Earlier this fall I led a small group in my church through Outflow: Outward-Focused Living in a Self-Focused World, by Steve Sjogren and Dave Ping, and now I'm preaching on the same topic in coordination with a number of our sister churches who are studying the same thing.
You know, after being a disciple of Jesus for almost 30 years, pretty much my entire life, you would think that I had learned the basics by now, but apparently that's not the case. Because Outflow has taught me stuff that I've more or less believed, experienced here and there, flirted with, bumped into, lived intermittently, and disjointedly preached and taught for years but never grasped and lived as simply and fully as I'm beginning to now. Now I get it. And though I should be careful before making such a sweeping claim, it's changing my life—or at least I sure hope it is.
Sjogren (pronounced SHOW-gren) and Ping's starting point is Jesus' promises in John: "Whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never thirst again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life" (4:14); " 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, "From within him will flow rivers of living water." ' (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive. . . . )" (7:37-39). The authors then personalize Jesus' commission to his apostles in Acts 1:8 ("But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth") by assigning each place-name to a further reach of the Holy Spirit within a person's life. Employing the image of a four-tiered fountain, Sjogren and Ping identify the pipe at the top as the Holy Spirit, the first tier ("Jerusalem") as a believer's one-on-one relationship with God, the second ("Judea") as one's family and friends, the third ("Samaria") as one's community (especially people not like oneself), and the fourth ("the ends of the earth") as everywhere else.
Sjogren and Ping maintain that there is no limit to the quantity and quality of the life in the Spirit that God will give us who believe in Jesus provided that we are oriented toward letting that life flow out of us into the world around us. The idea is that if we are being filled up in our relationship with God, the natural thing is for his love and grace to spill out onto the people we know. And we can't show effusive love to them for long without showing it to strangers, and we can't do that without spreading it to people we haven't even met.
If we're bent on giving all away, we'll never run out. By contrast, most people live, as Sjogren and Ping call it, "a life that sucks," like the perversity of a bone-dry, defunct fountain that vainly seeks to suck in through its pipe at the top rather than flow out. Humans' default setting is to be bent on filling ourselves up with what we want and need, but when we do this we find ourselves endlessly empty. Only by looking to give do we receive.
Does this sound familiar? If you have much experience with the Bible, it should. "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my [Jesus'] sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35). "I [Paul] have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive' " (Acts 20:35). "God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work. . . . You will be enriched in every way so that you may be generous on every occasion, which is producing thanksgiving to God" (2 Cor. 9:7-8, 11-12). Need I go on?
There's no way to put this into practice in impractical ways. Trying to flow out with love has already cost me money, time, energy, and attention. It has reoriented how I view each of these resources. Giving them away has meant looking more at the opportunity to love than whether or not I have enough. It is a test of faith. Do I really believe that I have time to take for the person in my life who wants it when I still have a mile-long to-do list? Do I believe that I have the money to give when my budget says I don't? Do I believe that I have the relational energy to smile and show kindness to the cashier that I may never see again when I have a dozen more people who want attention and kindness from me today? Or in terms of the fountain, if I empty out the water I've received, is there more coming behind it? Will God supply so much more than I'm giving that I'll actually be more satisfied, prosperous, and abounding despite the sacrifice?
I'm inclined to say yes. Last week I stood in line at Sam's Club on a weekday morning with three things in my cart, a huge thing of paper towels and a huge thing of toilet paper for a local rescue mission and a plate of cookies for the office in the hospital that I visited the previous week. And as I stood there, in a place I rarely go at a time I would never go there buying things I would never buy for recipients I would never consider (the hospital more than the rescue mission), I found tears welling up in my eyes. I had to get myself under control to exchange with the cashier; I've never been happier than I was at that moment. It defies any explanation other than the explanation that Jesus himself gave about streams of living water welling up to eternal life.
Outflow is not precisely about evangelism (see this book by the authors for that), but it has everything to do with cultivating the situations in which evangelism naturally takes place. Jesus preached the kingdom of God to eager audiences because he was performing miraculous healings that brought new life and wholeness. I believe that such miracles still occur, but I also believe that encountering an others-centered, joyously loving person who shows kindness in unexpected ways is in its own way just as miraculous, because even if it doesn't turn upside down the laws of physical nature it defies the laws of spiritual nature. We can be miracles in the lives of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers by showing the love that Sjogren and Ping talk about in Outflow as we eagerly receive God's love poured into us with an eye to casting it away.