“Are you the King of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
When a friend and I talk about religion, about God – about Jesus – I get so angry, scared and upset. If only I could make him understand. In all honesty, I’m nearly as angry at myself in those moments when he won’t hear and is so busy being “wise” that his heart won’t open to a truth deeper than easily verifiable fact.
I’m not asking him to be deliberately stupid; God gave us these wonderful minds to develop and use. I find it amazing that we’re living in a time in which we know enough about the way minds develop and the effects of different activities on those minds that, to a certain extent, we can actually physically shape our own minds and encourage or discourage different types of synaptic wiring.
The capacity God put within us is amazing . . . but what our minds can grasp is still limited. We cannot fully comprehend the infinite or anything that goes beyond our direct experience, nor are we asked to. God wants us to know truth and to be set free by it, which requires searching through our deepest fears, studying Biblical passages we don’t fully get, hearing and evaluating Godly messages we receive from other human beings, relying on a faith that may still be in its infancy, and through conversations with The Big Guy full of questions to which we may not immediately receive an answer. That is, assuming we’re not too busy talking to listen anyway, or terribly insistent that the answer come as an incontrovertible etching on stone tablets or a voice from a burning bush . . . which is what I expect my friend is waiting for, in a sense.
Even then, he might suspect some Hollywood special effects were going on or, in deference to Occam’s Razor, give preference to a simpler explanation (like aliens) and so explain away the voice of God coming at him, live and in stereo. It is a frightening thing, giving up that imaginary control we’re so fond of – that futile grasp on mastering the universe to which we cling down to the last, slippery finger on the edge – rather than admit our smallness and need.
There is in him a questioning, a searching . . . a cynicism and inability to conceive that a man could have literally been the son of God or why it would have been necessary at all. We somehow skirt around the humanistic pipe dream of a touchy-feely loving God who would never “send someone to hell” – if hell even exists – forgetting that one of the great gifts God gave us is that of free will. Great because God knew a belief based on fear or intimidation is inauthentic at worst, immature at best. Great because God loved us enough to set us free to choose our own fate, to accept the fact of his love and salvation – or not.
Still, I can’t help thinking that if I could just say things right somehow, I could help him dismantle the skepticism he clings to; instead of believing the lies of the “rational” mind that he and many of his friends have embraced, he would know the truth and be set free.
But I’m so afraid he won’t, that the defenses he’s built around this area of his mind and heart are too thick and prickly, too icy sure of nothing, for any little flame I might offer to penetrate. My prayers are too weak and small, and I’m too distracted by the clutter of life. I lose my way over and over, and can’t help him find his because I’m so bad with directions myself. These are the things I tell myself, ready to accept that I cannot change the world – or even this wonderful man next to me. My fears are ready to override the love that would throw him a lifeline anyway, even if he’s annoyed by the suggestion that he can’t swim the ocean by himself.
Then again, maybe in some far-off realm of possibility, just maybe that’s what he needs to see – the doubts and mistakes and the underlying insecurity . . . the sincerity – to fight against the sincerely mistaken theology of the angry and the “wise”.
I don’t understand everything. I have to admit that and start from a place of honesty in order to provide a light, even if that opens up my witness to criticisms I don’t know how to ward off, that I may not know the answer to. We know that in faith, God provides the words we need, but sometimes nervous people, like me, have trouble letting go of insecurities enough to hear the voice of God. What is important is to take that step in faith anyway. Love must be stronger than fear, for “there is no fear in love.”
Each step must be grounded in truth; lies to cover flaws and weaknesses only allow the structure to be more and more unsound as it rises to the sky. Eventually, my faults will be known and, unless I intend a tangled frame of lies instead of something that eventually glorifies God, I must remove them all. At least if they are exposed, they can be repaired and the structure will be sound . . . even if it appears to grow more slowly.
I have my doubts and confusions. I have questions within my belief that I am still, years later, working through. That doesn’t make the basic premise of Christianity untrue. Those are fringe issues to be dealt with that shouldn’t distract (or be allowed to distract) from the basic fact of sacrificial salvation and redemption that we all need.
The Basic Facts
Someone was born on earth who taught us the right way to live – a way in which love, giving, and perfection, however impossible that may be, are requirements; a way in which money is not evil – unless it comes between a human soul and God; a way in which we are to desire God’s will and plan above our own, even if it costs us everything. It is not an easy way, but, we are told, it is easier than the way we normally try to live our lives.
It is not the way we would naturally go, which is why it always surprises me when nonbelievers accuse Christians of wishful thinking. (Frankly, if I were going to wish a religion into existence, I’d concentrate my wishing on something a little more comfortable – I’d lighten up on the cost to me . . . which is what too many people make of God and then define as their own reality.)
This Someone wasn’t wishy-washy. There were times he said things that were offensive or that flew in the face of tradition. I don’t believe his primary goal was to offend – far from it – but speaking truth was far more important than stroking egos or promoting a feel-good religion. He valued love above the law: a love that is costly and unselfish and prefers others’ needs above your own. He valued God’s house as a place of worship and didn’t hesitate to turn out the vendors and the money changers, even though they were a cultural institution, and were people he’d probably seen before when he taught his followers there. But it was time to deal with the problem and he didn’t let the indignation of others interfere with doing what was right in God’s eyes.
