Wayne Jacobsen, 63, is a teacher, writer and former pastor who travels the world helping people figure out how to live life loved by God. He has written numerous books including He Loves Me!, So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore and most recently Finding Church: What if there Really is Something More? Wayne co-wrote the multi-million best-selling novel The Shack and co-created the publishing company (Windblown Media) behind the book’s initial success. Wayne has co-hosted The God Journey podcast since 2005 and blogs regularly at Lifestream.org. When he is not travelling he lives with his wife Sara in Newbury Park, California, USA.
I had the privilege of chatting with him as we sat at my dining room table in Cape Town, South Africa during his recent visit. The following is a transcript of our chat.
Jonathan Tysick: You were a large part of the writing and publishing of the best selling novel (over 22 million copies sold) The Shack which was recently made into a movie. Why do you think the story connected with so many people?
Wayne Jacobsen: There are probably a million answers to that if you found a million readers. I think for some people it’s the controversy of it. When I first read the original manuscript that Paul [Young] had written, there was just enough stuff in there [for] you [to] just go “man, I’d like to talk to my friends about this. I want someone to read it so we can talk about it”, even in some of the places I didn’t necessarily agree with at the time. It introduces some interesting concepts about God that I don’t think a lot of people [coming from] a religious upbringing necessarily believe. It’s kind of a ‘naughty little tale’ of some different ways of viewing God.
We have received hundreds if not thousands of emails from people who have lost children or have been through great tragedy in their lives and have felt all that Mack feels. The book helps them reconnect with God’s love. When you suffer a huge tragedy (like Mack) it’s hard to believe that God loves you and would “let that happen” to you. There’s some momentum when everyone around you is reading something, you’re kind of curious as to what it is. There is a momentum that happened because of the scale of the book. I hope it [the book’s popularity] is because it introduces people to an affectionate Father instead of an angry judge. I hope that’s why, but I don’t know for sure. We’ve had a lot of atheist’s read it and some of them were mad and said “you guys can’t talk about God like this, this is not the God you believe in. This is a smokescreen for an angry, bullying deity.” No, it really isn’t, we believe in this [loving] God. Not everyone believed us.
JT: In your book He Loves Me! you write about fear and love being opposites and the importance of loving God instead of fearing him. Could you tell me a little more about that?
WJ: Paul says in Romans 8:15 that God has not given us a spirit of fear leading to slavery again. That means he did once. In the old covenant God had no way to deal with our shame and sin until Christ dealt with it on the cross. Even the sacrifices that the Israelites did for sin, the writer of Hebrews says that those couldn’t cleanse the conscience of the worshipper. We couldn’t really engage God out of love and affection. Some of the Old Testament writers were saying “yes it’s scary, yes God seems very demanding and his ways are more than we can bear” (which was true) and yet they would talk about his loving kindness being better than life! They are trying to [deal with] their shame as God makes himself known. Part of them are just terrified of him. I think it was tough for them to see. Fear was a way that God did it, until Christ came. Now we have a spirit of sonship where our hearts cry out “Abba”!
Now it has changed. We get to know God as an intimate, loving Abba. All that he needs to do in us will be done from that love. I don’t think fear is necessary anymore, it was before the cross but it’s not now. It doesn’t make God any less awesome to me. I don’t think fear is about awesomeness, I think fear is about punishment. As 1st John says “perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not perfected in love.” I do think fear is always about punishment. I don’t necessarily say they’re opposites but I would say that you cannot love what you fear. You can’t. It’s just impossible. The fight or flight response to fear is very different from the intimacy and affection that God wants to have with us and us to engage him in. When the almighty God who made heaven and earth (and is completely holy) comes and engages humanity, our first response is fear and terror. But Jesus came to remove that so we could be safe with God even where we struggle, even where we doubt and where we are broken.
JT: What about the famous verse “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10)?
