In the Christian life there are the ups and then there are the downs. Occasionally, there are the sideways—times that seem that we are not so much “falling short of the glory of God” as we are just flailing around. When it comes to living the life that the Lord planned for us, we feel as though everyone else knows what’s going on except us. We can begin to believe that we don’t have what it takes to be a follower of Christ.

ter Michael Yaconelli, a small-time church pastor who has all the wrong credentials to do what he does. He’s been kicked out of two Bible colleges, was closely linked to the highly irreverent “Wittenburg Door,” and currently lives out, by his own admission, a very inconsistent devotion to Jesus. He wrote a book, Messy Spirituality, to encourage all those who’ve been in the same fix; people who long for the continuing presence of Jesus, but whose paths to him are “broken and irregular, littered with mistakes and failure.” Before leaving for a mission trip to Argentina, Michael took some time to answer some questions about his book, God’s frightening grace, and issues of personal holiness.

[RELEVANTmagazine:] Can you define “messy spirituality”?

[MICHAEL YACONELLI:] Well, to define it I have to explain that the subtitle was originally called “Christianity for the Rest of Us.” The reason I called it that was because most Christians that I know just feel like they don’t measure up. Not only do they not measure up, but they never will. And, they also feel like there’s a certain level of people who do have it together, and who are, in fact, spiritual; those are the ones that write the books. But the reality is that that’s not true at all, all of us are a mess. When I say “messy spirituality,” what I mean is a spirituality that’s unfinished: it’s not neat, it’s not balanced, it’s not orderly, it’s complicated, it’s sloppy, it’s chaotic, it’s up and down … it’s anything but finished and complete.

Everyone that I talk to—and maybe I run around with a rough crowd—they basically say: “Yeah, I don’t pray as much as I should, I don’t read my Bible as much as I should…” And the point is, neither does anybody else. It’s not about perfection; it’s about our intimacy with God, or our connection, our relationship with God. Once we get through that, once we realize that we can be imperfect, flawed, broken; those kinds of things are the ingredients of spirituality.

[RM:] This type of spirituality probably scares some people. Most of the church has been formed by this idea that there’s this specific notion of spirituality that we have to aspire to. Not having that notion scares people. What would you say to those people?

[MY:] I would say, good! Being scared is a sign that you’re close to God. It bothers me when I meet people who aren’t afraid of God, who aren’t afraid of Jesus, who are very comfortable with Jesus. They have no problem with Him; they’ve got Him figured out. The Jesus I encounter in the New Testament scares the heck out of me!

Of course this is scary, because we’d like to have it all neat and orderly. We want to be able to measure it and control it, but the reality is that Jesus is a mystery. The Christian faith is a mystery. The disciples spent their entire time following him going, “Uhh, what the heck are you doing? We don’t understand what you’re doing and we don’t know why you’re doing it.” And when he would explain why he was doing it, they still didn’t get it.

[RM:] What about issues of personal holiness? Shouldn’t we strive for some measure of holiness?

[MY:] I’m asked that question all the time and I swear to you, people are scared to death of grace. They absolutely are scared to death of it. They are so worried that if you believe it, that if you take it seriously, that if you buy into the fact that you’re unconditionally loved by God, forgiven by him and liked by God, that you’re going to abuse it. They think that you’re going to use that as an excuse to live like hell.

That’s so absolutely absurd to me. It’s kind of like being married and someone saying to you over and over again: “Listen, you’ve got to be true to your wife!” If someone’s got to keep yelling at me to be true to my wife, then it’s not love. The reality is that I’m going to be true to my wife because I love her! And I’m so grateful for the fact that she loves me. I’m surprised that anybody would! But, it’s the same thing with Jesus, I’m blown away that the God of the universe would not only love me, but like me; chase me and pursue me and never let me go. God is not an arbitrary rule-maker; He’s a lover. And He is seeking to love us no matter what. Yes, of course we want to be holy and we want to be as holy as we can be, but you know what? I don’t think we have any idea what holiness looks like. When you look at the saints, when you look at the disciples, you go, “ …if that’s holiness, I’m in!”

[RM:] What brought you to this type of thinking?

[MY:] I wish I knew. I got kicked out of both Bible colleges I went to, I never went to seminary and I pastor a church. It’s the slowest growing church in America. We started 16 years ago with 90 and have grown to 30. Maybe, it’s hanging around ordinary people all my life and realizing how incredibly heroic they are. How people who have no reason to get up in the morning, get up in the morning. People who are trying to figure out what to do with their down-syndrome daughter, or are trying to figure out if their marriage that’s mediocre is worth keeping. Those people are the ones really living the Christian faith, and I’ve been around those people all my life.

The truly holy people I’ve met in my life are really interesting people. They’re a mix of the most incredible godliness and at the same time, the most unbelievable earthiness. I know a woman who curses like a sailor, but she’s the most holy woman I know. She is! I’m not kidding. We’ve created this image of what holiness looks like that’s just nonsense. Good holy people probably drink too much some times, and have colorful language, and there’s plenty of room in the Bible to see people like that. We have to see life for what it is, entirely more complicated then simple. Spirituality is not simple; it’s complicated. It gets messy sometimes.

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