This Someone both served the people, in teaching and practical matters like healing and the unglorified menial task of foot-washing. He also spent time alone in order to better know God and be able to hear a voice that is hard to find in the midst of a noisy crowd. It is important to rest and refresh in order to better serve. Even so, it is vital to remember that much of his mission on earth involved service, not solitude.
There must be a balance between time set apart and time of witness. That means that no matter how much we’re sometimes tempted to completely shelter ourselves or our families, that shouldn’t be. More sheltering, albeit not total, should be involved for younger individuals – in essence providing a wind break for a young plant to grow, rather than expecting it to be able to stand up to the storms a more solid, older tree can weather.
At the same time, when we start seedling indoors, we have to gradually expose them to the outdoors in order to strengthen the plants for the challenges ahead. We do not leave them under grow-lights in the basement forever, nor do we suddenly tear them from the complete protection of our inner world to be flung into total and unremitting immersion in nature. Reason demands that the change should be a gradual one and that solid support still be in place when it happens.
Once again, that Someone’s life is the best model. He associated with sinners. He came to save sinners and, in order to do that, he had to be involved in their lives and not walk around them on the other side of the road like the priest and Levite did in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He had to touch the ugliness of damaged lives in order to help them to heal and become new again; we must be willing to do the same, remembering our own flaws in the process.
Even so, it is easy to lose our way and to pick up the habits of action and thought of those with whom we spend the bulk of our time. We end up trying to look “cool” and seek acceptance from those around us. Jesus reserved most of his time and intimate moments for God-fearing men – the Apostles. Our closest friends should, likewise, be Christians.
But we do not have the luxury of excluding ourselves completely from the un-Christian world for more than a bit of a retreat or seclusion. To do so is to say that our own comfort and safety is more important than the lost and broken lives all around us – a very un-Christian sentiment. We are called upon to reach out in charity and to speak the truth; belief or unbelief is ultimately the responsibility of the listener.
Finally, Someone claimed to be the Son of God – a boldly unprovable and offensive claim in many people’s eyes – and stuck to that story through horrible, flesh-tearing beatings and execution. He was willing to suffer and die on the cross for all of us, hanging there vulnerable to the derision of the crowd, many of whom would never believe or appreciate the sacrifice and his reasons for doing it.
It was necessary in some sense beyond my comprehension. We could not overcome our own sins. One of the defining laws of creation was that sin brings death as a natural result. We can’t get past that; it is a roadblock in our “walk toward the light.” No matter how good we try to be, we mess up. It is easier to point out someone else’s messes than it is to be aware of our own, but the mess is still there, all the same. We cannot depend on our own natures or our friends’ natures to be infallible; we will inevitably be disappointed. Our friends are not sinless themselves, so as much as some of them might wish to save us or die for our eternal well-being, they can’t – nor we for them. Only one without sin may consciously take on the sins of another and pay the penalty in his place.
It is scary to depend on something outside ourselves, Someone largely unknown and unknowable by the independently verifiable criteria of which we’re so fond – especially when we’ve been taught that science is the reality of unblemished facts (it’s not entirely) or that we have only to “look within.” But where does that get us? Into circular reasoning of humanistic thinking or, what I would argue is the height of wishful thinking: that as long as we “mean well” we’ll live on in eternal joy after death in whatever form we believe it happens.
Who’s to say we really “mean well” anyway? Don’t we mainly mean in those cases that we want an excuse to go on living exactly as we please, with no consequences (which is even anti-physics, if you’re into science), and that sometimes we’ll be nice to people we like? There’s nothing special or revelational in that, not even the stuff of truth – hard or otherwise. It is only “wishful thinking” from people who, beyond their doubts, hate the idea that if they really believe in Jesus, they’ll have to change the way they live – and how dare anyone suggest their way isn’t good enough?
Our Someone does require that life change, though. He suffered, died . . . and rose again, so that we could escape punishment beyond our bearing and be given truth, light, love and forgiveness we could not deserve instead. Someone forgives completely and without question or marking out gradations of sin severity – but he then has the gall to suggest that in genuine repentance, we turn from our sin – action following along the path of faith. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18b NIV)
He demands that we change and take on his character and his way of doing things instead, although these characteristics will be expressed a little differently from person to person because of the uniqueness with which he has gifted us – a uniqueness that makes each of us just right for the purposes we’re on Earth to accomplish. He demands that we forgive those who wrong us over and over again – even if they’re never sorry – like he did. He demands that we make knowing him and living the life he has set out for us more important than money and possessions, more important even than our precious families, who are gifts in and of themselves.
The details of Christianity, such as mode of communion, confession, baptism, specific types of dress, women’s work in the church – these are all highly important questions for which we have a responsibility to search out the rightness with reverence and humility; they are not the central fact.
The central fact is the Someone who lived and died and even rose from the dead to save from punishment and death those who are willing to reach out for the gift, open it, and claim it for themselves. It is a gift offered to everyone by our Someone – Jesus Christ.