WJ: I say it this way: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom but love is the end of it. If you don’t love God you would be well served to fear him. If you fear him you often won’t do things that will bring destruction in your life, which is how I grew up. I grew up during the 60’s, with the whole hippie movement of free sex, drugs and all of that stuff. And I knew that if I ever had sex with anybody God would give me a STD and I’m going to rot in an alley somewhere. That was my view of God. The fear kept me from doing things that I’m glad today I didn’t do. I’m glad that when I married Sara we were both inexperienced in that arena which has been a great joy in our 42 yearlong marriage! It was the fear of the LORD that contained it. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom but the love of the LORD is the end of it.
We have to separate human love from divine love. Human love is mostly “if I do something nice for you you’ll like me and if you do something nice for me than I’ll like you.” We can say we love each other, but as soon as someone does something stupid or wrong or hurtful, we don’t love each other anymore. Our view of love is very capricious and self-centred. God’s view of love is self-sacrificing: “Greater love has no one than this: that a man lays down his life for his friends.” When we talk about God’s kind of love there is nothing that will change you more and quicker and freer than living in the affection of Father and loving him back the way we’ve been loved. Then loving others around us. Jesus said that would do the whole deal! If we love each other like we’ve been loved by him, the whole world would know. And there’s been 2000 years where we haven’t done that very well.
JT: You also write in He Loves Me! that God doesn’t want our obedience as much as he wants our trust and love. Why do you think so many people struggle to believe this?
WJ: Religious obligation. What we’ve embedded in our Christian institutions over the past 2000 years is all about following rules and fear. Fear of hell or fear of missing out on God’s blessing or fear of the disapproval of the community or whatever. We’ve found fear a more certain tool to manipulate people’s behaviour. Most people are schooled in that. I hear this all the time from people: “People who just live in the love of God are just going to become couch potatoes…” They don’t know that love transforms us. I think that the love of God as it embraces us and as we learn to live in it is no better incentive or process by which obedience comes. Rather than fear producing obedience let affection and love and transformation produce obedience. Like Paul says “it is the righteousness that trust produces” not the righteousness that fear produces or human performance [produces]. I’ve seen both and I’ve done both. I’ve done the human performance based righteousness. You can act right and do that for a long time and do it well, but eventually it’s going to catch up to you.
I think scripture makes clear that the only thing worse than unrighteousness is self-righteousness because self-righteousness makes you a danger to you and to other people. If I’m working hard to be righteous and you’re not than I get to look down on you. And then if I’m a leader for you I get to manipulate you to do better because you should be doing as well as I’m doing. There’s no love that lives in all of that. Whereas the transformation that grows [is] in learning to trust, which is the fruit of love. I trust someone to the degree in which I know they love me. If I don’t know that they’re going to lay down their life for me I’ve got no trust to invest in a human being just because I should. [It’s the same with] God! But God has laid down his life for us. And by learning to live in that trust, that is where transformation happens! People who don’t know God as the most endearing presence in the universe have no idea how transforming [his] love is. It will take you further than obedience in fear ever would. I wouldn’t say that God isn’t about obedience it’s just that love will produce a better obedience than fear will. I like obeying God! My goodness, he’s got all the best stuff there is! Why wouldn’t we follow that?!
JT: In your latest book Finding Church you use the phrase “the performance treadmill of religious obligation.” Can you unpack that phrase?
