More Christian than Jesus


Far be it from me to criticize Jesus, but he doesn’t always argue like a Christian.

For one thing, like an internet troll, he uses distraction and ad hominem (personal) attacks. Just look at Matthew 15: The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, as is the custom. It’s a legitimate question. Imagine sitting down to a meal and watching the preacher skip the blessing! Of course, there’s no commandment in the Bible to say grace over meals, but if you don’t, you signal that you’re not really religious, right?

But instead of answering their question politely, Jesus goes on the attack. Jesus says that the Bible warns of hypocrites like them (making it personal). Then he brings up something totally irrelevant—their failure to adequately care for their elderly parents (verse 4). Finally, he talks in general about the pointlessness of dietary codes and concludes with vulgar language about all food being turned into poop (verse 17). It’s shocking. The religious leaders surely thought it was uncalled for. Maybe they even thought it was shrill. Arrogant.

Now, before anyone comes to Jesus’ defense and explains that it’s okay for Jesus to talk this way because he’s Jesus, let me also point out that this is not the only time that Jesus doesn’t argue like a Christian. Although he tells his followers not to call anyone a fool (Matthew 5:22), later on he calls his religious opponents fools and worse (Matthew 23:17). While most Bibles translate his invective against the religious leaders as “Woe to you” (23:13), the Scholars Bible bites the bullet and translates it as “Damn you.” (Considering what “woe” meant to the prophets, and the fact that we don’t ever say, “woe to you” in our own conversation, “damn” probably carries the appropriate rhetorical force. This is strong language.)

I think it’s important to recognize when Jesus loses his cool, because it indicates that these things are really important to him. Only a few times do the Gospels actually say Jesus was angry: when religious leaders opposed healing on the sabbath (Mark 3:5) and when his disciples prevented children from approaching him (Mark 10:14). But we can tell from his language when he has lost his composure in arguments with religious leaders.

I point this out because today, in these contentious times, when religious leaders are as polarized as their congregations over issues like poverty, LGBTQ rights, and health care, it’s common for well-meaning Christians to wring their hands about the fact that we who should be united are always arguing. We should be more civil. We shouldn’t make things personal. We should work toward justice without upsetting people—like Jesus did.

I believe that it is possible for friends to disagree and argue important issues without hatred. I’ve seen it happen in classrooms and restaurants. But in front of a hostile, heckling audience, Jesus went toe-to-toe with religious leaders to defend those they excluded: children, the disabled, and the ones they “locked out of the kingdom.”

For those of us who argue passionately for social justice, including LGBTQ acceptance, it sometimes feels as though we’re expected to be more Christian than Jesus. We’re expected to hear condescending rhetoric like “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but not reply in a way that would make clear how that rhetoric actually sounds: “Love the bigot, hate the bigotry.”

The way most Christians read the Bible, the Pharisees are the bad guys, and there’s no reason to question or criticize Jesus’ response to them. This puts us safely beyond the reach of Jesus’ harshest criticisms. But the fact is, as religious leaders, most of us clergy are in the Pharisee’s position, trying to do our best to live according to God’s ethical commandments and to teach others to do the same (Matthew 5:19-20). Nobody wants to be a jerk. So we should at least try to imagine how we are like the Pharisees, and hear Jesus’ words to us:

Do we religious leaders today lock people out of the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13)? Or was that just something that happened in Jesus’ day, and nobody does that anymore?

Does anyone obsess over minor matters of the law but neglect justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23)? Or was that just a first century problem?

Do any religious leaders impose hard requirements (like life-long celibacy) on others (like LGBTQ persons) that they themselves don’t have to bear (23:4)? Or was Jesus only talking about a tendency of first-century Jewish religious leaders? When he criticized purity codes, was Jesus merely fighting for the rights of gentiles to eat bacon sandwiches?

When I hear Jesus’ at his angriest, I want to be on his side—but the truth is, as a religious leader, his judgment is heaviest on my tribe. It is unpleasant to have someone place you on the receiving end of biblical polemic, but I believe it is important for Christian leaders to feel the sharp edge of the sword they often wield against others. If Jesus called me a blind guide or a fool, I doubt I would embrace him as a friend who tells me hard truths. I would likely dismiss him as arrogant, insulting, and shrill. I can imagine religious leaders saying that Jesus should try to be more Christian.

The Problem of God

In Christian theology, we often talk about “the problem of evil,” but I think atheists are often more honest in their assessment: The problem is God.

This is why I love Dr. Alyce McKenzie’s recent post, “There’s No Problem Bigger Than God.” It is one of the most succinct and eloquent essays on theodicy I have ever read.

Biblical literalists, of course, will not like it, because her analysis of Paul’s rhetoric points out how Paul was just as flummoxed as anyone by the problem of God’s will. She also indicates that Jesus, Paul, Job, Luke, Isaiah, and the author(s) of Exodus all have different perspectives on God’s will and the problem of evil. Even Jesus (gasp!) was not always theologically consistent.*  (*In the differing accounts in the gospels, anyway).

