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God Is for Real
And He Longs to Answer Your Most Difficult Questions
By Todd Burpo
By David Drury
Read by Todd Burpo
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If Todd’s first book, Heaven Is for Real, was about the then and there of heaven, God is for Real is about the here and now on earth:
Why are there are so many hypocritical church people? Why do Christians make such a big deal about the cross? Why doesn’t God seem to answer our biggest prayers?
People are tired of pat answers offered up in churchy language explaining away their questions; we want the down-and-dirty truth. What bothers us about life and faith is real and gritty. We need a plain-spoken voice to offer God’s answers to difficult struggles and painful doubts.
Todd charges into these subjects with a fireman’s courage, a small-town friend’s vulnerability, and a local pastor’s compassion. He helps articulate the questions people have, then gives them relevant biblical wisdom for taking their next steps in faith.
God is ready to meet you! Are you ready to meet Him?
I Need a Big God
My life is messy. Which God do I need to fix my mess?
I’m that small-town guy who is more comfortable getting my hands dirty working on a garage door than typing on this computer keyboard. I would also rather respond to an emergency pager or fire siren with my fellow firefighters than walk out on a stage to face a crowd of people.
When a family is crying together in pain or outrage at the hospital over the bed of a family member, I have a sense of belonging. It might be uncomfortable and painful, but something inside me says that I belong among the “dirty” situations—the traumas and struggles of life. It’s not just the sense of being needed or useful that takes me to those places. It’s also a sense of understanding. Pain is the humbling equalizer of humanity. Rich or poor, healthy or sick, we all eventually experience it. One way or another, all our hands get dirty.
So, I work with people and get dirty. Not just that, I am dirty! I live there amid the emotions, pain, and questions that everyone else struggles with, too. Life is hard, and the quick, clean, Disney World–style happily-ever-after solutions people throw around just downright offend me at times. This is especially true about the cheap, pat answers that come from some Christians. It’s as if they live with a blind disconnect between this world and their “faith” world. I’d rather we all be real about these things.
My journey has been difficult. It’s been crooked. Sometimes I feel like I’m moving in circles, not knowing how to get above life’s challenges and see the meaning of it all!
And then God.
Yep, just him. God has a way of stepping into my mess and bringing me what I could never grab ahold of by myself.
I know that some of my life’s story has been put on public display because of the book and movie Heaven Is for Real. Talk about awkward! I’m guessing that God is still laughing at me as I squirm even now just thinking about it. I do have to say that I am still amazed at actor Greg Kinnear’s portrayal of me. I don’t know how he observed me so quickly or if God gave him special help or both, but he showed my struggling fairly and downright realistically. The real Todd Burpo has issues—lots of them.
If you are like me, you have wondered out loud about the source of life’s problems. I’ve been crushed personally at times, seeing people deal with hurts far greater than my own. Because of them, I live with a sense of gratitude that my problems aren’t so bad in comparison.
So, what gives? Is it me? Or is it God? Or is it beyond me to even understand it all? But what do I do when God doesn’t do what I thought he should have done?
When we were children, we all asked questions, lots of them. Being a parent reminds you of the awe of life as your little one starts asking for explanations and bounces with excitement at the next big thing life introduces to them. But now we are older, and life’s just not as innocent as it once was. We keep problems to ourselves because our questions are now harder to answer, and the answers themselves are harder to grasp.
These days, though, I don’t just find children asking me hard questions; I have met people around the world asking me about the broken parts of their lives and wondering out loud if God is big enough to deal with the dirt and hurt they are facing. Or is he too distant even to care about their problems in the first place? They just don’t know. I understand their pain. I have asked those same questions myself.
I carry the heartache of burying a loved one. I have the scars of betrayal from people I trusted as friends. I have been lied about, mocked, and schemed against. Where is God in my yesterday, my today, and my tomorrow? Where is he in all of this dirt and mess?
One thing I’ve learned is to look for his presence in the pain. Instead of just trying to get an answer to make things make sense, I look for his presence in the stuff that doesn’t make sense. If I look for him and am sensitive to it, I find him there in meaningful ways. Apparently, God gets his hands dirty just like I do.
Maybe that’s why I feel I belong there in the dirt. God isn’t afraid to be found there. I find him more ready and willing to respond to the broken and to the hard parts of people’s lives than in the neatness and the “put-togetherness” of a nice and pretty church service.
Could it be that God is so big, our dirt doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers us? Could it be that God isn’t as put off by my failures and questions as I think he is? And could it be that he even gently laughs at me when I get mad?
