Mitchel Lee, lead pastor of Grace Community Church in Fulton, Maryland, recently published the book Even If: Trusting God When Life Disappoints, Overwhelms, or Just Doesn’t Make Sense.
In Even If, Lee explores how God remains present in the midst of suffering, loss, and disappointment.
Associate Editor Timothy Isaiah Cho spoke with Lee about the themes explored in his book. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
I’ve been in pastoral ministry since 1998. I was born and raised in Maryland. But I like to say that I became an adult when I got married and moved to Chicago, and that was in 2004. I was in Chicago for eight years doing some grad school but also pastoring at a church in the western suburbs. And then in 2012, we moved back to Maryland, where I joined a church called Grace Community Church as the young adult and teaching pastor. And in 2016, became the Lead Pastor here, receiving the baton from the pastor who’d been here for 28 years at the time.
Wow, a big shoe to fill!
Yeah, it really was. And it was really quite unheard of. He was a White pastor – I didn’t come here thinking that I would receive the baton from him. I just came here because I felt the Lord was adding us to the church. And so, in 2015, when he asked if I would pray about succeeding him, and all the interviews with our elders, that whole process really was quite a remarkable transition. It’s been a tough transition as well, and that’s all before the pandemic and then the pandemic just added to that.
The most important things about me: my wife is Sarah and I have five children, Calvin, Noah, Benjamin, Beatrice, and Owen. And they keep me sane, while making me insane at the same time. So, it’s quite a mysterious tension. But that’s who I am. The son of Korean immigrants who immigrated to Maryland in 1974, and I was born the following year.
How did the phrase “even if,” from the book of Daniel, come alive for you for the first time, and when did you realize that truth of “even if” should be shared with others in a book?
Yeah, I was in a very dark valley. Right before I graduated from seminary, about few months before that, I was fired from my church that I was serving at. And this was my home church, a Korean immigrant church, grown up there, came to Christ there, and I’d been there for 20 plus years. And it was devastating to me and the timing of it. I had been traveling to North Carolina for three years back and forth on the weekdays, weekends, to do my seminary thing, just so I could serve at my home church and lead the youth ministry and to get let go just before I was graduating, I was just reeling. I just felt like I just got punched in the gut.
And I thought the Lord had passed me by. I really thought like, “What did I do? Was I guilty of some kind of disqualifying sin? What was it?” It was a wilderness, and in that wilderness, I was in a really dark place. But hey, you know, I still had this gift. And so I was speaking at retreats and doing all the stuff just to earn a paycheck. And at one of those retreats there was a small Korean church plant that asked me to come and lead their English ministry that was non-existent. And in a place of real emotional un-health, I signed on because I needed the paycheck.
And that lasted exactly one year. I got fired again. So, I got fired from two churches in a 15-month period without committing a really deep, disqualifying sin. I just was in this wilderness again. It was like the Lord was shaking me to get my attention. And it was in that period after my second firing, thinking like, ugh, I don’t want anything to do with anything else, I was managing my mom’s deli and, in that process, I’m listening to the radio and there’s this Chuck Colson broadcast that comes on called “Break Point.”
And the whole point of this short five-minute broadcast or episode was that we don’t know the Bible, like people today don’t know their Bibles. And he talked about this story about a British regiment at Dunkirk that was stuck and they sent this message up across the English Channel to a fearful British citizenry, saying, “Even if,” and “Break Point” broadcast was like, “Today, we wouldn’t even know where “even if” came from, and it comes from Daniel Chapter 3.”
And I’m listening to this. I have my Seminary degree. I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know what that “even if” is. I’m going to go and look it up.” And so I start reading this passage in Daniel 3, and it wrecked me. The fact that these three young men facing this incredible furnace could say, “God can save us, but even if he doesn’t do what we want him to do, even if he doesn’t do what we know he could do, we’re going to continue to worship him.”
That kind of faith was so different than what I felt like I built my faith in relationship with God around, which was, “Oh, God is going to do these incredible things in my life. He’s going to work his plan.” Even in an immigrant mentality, yes, there’s a theology of suffering there. But I was thinking, “Okay, it’s always going to be upward to the right, there’ll be some suffering, but it’s always going to be up into the right.”
And being jobless, churchless, faced with no prospect of ever getting back into ministry, that “even if” changed my relationship with God, because very painfully and tearfully, I was able to declare, “Well, even if, God, I never pastor a church again, even if I never fulfill my potential, I’m going to worship you, because you’re worthy of worship.” I remember the first time I gave that message, my old youth pastor invited me to come to California to speak that message. And I declined him twice, I said, “I don’t think I should go” and he said, “No, I think you’re ready.”
