During the National Worship Leader Conference in California last year, we had a chance to catch up with recording artist and worship leader Tim Timmons and talk about some of the things on his heart. What resulted was an open and earnest conversation about the goodness of God. With his new release, Awake Our Souls, released this past Friday, we thought it would be timely to share that conversation here. (This was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of worship leader. For articles like this one, subscribe today.)
Worship Leader: Tell us a little of your life’s story. What’s your hearts message for the people you lead in worship?
Tim Timmons: I’ve led worship all my life, but I never really wanted to be a worship leader or a Christian Musician. And then about 12 years ago Jesus started changing my heart. I always wanted to be outside of the Church and point to Jesus from there. Then two weeks before I was going to leave a position on a church staff to go out into the secular market, I found out that I had cancer. They gave me five years to live. And that was 12 years ago. And … that was pretty sobering. That was one of those moments where you say, “Umm this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. This happens to someone else.” The church that I was with, Mariners church in Southern California, invited me to just to stay on staff, keep my insurance and everything. And it was during that time that Jesus changed my view on what I was doing. He moved it from me going out and getting a fan at a time, which was addition. To me asking, what if I could be a part of inviting all these people every weekend to know Jesus and then to re-present Jesus to 10 people that I will never meet. Then you have multiplication. I thought, “That makes sense.” What if that’s actually more powerful for my story? My heart was actually changed. Which seemed impossible at that point in my life.
I’ve been walking through cancer for 12 years, and many different forms of sorrow and pain, hospitalizations and treatments and surgeries and everything. Then four years ago, I was journaling, like a good Christian boy should, and I sensed that I was in the preface of the second book in the trilogy of my life. Then I thought, that is so stupid. Like who comes up with that stuff? I kept sensing it all week though, I even told my wife about it. That next week I started getting emails from people all over the country, and they basically said, “You don’t know me, but God told me to tell you that you are starting a new season. Follow Jesus, and he’ll walk with you.” Everyone saying the same thing.
And that was really the beginning of Jesus apprehending my heart. At that point I wrote a prayer, which became the last song on my recent record. The chorus is basically, “So I surrender all, would you let my kingdom fall, so yours alone will be the only one standing.”
He began breaking down my kingdom. And I am so grateful for his process. Yes, it’s been a pruning process—like two years of just pain and anguish. We found new tumors, we had relational stuff with friends; it was crazy season. And in that time I began to say, “Jesus, let’s start a revival. I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.” But his response was that it’s not about starting a revival in the world. It’s about starting a revival in me. It has to start there.
I think I’ve known Jesus my whole life and known about him and tried to be like him, and those things are great. But at this time he was saying, “Just know me.” I was trying to make fruit out of my labor instead of experiencing the fruit of the Spirit.
Now I feel more like a preschooler as a follower of Jesus. But it’s been more fun than I’ve ever had in my life.
When I go out and travel, I’m more of a missionary to Christians than anything. I think the majority of us know all about Jesus. I just don’t know if we know him. You know? There’s a difference there. I’m just at the beginning of learning it and I’m watching Jesus make fruit out of it in my life, instead of me producing a lot of things.
WL: How do you encourage someone to know him better?
TT: Look at your prayers. Look at the things you are asking for, the things you are demanding, you don’t have to stop asking for things, but discover who is the king in your scenario. Is this my kingdom? Or am I willing to let my kingdom fall so that his alone is the one standing?
When I worry, it’s more about me being the king of the kingdom (or the queendom). I’m taking the crown back and taking responsibility for the outcome. Partly it’s about whose agenda are we following? When I wake up in the morning, am I telling Jesus what we are going to do today? Asking him to show up for various parts of it. My whole life I have basically said, “Jesus, here’s what I want to do. Are you ready? We’re going to do this together. It’s for your kingdom; it’s for your glory. So here we go.” …. But what if Jesus is on the move with or without me? What if he is? My only advice is know him.
Someone recently said to me, “I’m trying less to be like Jesus, and I’m trying more to be with Jesus.” There’s a real difference there. If we are being with Jesus, as opposed to being like him, we can actually re-present him in this world.
I just got to a point of being tired of doing good Christian things. Trying to be great, holding it all together, it’s so tiring. And once I started to just be with Jesus, I’ve never had more fun in my life. I’ve never had more peace or more joy.
A few years ago my dad asked me, “Tim, is Jesus enough for you?” My first answer was like, “Ummm, duh.” How many times have I prayed that song, “You’re more than enough for me.” But I actually spent some time thinking about it, and I had to call myself out a little, because he’s not enough for me. I mean I’m an amazing American Christian, but Jesus is surely not enough for me. To take care of the things I worry about, the things I’m striving for; he’s just not enough.
So ask yourself that question, “Is Jesus really enough for me? And what more do I want?” Just be honest with it. I spent a good year telling Jesus that he wasn’t enough for me. I wished he was enough for me, I knew he was supposed to be enough, but he wasn’t.
