Jesus Is Better than You Imagined


By Jonathan Merritt

Foreword by John Ortberg

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Is the God who created us better than the God we’ve created?

After following Jesus for nearly two decades, Jonathan Merritt decides to confront the emptiness of a faith that has become dry, predictable, and rote. In a moment of desperation, he cries out for God to show up and surprise him, and over the next year, God doesn’t disappoint.

In Jesus is Better Than You Imagined, Jonathan shares vulnerable, never-before-shared stories of how he learned to encounter Jesus in unexpected ways. Through a 60-hour vow of silence in a desert monastery, he experiences Jesus in silence. When a friend dies of a rare disease, he sees Jesus in tragedy. Through confronting childhood sexual abuse, Jonathan discovers Jesus in honesty. In an anti-Christian-themed bar, he finds Jesus in sacrilege. And when he’s almost kidnapped in Haiti by armed bandits, he experiences Jesus in the impossible.

Though Merritt finds himself in places he never dreamed of, he doesn’t lose his way. Instead, these experiences force him back to the Bible, where he repeatedly offers fresh, sometimes provocative, interpretations of familiar passages. Along the way, he throws back the covers on the sleepy faith of many Christians, urging them to search for the Holy in their midst.

Pointed and poignant by turns, Jonathan helps readers open their hearts to a mysterious God and a faith that sustains, guides, and most importantly, surprises. His fearlessly honest story invites us all to discover the messy mercy and crazy grace of a sometimes startling Savior.


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Table of Contents


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There is an ache that I recognize because it mirrors one of my own.

"This is how things are."

Violent despair in Haiti. Deep sadness in a child. Harsh judgment among the pious.

"This is how things are."

When someone names how things are, when someone tries honestly and in love to help define reality, something in the heart is healed. I don't understand why, but it's part of how the heart works.

Jonathan Merritt has a gift for naming how things are. To do this well involves an art more delicate than surgery, identifying what does not belong and ought to be removed while still leaving in place all that is healthy and needed for life. It requires a refusal to pretend. And this Jonathan does with a combination of courage and love.

Every human being thinks about God. A friend of mine says that all human beings think about God more than about any person, whether we recognize it or not. Those of us who think about Him over time, or are brought up to do it, or do it professionally, face certain challenges. We can say so many words about God that after a while we're not sure exactly what the words mean anymore.

In a class I once took on psychopathology (a class no pastor should leave school without taking), Arch Hart made a fascinating observation about religion and a personality test called the MMPI. The MMPI has a scale designed particularly to detect false answers. Research indicates that religious people tend to give more false answers than nonreligious people, and the more conservative their religion, the more false answers they tend to give. The reason this is so, Arch suggested, is that those of us inside a strong faith tradition tend to confuse our aspirations with our achievements.

I thought about that tendency as I read Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. Jonathan writes about receiving a Master of Divinity, which he says is "a misnomer if there ever was one." I have one of those, but through either naiveté or hubris was never struck by the incongruity. It's a form of compartmentalizing, I suppose. I can say I believe all kinds of things until one day when I bump into reality and find out I don't.

This is how things are. But that is not the whole story. There is also, to borrow a phrase from Neal Plantinga's wonderful book on sin, a way things are supposed to be. And it is there, somehow, at the intersection of how things are and the way things are supposed to be, that we find Jesus. In Him, the darkness of the former does its worst, and in Him, the beauty of the latter shines most fair.

It is this Jesus, the real Jesus—with all His confusing majesty in the midst of the real world with all its confusing pain—who shows up on page after page of Jonathan's book. We see Him in the silence of the desert and the beauty of a storm, in the challenge of an impossible assignment and the euphoria of an answered prayer. And not just there. We see Him, through this book, in somebody's life. Jonathan's integrity and thoughtfulness and courage and vulnerability will be a salve to every reader. We meet Jonathan, as we meet Jesus, at the foot of the cross.

Jonathan is a child of the church who speaks without the subcultural accent that so often keeps those of us who speak "church" from sounding fully human, or perhaps from being fully human. In his writing we are reminded above all that Jesus is real, that He cannot be bound by either formulas or expectations, that He pops up in the most unexpected places because He is actually choosing how He will interact with His world and books His gigs without an agent.