And so I gave this message about “even if” right out of Daniel 3. And the response was crazy. I mean, it was just crazy. This was a student ministry retreat and I got emails afterwards. I got kids writing songs about this thing. So, I started preaching this message again and again all through the Midwest.
Then it was about 2010, I was talking with a friend. I’m like, “Man, I would love to write about this one day. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it, but I think I would love to.” And then the rest is history.
You mentioned a little bit about your experience as a child of Korean immigrants. Can you talk about how that particular experience shaped you as a person? How did your childhood immigrant experience enhance aspects of the Christian life that you may not have gotten otherwise?
Yeah, it’s a great question. I was talking with a guy from the AsianAmerican Christian Collaborative about this is a few months ago and he pointed that out – actually, I didn’t even notice it in the book – he pointed out the thread of the immigrant experience that was repeating through the book, and I was like, “Man, you’re right.” And I’ve been doing some thinking on that. When I think about just what we’ve received from the immigrant generation, they oftentimes just get a really bad rap and oh, gosh, you know, the cultural dissonance and we were our parents’ retirement plans, and all that sort of stuff.
The thing that stands out to me is the beauty of resilience and resolve. And I got to see this actually really evolve in my own parents’ marriage. My dad was not a believer early on in my life and to see him come to Christ, and to see him, yes, carry his demons, but to see him being slowly sanctified and transformed was very, very powerful, because I saw how… Immigrants have this, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “We get the job done.” immigrants get the job done.
But there’s a kind of resilience and resolve that’s just like your willpower. And then when faith gets a hold of that, there’s this enduring, persevering steadfastness that I am indebted to from my mom and dad in terms of trusting in the faithful provision of God, the goodness of God, even when they didn’t know how it was going to work out. And I could give you story after story, some that I’m just even finding out now of, “Oh, my gosh, that’s what was happening behind the scenes in their hearts and in their minds and in their relationship,” that they didn’t let me and my sister in on.
So, for example, I helped my mom who’s a widow now move into… I won’t call it my childhood home, but the home that my sister really grew up in and I grew up in as a college student. And as I’m moving her into this townhome, she’s just telling me stories of how God provided that townhouse when they had just filed bankruptcy and we didn’t know where we’re going to live. And I had no idea about these things going on.
And my mom was telling me how she was just wrestling, literally wrestling with the Lord, like, “I believe that you are good. And whatever you need to do, Lord, and if you’re going to send us out of here, if we’re not going to get a home, we’re going to worship you.” She didn’t even use the words “even if” but there was this declaration repeated. And I’m sure any kid of immigrants who had a faith in the Lord, if you stop and remember long enough, you’ll see those “even if” sort of bursts, I will call them.
Because an “even if” declaration isn’t a one-time declaration. It’s more like a tapestry, where each moment you have the chance to put your faith and trust in the goodness of God, even when it’s not what you expected. Every time you get a chance to do that, you’re like pulling one thread, through your “even if” tapestry. So, if it’s not graduating seminary, and with no job, even if, I’m going to worship you. Or if it’s you are like, “Man, how am I going to get married, and will I get married? And even if I don’t, God, I’m going to worship you.
Or even if we move to Chicago and it’s a total failure, we’re going to worship you. Or even if we move back to Maryland, and we have to start all over, we’re going to worship you. Each of these moments give us that. And I look at my immigrant experience and my parents at these different moments. I’m really, really humbled and grateful that they can have that kind of faith in the goodness of God even when they couldn’t necessarily see it.
In your book, you provide a helpful distinction between an “even if” outlook and I think you call it an “if only” sort of outlook. Can you unpack that distinction between those two things, and maybe even provide some sort of like guidance? What might be some spiritual practices to help people see when they’ve teetered into “an if only” outlook and how to bring them back into “an even if” outlook?
Thinking of “only if” or “what if,” I call them counter ifs broadly. Counter ifs are ways that we try to cope with the inevitable gap between what we had hoped for or expected and what is. Reality will never look like our hopes and expectations. It’s always been that way, right? But the funny thing is, we’re always surprised when it doesn’t, even though it’s always been that way. There’s always this gap.