So how do we reconcile this? I didn’t try to reconcile it. I just admitted it for a year. And now I’m watching him, every year, be a little bit more enough.
WL: Our congregations are filled with people who are struggling every week with sorrows and pains; how can you lead in a way that is aware of that fact?
TT: You can only say so many times, “Everyone, think about what this song means.” But that’s what we want. We want people to think about the words they are singing. To realize that this is a great prayer, or maybe this is a dangerous prayer. As worship leaders, we are telling people a lot of things. We tell them things all the time. We say, “God is good!” And there is a guy out there in the back thinking, “Nope.”
We say, “His promises are strong.” And lots of people cheer. We sing the upbeat songs at the beginning of the service, the ones the pastors like to call the “gathering songs,” but when it comes down to it, I don’t know if we know why we are singing these songs. I think there is a difference between deductive and inductive. Deductive is saying, “Hey guys, God is good, let’s sing this song, ‘How great is our God …’”
I guarantee that if instead of that approach I said, “Why are you grateful today?” I then give people a second to ponder that. Then in the midst of whatever people are going through, whether it’s great or awful, they will then own their response to Jesus. Your response might be that you are just going to tell Jesus to talk to the hand. I don’t know; that’s not up to me as the worship leader. But I think my job is to help people own their response to Jesus. Wherever they are. I don’t know if we are great at inviting people to own their response to Jesus. Good or bad. We tend to tell them their response, “Hey sing this song because he is good!”
When I think of Jesus, I think of how often he asked questions. Over and over again. As worship leaders we just don’t do that. And pastors. We just tell people good truth. I just want to do stuff how Jesus did stuff. I ask Jesus all the time to give me questions to ask, whether I’m leading worship or if I’m on a plane next to a stranger. I’m not going to tell the stranger what to do, but I can ask him questions. That’s inductive—inviting people into their own story. Since everyone has their own story, how do we invite them in to their own story to actually worship through their own life lens?
WL: Worship is a celebration; so how do you celebrate with suffering in your life? How do you thank God for his good works when you are dealing with things that don’t feel so good?
TT: I remember Job. In part of my own story, because cancer is not my story, but I have a perspective through cancer that is my story. I think about Job all the time, and how often he questioned things. And he had every right to question things. And yet when he experienced God in the questioning of God he received a litigation back, “Where were you when I set the boundaries of the ocean?” And it’s a reminder that God is God, and I’m not.
The thing we all have to come to is, “Is he good or is he not.” That’s something you have to wrestle with. I can’t tell you he’s good. And don’t believe me that he’s good. You have to find that for yourself.
What I’m learning right now in the midst of pain and suffering is found in John 15 where Jesus says he is the vine and his Father is the gardener. The Father is the one doing the pruning. But he prunes so that we will actually grow and have life. And that he will bear much fruit out of us, fruit that is lasting. But the whole pruning process? It’s kinda gnarly. I don’t know what it means completely for him to prune; I don’t think he gave me cancer. But I know that he’s at work in it and through it. And I think he’s a good gardener. That’s what I have seen so far. I think he is doing things to make his garden beautiful.
So these days, I don’t welcome suffering, but I’m not damning it either. I ask him to heal me all the time, yet through it, I’m watching him change me. But part of it goes back to the fact that I’m starting to know him instead of knowing about this “God.”
I also never knew that main thing that Jesus talked about was his kingdom. We talk about the good news all the time. Ask anyone, the good news is that Jesus died on the cross and he rose again for our sins and that is great. But what’s the gospel, the good news, according to Jesus? Jesus says that the good news is the good news of the kingdom. Where the king is king, always. That’s what he talks about, and it’s almost like I never saw it. Jesus talks about the kingdom nonstop. But through pain, I’ve started to see things through a different lens. It’s like putting on different glasses in my same life. I’m looking for where is he at work in the midst of my crap and in the midst of my cancer. Where is he at work? It’s not a good idea to tell this to someone when they are going through something tough, “God’s at work. It’s gonna be fine.” I say, “No it’s not.” It might go down in flames. But is he God or is he not? Is he good or is he not? And then what is your posture. The kingdom of God is a treasure that is found in a field, a treasure so valuable that someone would sell everything he owns to acquire that field. Now is a good time for us to figure out what the kingdom of God is all about. Because I am seeing the kingdom at work all the time in and through pain. And I am finding God to be good. And the fruit of the Spirit are starting to come out of me. Not because I’m a better Christian, but because Jesus is actually alive … in me.
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After two decades of ministry and a lifetime of looking for Jesus, Timmons is no stranger to pain, cancer, sorrow, failure, joy and hope. “For most of my life,” Timmons shares, “I found myself working FOR God, and not WITH Him, which lead to my tired soul desperately searching for more. Saying, ‘Jesus, is this all there is?’” His latest single, “You Never Let Go” featuring Tammi Haddon, is a prayer to remind us that regardless of the season we find ourselves in, how connected or disconnected we feel to God, He will NEVER, ever let us go.