Episode 084: Never Settle for Normal with Jonathan Parnell
Are you living in a ‘stupid normal’? Here’s the long and the short of it: we, as human beings, are created for God. Because of this, we long for significance and joy. However, today’s culture has removed “God” from their thinking, resulting in a ‘stupid normal’ lifestyle that doesn’t acknowledge God at all. The irony is, we’re only going to find our significance and joy when we find it in God through Christ. Jonathan Parnell, author of Never Settle for Normal: the Proven Path to Significance and Happiness, joins us this week to help us get from ‘stupid normal’ to living in the satisfied life of the Gospel.
Who’s Our Guest?
Jonathan Parnell is the lead pastor of Cities Church in Minneapolis–St. Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their seven children. He is the author of Never Settle for Normal: The Proven Path to Significance and Happiness.
Jonathan’s book is Never Settle for Normal: The Proven Path to Significance and Happiness.
Also, be sure to check out Jonathan’s articles on desiringGod.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Jonathan Parnell. Jonathan is a pastor and an author, and he’s been closely affiliated with the ministry of desiringGod, which many of you have heard of. Thanks for being here today Jonathan.
Hey Isaac. Good to be here. Thanks.
What we love to do, and many interviews start like this because I think it’s just good so people get to know who you are – how did you meet Jesus?
Yeah. Great question. I was blessed to grow up in a family who just believes the gospel, a family that is very involved in the local church. So I grew up, that was just a part of life. Heard the gospel at an early age. At the early age of about eight years old, I believed, and then was baptized. Then went through high school and kind of the ups and downs of trying to learn how to take my faith seriously. Then I was 17, 18, is when I got into a car accident. God used that to really wake me up, get my attention. That really just changed my life, so I began to read the Bible and pursue God.
That’s where I really began to experience the transforming power of the gospel.
I was about 18 when God began to do that. From there, I sensed a calling to vocational ministry. Ended up moving to Minnesota, and yeah here we are 10 years later.
Now, is vocational ministry run in your family, or were you sort of the pioneer of that?
Yeah, you know, it doesn’t. There’s definitely a Christian heritage that runs in my family on both sides, my mom and my dad’s, and I grew up close to both sides of my family, but I’m one of the first to really sense a calling to vocational ministry.
What does your life look like day-to-day? I saw on your little mini bio on desiringGod that you have seven children, and that’s a lot of children. You’re a pastor, and you’re an author, so yeah what does your life look like right now?
Yeah. I’m glad you asked that because I should say for context, right now I’m at home in my study, in my basement. It’s summertime, so all our seven kids are at home. We send them outside in the summer time, but I do hear some footsteps above me. I think they’re in and out. But my wife and I, we have seven kids. Our oldest daughter is nine, and so seven kids under the age of nine.
We’ve been married just over 10 years. Our two youngest are children that we are currently fostering to adopt, so we’re in the process of adopting a seven month old and a six month old.
Our day-to-day is: I’m either in my study doing some deep work, or I’m out meeting with folks and trying to connect, and that’s kind of that rhythm. Summers are pretty fun, laid back. We go to the pool sometimes in the evenings, or we’ll try to hang out, and grill out, and play some wiffle ball and stuff like that in the backyard.
All right, so Jonathan, you wrote a book called Never Settle for Normal: the Proven Path to Significance and Happiness. The first question that comes to my mind is: what’s wrong with normal? If you’re saying never settle for normal, what’s wrong with normal, and what exactly are you referring to as normal?
I’m glad you asked that. That is really the question that I think a lot of folks probably wondered when they see the title, so I try to get to the answer right away in the first chapter.
Basically, what I’m trying to explain as normal is not menial things. It’s not mundane existence. It’s not taking the trash out and buying stamps to send out your Christmas cards. It’s not those sorts of things. Those are good things for us. What I mean by normal is more like the cultural mindset that has kind of moved in in North America.
It’s a mindset that basically has taken God out of the equation.