And so we develop, oftentimes, as just a matter of survival, we develop these counter ifs, the only if, the condition. “God only if you do this thing will I worship you, or will I know that you’re good.” Or sometimes we think God has a conditional on us, only if you did do this thing, and you didn’t, therefore you’re going to get this. Or the “if only” that you’re pointing out, these regrets. And I find that one the most subtle, and the one that actually keeps the most people stuck. And it’s these regrets that we have. And they’re oftentimes time-oriented.
So, sometimes, people are trapped by these, “if only” regrets of their past and their broken past, like, “If only I hadn’t done that, or if only I had not made that mistake or made that error.” And we feel like we have to live our lives right now to try to make up for that “if only” past, that broken past. Or there are some people who maybe they grew up in the church or maybe they had some kind of faith, they have this memory of a golden past, it’s this nostalgia, “If only I could get back to that thing, then my life would matter. If only I could have the faith that I did when I was a youth or a student or after that mission trip.” We think we can get back to that “if only,” so that’s like a nostalgic golden past.
But then there’s also this like where I think I should be right now, the “if only.” And I call that our fantasy present. And it’s the person I think I should have been by now, I should be by now. So, let me drill in on that one because that one, I think, is so operative for people. And now that I tell you this, or someone is reading this, they’re going to hope that it’ll help them identify when they do it, but also when somebody else does it. We have this imagined version of ourselves that we think we should be right now. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s success or failure.
An example of this. In 2016, the day after my installation service and I received the baton, I’m the Lead Pastor of this 3,500-person, predominantly White mega church. The day after I come into my office, and this crazy voice in my head…How old was I at the time? I was 41. And this voice in my head is, “If only you had done this five years ago. It took you long enough.” It was just like, if only fantasy present reality, like I was comparing myself to the Mitchel Lee version of me that became a Lead Pastor at the age of 30.
And this was like, crazy, like, wait a second, wait a second. And I found myself like getting discouraged because I wasn’t keeping up to some timeline that was in my imaginary head, my imposter version. And I see that all over the place. I see it in sometimes in my wife, she’ll be like, “Oh, I should be a better mom than this or…” And you’ll hear it by these two words. Usually, you’ll hear, “I should” and then you’ll hear, “by now.” These phrases “should” and “by now.” Here’s a practice to know if you’re doing that: listen for that. But then you’ve got to ask yourself the follow up question: “Compared to who?”
So, somebody walking with the Lord, they’re like, “Man, I should know about that by now. I should be over that sin by now. I should have bigger and broader faith by now.” You’re got to ask yourself, compared to who? And what you’ll find is that you’re comparing yourself with this false version of you who’s always a little holier, always a little bit more patient, always a little bit more successful.
And the thing that breaks you out is this is when you have to preach to yourself, that God does not know the imposter version of you, the fantasy version of you. God doesn’t know that version of you because God only knows true things. And the one that he knows and loves and sent his Son to die for is the version of you right now that you think doesn’t measure up, is inadequate, is broken, and has none of his stuff together. That’s real. That’s true. And that’s the person that Jesus died for.
And so in these “if only,” this fantasy present, and we just see people burdened so much by thinking like, God is just as disappointed with them as they are when compared to their fantasy version of themselves. Can you imagine how it would free you if you’re like, “No, you know what, no, this version of me right now, the one who loses his temper at his kids, the one who grows impatient, the one who’s really insecure, the one who feels like he just doesn’t have what it takes, this is the one that Jesus died for. This is the one that Jesus called beloved. And so I can say, even if I don’t measure up to the imposter version of me in my imagination, I’m going to worship you because you died for the real me, not the upside version of me.”
I’m not sure if you’re a Marvel fan, but it really reminds me of the multiverse, where we’re always thinking that the multiverse version of us is in a little bit better situations than we currently are.
Yeah, gosh, if all that stuff had come out, like every time we watch [Marvel’s] “What If,” my kids are like, “Dad, this should have gotten in the book!” But even in the DC Comics, in the book, I compare Superman and Bizarro. And if we’re really honest, every time, the life that we’re living right now feels like the Bizarro version, and we’re always comparing ourselves with the Superman version of us, and we never win. The freeing thing is – and this is where the gospel collides with us – is Jesus didn’t die for Superman, Jesus died for the Bizarro version. So, you can worship Him.
There are probably lots of stories out there of people who have been burned by the church and who are becoming very public about it. And some may even think of this idea of “even if,” and they might even think of it as like, “Hey, it’s just a passive acceptance of faith basically” Others might be like, “Oh, this is super spiritual, kind of pie in the sky kind of outlook on life. That’s just like a coping mechanism to escape from the hard realities.” How would you respond to those kinds of concerns, especially with how the Bible might talk on the goodness in the presence of God?