I remember what I used to say to my children during their tantrums: “Are you done yet?” I would remind them that I was the parent and they weren’t. Yes, I may have gotten angry with them at times. But not one of their fits ever threatened my love for them. It’s just what the bigger person in a relationship does.
My friend John’s life was changed when he brought this “bigger person” of God into his life. His struggle was alcohol. It consumed him.
After years of brokenness, I saw John in a grocery store one day, and he was excited. He announced that he had found Christ and that everything was different. John remembers what I said to him that day even though I forgot it myself. I believe it was one of those moments when God just took over.
John tells me I said, “Remember, you’re better off now, but you’re not better than anyone else.”
Because that’s where so many of us get put off when people talk to us about God, isn’t it? There is that moment we sense them looking down their noses at us as they tell us about God. Then we step back from both that person and God rather than lean forward to think about what God could do in our own lives.
When people have this attitude, it doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’ve heard about or would want to follow. When you try to ask for help with the problems you’re going through, many of the people who seemed caring quickly become disinterested or even put off by the dirt and the mess.
Experiences like that can leave us with a bad taste in our mouths for spiritual things. That bad conversation or uncomfortable moment has the real danger of keeping us stuck in the past, resistant to God and to anyone else who might want to bring him up as a difference-maker in our lives.
God changed me from being chained to my low moments by using my son. Yes, I was and I still am a pastor. But I never have been all that put together. My life’s issues had the ongoing tendency to rob my joy and weigh me down both emotionally and physically. You’ll hear more about that in the pages to follow. But my son’s confidence, innocence, simple childlike faith, and matter-of-factness about Heaven and the God who calls Heaven home astounded me. In fact, it just plain energized me.
The hope my son has for returning to Heaven is just as solid as his faith. He misses Heaven. He misses his sister, too. But he knows that he’s going to see them both again one day. Truth be told, I have imagined meeting my daughter so many times now that I feel like I have had a chance to get to know her through my son. I miss her, too.
To this day, I still have a difficult time imagining how a God big enough to hold the world in his hands can exude so much love that a child stands in his presence completely unafraid. But that is exactly my son’s description of God. The Bible even backs my son up. The writers in the Bible use more complicated words, but they still describe God the same way. I do believe that perfect love removes all fear, and my son has tried to describe that kind of big God love for years now.
My son is more than unafraid, however. He is drawn to the bigness of God. And why wouldn’t he be? Who needs a small god? No one does. A small god is no good to anyone. But of course, there’s a difference between needing and wanting what we need.
I need a big God, and so do you, but I didn’t say I want a big God. Sometimes, I act as though I want a small god. I want a god that fits into my world. I want a neat and tidy god that fits on a chain around my neck, or on a bumper sticker on my truck. I want a god that does what I want him to do—one that fits my own personal philosophy.
Maybe I think a small god will be more convenient. I’d like my small god to be like the waiter of a restaurant, who brings my orders to the table fast and hot. If my coffee cup stayed full and if my every desire was not only met but anticipated, I would probably even tip my small god just a little bit more. And if there were an owner of the universal restaurant, I would be sure to note the areas that god could improve on before my next visit.
This “small god who serves me” attitude is a preposterous way to approach the real God, of course. But isn’t that a bit of our instinct in the way we relate to God in this world?
Let’s take a good long look at what God is really like. In our private moments on these pages, maybe you and I can look at one another with honesty and openness about the dirt in each of our lives and the questions we both ask about God. Big problems need big solutions—and our world creates some huge problems. Big questions need big answers—and a small god is not going to answer our questions. That small god will only cause more questions.
Let’s talk about the things that scare us and challenge our faith in God. Let’s talk about the times we have been abandoned to despair and have struggled to hold on to hope. Let’s talk about our search for true love and the hurts we need healing for. If we do that, I suspect at the end of this time together, both of us will have a bigger picture of God.
A small god could never help us have this talk. A small god wouldn’t have it in him to face—let alone answer—these kinds of questions. But a big God might use this time to speak to both of us. That’s just one of the reasons I need a big God, and so do you.
Getting Your Attention
Why should I even be interested in all this God-talk?
I was in Culver City, California, for some meetings, the part of Los Angeles where the Sony building is found. We were staying in a very old hotel called the Culver Hotel, one of those buildings shaped like a triangle because of two streets that separate at a sharp angle. I was tired and just wanted to get settled in our room for a good night’s rest. A long drive that day followed by a long flight that evening had wiped me out.