One of my favorite examples of the Bible’s diverse perspectives is the story of David’s census. People of his day believed that because King David counted the population of Israel, God punished him—and the nation—by sending a plague and killing a huge number of people. This story alone is difficult enough, because I can’t help but think about the current Ebola epidemic. Whose fault is this epidemic? What bad policy decision is God punishing? I don’t believe God acts so capriciously. This puts me at odds with a sizable number of Christians who do.

But although two different authors agreed that God punished bad policy decisions with plague, they disagreed about the cause of David’s disobedience. The author of 2 Samuel says that God incited David to count the people of Israel. The author of 1 Chronicles claims it was Satan. Of course, there are various kinds of intellectual acrobatics you can perform to resolve these dissonant explanations. But McKenzie hits the nail on the head: the Biblical authors are just as flummoxed by the relationship between God and evil as we are.

While recognizing that fact may be uncomfortable for many Christians, for others of us it is a great comfort. Seeking God or following Jesus does not mean living a life free from contradictions. The God who cries out, through Jesus, “Why have you forsaken me?” and who prays, “Not my will, but yours be done,” understands the problem of evil better than the platitudes on church marquees. The God who says, through Jesus, “Happy are those who mourn. Ecstatic are those who are poor,” forces us to confront the paradoxes of our lives and of human society.

If everything that happens is God’s will, then there is no point in praying, “Your will be done.” We pray for the kingdom and for God’s reign precisely because we live in a world where God’s will isn’t always done. The challenge for God-seekers and Jesus-followers is not to resolve the problem of God and evil so we can be intellectually comfortable. The challenge is to turn our discomfort into action, to reduce the distance between God’s kingdom and this hurting planet, and to bear the goodness of God to the world by actively resisting evil and injustice.

When It’s Hard to Let Go

(This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.)

“I’ve tried to pray and give my problems to God,” the grandmother told me, “But I can’t seem to stop worrying. What does that say about my faith?” It was the third time in a week that someone had asked me such a question. The first had been a man who couldn’t let go of his anger toward his ex-wife. The second had been a woman who was full of guilt and regret about her past. Each had asked me if their lack of peace meant that they lacked faith in God.

“Worried People 2” by Bhernandez from Miami –  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Regret, worry, anger, and social inhibition are only easy to let go if you are an animated Disney character. For the rest of us humans, our grip on negative emotions is surprisingly strong. Even when life is going along swimmingly, my brain will often go searching through the dusty cardboard boxes of my memory and pull out a decaying recording of an embarrassing memory from middle school. I can still sweat and turn bright red as I relive trivial social gaffes from thirty years ago. Why do such things have such a powerful hold on us?

In these kinds of pastoral care situations, I find that Christian culture is mostly unhelpful. We repeat trite sayings from inspirational posters: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is!” For years, preachers have attributed negative thoughts and memories to the devil: “That’s just Satan trying to bring you down! Keep your eyes on Jesus! Don’t let the devil steal your joy!” That approach may work occasionally, but for people overwhelmed by guilt, worry, or anger, policing their thoughts and attributing negativity to Satan only makes the problem worse. Now they not only have the stress of worry, but they also feel obligated to play emotional Whack-a-Mole, tamping down every negative thought. Someone who is a worrier now worries about their worry. Someone who feels guilty now feels guiltier.

What I share with people caught in such a bind is this: Your brain is a problem-solving organ. God gave you your brain to keep you alive. In fact, your brain loves solving problems so much that if you don’t have a problem, it goes looking for one. It rummages through the drawers of your experience and pulls out powerful memories and examines them, asking, “What can we learn from this? What could we do differently?” Sometimes it even invents problems or situations you haven’t encountered yet.

Our brains do this so that we can learn and survive. It helps us avoid mistakes. Usually it is helpful: Check your blind spot when you merge so you don’t have a wreck. Don’t let Billy play with your favorite toys, because he will break them.

The problem, of course, is that not everything is a problem to be solved. A man whose wife had an affair kept asking. “Why didn’t I see something? How could I have been so stupid? What could I have done differently?” His brain was approaching the experience as if it were a problem to be solved, when, in fact, there was absolutely nothing he could have done differently. Pointing out this fact to him could not make him stop obsessing over it, though. Nor could it help the woman who said, “If I had stayed on the phone with Mom another minute, she wouldn’t have been at the intersection when the drunk driver ran the stop sign.” These kinds of thoughts are impenetrable to logic or reason, because our brains keep trying to find solutions to these unsolvable problems.

“Metacognition” is the word psychologists use to describe how we think about thinking. It can be helpful to take a step back from our cognitive process and observe what’s happening. For many people, thinking about our brains trying to solve problems can be helpful. “This is just my God-given brain trying to solve an unsolvable problem.” If we acknowledge our irrational brains, we can allow the negative thoughts and feelings to have their moment and then pass away so we can get on with real life and solvable problems.

Of course, some folks feel empowered by the idea of spiritual warfare, and thinking of their lives as a cosmic battle is uplifting. They relativize their negative thoughts by attributing them to Satan. But it’s important not to treat negative emotions as if they are a failure to be adequately faithful. Although Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, he acknowledged that we do, in fact, have trouble today. He was well-acquainted with human frailty, and treated it with compassion, not contempt. Unbidden negative thoughts and feelings are not a failure to be faithful. They’re simply part of the total package of being human.