Losing Jesus


Losing Jesus
Brian Zahnd

Mary had lost Jesus. She couldn’t find him anywhere. Jesus had gone missing. He wasn’t among the friends and relatives who had traveled to Jerusalem for Passover and who were now returning home to Nazareth. Jesus had always been reliable and trustworthy, but now he was inexplicably absent. Concern gave way to panic as Mary and Joseph rushed back to Jerusalem to search for their missing twelve-year-old son.

For three days Mary and Joseph frantically searched Jerusalem. It must have been agony. On the third day they found Jesus in the Temple, sitting with the rabbis immersed in theological conversation. Mary’s anxiety turned to relief and then to irritation. “Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.”

Our sympathies are naturally with Mary. After all, twelve-year-old boys aren’t supposed to disappear for three days without telling anyone. But this isn’t just any adolescent — this is the divine Word in boyhood. Jesus is unapologetic. He doesn’t offer an excuse. What he does say are the first recorded words of Christ:

“Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what Jesus meant by this. It wouldn’t be the last time people failed to understand Jesus.

This story (Luke 2:41–52) is about losing Jesus. Mary had Jesus. She gave birth to Jesus. She nursed him and raised him. She knew him. Better than anyone. Then she lost him. After an agonizing three day search she found him…but he was different. Mary was forced to re-evaluate what she thought she knew about Jesus. Years later Mary would lose Jesus again.

When Jesus began his ministry around the age of thirty, he left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum. But Jesus’ family didn’t understand what he was doing and wanted to force him to return home. Apparently they thought he was out of his mind (see Mark 3:21). When they found him in Capernaum, a message was brought to Jesus: “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.” Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” For the second time Mary had lost Jesus. After seeking and finding him, she had to again rethink what she thought she knew about him.

Mary would lose Jesus one more time. Again for three days in Jerusalem. She would lose him on Good Friday…and find him on Easter Sunday. After that Mary would have rethink Jesus in the ultimate sense.

Losing Jesus. Finding Jesus. Rethinking Jesus. This is how we make spiritual progress. This is the only way we make spiritual progress!

We think we’ve got Jesus figured out. We think we know the crowd where Jesus can be found. We think we know where we can always locate Jesus. Then one day…he’s not there! And we have to go searching for him. “Seek and you shall find.” But when we find Jesus after losing him, he’s…different. That’s when the rethinking (repenting) starts. It’s the only way we make spiritual progress.

I’ve had the experience of what feels like losing Jesus several times in my four decades of trying to follow Jesus. It’s distressing. But it’s also the way of progress. I became a Christ follower during the Jesus Movement. Those were glorious days, but the Jesus Movement wouldn’t last forever. For a long while I followed Jesus in the context of the Charismatic Renewal. It was wonderful. But renewal movements eventually run their course; and besides, the fullness of Jesus cannot be contained in any one movement. So in midlife I was forced to seek Jesus in a new way. After a desperate search I found Jesus in robust theology and the ancient practices of the church. I wasn’t expecting that. Just like Mary wasn’t expecting to find Jesus in the Temple. It was a joy to find Jesus in a new way, but I also had to rethink some things about how I understand Jesus and his church.

How did I become a sacramental, liturgical Christian? By losing Jesus and then finding him again…this time in the theology, sacraments, and prayers of the church. That’s my story. Others have a different story of losing and finding Jesus. Going from Jesus Movement to Charismatic Renewal to the Great Tradition is not necessarily a pattern (though a lot of us seem to have a similar story). What is a pattern is losing Jesus, finding Jesus, and then having to rethink Jesus.

What about those who never have the experience of feeling like they’ve lost Jesus? The Christian mystics would probably suggest they simply lack the spiritual sensitivity to notice Jesus’ absence. Because Jesus was in their crowd ten years ago, they assume Jesus is still there. But this is exactly what Mary and Joseph assumed. Jesus is faithful, but he’s not predictable. The Jesus of the Gospels is full of surprises. To assume that the way we once understood Jesus is the way we always understand Jesus is a prescription for spiritual stagnation.

We have Jesus.
We lose Jesus.
We seek Jesus.
We find Jesus.
We rethink Jesus.

This is the inescapable pattern for spiritual growth. In his book When God Interrupts: Finding New Life Through Unwanted Change, Craig Barnes says, “The deep fear behind every loss is that we have been abandoned by the God who should have saved us. The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God that abandoned us. … Only then is change possible.”

