Helping Jesus

If a curious reader were to read the entire Bible in a month or so he’d notice that the faith expressed there seems oddly out of touch with the forms of faith common today. It’s as if some folks are editing the faith to help Jesus succeed. Let’s listen to such a possible meeting between Bob & Rob. [Note: this is not an endorsement of their views!]

“I had a great idea yesterday! One of our folks asked me what Jesus meant in John 16 when he compared his coming death on the cross to a woman giving birth—it’s pure misery for a time and then pure joy. Here’s the picture I get from that: faith is like a newborn infant cuddled by Jesus as he wraps us in the warm quilt of his love!”

“Wow, I like that!” Rob said, “But where does the misery part fit in?”

“Oh, that.” Bob responded, “That belongs to Jesus—he had to pay the price of sin on the cross so we don’t ever have to be uncomfortable ourselves. He does his nasty part and we get all the benefits.”

“Got it!” Rob answered. “But doesn’t Paul say something about our being ‘crucified with Christ’?”

“Sure, and lot’s more of that sort of thing. But the key to building a strong church is to keep the faith story upbeat—I like what Paul says, for instance, about rejoicing all the time. People love good worship so we need to boost the positive side things in both our music and our Sunday talks. Keep your focus where it belongs!”

“So the key is to always pick positive themes for Sundays?”

Bob nodded. “Yes! In fact I have fifteen ‘power-packages’ that I use in my preaching rotation. I talk, for instance, about how to improve our marriages, how to build our self-confidence, how to raise great kids, how to overcome guilt, how to spread faith through our smiles—that sort of thing. You’ve got to remember why people come to church each Sunday: they’re desperate for good news and that’s what we always offer them!”

Rob’s forehead wrinkled, “When you talk about guilt, is that ever related to sin in a person’s life?”

“No, no! That would miss the point that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be completely guilt free no matter what we do! That’s the good news of the Bible: we never have to face any discomfort for what we do as long as we ask God for his grace to meet us in our hurts. Guilt is just the overhang from our pre-conversion way of viewing things.”

Rob responded, “Wow, so faith is freeing in more ways than I ever realized—not just from our guilt and shame but also from any consequences. We just believe in Jesus and get on with life?”

Bob smiled. “Close, but there’s obviously more. We need discipleship too. So in our discipleship program we find the very best self-improvement books so that in our midweek meetings we can offer aspirations for success. We want our people to feel like they’re moving ahead in life.”

“Getting back to your point about Jesus cuddling us,” Rob commented, “does he ever need to be part of the mix? Do you ever do midweek studies of his teachings?”

“Great question, Rob! That’s a big lesson I learned some time ago. We need to see Jesus more as our branding point—as our central icon—and not do much more than that with him. Jesus lived in a pre-media era and did some great stuff for his own day, but to be brutally honest, his stuff just doesn’t sell these days. Try preaching the Sermon on the Mount in today’s world, for instance, and you’d be in real trouble! Christ’s emphasis on changed hearts, for instance, would soon empty any church that I can think of these days!”

“Wow!” Rob leaned back, almost spilling his coffee. “Jesus as an obstacle to real faith . . . I’d never thought about that before. You’ve been a real help, Bob. Thanks!”

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7 Comments

  1. David

    Ron, thanks for your thoughts here. I find that your dialog is so true. That many traditions twist the love of God to the point that they make God into a cosmic, transcendent butler or therapist. He really isn’t needed or wanted until we have a need that he must fulfill for us in order to be God.

    Yet, what I find is that if you emphasize God as Trinity: the good God, the self-less Lover who creates, the humble God who died on the Cross, etc., you may be tarred with the tradition you critique. The argument goes like this: if you emphasize the goodness of God and his love, you strip God of his power, his strength, his justice. The intention for stripping God of these attributes is to make the “God of the Bible” palatable for our soft secular culture.

    What are your thoughts on navigating the waters between these differing spiritual traditions?

  2. R N Frost

    Good question, Dave. To be honest I don’t think there’s any way to find some sort of proper balance in questions like these. What I really hope to find is God’s heart as he wants to ‘edit’ us, i.e. to challenge our own distortions.