There are many reasons to read this wonderful book. It is beautifully written. It will introduce you to a wonderful voice. It contains much wisdom. But the best reason to read it is for the One who lurks within. You will meet Him at how things are, and He will take you to the way things are supposed to be.

John Ortberg,

Senior Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

Author of Who Is This Man?


Holy Expectation

They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.


I remember the day the emptiness came. The church service had just concluded, and volunteers were beginning to clean. I sat alone in the worship center, hands trembling. That place within my soul once filled with passion for God was now a foreclosed home with only traces of the family that once lived therein, full of vacant rooms where the echo of one's voice could be heard. The God who had once seemed to breathe on my neck was now a ghost in the distance, blurry and noiseless. And His church, a place of respite for me nearly all my life, was a painful reminder of the absence I felt.

In many ways, my journey to the church had been a long one. And yet, I had nearly always been there. Born Jonathan Michael Merritt at 6:02 p.m. at Baptist Hospital East in Saint Matthews, Kentucky, I met the world with expectation. My mother says I came out with a tuft of hair—wet, blackish locks that rested atop my round face—and crying. Months later, the hair fell out but the crying remained. Riddled with colic, I sobbed perpetually. My wails rose with the sun awakening the morning, broken on occasion by short naps. Even in infancy, I seemed to pine for something more, something just beyond my reach.

Nine days after my birth, I attended church for the first time. I'm told that I was the main attraction in the nursery: the pastor's newest son, pink-faced and barely a week old. An esteemed member of Buck Grove Baptist Church before I could even pronounce the name.

Dad would soon accept a pastorate in Laurel, Mississippi, and when I was three, in Snellville, Georgia. For the next eighteen years, I'd spend countless hours at First Baptist Church, a place that would shape my early view of who God was and what the apostle Paul called "the body of Christ."1

The God I met there was a decent chap, so long as you didn't make Him mad. He tended to be rigid and temperamental. I knew of a few of His tantrums, even once transforming a woman into a salt pillar for disobeying Him. When I read Jonathan Edwards's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" later in life, it barely induced a yawn. That's exactly how I pictured the Almighty.

My God was incapable of chuckling at mistakes, grinning when I bumbled down the wrong path, or overlooking my misguided attempts to live the "good life." Instead, the God I believed in peered over my shoulder, shaking His head and whispering, "Go ahead, but you'll pay for it."

To keep my God happy, I aimed to live according to a list of dos and don'ts. This fit squarely with the way I read the Bible—like most children raised in conservative evangelicalism—as a rule book that told me which bad things to avoid and which good things to do daily or hourly or perhaps more frequently.

The don't list was far more extensive than I can enumerate here, ranging from the prohibition against tattoos, earrings, and long hair to a strict boycott of "demonic" television shows like The Smurfs, The Simpsons, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I made sure not to drink, smoke, or curse (at least where anyone could hear me), and I stayed far away from any movies stamped with a capital R in a thin white box. At restaurants, I cast disapproving stares at patrons who ordered a glass of wine or a foggy beer. "If only they knew the Lord," I'd say to myself, clicking my tongue. I avoided every item on the don't list with Talmudic devotion, feeling I was somehow earning God's favor with every painful sacrifice.

During my preadolescent years, I'd stare into the darkness from my bed late at night, squinting to think of anything I may have done wrong that day. Did a lustful thought weasel its way into my mind? Did I vent unrighteous anger at one of my brothers? Did I disobey my parents' wishes and thereby dishonor them? As infringements inevitably came to mind, I'd confess them out loud to God. And I'd always end by asking Him to come into my heart and save me. Just in case it didn't stick the night before.

The to-do list was far simpler. It basically included evangelism and church attendance. Sharing one's faith was critical. After all, I had a moral obligation to do as much for God as possible before He came back to rescue the chosen few and obliterate everyone else. So I had to work hard and quickly. I prayed before meals in public and carried my Bible to school. Though never mentioned in the Scriptures, these were logical actions taken by true disciples who weren't ashamed of their faith.

On Tuesday nights, we'd visit homes in the community to drop off religious literature. On Saturdays, I'd often load into a van with other kids in my youth group early in the morning to "knock on doors," which is Christianese for waking people up before they wished so we could argue them into a "right relationship with God." Sometimes our guerrilla tactics worked, other times not. But every slammed door was a badge of courage pinned on a martyr's lapel. Over lunch, we'd often brag to one another about enduring the rudeness of those we visited, never once considering we might be the obnoxious ones for showing up unannounced at eight in the morning.