WJ: I think I borrowed that phrase from my podcast partner Brad Cummings. It’s just the way it feels. I think works righteousness or “the performance treadmill of religious obligation”, it is all a harkening back to law. When I was a Christian and pastoring early on in my life we knew that Jesus set us free from the Mosaic law. We don’t have to avoid bacon or have the Sabbath day and do those things. But we had a different set of expectations. Law is basically this: here are the expectations that make you acceptable to God and you better perform those and then you can be near God. If that’s the Old Testament law than that’s one thing, but with New Testament principles it’s the same thing! It’s a different set of expectations but it’s still “here are the expectations, you have to meet them and God relates to you based on how well you meet his expectations.” That’s the law that doesn’t change us or transform us. It just puts us on the performance treadmill. Like a little hamster in its cage! Run, run, run using all this energy and effort and we never get anywhere. You still have emptiness in your heart you still don’t see the fruits of the Sprit growing out of your life. You may act better in certain environments but it doesn’t heal sin, it doesn’t break the power of our own selfish awareness. Performance treadmill is a perfect [description] because you spend a lot of effort and get nowhere. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to say it than “the performance treadmill of religious obligation”. The other side of that is that there is a journey where I grow to live in the affection of the Father which grows my trust in him, displace sin and selfishness in my life so that I live differently. Not by trying to but just as the fruit of enjoying him while he enjoys me. Wonderful things happen. It’s just so different than a performance treadmill! I don’t want to be on one.
JT: Would you mind briefly giving an overview of your history with institutional Christianity?
WJ: I was born in it, grew up in it, and got kicked out of it. When I was 12 or 13 my Dad was a good Baptist who was influenced by the Charismatic renewal before it was even called that. This is early, in the mid 60’s. So then the Baptists decided that people who spoke in tongues were of the devil and we got kicked out. I remember as a 13 year old saying “well this is interesting.” Then we formed our own church out of the 200 people who left. And then within 6 months they split. The split was over whether the church was going to pray in tongues as part of the Sunday service or hide the gifts of the Spirit in the closet and I just thought “this makes no sense to me! This is supposed to be the community of love and caring!” The same group of people that got kicked out of a church are now splitting…so we ended up joining another institution.
Then I felt like committing myself to full time Christian service which I thought would be pastoral ministry because I didn’t want God to send me to Africa. And here I am. That was always my big fear as a kid. If you give God everything he’s going to send you to Africa. (This is my 3rd trip here [to South Africa] and I’ve been to Kenya once.) So I graduated with a ministerial degree and end up on staff at a Foursquare church which was a growing megachurch kind of thing deeply embedded with principles and policies. After 5 years of that I was just done. The community of believers is not an institution, it’s a family.
So I then had a chance for 15 years to be part of a church plant that did things differently. We were going to move away from institution and make it more relational. We had a community of house churches that met mid-week and were autonomous and also met for a Sunday morning celebration. And after 15 years I got kicked out of that. My best friend and co-pastor announced my resignation one Sunday when I was out of town. They wanted more authority than they thought I would endorse. And they were right, I wouldn’t have endorsed what they were going to believe and teach about authority. And so we found ourselves outside of it again. I could have fought my way back in but I just felt like God said “I have more to teach you if you walk away.”
When the body of Christ functions as a community of brothers and sisters who care about each other it is very different than when it functions as an institution where we have things to fight over. Whether it’s buildings or worship styles or who’s on the worship team or whatever. Christians are notorious for this. The average church in America splits every 6.7 years, which is about my history. So I’ve had a lot of experience with it [institutional Christianity]. And I’ve always not trusted it. I don’t always think it gets to the best answers. It actually pits people who love each other against one another. I read in a book called Church Refugees, where one guy’s observations were “I don’t think institutions are bad, I think the institution puts people in a position where they can only make bad decisions.” Which is a great statement which I think is true.
JT: In Finding Church you point out that the Apostle Paul refers to the church as family around 120 times and only speaks about positions and roles around 24 times. You wrote “When Paul wrote about elders, overseers, or ministry gifts, he’s talking about those who help others mature, not those who manage institutions.” How can we as Jesus followers operate more as a family than a program?