This hotel had been restored to its old glory in the redesigned and refurbished rooms, but many things about its entrance were still a little odd. We walked into the ground floor with a bellhop who was on the street when we approached. The first floor of the hotel had no registration desk or anything—no lobby at all. Instead, it was a very crowded restaurant with a live band. The only thing my tired mind could pay attention to was the fact that the music was blaring. The familiar signage of most hotels was missing. If we hadn’t had the bellhop guiding us through, we would have had no idea where to go. As the bellhop grabbed my wife’s luggage, he agreed that the only way my wife and I were going to get much rest that night was if we lucked out and got a room on one of the top floors. He led us down a few odd corridors while we shimmied ourselves around those passing the other direction to a back elevator that took us up with our luggage to the floor above the band playing below.
On that next floor, I was expecting to find a normal hotel lobby (thinking perhaps we had just entered the wrong side of the building), but instead, the clunky elevator doors opened to a long hallway of various-size hotel conversation rooms, probably designed for business travelers or occasional family reunions. There was a small desk in the hallway like you’d find in a dorm room. A lady was sitting behind it. The bellhop led us there, and the lady at the desk began to ask the standard registration questions. I was a bit out of sorts at this point. I didn’t realize that going to the town where they make surreal movies would feel so much like I was living in a surreal movie myself.
As I gave my information, I realized that the thumping bass from the band downstairs was reverberating the floor beneath my feet, and I could even make out the words of the songs. I continued to worry if I would get the rest I needed that night. One look in my wife’s eyes and I could tell she was thinking the same thing. I had asked the bellhop earlier how late the band would be playing and he told me it could be 1 or 2 a.m.
I thought back to the street view of this oddly shaped triangular hotel and remembered that it went several stories up, perhaps even six stories or more. As we were being registered, I sighed a bit, in a sort of audible representation of the simple, selfish, but necessary prayer in my heart at that moment: Please, God, I need to sleep!
The bellhop helped us gather our things, and we entered the elevator again. Without even having to ask, the lady at the desk had graciously assigned us a room located on the second-highest floor of the hotel. As we traveled slowly up the elevator shaft, I could hear the music receding into the distance. My shoulders relaxed as I started thinking of the sleep I would get in just a few short moments once we unloaded. I also had an undeniable feeling of gratefulness knowing that God had just responded to my simple but desperate prayer.
Force or Favor
Throughout the historic hotel there were many pictures from The Wizard of Oz, particularly those featuring the actors who played the Munchkins in the film. Apparently, all the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz stayed in this very hotel when it was filmed. When I told this part of the story to people back home in Nebraska, they had some good fun with me, because I’m such a short guy: “You should have felt right at home in the Munchkin Hotel, Todd!” My basketball friends know just how to rub it in!
Fortunately, as we exited the elevator on our floor, I could feel that great wave of sleep expectation flow over me as I no longer heard the sound of the band below. You know how you feel just a few minutes before sleeping after a long, hard day of work or travel? That was me. I hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to the bellhop until then, but as he carried our things out of the elevator, he said to me, “Wow, the Force must be with you!”
I looked at him a little blankly, not understanding, since I was already practically snoring where I stood. He explained, “You must have used the Force to get this room up here on this floor, because you got exactly what you wanted—most don’t.” I’m sure you can imagine my wife Sonja’s eyes rolling. She knew his comment bothered me and just wanted me to let it pass, but…I couldn’t ignore it.
I shook my head and just said flatly, “Well, actually the Force has nothing to do with it. I’m not a Jedi, son. I don’t much believe in karma, either. Instead, I prayed that I would get a good night’s sleep, and God provided. That wasn’t the Force, that was God’s favor.” I said this not thinking much of it. I wasn’t trying to have a deeply spiritual conversation with this bellhop, but I couldn’t let his “Force” comment go without just a little bit of truth slipping out of my mouth.
As we unloaded into the room, the bellhop did something I’ve seen many times before when I bring up God to people: He changed the subject to some other benign story that related to God, but only to end the conversation. My talk of praying for a good night’s sleep and getting my prayer answered must have made him uncomfortable.
He stuttered his way through the first part of the sentence, but eventually said, “Yeah, there’s this kid who went to Heaven and they wrote a book and they’re going to make a movie about it or something.”
I looked over at my wife and she gave me another look, knowing this would start a much longer conversation than she had intended for us to have with our bellhop. But even she nodded slightly and agreed that God was calling me out. As I held out the tip for him I said, “That’s me. That’s my son you’re talking about. That’s why we’re here.”