When I wasn't pounding on strangers' doors, I was sitting in a church pew—the other big item on my to-do list. Sunday mornings. Sunday evenings. Tuesday nights. Wednesday nights. And pretty much any other time when there was special programming. This was essential to staying on the Almighty's good side. Devoted church attendees like myself would often lament the "Sunday-morning Christians" who only appeared once per week. These individuals were probably going to make it to heaven, we surmised, but they were destined for a less-than-pleasant judgment day when God would wag His finger at their lukewarm commitment to the delight of the rest of us who'd made the extra effort.

Most days, I loved going to church. Everyone felt like family, from the young women with their toddlers to the old men with their hallelujahs. The ubiquity of gaudy brass decor and burgundy carpet made you feel like you were someplace important.

Other days, church felt like pure drudgery. A predeath purgatory. Waking when all I wanted to do was sleep in or stay home and play. Those days church was like walking on hot coals—the only benefit was relief when it was over. Regardless of my disposition, I knew I needed to be there because church was where God lived, and I wanted to know Him. The church was the exclusive watering hole for the spiritually parched.

My views found confirmation in what I observed around me. Everyone at church was perfected by it. Or so I thought. They smiled a lot—that good ol' "joy of the Lord," I suppose—and seemed to live holy lives. I was shocked later in life to discover that many of my childhood friends' parents divorced as a result of hidden alcoholism or affairs or mental illnesses.

During my twelfth year of life, I began to realize that though I had been practicing Christianity, I'd not fallen in love with Jesus. At five, I had walked down the aisle of our Baptist church as the choir beckoned me with a refrain of "Just as I Am." An usher met me at the front pew, and I informed him that I needed to be "saved." I didn't want to burn in hell for eternity. Does anyone? Staring down my teenage years, however, I stood at a critical crossroads.

As I wrestled with the decision about which faith to follow, I underwent a time of what a Christian might call "spiritual warfare" and an atheist might call "hallucinations." Regardless, my Baptist upbringing gave me no framework for processing these experiences. I'd feel the presence of demons when alone, sensing dark presences in the corners of my room while I attempted to drift off to sleep. One evening, Mom prepared dinner in the kitchen while I watched television in the living room. Lying on the floor with my head propped on a couch pillow, I caught a glimpse of a face in the window next to me. It was neither monsterlike nor beautiful. I ran to the kitchen like a bolt, never sharing the occurrence with anyone but afraid to be alone.

Both good and evil seemed to be observing my internal struggle, waiting to see which path I'd choose. Late one night, just shy of my thirteenth birthday, I rose after midnight and sprinted to my parents' bedroom. I grabbed my father's arm and shook him.

"Dad, wake up. I know you think I became a Christian many years ago, but I didn't. I've made up my mind now. I want to follow Jesus."

Wiping the crusties from his eyes and willing himself awake, Dad led me back to my room by the hand, and we knelt together by my bed. I prayed to God, telling Him that I was ready to make an irrevocable decision to follow Him until I drew my last breath on earth.

A warmth crept from my toes through my bent knees to the crown of my head. My breathing relaxed, and I felt the most wonderful peace, as if the Divine was wrapping His eternal arms around my shoulders. Dad kissed my forehead before he returned to his bed. And I never saw or felt a dark presence again.

The next morning I began searching for that warmth of God again, and the place I figured my journey should begin was the location where I believed He was most readily available: church. And every so often I found Him there. When I descended beneath the water's surface at baptism, I sensed a shimmer of heat. I'd hear the gospel in a new way during a sermon and feel the temperature rise. And yet I never sensed that same God presence from my conversion night.

In college, I became something of a spiritual vagabond, roaming from church to church hunting for the Divine. I strained to grasp Him, but God was always inches from my fingertips.

After graduation, I sensed a call to serve God vocationally, and seminary seemed the most logical place to start. I decided to root myself in parish work. Packing up my childhood belongings the night before departure, I felt a bit like Abram and Sarai. I did not know exactly where this journey would take me, but I trusted that God would be my travel companion. Sustaining me. Guiding me. I'd have to walk by faith and not by sight, an easy cliché to share with others but a difficult one to embrace in this moment of uncertainty.

