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Winn Collier

Winn Collier

Winn’s home is Charlottesville, Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Miska, and their two sons. Winn likes friendship, fair-trade coffee, smart movies, books worth reading, mountains, questions, and walking in the woods. Winn dislikes pretense, fear, injustice—and that he doesn’t live anywhere near a Planet Smoothie. Winn writes for magazines and is the author of four books: Restless Faith: Hanging on to a God Just Out of ReachLet God: The Transforming Wisdom of François FénelonHoly Curiosity: Encountering Jesus’ Provocative Questions; and his recent fiction, Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church. Winn is pastor of All Souls Charlottesville.

Articles by Winn Collier

God Looms Larger

Giles Kelmanson, South African game ranger, described the incredible scene: two honey badgers battling a pride of six lions. Although outnumbered, the honey badgers refused to back down from ferocious predators ten times their size. The lions thought the kill would be simple, but video footage shows the badgers walking away with something like a swagger.

David and Goliath offer an even more improbable story. Young, inexperienced David confronted the fierce Philistine Goliath. Towering above his young combatant, Goliath possessed brute strength and unrivalled weaponry—bronze armor and a lethal, razor-edged javelin (vv. 5–6). David, a fledgling shepherd, carried only a slingshot when he arrived at the battlefield with bread and cheeses for his brothers (vv. 17–18).

Goliath challenged Israel to engage in battle, but no one was willing to fight. King Saul and “all the Israelites were . . . terrified” (v. 11). Imagine the shock when David stepped into the fray. What gave him courage none of Israel’s hardened warriors possessed? For most everyone, Goliath dominated their vision. David, however, saw God. “The Lord will deliver [Goliath] into my hands,” he insisted (v. 46). While everyone else believed Goliath dominated the story, he believed God loomed larger. And, with a single stone to the giant’s forehead, David’s faith proved true.

We’re tempted to believe that “Goliath” (our troubles) dominates the story. God is larger, however. He dominates the story of our lives.

Destroying the Shroud

A brutal car wreck devastated Mary Ann Franco. Though she survived, the injuries left her completely blind. “All I could see was blackness,” Franco explained. Twenty-one years later, she injured her back in a fall. After waking from surgery (which had nothing to do with her eyes), miraculously, her sight had returned! For the first time in more than two decades, Franco saw her daughter’s face. The neurosurgeon insisted there was no scientific explanation for her restored vision. The darkness that seemed so final gave way to beauty and light.

The Scriptures, as well as our experience, tell us that a shroud of ignorance and evil covers the world, blinding all of us to God’s love (v. 7). Selfishness and greed, our self-sufficiency, our lust for power or image—all these compulsions obscure our vision, making us unable to clearly see the God who “in perfect faithfulness [has] done wonderful things” (v. 1).

One translation calls this blinding shroud a “cloud of gloom” (nlt). Left to ourselves, we experience only darkness, confusion, and despair. We often feel trapped—groping and stumbling, unable to see our way forward. Thankfully, Isaiah promises that God will ultimately “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples” (v. 7)

God will not leave us hopeless. His radiant love removes whatever blinds us, surprising us with a beautiful vision of a good life and abundant grace.

The Call to Courage

Among a display of male statues (Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and others) in London’s Parliament Square, also stands a lone statue of a woman. The solitary woman is Millicent Fawcett, who fought for the right of women to vote. She’s immortalized in bronze and holding a banner displaying words she offered in a tribute to a fellow suffragist: “Courage calls to courage everywhere.” Fawcett insisted that one person’s courage emboldens others—calling timid souls into action.

As David prepared to hand his throne over to his son Solomon, he explained the responsibilities that would soon rest heavy on his shoulders. It’s likely Solomon quivered under the weight of what he faced: leading Israel to follow all God’s instructions, guarding the land God had entrusted to them, and overseeing the monumental task of building the temple (vv. 8–10).

Knowing Solomon’s trembling heart, David offered his son powerful words: “Be strong and courageous. . . . Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you” (v. 20). Real courage would never arise from Solomon’s own skill or confidence but rather from relying on God’s presence and strength. God provided the courage Solomon needed.

When we face hardship, we often try to drum up boldness or talk ourselves into bravery. However, God is the one who renews our faith. God will be with us. And God’s presence with us calls us to courage.

Unexpected Winners

Perhaps the most preposterous, spellbinding moment in the 2018 Winter Olympics was when the Czech Republic’s world champion snowboarder Ester Ledecka won an event in a completely different sport: skiing! And she took the first-place gold medal even though she had the unenviable position of skiing 26th—a feat believed to be basically impossible.

Amazingly, Ledecka qualified to race the women’s super-G—an event that combines downhill skiing with a slalom course. After she won by .01 of a second on borrowed skis, the cameras showed she was just as shocked as the media and other contestants who had assumed the winner would be one of the top skiers in the sport.

This is how the world works. We assume the winners will keep winning while all the others will lose. It was a jolt, then, when the disciples heard Jesus say how “hard [it is] for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Jesus turned everything upside down. How could being rich (a winner) offer a roadblock? Apparently, if we trust in what we have (what we can do, who we are), then it’s not only hard but actually impossible to trust God.

The kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules. “Many who are first,” Jesus says, “will be last, and many who are last will be first” (v. 30). And, whether you’re first or last, everything we receive is purely by grace—by God’s unmerited favor.