What I’m calling “losing Jesus” is what John of the Cross (1542–1591) called the “dark night of the soul.” The dark night of the soul is not a crisis of circumstances, but a spiritual crisis of absence — the apparent absence of God. God woos us forward by seeming to disappear. It’s a kind of spiritual hide-and-seek. God hides and we seek. Once we recognize God’s absence, we begin to seek God desperately during the agony of the dark night of the soul. In seeking we find…but in finding we discover that we have arrived in a new place and that we have become a different person. This is all part of the spiritual journey.

Losing Jesus. The dark night of the soul. This is how we grow. Without these difficult experiences, we simply stay the same, not even realizing that Jesus is no longer traveling in our company. But if we can have enough spiritual sensitivity to notice when we’ve lost Jesus, we can seek him anew, find him again, and in the process be transformed.


Click here for the sermon “Losing Jesus.”

(The artwork is The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by William Holman Hunt, 1860.)

  • Paul Sheneman

    This is what I preached on Sunday. Glad to know that I wasn’t alone in seeing the connection between Mary losing and finding Jesus to our experience of living the Christian life.

  • Bryden Wilson

    Indeed, “The fullness of Jesus can not be contained in any one movement”, rich words. Your right, this is something helpful and I might say confirming.
    Thank you!

  • I think we need to look at the end of that passage, where it says in the CEV, “His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened.” She didn’t just dismiss it. She sought to reflect upon it, and gain understanding. She had to keep doing that. And so it is with us. We may think we have Jesus and how we relate to Jesus all neatly tied up in the right box, but Jesus is always more than our conception of him. This is why we need the cycle about which you write. We need to see that Jesus won’t stay confined to our boxes. Jesus will always be a challenge to us, and times come when we feel that challenge very strongly. Those are the times when we find a need to explore a side of him and our relationship to him that we haven’t explored much before, or that we have explored without understanding and now need to gain that understanding. Jesus is not static. He is always dynamic, and always greater than our conception of him.

  • I resonate with your journey Brian. I came to Jesus in 76 and rode the charismatic renewal wave for a long time in leadership at three very large KC churches over a 30 year period. In hindsight, what was presented as prophetic and charismatic was simply a cloaked mixture of pentecostal fundamentalism.

    My dark night of the soul began when my first wife died. It has involved a releasing of my pain, a rejection of much of what I was taught in bible college and an embracing of the Jesus of the gospels. With regard to the church, it has also involved a rejection of the 45 minute four point evangelical sermon, manipulative giving strategies and the delineation between sacred and secular vocations.

    Richard Rohr (I am not a big fan of his) calls the process Falling Upward and says that it is emblematic of embracing the second half of life. It has been hard for me to let go of the things that once stroked my religious ego but I am making progress. Who would have thought that it would be necessary to lose the Jesus of our younger years to find him?

    Thanks for listening. Appreciate your ministry.

    Blessings, Bob

  • Thank you, Bob. I too appreciate Richard Rohr and his vocabulary of “falling upward.” My new book “Water To Wine: Some of My Story” will be released next month. It’s more or less a memoir of my “falling upward” in midlife. Blessings to you. -BZ

  • I had a conversation a few months ago with someone who argued that Jesus was an ancient near eastern Jew, with all (or many) of the prejudices thereunto appertaining. They argued from this that Jesus would have opposed same-sex marriage, and I felt lost again – like I had lost Jesus. I’m still hunting him down, trying to figure out how to follow Jesus when I clearly cannot agree with or affirm what it now seems obvious the historical Jesus would have thought.

  • Tony_C

    Excellent! Never connected the parts of the narrative quite like you have here. My heart cries for ones I’ve known in the different movements who seem to have landed.. or arrived.. who stayed and waved good bye. Sadly, not only did I lose Jesus but friends along the way. Like being born again again and your friends think you’ve fallen off the edge. What an amazing journey to feel lost and discover he never left. Perhaps it is in coming to terms with the fact I change and he doesn’t that brings the peace I seek. Letting go of the certainties. It’s like that with everyone even when they don’t recognize it. One more reason to hold out hope. The journey continues!!

  • KentonS

    Thanks for this, Brian.

    As I read this, I was reflecting on Mary’s Magnificat which was before she lost Jesus the first time. The way I read it, Jesus was going to kick some @$$ and take some names. Before I lost Jesus the first time, I thought the same.

    Have you seen “The Letters”, the recent movie about Mother Teresa? I think she was experiencing a loss of Jesus.