The first day of classes was an exercise in frustration. Everyone around me seemed to know God intimately. Even completely. They had formulated answers for life's most difficult questions. And their callings were so much clearer than mine. Fellow students hadn't just been called to serve God vocationally, they'd received a heavenly letter directing them to become a church planter in West Africa or a youth minister in their hometown. I wondered, why hadn't God called me with the same specificity? Maybe they had learned to listen better.

The next season of life was spent back at my home church, this time with an office, a part-time position, and a second diploma framed on my wall. The embossed document declared, "Master of Divinity." A misnomer if there ever was one. Who can master the unmasterable? Who can claim to have figured out the incomprehensible? Not me.

My time of service was a period of sweet struggle. Crafting sermons, trying to make much of Jesus. Calling people to faith and reminding those who found it to keep doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. I came to love those I ministered to, and I wanted more than anything to lead them into a rich relationship with God.

But the love and investment was rarely reciprocated at the same level. Church seemed a magnet that attracted Christian hitchhikers, thumbing a ride to pass through whatever difficulty or New Year's resolution they currently faced. And as soon as they pushed through the other side, they'd quietly eye the off-ramp and ask to pull over.


Some, gone for good.

Rather than trust these souls to God, I took it personally. They must have left because I did something wrong. Perhaps I should have taught more captivating lessons or phoned them more often. Every absent chair became a challenge to work harder. I tried to balance my increasing workload with budding writing opportunities, a juggling act that often left both efforts unfinished. I was moving bricks from one stack to another. Worse still, I was moving further away from the God I wanted so badly to draw near to.

Ministry had become a job. Another waypoint in my efforts to save the world. I spent more time talking about God than talking to Him. More time describing God's presence than bathing in it. I had become a travel agent pointing to God like a far-off tourist attraction when I should have been traveling there myself.

In the sixth chapter of II Samuel, King David of Israel dances wildly in the streets of Jerusalem. He's building his kingdom's capital there and has decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant as a symbol of God's blessings and providence and presence. When he realizes the weight of the moment, David is overcome with emotion and is swept up in the sacred dance of worship.

As this dramatic scene unfolds, the storyteller reveals a watcher—Michal, the daughter of Saul and David's wife. She's peering out a window at David's brazen praise—he's stripped down to his skivvies now—and growing angrier with each gyration of her husband-king. David returns home to find Michal has seethed to an overboil. In a shoutfest dripping with sarcasm and insults, she attempts to shame him.

In the midst of this great worship service celebrating God's blessings on His people of Israel, Michal never lifts her hand, never sings a note, never whispers a grateful prayer. But why?

For one thing, Michal is mired in the past. She's bitter that her father's dynasty was traded for David's. The Scripture describes her as "the daughter of Saul" rather than "David's wife." Michal is angry because of what God did or didn't do in her life, what other people did or didn't do. And she can't move beyond those disappointments.

Worse, Michal had become an observer rather than a participant in the dance of worship. And I had become Michal. Like Jesus's first disciples,2 I was battling cardiosclerosis. My heart was hardened, clogged by the traditions of religion and the cardboard God I had created. As a result, church attendance became a feast on a stale cracker: dry and unfulfilling.

I craved more.

That's when the emptiness came. With the worship center lights dimmed and only a few remaining voices echoing in from the foyer, I sat down to contemplate the impasse I'd reached. I couldn't give up on God, and yet I didn't want to continue my current spiritual path. This would mean embracing an unbearable future, one where I engaged God out of duty. We'd become an old married couple, sitting on the couch with each other each evening, rarely speaking. Sure, we'd stay together, but I'd always wonder if I'd hung around longer than I should.

God, I want to stay with you, but I can't keep doing this.

I looked down at the Bible resting in my lap—leather splitting at the edges, color fading. This seemed a metaphor for the state of my spirit, but perhaps it also held the answer to my question. I thought about the wild and wondrous God encounters I'd learned about in childhood through songs and Sunday school, from walking with Adam and Eve in a garden to the ethereal visions of John the Revelator.