This ‘how we conceive of reality,’ how we think about the world – God doesn’t have a seat anymore. In Psalm 14, the Psalmist says that “It’s the fool who says there is no God.”
It’s foolish to believe there is no God, so a worldview, a mindset that believes there is no God I think is foolish.
I explain that this new normal is actually like, it’s a stupid normal. It’s just we live in this stupid, normal mindset that reality can be what it is apart from God. I’m saying to my readers we should not settle for that. That’s not okay. It’s not okay for us to try to do life apart from God. That’s what I’m talking about that we don’t want to settle for.
Yeah, and that’s good. It’s interesting because when you say that I’m thinking ‘Well churches obviously, I mean they believe in God!’ but I mean the reality is, this stupid normal has crept into the church.
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s become so prevalent, this whole stupid normal.
Too many Christians have settled for it. Too many Christians have compromised, and rather than doubling down their faith, they have really in a sense compromised it.
I just wrote a new article yesterday for desiringGod. One of the things I just mentioned there is one of the most important things for us is to not do nothing. It’s just complacent, sitting back, kind of settling for this new mindset. I just think it’s just unacceptable.
I’m trying to encourage Christians, trying to encourage my readers, to … one way I’ve described it is to remythologize the world. Now I didn’t come up with that term. Basically, the idea is if we’ve taken God out of the way we view the world, demythologize the world, the world which used to be conceived of, especially by Westerners, by everyone in the world, but Westerners used to conceive the world as an enchanted reality. There is a spiritual world. There is more going on than we can see.
What’s happened in the last – and there’s brilliant men who have written about this and I’m just leaning on them really – but in the last 100 years how this Western view of reality has changed and it’s not enchanted.
We’ve in one sense vacuumed out all the thoughts of God in reality.
I want to say “Hey, we need to double down and reinfuse the way we see the world with the reality of God.” On one level I feel like, man, this is a really deep, complex thing that we’re called to do, that we’re supposed to be doing here as Christians. On the other hand it’s like, it’s very simple. It’s like, “God is real. He’s active and He’s near, and I just want to live life with that on the tip of my tongue and in the front of my mind.” That’s what I’m hoping readers can come away with.
That’s really good. So, let’s dig in just a little bit into your solution. But, as we get there, you talk about humans, how all humans are glory chasers and pleasure seekers, or happiness seekers. The first question is, can you explain glory? It’s one of those words we say all the time in church, but often times it’s misunderstood. We talk about glory as like, we praise God for His glory, but then we’re saying we need to glory in our … all this stuff. So, explain glory.
The word in Hebrew for glory just means heaviness or weight. At that level, glory is significance. It’s a heaviness – what matters.
When it comes to God’s glory, God’s glory is the expression of His manifold perfection.
The way to think about His glory… you have God’s holiness, which is the sum of all His attributes, who God is in His essence, He is holy, He is not like us. Yet, that holiness, which is so beyond us and not like us, it is a holiness that He reveals. That we can know that God is not like us, means that God has revealed Himself to us.
The expression of His holiness, the shining forth of God’s holiness, that is God’s glory.
When we think about God, we think about the expression of all that God is, the weight, the heaviness, the significance of God that we can see and understand. We think about our own selves. The Psalmist uses language talking about that God is their glory.
Our significance is bound up in God’s significance and who God is and His worth.
Because Jesus says things like, “deny yourself.” You just said that our glory is God, but I guess a lot of people can get that mixed around and have a more selfish, sinful idea that they’re seeking for glory for themselves and they’re seeking for pleasure for themselves. What does the Bible say about that? Where should our glory be in, which you’ve already said is God, but we can just elaborate on that. Also, the idea for seeking for pleasure, at the same time.
The person who has explained this the best is Pastor John Piper. Influenced by him and trying to follow in that same stream of thought and explain this reality that the combination, the intermingling of God’s glory and our joy. If God’s glory is the display of who He is, the display of His holiness, that display is meant to be received by His creatures. It’s meant to be delighted in.
So, God displays His glory so that we, His creatures, might delight in His glory.