    In the case of God’s power, for instance, it’s not his big concern (speaking informally from my Bible reading), certainly in part because he has “all power” and nothing can threaten him there. Instead he constantly elevates his faithful loving-kindness. So he calls the shots, not us.

    Any suggestion that the portrayal of God as humble, in Christ, is somehow shaped artificially to make God more palatable misses the point that God does mean for us to taste and see that he’s good: it’s not an artifice but the entry-point to the kingdom since that’s how he begins to draw hearts.

    What’s your own take on the question?

  3. David

    I too feel that I want to come to the Bible to hear God’s voice, for him to shape me as a person, and therefore “edit” my distorted views of him.

    My reading of the Bible would also suggest that God is not insecure about being “all-powerful”, it is a given that he has the free sovereignty to do want he wants. The question should be “What is he going to do in his free sovereignty? Or what is the character of his power, strength, glory, etc.?” If God is all-powerful yet cold, austere, arrogant, then we have a God that we should shudder when in presence—the religion of the demons [James 2:19].

    But, God, as you said, elevates his steadfast love, his mercy, and his graciousness [Exodus 33:18-19; 34:5-9]. The culmination of his communication of his love and the character of his power is Christ’s death on the cross [John 12:27-28]. Christ on the cross IS the entry point to who God is as Trinity, his purposes for creation, and who we are in Christ. The cross isn’t some “acquired taste” nor is it the sugar coating of a distasteful god that we have to swallow. Rather, God’s kindness experienced in his long-suffering, tolerant, patience with his beloved stiff-necked creation should cause us to repent [Romans 2:1-5]. This is the sweet nectar of his Word, the place to warm our hearts, the motivation to compel all us into action, and the Beauty we should desire to gaze upon all the days of life.

    God is the King, the Lion, but the awesome thing is that he is good! He doesn’t need to continue prove he is all-powerful, the basis for this action would be a place of insecurity. Instead he from a place of confidence of his power comes to us that we might be impinged by his goodness and love and reciprocate. This is neither the God of Romantic or Therapeutic traditions, nor any tradition that elevates God as a powerbroker, but the good God of the Bible.

    I guess the question of navigation between two may not be the best question. So let me have another go. Do you think that the difference between the Romantic/Hedonistic traditions and the Bible may be an emphasis of “eros” love when biblical love is “agape”?

  4. Will Gough

    Here is a phrase that I never thought that I would use: “my first church.” It was the beginning of the end there when a couple elders told me that they wanted me to teach from passages that highlighted God’s love, and that my goal in preaching was to make people… feel…. comfortable and welcome.

    As I recall, that “guidance” came near the middle of our time in the sermon on the mount.

    Thanks for your leadership and brotherhood!

  5. R N Frost

    Thanks for the reflections here.

    Dave, you’ve clearly caught the tension I hoped to create. The sort of nonsense “Bob” promotes in this dialog is what I think of as pick-and-choose theology that uses the language of love to cover man-centered religion (“having the form of religion but no power” as in 2 Timothy 3).

    I realize with you, of course, that the “God as Godzilla” crowd is all too happy to link any ‘real’ (i.e. affective) love language to sentimental instability in relation to God. And too many “Bobs and Robs” today offer a basis for their critique.

    Your suggestion that agape and eros might be the distinguishing bit is certainly worth considering. My own sense, though, is that the transitive reality of love is what we need to track: that the object of love is what defines a genuine (response-based) love. So all who know and love God will join Paul in affirming life-beneath-the-cross. A lively love for God won’t treat this world as home as Jesus makes clear to us in John 17.

  6. David

    Ron, I agree that your point that we should focus upon the transitive nature of love is important. What I had assumed in my eros and agape distinction was the differing objects of our affections. Eros love, i.e. self-realization, self-preservation, self-gratification love, has its object as self. Whereas agape love, other-centered or self-less love, has its object as the other, and for us ultimately God. Thanks for a fun, informing, and productive discussion!

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