This is my favorite question. I love this question. Because the long and short of it is, and I’ll give it some detail, but the simplest way I can put it is the “even if” life is not an “even so” life, and that “even so” is the idea of like the passivity, the fatalism, that’s just going to be. No, no, no, that’s not the “even if” life. In fact, what I’m trying to do in this book is to declare that our faith has to be far more ambidextrous – to borrow a phrase. And it’s the ambidexterity of the goodness of God in one hand, and the trouble of life in the other, and that we hold both in the tension.
One of the practices of the “even if” life is to say what is so – and an Asian culture is so difficult to do, because you’re always trying to save face, what’s appropriate, what’s proper, you are trying to read the room, you’re trying to really give honor. To say what is so is to come before God and say, “God, this is what I had hoped would happen, and it didn’t. I am so disappointed, confused, hurt…” It’s to say like Psalm 13; “How long O Lord will you forget me forever?”
Sometimes the biblical practice of this is lament, which, lately is getting a lot of attention, which it rightfully needs to. People of color cultures are much better at lament because we embrace when we see suffering. But to say it and to say what is so, you’re saying it, you’re declaring it. You’re not sugarcoating it, you’re not doing what I call the Ned Flanders’ Christian spin on it. You’re saying, “This is what it said. This is terrible. This stinks. We’re going to say what is so and we’re also going to declare your goodness.”
That’s what the “even if” life is. It is not just, “Oh, it’s not too bad, we’ll get over it.” Like those guys, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego looking at a furnace, they’re not saying, “Oh, well, actually, it’s not too hot there, I think we’ll be okay.” Or, “There is no furnace, let’s just think positive.” No, they’re like, “Okay, you throw us in this fire, our God can save us.” That is a serious statement, especially if you think about their background. Like, how did they end up there? God handed over their city in judgment over their sins. And maybe not even their sins, maybe the sins of their parents and the generation before them. God handed over their city, it got destroyed, and they’re trafficked to Babylon. That God is going to save them? That’s their declaration? How can they say that? So, mind-boggling if you think about their life situation.
And then they’re like, “Even if he doesn’t do it the way we want or what he wants to do, we’re not worshiping anyone else.” And guess what – God doesn’t save them. He allows them to be put in the furnace and he puts his presence in there. He delivers them. But he doesn’t keep them from the furnace. He doesn’t shut the door so it can’t be opened, or make the fire go out. They go into the furnace. And so I really appreciated this question because I don’t want to just declare just the, “Ah, suck it up, you’ll get through it,” which is so much of… gosh, even look at the book of Job, his friends show up and they’re like, “You must have done something wrong or come on,” they want him to confess or give an explanation.
And all Job could say is like, this is terrible. I just won’t have an audience with God. This is terrible. And yet he still worships him. I hope and I pray that we would have that kind of resilience, especially in these days and the days to come, that we would have the resilience to be able to speak what is so and to also declare the goodness of God, ambidextrous faith for uncertain times.
You organize your book so that it ends with some helpful practices to move that “even if” life from our head to our heart and to our hands. Can you talk about the importance of being shaped by our practices? You can offer some specific guidance for how to make “even if” shape us as well.
The first question there is a very philosophical one I’ve been thinking about for a while. And a lot of my thinking on this has been influenced by Jamie Smith, when he talks about liturgies, the presence of liturgies all around us. And liturgies are not just for worship gatherings and for the church. Liturgies are ways of acting and conducting ourselves. And some of the illustrations that Jamie Smith gives us, he just basically exegetes the liturgy of the shopping mall, the liturgy of the sports event.
And we have to recognize that all around us that we are not just beings who think. We are also beings who act. And the actions shape the way we think. And the thinking shapes the way we act. It is this vicious cycle, so to speak. If you don’t believe me on that, just look at your devices, and look at the way that apps are designed. They’re designed to make us act, even before we think, swipe left, swipe right, “ping,” “Oh, I need to go check.” And so these liturgies, these actions, these practices shape us.
I think the real ramifications or implications we have to think about is for the next generation, as I think about the discipleship of my five kids, four of them are boys, how am I going to help them form the practices, they’re going to shape and reinforce the character of godliness that I want to see in them? Sometimes you just need the practices. Another way to think about this, in a less severe way is, I enjoy the game of golf and there’s just repetition you have to do in the game of golf to get the practices down.