  • “Like being born again again and your friends think you’ve fallen off the edge” Amen, Tony.

  • I haven’t seen “The Letters” but hope to.

  • Fred Harrell

    This is identical to my own experience. What is agonizing to me is to watch spiritual mentors from days gone by who never lost, found, rethought Jesus throughout their life… the Jesus of their 30s is the same Jesus without a single nuance of their 60s and their influence and vision were impaired as a result. Thanks for this post.

  • Michael

    I like the article, but I’m missing the point about becoming a “sacramental, liturgical Christian.” From an Orthodox or Catholic perspective it’s nothing more than a Reformed Protestant “making it up as we go along” theology/Ecclesiology.
    You mention progress, but the Protestant methodology is no different, nor the parishioners at large.
    Again, I appreciate the story, but to call yourself liturgical and then tweet out your “new sermon series & title” while mixing in a few Sacraments causes our historical bro’s & sis’s to snicker at the naivete

  • I’ve been more than snicked at and I’m pretty immune to it. I feel no need to justify myself to snickering Catholics and Orthodox. Besides, there are plenty who don’t snicker. Finally, you might recognize that this blog was also my sermon title for last Sunday — based on the Gospel portion from the Revised Common Lectionary. Peace. BZ

  • Michael

    Do you think Non-denom Churches with this type of make-it-up-as-we-go-along methodology will survive the next 30years?
    Can any Church with a historical tradition going all the way back to the (American) Jesus Movement survive postmodernity?

  • What I suspect is that Charismatic and Evangelical churches finding there way into the Great Tradition will thrive over the next thirty years. This is already happening in fairly significant ways. My fuller answer will be in the 200 pages of “Water To Wine” which comes out January 19.

  • “Losing Jesus. Finding Jesus. Rethinking Jesus. This is how we make spiritual progress. This is the only way we make spiritual progress!”

    So good!

  • Michael

    I’ll definitely be interested and curious to read the new book and to hear about your journey.

  • David Skomsvold

    A.W. Tozer said, “The world is dying for the lack of the knowledge of God and the church is famished for the lack of His presence”. When we first meet Jesus we are overwhelmed with His love and presence as we know Him at that point in time. This new experience tends to wane with time. The church, for a large part, is motivated to fill in this “Dead-Air” like they have to do on radio or TV at times. This is done with substitutions and compensations for the lack of His presence, using all the things churches come up with for that purpose, and they actually can fulfill a purpose. I believe this is true whether we speak of Protestant churches, Catholic churches, or Orthodox churches. Each church starts out with some real or perceived aspects of their understanding of the manifold wisdom of God as a focus for their church or denomination. This can be helpful to expand our understanding of the vast nature and character of the living God, but our human tendency is for us to rely on the method or newness of what we have learned or experienced to filled in the void of this “Dead-Air” instead of seeking the Lord Himself on a daily basis. We thus sometimes exult ourselves based on what we know and have learned, we equate belief as a system of thought with true faith which is quite different. When we are satisfied with the former we tend to cease to seek the latter, we loose our first love. Thus we need to continually find Jesus again, tough He is always there.

  • JK

    For a few years Will Willimon was my favorite preacher, and taught me new ways to see, seek and find Jesus. He retired and soon after I discovered you. In both style and substance this post, like so much of your work, shares his keen eye and fresh insight.

    Thank you for your work, and for taking seriously your role in the very process you describe here for so many of us.

  • DebbyJane62

    Every life change is a birthing experience. We lose and gain, seek and find, are broken and refreshed. We have many rebirthing experiences in our journey with Jesus. I know of those feelings of losing Jesus when they are called times to seek Him more and lead us to find a new place. When we find ourselves in a dry place, it is a call for God drawing us near to refresh us with His Living Water. (I do not believe “the dark night of the soul” is a Christian perspective.)

  • Tom Torbeyns

    cool! 🙂

  • Tom Torbeyns

    Very nice article but remember that Jesus said that He will never leave us nor forsake us! 🙂 Can I copy this to my website please? 🙂

  • Jack Hyde

    I think as long as we are concerned our “church” surviving will probably miss Jesus anyway. If we know and aknowlege the move of Jesus in the Kingdom, we will walk with Jesus in His Kingdom. That’s my heart. I’ll give up denominational methodology for Jesus.