Bearing the Burden of Wrongs

On January 30, 2018, almost thirty-eight years after his conviction, Malcolm Alexander walked out of prison a free man. DNA evidence cleared Alexander, who had steadfastly maintained his innocence amid a myriad of court proceedings that were tragically unjust. An incompetent defense attorney (later disbarred), shoddy evidence, and dubious investigative tactics all put an innocent man in prison for nearly four decades. When he was finally released, however, Alexander showed immense grace. “You cannot be angry,” he said. “There’s not enough time to be angry.”

Alexander’s words evidence a deep grace. If injustice robbed us of 38 years of our lives and destroyed our reputations, we would likely be angry, furious. Though Alexander spent many long, heartbreaking years bearing the burden of wrongs inflicted upon him, he wasn’t undone by the evil. Rather than exerting his energy trying to exact revenge, he exhibited the posture Peter instructs: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult” (1 Peter 3:9).

The Scriptures go a step further: rather than seeking vengeance, the apostle Peter tells us we are to bless (v. 9). We extend forgiveness, the hope of well-being, for those who have unjustly wronged us. Without excusing their evil actions, we can meet them with God’s scandalous mercy. On the cross, Jesus bore the burden of our wrongs, that we might receive grace and extend it to others—even those who have wronged us.

Standing with Courage

While most German church leaders gave in to Hitler, theologian and pastor Martin Niemöller was among the brave souls who resisted Nazi evil. I read a story describing how in the 1970s a group of older Germans stood outside a large hotel while what appeared to be a younger man bustled about with the group’s luggage. Someone asked who the group was. “German pastors,” came the answer. “And the younger man?” “That’s Martin Niemöller—he’s eighty. But he has stayed young because he is unafraid.”

Niemöller wasn’t able to resist fear because he possessed some super-human anti-fear gene, but because of God’s grace. In fact, he once held anti-Semitic views. But in the end, he repented and God restored him and helped him to speak and live out the truth.

Moses encouraged the Israelites to resist fear and follow God in truth. When they’d become fearful after learning Moses would soon be taken from them, the leader had an unflinching word for them: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified . . . for the LORD your God goes with you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). There was no reason to tremble before an uncertain future because of one reason: God was with them.

Whatever darkness looms for you, whatever terrors bombard you—God is with you. By God’s mercy, may you face your fears with the knowledge that God “will never leave you nor forsake you” (v. 6).

Working off Bad Information

On a recent trip to New York City, my wife and I wanted to brave a snowy evening and hire a taxi for a three-mile ride from our hotel to a Cuban restaurant. After entering the details into the taxi service’s app, I gulped hard when the screen revealed the price for our short jaunt: $1,547.26. After recovering from the shock, I realized I had mistakenly requested a ride to our home—several hundred miles away!

If you’re working with the wrong information, you’re going to end up with disastrous results. Always. This is why Proverbs encourages us to “apply [our] heart to instruction and [our] ears to words of knowledge”—God’s wisdom (Proverbs 23:9–12). If we instead seek advice from those who are foolish, those who pretend to know more than they do and who have turned their back on God, we’ll be in trouble. They “scorn . . . prudent words” and can lead us astray with unhelpful, misguided or even deceptive advice (v. 9).

Instead, we can bend our “ears to words of knowledge” (v. 12). We can open our heart and receive God’s liberating instruction, words of clarity and hope. When we listen to those who know the deep ways of God, they help us receive and follow divine wisdom. And God’s wisdom will never lead us astray but always encourages and leads us, toward life and wholeness.

Sinking into Grace

Finally, on January 8, 1964, 17-year-old Randy Gardner did something he hadn’t done for 11 days and 25 minutes: he nodded off to sleep. He wanted to beat the Guinness Book World Record for how long a human could stay awake. By drinking soft drinks and hitting the basketball court and bowling alley, Gardner rebuffed sleep for a week and a half. Before finally collapsing, his sense of taste, smell, and hearing went haywire. Decades later, Gardner suffered from severe bouts of insomnia. He set the record but also confirmed the obvious: sleep is essential.

Many of us struggle to get a decent night’s rest. Unlike Gardner who deprived himself intentionally, we might suffer sleeplessness for a number of reasons—including a mountain of anxieties: the fear of all we need to accomplish, the dread of others’ expectations, the distress of living at a frantic pace. Sometimes it is hard for us to turn off the fear and relax.

The psalmist tells us that “unless the Lord builds the house,” we labor in vain (Psalm 127:1). Our “toiling” and our relentless efforts are useless unless God provides what we need. Thankfully, God does provide what we need. He “grants sleep to those he loves” (v. 2). And God’s love extends to all of us. He invites all of us to release our anxieties to Him and sink into His rest, into His grace.

Rip the Heavens

In a recent conversation, where a friend shared with me that she’d abandoned her faith, I heard a familiar complaint: how can I believe in a God who doesn’t ever seem to do anything? This gut-wrenching question appears for most of us at one point or another, as we read of violence in the news and as we carry our own heartbreak. My friend’s distress revealed her intense need for God to act on her behalf, a longing we’ve all likely felt.

Israel knew this terrain well. The Babylonian Empire overwhelmed Israel, crushing them with an iron fist and turning Jerusalem into smoldering rubble. The prophet Isaiah put words to the people’s dark doubt: Where is the God who’s supposed to rescue us? (63:11–15). And yet from precisely this place, Isaiah offered a bold prayer: God, “rend the heavens and come down” (64:1). Isaiah’s pain and sorrow drove him not to pull away from God, but to seek to draw closer to Him.

Our doubts and troubles offer a strange gift: they reveal how lost we are and how much we need God to move toward us. We see now the remarkable, improbable story. In Jesus, God did rip the heavens and come to us. Christ surrendered His own ripped and broken body so that He could overwhelm us with His love. In Jesus, God is very near.

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