Because there’s such an intermingling and partnership between the shining forth of God’s glory and our own happiness and our own joy, then it means we can say in a very real way that God is most committed to the very thing that will give us most joy, that is His glory. We know God is committed to His glory. We know God, His utmost allegiance is to the expression of who He is. That is what satisfies our hearts. That is what we were created by God for, to enjoy Him and to worship Him and to know Him and to find our meaning in Him. When we do, that brings us joy and that glorifies – magnifies God.
To be able to experience that, experience God’s glory to bring you satisfaction and pleasure, how does the Gospel story, which is a true story, give us the hope and the reality of this glory and this pleasure? Maybe flesh out exactly what the Gospel is and then bring in the glory and pleasure as you go throughout.
The Gospel is the amazing, astounding, bewildering news that although we, as God’s creatures being made in His image and likeness, although we have rejected Him and sought for our significance and happiness in everything but Him, He has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. All of our sins, all of our shame, all of our guilt that we deserve to be punished for, Jesus took all of that upon Himself. On the cross, He suffered the wrath that we deserved. He was crucified, dead, buried and then on the third day, He was raised from the dead victoriously over sin, over death. Ascended to the Father’s right hand and throne as King over all the nations and He is the King who is coming again. He will judge the world in righteousness.
How that connects then to our joy, how it connects to our significance, is that humans, although we were made to enjoy God and to find our meaning and significance in God, we failed.
And every way we failed, Jesus came and He prevailed and succeeded. Where we were faithless, He was faithful. Where we were disobedient, He was obedient. We turned to look for ultimate joy in other things, Jesus was completely satisfied and happy with the Father and His sufficiency.
Jesus, having lived not just died for us, but lived for us, it was righteous and perfect for us. He lays for us a new humanity. Not like Adam, who failed, but a new humanity defined by who He is. What we have on the cross is this great exchange of our sin and our failure Jesus takes, and then His righteousness and perfection, this new humanity that He has blazed the trail for, we get invited into that. We share His righteousness, we share in His life. Just like we share His death and resurrection.
We know that because of Jesus, because of the life that He lived and the death that He died, we can experience this joy that God created us to experience. How we see the glory of God and the cross … Jesus’ work was both redemptive and revelatory. Not only is He saving us, but He’s showing us something about who God is. He showed us that God is just, He does judge sin. God is also merciful. He’s merciful in that, Jesus was judged in our place.
In that, we’re just blown away by the grace of God, which was so definitively shown to us at the cross and resurrection of Jesus. That is the way to joy, that is the way to meaning, that is the way to getting back to what God intends for us as humans.
Would you say that the stupid normal is, in a sense, seeking after significance and glory and pleasure and satisfaction in anything but Christ? Which sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t, and then the godly, what you say in your book is the opposite, but let’s say the godly normal or what is right, is seeking for those things in Christ and what He’s done on the cross.
Yes, it’s like this. The dilemma is, is that everyone has this innate craving for significance and happiness. We were made in God’s image and likeness to be satisfied with all that He is for us. To love Him and worship Him and enjoy His fellowship, that’s being with Him, His nearness. That’s why we’re made.
Now sin, it messed all that up. Sin separated us from God and what’s happened is, it’s broken this fellowship we have with God, it’s disoriented us. We still have this innate sin. We want to be happy, we want to matter, but we don’t know where to find it now. We’re lost.
And that’s what lostness is. We have this craving for joy and significance and we don’t know where to go.
Take that innate craving for joy and happiness and now think of culture that says, “God is not real. There is not ultimate reality, there is no absolute truth.” That makes us even more lost. We’re already lost. Now we’re lost and we’re not even … no help at all when it comes to this searching and this trying to find our way because the One who we’re created to find ultimate joy in, He’s being completely disregarded. That’ll be the stupid normal.