  • Michael

    Are you on staff at a Church perhaps? I ask bc “giving up methodology” *is a methodology itself – and in non-denom it usually looks like the make-it-up-as-we-go-along/Reinvent the Church wheel every 10-20 years. That’s consumer (Protestant) Christianity abusing the Great Tradition not finding there way *in it! I’ll wait to hear/read BZ book, but I’m afraid it’s a similar narrative with diff packaging…

  • Jack

    Nope just a guy on a journey. I found that I understood, followed and loved Jesus more after I began reading the words of Jesus more and doctrine less. Not what I expect from others it’s just His leading in my life.

  • DebbyJane62

    Mary found a young man; her son had grown. There is a time when we let go of the child for the young adult. I understand the feeling of losing Jesus and being in a dark place and seeking Him to find a new place. These rebirthing experiences happen many times throughout our journey with Him.

  • Nothing profound to say here, but only yes, yes, yes.

  • DebbyJane62

    The title of this blog and the emphasis on “Losing Jesus” is misleading. Jesus will never leave us, you are right! The emphasis is on lose and gain, seek and find, stagnate and refresh. The journey of new rebirthing experiences along the journey. We all go through them from time to time. Read Luke 2:41-52…it will clarify.

  • Marty

    I think this is a nice way to think of spiritual growth. As I read it I couldn’t help but think “When is Brian going to come out of the closet and Cross the Tiber?” I mean no disrespect by this statement. You clearly love the Lord and are seeking His truth. If you continue heading down the Great Tradition path and are sincerely open to truth, you are going to end up having a Paul on the road to Damascus moment where you realize the Bride of Christ has been there since the beginning waiting for you. May the God of truth and love draw you to His truth and into full communion with His church. God bless you.

    PS – if you are really interested in one 3rd/4th century story of how the Great Tradition was established, I highly recommend reading – The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church by Rod Bennett.

  • Yeah, I could cross the Tiber to Catholicism. Or…
    Breach the Bosporus to Orthodoxy. Or…
    Swim the Thames to Anglicanism.


    I can seek the to be a part of an authentic expression of the kingdom of Jesus in the 21st century right where I am.



  • Discerning the times and seasons have greatly helped me navigate life. And learning to know myself has probably the most important aspect of my faith journey. Growing up Episcopal as a youth then coming to faith as a Charismatic has helped me to understand that traditions are more seasonal than anything. The important thing for me is to fully live in the present and not remember past seasons with rose colored glasses. Those seasons/traditions were great but not that much. ツ

  • Tom Torbeyns

    I know the text but you’re right 🙂

  • KentonS

    I’ve been contemplating on this for a few days now, and have shared it with two friends who appreciated it.

    The more I think about this, the more it occurs to me that this is the perfect meditation for Holy Saturday. I think I will return to this again then.

  • Amen.

  • Tom Torbeyns

    I am in a dilemma… I am part of a Pentecostal church which I really love but it is not part of the original church. So it is against unity but if I go to the original church, I seperate from the Pentecostal church, which is also against unity… If you get what I’m saying? 🙂

    Ps. Been reading your blog today and it was a great experience! 🙂

  • charlesburchfield

    See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up. I am making a way in the wilderness & streams in the waistland.
    ~isiah 43.19

  • Brent Henderson

    So, great, Brian. I’ve incorporated some of this into my sermon this Sunday (which was already gonna be on the story of Jesus in the temple!) and sharing my own journey of losing and finding Jesus over the past 30 years. Thanks so much for work and encouragement.

  • Blessings to you, Brent.

  • Marcos A Schwantes
  • Thank you, Marcos.

  • Melody Ezzell

    I read this a week ago and am still ruminating with a full and grateful heart. I
    too have had this disconcerting experience several times in my life. My
    response was to feel ashamed and abandoned. What relief to understand that in fact,
    it’s a God-ordained pattern for my maturing and growing closer to Him. In
    recent months, the Lord has been weaving this together for me. You’ve expressed my journey
    so precisely! What peace I find in this truth! Not only for myself, but as a mother
    and grandmother, too. Instead of wringing my hands over my family and their
    journeys, I can raise my hands heavenward with assurance, expressing my trust that
    He will be found by them! I can ask Him to grow our seeker’s hearts. And we can
    enjoy being detectives for His fingerprints as we walk along! “I will be found
    by you,” He declares (Is 29:14). This is truly a shift in thinking from what I’ve
    understood about living the Christian life. It’s powerful. And then, what joy to hear (and
    appreciate – not judge “) all the unique ways He is revealing Himself to
    others! Thank you P. Brian. Grace and peace.

  • Peace to you, Melody.