WJ: I think the hard thing is that we’re going to have to give up our institutions. As long as we have them and they amass money and property and things we’re going to fight over who leads them. Our “elders” are going to be the managers of property and managers of a program and managers of a Sunday service. I don’t see any way that we can celebrate our family [without giving up on our institutions]. My family gets together all the time and we enjoy each other. We don’t have a family business. We don’t have to agree on how we deal with finances. We don’t have to! We get to love each other and support each other and I think our institutions keep getting in the way of what the family really is. It’s kind of like Jesus when he said “tear down this temple and in three days I’ll rebuild something else.” I think he would say to us “tear down your institutions! They’re keeping you from family.” You’ll have it [family] for a while, especially when an institution is new. You’re going to have some wonderful things because people are just friends and they’ve got an institution but it’s no big deal. Then eventually it becomes a big deal because it [the organization] amass[es] wealth and power and influence and the people who lead it get a greater priority than the people who don’t. And the people leading are not always those who want to. Sometimes there are other people who want to lead it who don’t get a chance to so they’ll go start their own thing…and it just keeps happening to us.
I think we’ve got to say that loving each other is more important than any other component of our life together. It’s more important than a meeting, more important than a building. But [for many institutions] it’s not! Relationships are kind of like the last thing. If the other stuff works right and we can love each other than great. But if we can’t love each other than “too bad, get out of here because we’re doing this”…and we’ve done that for 2000 years. I think we see the human proclivity to put the institutional needs above the spirt of family and the life of family. Every church talks about it: “We’re just a big ole family here!” They always talk about it! But when you get below it, all the political things are decided by systems that we use to manage power. All of them. Whether its a board or a democracy of the congregation or outside denominational authorities. Institutions are formed on the basis of making structure able to handle disagreements and power.
Once power becomes more important than love than it’s over. Unless they hit a point of renewal someday, and some churches do. They get to the point where it all breaks down and there is a fresh new group of people saying “God move in us” and then God visits because he’s good. But eventually the institution always seems to win. There are very few cases world wide of the institution not winning. Even most denominations were started by a disaffected group of people leaving the thing of their day because they had a heart for something more real. They always just try and change [the original system] at first but then they get kicked out and within a generation they end up creating the same thing. And then another group comes out of it! Every denomination we have began as a group of disaffected folk. Somehow it’s [institutionally] the only way humans think about events…but we never do it to our own family. When my family comes over we never have a meeting! We have gatherings all the time where we know what’s going on in each other’s lives and we help and care for each other, we learn things together, but we never have a meeting! If they came over for Christmas and I had a pulpit set up in the front room and there’s no turkey in the oven…there are people not happy! Because it’s a family and not anything other than that!
JT: If you met a new follower of Jesus how would you encourage them to grow and live the Christian life without joining a local congregation/institution/church?
WJ: It depends on where I meet them. If I meet them back home near where I live than I’m going to say “hey, why don’t you come hang out with my family? Why don’t you come and learn what this looks like.” Not permanently or else people are just going to keep adding on. But over the years we’ve had different people hang out with us for 6-9 months where they kind of pick up what this journey looks like, meet new friends, and then they connect and do other things together. So I would be alongside them [new believers]. I think people need an older brother or sister to help, especially with the spiritual side of this journey. How do we connect with God? If we get the connection with God right the family part of it comes pretty naturally.
I sometimes meet people on an airline and if they come to Christ they say “what do I do next?” and I say “you know what? If God was smart enough to put you here next to me he’s smart enough to have someone else to help you. Just look for who that is.” [They’ll respond] “should I go to church?” “Umm….if he leads you, but don’t think that’s your answer because they’re going to start teaching you how to be a ‘good Christian’ instead of how to enjoy the love of the Father. I’d rather have you spend a couple years just asking God to show you how loved you are by him. Start the journey there and then when God invites you into different ways of experiencing community or giving you a brother or sister to help you walk that out then enjoy that.” This all comes down to trusting Jesus to do it! We look for human systems that are going to guarantee a positive result but such systems don’t exist as far as I can tell.
JT: If you could teach from only one passage in the Bible what would you choose and why?
WJ: Man. I want to say the upper room discourse because I think everything’s there about the relationship but that’s pre-cross. Without the cross that didn’t happen so I’d have to say probably Romans 8.
JT: Why Romans 8?
