We’re told, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ ” (Matthew 3:16–17).
Think about it. If God’s own Son was baptized to show his commitment to his Father and his Father’s mission on earth, then shouldn’t that be reason enough for us to follow suit? It certainly was for the more than two dozen people mentioned in the New Testament who were baptized after committing to follow Christ. I like what Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
We’re not merely given a suggestion to be baptized if we feel like it. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Believers who are serious about their faith, whether they’re introverts or extroverts, shy or bold, quiet or loud, should view baptism as an act of obedience.
Another reason to get baptized is to demonstrate the change that has occurred in our lives. “In baptism we show that we have been saved from death and doom by the resurrection of Christ; not because our bodies are washed clean by the water but because in being baptized we are turning to God and asking him to cleanse our hearts from sin” (1 Peter 3:21 tlb). If our hearts really have been transformed, then our actions will reveal that change over time. But there’s no better way to announce that change immediately than to let others see us take this symbolic action.
While visiting the Jordan River in Israel, I was fascinated to learn how baptisms have traditionally been performed. Individuals dress in all white and then place old, dirty, tattered clothes over them. As they go under the surface of the river, they remove their old clothes and emerge exuberantly in white, letting the worn-out garments be carried away downstream. That makes the symbolism that much clearer—before Christ we’re sinful; after we have Christ, we’re washed clean.
Finally, baptism is a public declaration of the personal commitment we’ve made. It’s the natural, logical outcome of our decision to trust Jesus. You might be tempted to think that baptism is optional or preferential. People tell me, “My faith is private, so I don’t need to do the baptism thing.” But when I ask them to point out this teaching in the Bible, no one has ever been able to show me any evidence. There isn’t any! Your faith is not a secret. You don’t have to preach on a park bench, but you should be willing to let others see the choice you have made and its impact on the rest of your life.
One of my favorite Christian songs, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” makes this bold declaration of faith its anthem. Not long ago, I learned the story behind this song, and it stopped me in my tracks. Apparently, the song was written after the death of a newly converted Christian in India. This man and his immediate family had renounced Hinduism, along with the more primitive beliefs of their local tribe. When the tribal chief found out, he had this family brought before him and ordered them to renounce their faith in Christ or face execution. The man replied, “I have decided to follow Jesus—no turning back.” The angry chief then killed the man’s children, but still the man would not deny his Christian faith. As his wife was executed, the man insisted, “Though no one joins me, still I will follow.” Finally, as he himself was being put to death, the man proclaimed, “The cross before me, the world behind me.” The chief, and later the entire village, became believers because of the dramatic testimony of this martyr of the faith.
Most of us will not face such persecution for following Jesus, and yet we’re reluctant to let others know about our faith through the act of baptism. But we must remember what Jesus said: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33). Why would we not want to share our most meaningful relationship with everyone around us, just as we would an engagement, a marriage, or the birth of a child? Certainly in Scripture those who made this important commitment wanted others to know what they had done. We’re told, “Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized” (Acts 2:41). And Acts 8:12 says, “When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” We also see the example of Simon the sorcerer, who “himself believed and was baptized” (v. 13).
Ultimately, baptism illustrates the internal commitment we’ve made. Just as my wedding ring represents my wedding vows to Tammy, baptism indicates to others our dedication to following, serving, and obeying Christ. It’s that simple.
YOUR NEXT STEP ON THE JOURNEY
Each of us has a unique spiritual journey and relationship with God, but topics like baptism—which are embedded within the four steps of knowing God, finding freedom, discovering purpose, and making a difference—are relevant to all of us. We just need to understand how each step relates to the others.
Some of these steps are sequential—for instance, your first big step is always going to be accepting Jesus into your life. Next, it makes sense to obey his command to be baptized as an outward symbol of your inward commitment. Because all our lives are different, though, and because God has his own unique timing, many of these spiritual steps will not follow a linear route as much as show up along the way as you hike through uncharted territory. So, don’t worry if you waited years after accepting Christ before being baptized.
As you seek the answer to “What’s next?” in this part of your journey, I encourage you to spend some time in prayer, assessing where you are in your relationship with God. What needs to happen for you to align your commitment to him with the way you live your life each day? Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and give you insight into your next step. Trust that he will show you the way and reveal God’s path as you walk in faith. If you have not been baptized after inviting Jesus into your heart, make an appointment with your pastor or other church leader to discuss when you can be baptized. If you have already been baptized, think back on your experience. What did it mean to you at that time? What does it mean to you now?
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