Stupid normal will be, we have this craving for happiness and significance and yet we have completely removed the very One who can satisfy that craving and how we think about the world, how we see reality. What we would say, the beautiful, godly, holy normal, would be to understand … of course, God is the only One who can satisfy our craving for joy and significance. Then when we understand that, we still, again, our lives are very mundane. So much of life is still these menial things. We’re doing these things, reconnected to, having fellowship with the One who ultimately satisfies our souls.
When I think about my own life, the sense of joy and the peace that is found in the Gospel that the Holy Spirit is working in my heart, I can’t imagine for me going through anything without that. Without that reality, without that peace, without that experience of God’s nearness. That’s grace, you know. That’s grace.
Question, then. Stupid normal, obviously that’s general and there’s lots of different facets of that, so when you look at your church, when you look at the broader evangelical North American landscape, what do you see as a specific manifestation of the stupid normal in the lives of Christians today?
That’s a great question. I have to think about that. There’s a few different things I could talk about. One would be entertainment. I’m thinking about entertainment because of the recent excitement and controversy regarding the Game of Thrones series that’s come back on TV. I’ve never seen it, I’ve read enough about it to know I don’t want to see it. Even when it comes to entertainment choices, I think we can, as Christians, somehow … you have got to be careful with this, but being able to digest media.
The media doesn’t acknowledge God.
They have these alternative worlds, these realities and it can happen in the most basic sitcom. But it’s basically where we consistently digest things that show life, and God is not in the picture.
There’s this show my wife and I have watched and it’s very well done, has some darkness, real sin and guilt and things in it. What makes it helpful for us is that they acknowledge God. There is a Catholic Priest in it, there’s a church, there’s this reality in this program of “there’s something beyond us, deeper than us, higher than us.”
It’s when we begin to digest content over and over again that doesn’t go there, I just don’t think it’s helpful, especially in the long run.
That’s one thing, obviously there’s so many other things.
I think another thing is when it comes to witness, we can be so tongue tied in the West because of … we’re just afraid that we’re going to offend people by our beliefs – that our beliefs are not popular in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to things like sexuality, which is such a hot topic in my city.
We can tip toe around things and be very timid, and I want us to be humble, but at the same time I want us to have a quiet confidence that we’re the ones who, by God’s grace, are reading this the right way because we have the Bible.
We don’t have to be apologetic and timid and fearful and embarrassed by our understanding of these really important things because the Bible, God, tells us.
Going back to your first point, talking about the idea that entertainment really does immerse us in a whole bunch of ways to live your life that’s completely contrary to what God desires. What would need to change? I’m thinking, specifically, young adultsm because that’s primarily our audience for this program. What would need to change in order for us to stop just receiving all of this? What would we need to do to begin immersing ourself in the Gospel?
I think that is the question. You got to bring this down … I want to bring it down to understanding, sensing, recognizing, acknowledging the realness of God in the little moments of our everyday lives. One of the things that we say at Cities Church is that
Jesus is real.
I think the most go-to prayer for myself and for our church is “Jesus, be more real to us than anything else.”
I think all of our issues, all of our problems, they always start with something else being more real to us than Jesus.
It becomes more real, which means it becomes bigger and it begins to control us and enslave us. We just want to remind ourselves of the fact that Jesus is real. He’s a real person and this real person has all authority in Heaven and on earth. What it means in the daily details, the mundane moments of our day.
In all the little ways that I think we have settled to live in that kind of world, I think we need to try and reinfuse, to remythologize our everyday moments. Even if it’s, your kid has a bad dream, instead of just dismissing the bad dream and telling him to go to bed, pray that Jesus would be mighty for them and protect them and help them get a good night’s sleep. Even little things like that.
That’s so good. Thank you so much, Jonathan, and to our listeners, if you’re interested in Jonathan’s book, Never Settle for Normal: the Proven Path to Significance and Happiness, you can find it at desiringgod.org or Amazon or anything like that. Also, desiringgod.org has many of Jonathan’s articles. So you can search his name and read those, as well. But anyways, thank you so much, Jonathan, for your time and wisdom and I hope to have you back on the show again, soon.
I would love that. Thanks so much for having me, Isaac. It was a blast, thanks.