WJ: It starts with “there is therefore now no condemnation” and about the atonement and what it does. It gets to the heart of [what it means] that we are not given a spirit of fear leading to slavery again but the spirit of adoption which is in the middle of [the chapter]. It ends with “nothing can separate us from the love of God”…it just contains the whole gospel! You’re loved, you’re lost, and I can rescue you and save you if you grow confident in my affection and my love. I’d want that [passage]. But I’d hate to separate Romans 8 from John 14, 15, 16. The upper room discourse. I tell people when they start reading to start there. When I’m with people I mostly teach them about the cross so they get that part of it. Now grow in the relationship. “In my Father’s house are many places for you to dwell…” and the vine and the branch. Lots of analogies about how we come into this life with him. None of them are about going to church on Sunday morning. Not one of them.
JT: Many people have combatted your ideas and beliefs and evaluated your teachings (especially in the Shack) as false and even heretical. I’m sure that must weigh on you. What is your response and reaction to these judgements and discouragements?
WJ: It doesn’t weigh on me at all. When my best friend and co-pastor gave my resignation and a rumour was going around that I had an affair (or whatever else they needed to say to discredit me) I was shattered. People saying bad things about me deeply, deeply hurt me. But I also felt like I wasn’t going to defend myself. If someone needed me to tell them that I didn’t have an affair, they’re not necessarily going to believe it anyway. So I just sort of let my reputation go. To be honest it was two very painful years of learning not to live for other people’s approval. So when I read criticism about something I’ve written or been a part of, my first thought is “I’m going to read it and see if there is some validity to it.” I don’t consider that I have a corner on God’s truth. I know what he’s revealed to me and I love what I live in, but I live in a very slender reality of all that God is. None of us know the greater picture. He’s so much bigger than we are. I’ve got a lot of scriptures I’ll read and say “yeah I’m not sure what that means. I’m just not!” A friend of mine in New Zealand says “when something is important the Bible is clear. When the Bible is not clear than it’s not important.” And if us Biblical types were honest about it we’d have to admit that there is a lot of stuff [that is unclear]. I can double talk my way around it so that you don’t know that I don’t get it but there are things I don’t get. I’m much more honest about it. So I’m always open to saying “is there some validity to this [criticism]?”
I would say that looking back, most things you hear about The Shack is just fabricated. Like that we believe in a black madonna hindu cult. That’s just stupid. Nobody believes in that stuff, and we weren’t trying to indoctrinate people into that kind of thing. But other things you know we could have been a little clearer so that people wouldn’t have misunderstood. Whether it was universalism or modalism in the Trinity or whatever. But there’s nothing you can write about the Trinity that people won’t complain about. No one can tell you what the Trinity is with any certainty. There is a mystery in the Trinity. People can always pick at any depiction or definition and no one has ever found the ultimate way of describing the Trinity. We [just wanted to have them] be together and love and live and relate. And I actually think the movie [the 2017 film adaptation of the book] does that better because in the movie they [the persons in the Trinity] are actually completing each other’s sentences. You get that real sense of unity. Whether they’re sitting at the table or dancing in the front room there is that attraction to that perichoresis: Father, Son and Spirit in each other. Mutual, inner penetration. It’s just a beautiful thing. But yeah, people are going to pick at you for that because it’s not quite the way they see it. I think one of the great values of the body of Christ is that I see a facet, you see a facet and some of that overlaps. Some of it doesn’t. Some of it gives us a bigger picture of who God is. We trust and love each other and get to see a bigger picture of God than anyone of us will see alone. I think by this point I’ve been pretty much desensitized to people needing to like my stuff or if there’s something on a website that calls me a heretic that doesn’t get to anything in me. I’ll take a look at it just to see if there is any validity in it but if there’s not then I just go on. I’m not following human judgements of my life, I’m trying to follow the Spirit. If I need to know something let me know, and if I’m okay with where I’m at affirm that too. I’m still alive. 400 years ago they could kill people like me! I’m glad they can’t do that anymore! Really glad they can’t.