I’ve never seen a bellhop ignore a tip before. His mouth opened so wide I could see his tonsils as he stared back at me. I saw realization wash over him in that long pause. I mean, what were the odds? Out of the billions of people on Planet Earth, the parents of the little boy from the book and coming movie were the very ones he was facing. His attempt to dodge a conversation about God had backfired.
I filled the awkward silence of the moment by saying, “I think God’s trying to get your attention. Do you know he cares about you just as much as me or my son?” By the look in his eyes, I could tell that this small-framed eighteen-year-old who was hustling for tips had realized a new truth for what might have been the first time in his short life. He mattered to God. Movies may refer to “the Force” at work in space dramas on the big screen, but moments like this undeniably point us to the real God.
How is God trying to get your attention? As you read this book right now, think about what is happening in your life, and how God might be orchestrating events to get your attention. He’s a big God, and he works in big ways.
How many God moments have you had to explain away? Have you walked away from a wreck that you shouldn’t have? I did. Have you survived an emergency surgery or a cancer scare? I have. Have you had a stranger’s generosity, a song or message on the radio, or a conversation with a friend occur at crucial moments in your life’s journey, as if they were being orchestrated by someone bigger than you and the others in your world? You bet, all that’s happened to me, too.
One of the men who eventually produced the Heaven Is for Real movie said this to me: “I can’t sleep at night. God won’t let me. I have to make this movie about what your son saw.” Now, he didn’t give me any more details than that, but in some way he had come to the conclusion that he couldn’t deny that God was the one interrupting his life.
But we are just beginning our discussion together. We will go on to talk about hard questions, deep mysteries, and problems great and small and annoying. All of these matters are often brought up as doubts, possible reasons why we don’t trust God, or why we maybe shouldn’t believe in God or listen to those who do. I’m guessing you have many of these questions already rolling around in your heart and mind. I hope to offer helpful wisdom on these things, I really do.
But I believe that something more, something bigger, is happening as you read this right now. These questions you have, the pain you face, the struggles you see in the world today: These are all things God is using to get your attention. He isn’t fazed by your questions—he wants you to ask them, especially your most difficult questions. And he doesn’t mind staying in the hard parts with you. I don’t mind, either.
My job is not to do public relations for God. Instead, we’ll face the hard stuff and see if we can find God in the middle of it all. It won’t be a made-up God who solves everything for you like a genie in a lamp. It will be the real God who exists even in the hard and dirty parts of life.
If God is trying to get your attention, I hope you’ll give it to him.
New Life in Newtown
Can I do something about the dark and ugly evil that exists in this world, even in me?
What were you doing the morning of December 14, 2012? It was a regular day in my hometown in Nebraska; I bet you’d call it boring. I got the kids off to school and headed out to work. With Christmas only eleven days away, most in my town were pleasantly distracted by school programs, special services at the church, and the presents we would buy to put around the tree.
Then halfway through the morning we heard the news of a shooter in a small town on the East Coast.
Ten times more people live in Newtown, Connecticut, than my town of Imperial, Nebraska, but it is a pretty small town by comparison on the East Coast. With a population of about twenty-seven thousand, Newtown has been there for three hundred years, sitting sixty miles outside of New York City, where some nine million people live. Still, Newtown is a quiet place, with only one homicide in a decade. Until December 14, 2012.
The shooter entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and began to fire. First he killed the principal and school psychologist in the hallway, and then he walked into a classroom of first graders. There, a tragic sequence of events took place. The substitute teacher had wisely pushed the children toward a bathroom. But the shooter found them and killed all but one little girl.
That brave little girl hid there, staying very still among her friends, playing dead and somehow not getting hit, and later she sneaked out of the room.
In less than ten minutes, 152 bullets were fired, and twenty children and six adults were dead. A teacher from another school in town said what I might have said about my town, and perhaps you about yours: “Stuff like this does not happen in Newtown.”
But it did.
Not long after the shootings, I started to get requests for us to send our book to Newtown for people dealing with the tragedy. These requests mostly came from those who had been touched by the story, and they thought it might help. We didn’t get involved in this way, as even a well-intentioned effort to help can hurt those in the middle of such a tragedy. So, we kept our distance and just prayed.
I personally could scarcely wrap my mind around this event. My youngest child, Colby, was about the same age as those in that first-grade classroom, although he was in second grade at the time. If this happened in our town, I wouldn’t even know what to say. I think it’s normal to admit that. It’s okay not to know what to say. But I do know where to turn, and that’s to God.