And it’s all around us, whether it’s our consumer habits, or whether it’s our spirituality and our relationship with God, the practices through church history. Godly men and women who were trying to grapple with the question of how can we really be mindful of the presence of God at every moment so that we can pray in every circumstance, or pray at all times and give thanks in every circumstance, they come up with all of these practices – the early morning prayer, the midday pause, the evening compline prayers, there are these practices that shape us.
And so as much as we can say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ve declared ‘even if’,” we need these practices, particularly if we’re going to have that sort of confidence in the goodness of God and the resolve to worship Him, when it goes sideways, there are practices that can shape us so that we can decide who God is before we get to the furnace.
So, we just actually released a free Family Guide on this to help parents think about how to raise even-if type kids. And the two practices that I think are most graspable are the idea of giving thanks and the idea of speaking what is so.
So, at each moment, each day, having a period to remember God’s goodness to you during the day. So, I’ve developed this practice that each evening and usually around 9 to 9:30 and it’s not that whole 30 minutes, usually it’s about a five to seven minute time of stopping, turning my device off. I go very analog with it. I have a little journal and I have four guiding questions for myself that are simply, Where did you experience God’s nearness and goodness today? Where were you not mindful of God’s nearness and goodness today? What might God be telling you? And then what resolution, what help do you need for tomorrow?
This has made such a difference in my life, because I’m learning and developing the practice of remembering God’s goodness during the day. But here’s also the after effect, as the day goes on, because I know I’m going to do a recap at the end of the day, it’s making me more aware during the day of God’s goodness, but it’s also making me more aware during the day when I’m not recognizing his presence, the absence of God. And even in the awareness of the absence of God, there’s a goodness that comes that says like, “Oh my gosh, I lived from noon to five today God as if you didn’t even exist. Oh, forgive me.”
And to know that God forgives me and says,” Okay, we’re going to try it again tomorrow.” That’s a goodness that I get to receive, that actually draws me to him. So, it’s more than just a moral inventory. It’s not like what do I do well? What did I do badly today? It’s a very prayerful and short reflection on where did I sense God’s presence and were did I not? So, that’s one practice of gratitude. We do this at our dinner table with our kids. Where did you sense God’s goodness today? How has God been good to you today?
And the first couple of times, man, it was like crickets. But we kept with it, we kept with it, we kept with it. So, that’s one thing. And then the second part of it is the practice of actually being able to speak what is so when things aren’t good, when it is disappointing, to lament together, and to be able to speak those things. So, that is definitely a practice those two things, gratitude and speaking what is so, they reinforce this resolve to worship Him when it’s not good, when it’s hard.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to share as well?
I don’t want people to think that this is a one-time thing, just declare “even if” and you’ll be fine. You know, you really wrestle with it, grapple with it, come back and forth with it. At the end of the book, I put a lot of prayers in there and the one that I’ve been getting the most feedback about is the one where it’s the prayer before you take a risk. And I would add this, that when you know God is good, and that you are the beloved and he has done so much already for you, I think it enables you to take wise risks, to take the next step.
And I’m actually really excited about this “even if” declaration as people get a hold of this message and join the “even if” warriors, the kinds of risks they will take for the kingdom. Because I think sometimes we are so afraid to take risks because we ask the “what ifs” and we’re so needing the guarantee of success, even kingdom success, fruitfulness. And we’re often told that if we don’t get the fruitfulness or the “kingdom success” that we think we were supposed to get that it must not have been God’s will or God must not have been in it. And so we don’t take that step until we can be guaranteed that we’re going to get success.
But if we could, or if churches, even could develop this “even if” sort of thing, can you imagine the kind of risks they would take for the kingdom, that even if we step out in this, and people are really upset and they have an opposition to it, we’re going to worship you, God, because we’re trying to do this to honor you. That “even if” mentality, that “even if” faith. I’m really asking God as the message goes far and wide that the fruit of people’s kingdom ventures would be born, and that many people would come into the kingdom because people took an even-if- type risk.
So, I would just add that in there that even if is not just a response to what’s happening or happened, but it’s also a way to approach what could happen. And instead of the “what if” of fear we would ask the “what-if” of possibilities. What if God takes us into something totally different? Even if he does that, we’re going to worship him. And I get excited thinking about the possibilities there.
In the video below, Lee talks with Faithfully Magazine Associate Editor Timothy Isaiah Cho about the “even if” life of a Christian that holds the goodness of God in one hand and the troubles of life in the other.
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