  • "Jonathan paints a picture of a God who loves a good surprise and meets us in ways we may not have considered. So read this book expectantly. It will shatter your misconceptions and help you encounter a God more wonderful than you ever conceived."—Mark Batterson, New York Times bestselling author of The Circle Maker
  • "With his usual word-magic, Jonathan Merritt reminds us that Jesus has survived all the embarrassing things that we Christians have done in his name. He shows you the Jesus who challenges the chosen, includes the excluded, assaults closed minds, opens hard hearts, and defies all the boxes, categories, and camps... the one who left the comfort of heaven to join the struggle on earth to show us who God is and what love looks like with skin on. It is an invitation to fall in love-maybe again, or maybe for the first time-with love-made-flesh, and he's better than you could ever imagine."—Shane Claiborne, activist and bestselling author of The Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers
  • "Jonathan speaks to the human heart, with words poured from his own. This book is one of the bravest works I've had the privilege to read. May his strength inspire ours."—Rebekah Lyons, author of Freefall to Fly and co-founder of Q Ideas
  • "Theology divorced from autobiography is like making love out of a love manual. With JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED, Jonathan Merritt gives us a theological gem based on his own life story. This book got me so excited about Jesus that it almost left me winded. If you have ever despaired of the church, or departed from the faith, or know someone who has, there is no better book on the market to illuminate the darkness with lightning strikes of divine presence and power."—Leonard Sweet, bestselling author, professor (Drew University / George Fox University) and chief contributor to
  • "Jonathan Merritt is fast becoming one of the most influential Christian writers today. He has a pulse on culture and a gift for communicating. JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED is a practical and poetic book that leads readers into the arms of a sometimes startling God. In a time when young people are growing disenchanted with religion, this book comes not a moment too soon to remind us that Jesus is all we need."—Brad Lomenick, president of Catalyst and author of The Catalyst Leader
  • "Stirring, soaring, surprising. This is a delightful glimpse into the epic greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ."—Frank Viola, author of God's Favorite Place on Earth, Jesus Manifesto, and Epic Jesus
  • "Jonathan Merritt is an incisive, winsome writer and one of the best storytellers I know. In JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED, he invites us to move beyond legalism, beyond cynicism, and beyond fear to the feet of Jesus, where love always prevails. This book is both brutally honest and stubbornly hopeful. Grace permeates every page."—Rachel Held Evans, New York Times bestselling author of author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Evolving in Monkey Town
  • "Well-written, bold, and honest...this book by my friend Jonathan will no doubt introduce many seekers, skeptics, strugglers, and "saints" to the Jesus they've never known but longed to meet-One who gives grace to broken and burned-out people without disclaimers, qualifications, or asterisks. A true celebration of one-way love."—Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and author of One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World
  • "True to the genre of the younger evangelical leader memoirs, there is an honesty and an integrity in Jonathan Merritt's JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED. But what drives Jonathan's story is a recurring emptiness on the part of a believer who probes spiritual disciplines, creation, struggles with sin and ultimately God in the face of Jesus. That probing overshadowed everything in this book for me, a probing I found both honest and encouraging, a probing that does not pretend doubt and dryness are gone once one is a Christian. Jonathan's story will be encouraging to young and old alike."—Scot McKnight, author and New Testament professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • "Candid, blunt, honest, exciting. Jonathan Merritt opens the window of his private life and lets us look and listen in. He tells secrets most of us don't talk about. Sometimes painfully hard. Sometimes exhilarating. Sometimes disappointing. Always pushing toward Jesus who exceeds expectations."—Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals
  • "This honest, raw, emotional, and insightful work from Jonathan Merritt will have you seeking-and finding-God in both the expected and the unexpected. JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED sheds light on how God works in both the chaos and the mundane of life. Throughout the book Jonathan continually shows that no matter what you are going through in life, Jesus really is better than you can ever imagine."—Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources

On Sale
Apr 1, 2014
Page Count
208 pages

Jonathan Merritt

About the Author

Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning writer on politics, spirituality, and culture. He is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor for The Week, and has published hundreds of columns in prominent national outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and The Daily Beast. Jonathan has also served as a ghostwriter on more than 40 books, many of which became New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and WSJ bestsellers. Jonathan is a proud biological Guncle to five little ones in Georgia and a proud adoptive Guncle to ten nephews and nieces in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where he resides.

Joanna Carillo is an artist and illustrator whose work utilizes mixed mediums and draws on her various experiences in animation, cartooning, and fine art to create whimsical worlds. Her debut children’s book on which she served as the illustrator is scheduled to release with HarperCollins in the fall of 2023. Joanna holds a BFA in Studio Art from California State University and resides in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.

Learn more about this author