Along with the rest of the country, as I grappled with this horrible event, I started to ask questions. My questions all started with “Why?”
Why didn’t we know about this madman?
I wanted to know why we didn’t have this guy on a list somewhere. Why didn’t we see this monster a mile away? Of course, no one saw him as a monster until that moment. They saw him as a relative, a neighbor, a student, even a son. It turns out that the shooter was a seemingly quiet young man with no criminal record. But he still killed his mother in their home before driving to nearby Sandy Hook. He was a bit of a recluse, and had his challenges, but nobody who knew him or treated him saw this coming. It was a mass shooting with no clear motive. There is no helpful answer to this “Why.” So, we have more questions…
Why wasn’t the school more secure?
No one expected the level of violence that day, but some precautions were already taken there. The school had gone through lockdown drills just a few weeks earlier. The safety policy meant that you had to ring a doorbell at the front after the doors locked that morning. But that didn’t stop the shooter, who shot through a large panel of glass adjacent to the door to gain entrance. Many schools instituted new policies after Newtown, but most of those were merely safety policies that Sandy Hook already had in place at the time of the shooting. There is no helpful answer to this “Why,” either. So, we keep asking questions…
Why wasn’t it stopped by police or staff?
Small-town first responders, like those in Newtown, know what the buildings are like, and they often know the people in those buildings. I’m a first responder myself, and on the way to a fire a whole list of pre-planning questions go through my mind: Which way is the wind blowing? What weather changes are coming? But for Sandy Hook, there is no way to pre-plan. There is no training that prepares you for that. There is no fire truck that can put out the immensity of this dark burn in such a lost human heart.
Multiple stories of heroism came out soon after the tragedy. The six adults killed all lost their lives by confronting the shooter while trying to protect kids. Teachers helped kids out of windows or ushered them to closets and bathrooms to hide. The first officers were on the scene in fewer than five minutes from the very first 911 call, after which the shooter promptly shot himself even before the officers entered the building. This “Why” leads nowhere, so we keep asking…
Why did he have all those guns?
Officials investigating the incident noted that the guns weren’t the shooter’s in the first place. They were his mother’s guns, which he took from her and then used to kill her, followed by those at Sandy Hook. In retrospect, we all think he shouldn’t have had access to his mother’s guns, but again nobody saw it coming. Unable to find answers for this one situation, we ask bigger questions…
Why does this happen so often?
- "Pain can feel like a prison... a dead end from which there is neither relief nor escape. GOD IS FOR REAL unveils its potential to open doors to crucial conversations about God and with God. Not simplistic answers, but the raw realities of hope in the midst of hurt."—Wayne Schmidt, general superintendent of The Wesleyan Church and author of Surrender
- "Here it is... tough questions that most people run around in their mind but are afraid to ask! The responses to these questions are not the typical pat answers. It is a powerful weave of personal experience, honest and authentic wrestling with the questions, and a fresh look at scripture to find the answers. I found myself quickly turning the page to the next... it is compelling, thoughtful, new insight, and made me love God even more."—Jo Anne Lyon, ambassador, general superintendent Emerita of The Wesleyan Church, and founder of World Hope International
- "Pastor Todd Burpo does it again! I'll never forget my heart being ripped out as I read through the pages of Heaven is for Real. Here we are again in GOD IS FOR REAL discovering more practical truths about living with eternity in mind. Like many things God does in our lives we have an experience first and our understanding has to catch up. If Heaven is for Real captured your heart like it did mine, GOD IS FOR REAL will equip you to learn why."—Marcus Mecum, pastor of Seven Hills Church
- "With GOD IS FOR REAL, Todd Burpo creates a powerful guide to life's FAQs about God, faith and hope. Anyone who has lingering questions about God, His plan and what it means for your life will find the answers you've been seeking in this book!"—DeVon Franklin, New York Times bestselling author and producer of Miracles From Heaven
- "Heaven is for Real told the story so simply about the greatest mystery of all, Heaven, and opened my eyes to the joy and wonder that awaits us. In GOD IS FOR REAL, Todd Burpo again takes difficult subjects and through his own life lessons makes them seem simple, always leading us and pointing us to the loving God that created us and opening our eyes to His glory."—Korie Robertson, reality television star
Praise for HEAVEN IS FOR REAL: "A beautifully written glimpse into heaven that will encourage those who doubt and thrill those who believe."—Ron Hall, coauthor of SAME KIND OF DIFFERENT AS ME
- On Sale
- Oct 17, 2017
- Hachette Audio