JT: In your books you are very transparent to the fact that the Church has been a force of hurt and damage to you and your family. Despite this, I think one of the takeaways I pull from your work is a challenge to foster a deep love for God’s people. How can you be hurt by the Church but still love God’s people so much?
WJ: It comes down to definitions doesn’t it? I don’t see the places I’ve been hurt by God’s people as an act of the Church. I see it as an act of humans responding in their own flesh or acting out of a religious construct. I see the Church as God’s bride on the earth. When people tell me that they’ve left the Church I say “hold on! How’d you leave the Church? Did you leave Christ? If you didn’t leave Christ than you’re part of the family.” The family is bigger than any of our institutions and the Church of Jesus Christ in the world has never hurt me. The Church has enriched me, blessed me and touched me. I speak very endearingly of the Church. But when people are acting out of their flesh or trying to protect an institution I don’t ever use the language that the Church did this to me. It’s not the Church! It’s people who are a part of the Church maybe but if they were really living in the love of the Father they wouldn’t have acted that way. I don’t mean by that they are unbelievers, I just mean [they are acting out of] some immaturity and they did some self-protective things out of their flesh, but that’s flesh, that’s not the Church. It’s easy for me to make that distinction. I don’t see our institutions as the Church. I think they can be there, but the way they act in their institutionalism rarely expresses the priorities or values of the Church as Jesus knows her.
I see a church that humanity builds and there’s the Church that Jesus builds in the world. This one’s an institution, the other is a family. They overlap! Certainly Jesus’ Church is in and among our institutions. I’m often there [in institutions] teaching and being a part of various things, so I’m not anti those things, I just tend to think that they move us toward the wrong priorities. I want to keep leaning into the Church that Jesus is building. I always challenge people that I’m with to speak of the Church as God does. It’s his Son’s bride! My goodness! If you ever had a child get married…well I guess you are the child getting married in your family…but there’s nothing better than someone, some wife, some husband [marrying] your child. The way they love and treat them is a very endearing reality. Now if he beats up my daughter we’re going to have a little trouble. I’ll beat the daylights out of that guy! But when it’s good it’s really good and that’s what God celebrates. I’m preparing a bride for my Son. She’s a bit of a mess in terms of flesh and spirit getting that wrong, but the bride that she is in Christ makes her lovely and gorgeous. God loves her and Jesus is excited about her and why wouldn’t we be excited about that with him? Especially us being the bride! A tough analogy for us men to crawl into. I hope we don’t have to wear a wedding dress and heels some day because that will be scary!
JT: What do you want your legacy to be?
WJ: I don’t even think about it. I’d really rather not have a legacy. If I do have one; if my books and my writings live on or my podcast lives on, somebody will create a system out of all that stuff. So I hope my legacy is (if there is one) how I loved Sara, how I loved my children and how I loved and treated people as I travelled around the world. That’s not much of a legacy. No one’s going to see that except the people that I treated. People have often asked me what I consider my greatest success in view of all the books and projects and things I’ve been a part of and I say “it’s loving Sara the way God wants Sara loved.” I’m still learning that after 42 years of marriage. I’m still learning what it is to love. And if at the end of the day our mutual selfishness when we got married turns into mutual selflessness at the end of our journeys and I’ve loved Sara well…that would be the best. I can’t imagine anything better than that.
Wm. Paul Young once said this of Wayne’s involvement regarding The Shack: “Wayne was the first to see the story and went out of his way to encourage me to have it published. His enthusiasm brought in the others to refine the story…He and Brad bore the lion’s share of work in the three major rewrites that brought this story to its final form…These two brought energy, creativity, and skill to the writing and the quality of work that you now hold in your hands is due in large measure to their gifts and sacrifice.” To read more about the writing of The Shack and how it became an international phenomenon read this article.
If you’d like to read more of Wayne’s thoughts on living loved by God, the Church and life in general, check out his website here.