By Allison Casillas
We all have to pivot sometimes. Life is full of change and transition. We have to navigate the unexpected, choose a trajectory, and then move forward into the unknown. For Christians, ideally, this is going to be something that we seek out. We look toward growth and transformation.
So, what does this look like in your spiritual walk? Like the rich young ruler, we like things to be straightforward and clear: Keep the commandments. But simple formulas don’t really cover it. They’re too confined, too narrow. If we don’t do the work of spiritual growth and development, when we come into situations where things are not what we expect, our formula doesn’t fit. We’re left at loose ends and life slaps us down.
When it comes to living, you can’t have faith in a system. You can have faith in God, but not in a system. If our idea of God is a confined and narrow formula, it’s going to be too small. God is bigger than that.
If we feel we’ve got a handle on Him and He’s safe, comfortable, predictable; if we feel like we know Him because He lines up with our checklist; if He fits in our box of fundamental beliefs and, as a result, we feel like we understand who He is and what He’s supposed to do, then we’re in for some hard times. Because even people who have a wide and expansive view of God are constantly surprised by Him.
He is unchanging and yet forever changing and surprising. Sometimes our small vision of God can keep us from recognizing when He’s at work right around us. We miss it completely. We’re so focused on what we think He is that we miss His action in the world around us.
A story in Luke 24 starts with this kind of obliviousness to God and His presence. About three days after Jesus’ death, two disciples were on the road Emmaus. They were talking about everything that had happened in Jerusalem, and suddenly Jesus joined them—only they didn’t recognize Him. They were talking about Him, He was right there, only they didn’t catch on. They didn’t have any clue what was going on.
He is unchanging and yet forever changing and surprising. Sometimes our small vision of God can keep us from recognizing when He’s at work right around us.
Jesus asked, “What are you talking about?” They looked at Him as if He were the one who didn’t understand what was going on. They said, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days” (Luke 24:18*). They started telling Jesus about His own death. They told Him about their grief and how disappointed they were because they thought He was the Messiah, but He hadn’t done what they thought He was supposed to do.
And now He was dead, but His body was missing, and they just didn’t know what to think. So they kept rehashing the story. It happens to us. Things don’t happen the way we expect, so we find ourselves spinning, rehearsing, rehashing the details because we don’t understand why. There are times when we’re so convinced that God is supposed to act in a certain way that we miss Him. We miss His action right beside us.
Jesus said, “’Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?’ Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). They asked Him to supper, and as He blessed the bread “suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared! They said to each other, ‘Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:31-32).
Their hearts burned within them. Within an hour, they were back on the road to Jerusalem. Because the encounter with the unexpected God changed everything.
Many artists have created paintings of this story. There is one in which the Christ figure is a woman. Some people might be troubled by this and may even feel it is blasphemous. For others, the feeling is completely different. Perhaps this painting isn’t questioning the gender of Jesus but instead can be seen as an exercise to help us honestly consider some other ideas.
What are you looking for and how does that impact what you see? If the suggestion of a female Christ makes you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Why is the suggestion of God in a different form, particularly in a female form, so hard for us?
Why does that feel funny when we are completely comfortable with the idea of God as a bird? Remember, God appears as a dove in the baptism story in all four Gospels. If we are upset by an image of Christ that is of a different gender or race from us, maybe what is happening is that the image is revealing to us our deeply seated sexism, racism, and prejudice.
Because we have the tendency to zero in on one thing that we think God is, we need illustrations that make us think differently, that move us from our assumptions. These images are subversive—they push us and cause us to think again and to renew our minds.
When Moses asked to see God, He responds with a character sketch: “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive inequity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7).
God is explicitly telling us that who He is is more than what He looks like. He goes out of His way, multiple times, to both appear as and to talk about Himself in terms that are completely different: burning bush, nesting hen, rock, lion, lamb, bread of life, shepherd, light, healer, vine, and the list goes on and on. God is all about the unexpected imagery because He’s constantly trying to shake us out of our narrow views, to pivot toward the uncomfortable, toward more.
We have a tendency to want to domesticate things about God that we’re uncomfortable with, but the beauty is that God understands that about us. So He’s constantly pushing us: “Don’t stay stuck. Look for more.”
And then the ultimate disruptor: Jesus Himself. Consider Christ on the cross. It’s a gruesome picture. For the early Christians there was no more terrible form of death by torture, yet this is the image they settled on as the image of God at work through Christ. So unexpected, so different. God at work in the strange, in the shocking. Over time we can become habituated to the cross in all of its horror, but we’re invited constantly to pivot. Sometimes a pivot is back to what we knew before, to look again, and to see its fuller meaning for all of us.
When was the last time that your heart burned within you? Do you ever find yourself settling for the children’s Bible story version of Jesus and His actions in the world? You know those things are true, but there is another layer to Christ that is also true. He was the ultimate disruptor. He ignored the purity codes and touched lepers. He showed compassion to those who were insane or possessed. Consider His interaction cleansing the temple—He’s raging.
Think about the way He intervened for the Roman centurion, the epitome of violent political power. He shows compassion for the Samaritan woman, the Gentile, the outcast, and the religious elite. All of them.
We’re all invited to a bold, new, transformative vision of God. And we’re essentially promised that it’s going to shake us to our core when we experience this.
And at the same time, He’s transcending these laws. Jesus transcends the things the Jews thought were the things God was concerned with, and He brings them more meaning. Everything is turned upside down. Everyone is a little bit shaken. Yet at the same time, they’re all drawn to Him because there’s a place for everybody. That’s the thing that bothers you, but the thing that draws you at the same time.
This is the God who promises to make you new: loving, merciful, compassionate, disruptive, shamed. We’re all invited to a bold, new, transformative vision of God. And we’re essentially promised that it’s going to shake us to our core when we experience this.
Paul was completely shattered by his experience on the road to Damascus—by the otherness of God, by the fact that God was so different from his expectation. And from that point forward, Paul was not the same. That is the experience we are all invited into—to pivot and allow Jesus to transform us through His presence. Know Him, emulate Him. His kingdom is different because there’s a place for all of us. It’s radical. It’s the kingdom among us. We are all here together. His largeness makes a place for other people.
So, how narrow is the bandwidth of our inclusion? Are we practicing the type of hospitality and inclusion that Christ did? And if not, what is it that is keeping us from doing that? Because that’s the thing that needs to be identified and thrown into the fire in order to cultivate fullness of heart.
Christ is concerned about not excluding people, but He is also concerned about the heart condition that causes us to do that in the first place. Our discomfort with these ideas—the things that shake us up, that burn in our hearts—will let us know where we need work, where we need to practice reconciliation. Because we’re not invited to one single definitive view of who God is. We’re invited to a relationship, a growing understanding, an unveiling of the layers of God.
Like His mercies, He is new to us every morning. We’re invited to know Him in a different way, every day. 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 says, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.”
So, pay attention. And when you feel your heart burning within you, particularly when this happens at a time or through a person who you don’t expect, you’re invited to pivot, to follow after, to take up residence in the work and in the presence of God in the unexpected. Pivot into newness in God, who offers us a new life and a new way of looking at the world He created and the people
* All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.
Allison (Tucker) Casillas is the children’s pastor at the Arlington church in Arlington, Texas.