FINDING THE REAL JESUS
by Jefferson Bethke
What do you believe?
No, really. What do you really believe? I'm not talking about what you put on your Facebook profile or what box you check on an application. What do you put your faith in? What drives you? What's your identity? I'm sure we all have some canned answers to those questions, but when it gets down to it, we know that's a load of crap.
If you are anything like me, you probably grew up thinking there was a God—whatever that means, right? Soon enough reality started to clash with this idea, and the idea of a real God seemed to become more distant. I still held on to the Christian tagline simply for identity purposes, but once I got to high school, it all seemed pretty ridiculous. There really was no need for him. Sure I could still call myself a Christian, but only when it seemed to benefit me. Other than that, I didn't want him anymore.
My true religion, as it is with most of my American peers, was the religion of moralism dressed in Christian clothes. I believed there was a god out there somewhere, that he wants us to be good kids, and that if we are, he tells us how much he loves us, puts our pictures on the fridge, and gives us a trophy—because everyone's a winner, right?
I was a Christian by default. Everyone else said they were Christians; my mom took me to church; there was a Bible in the house. So I thought all that made me a Christian too. Saying I was a Christian seemed to get me further with my friends, family, and society than saying I was not. Being a Christian made life easier for me. But I didn't actually love or serve Jesus.
Isn't that the story for many of us in America? Christianity is our default setting. We say we're Christians because it seems nice, makes us look moral, keeps the parents off our backs, and keeps us out of hell—that is, if we even believe in hell.
My mom and I went to church enough to know the rituals and songs, but I never felt like a "church kid." I heard enough sermons to know Jesus died for me, but I also had such a broken and painful life that I figured Jesus wasn't relevant. My parents never got married, so I grew up with just my mom. She is an amazing woman who did everything in her power to give me every opportunity possible. However, a physical handicap and mental struggles made it so she was unable to work very often. This meant Section Eight housing, welfare, social security, and food stamps. We moved around a lot—I went to eight schools from kindergarten through high school—and didn't live in the nicest areas.
I remember going to church and enjoying the games, the felt board, and the songs; but it always felt so disconnected. All the other kids seemed to have it together, and I never felt completely comfortable in that crowd. So I decided to fake it. I figured that if I could out-good the good kids, then I'd fit in. If little Johnny got a gold star, then I'd make sure to get a platinum one.
I became prideful and religious. This attitude festered and solidified itself in me all the way into my teenage years. When I got to high school, I thought I was good because I didn't smoke, drink, or have sex. I constantly thought I was better than all those people. I had just enough church to think that I could be' good enough for God. I had just enough Jesus not to need him at all.
The funny part is that—even though I thought I was—I really wasn't a good kid. Starting in middle school, I was a troublemaker. I had a careless attitude toward school, my mom, and my life. I had bad grades, got kicked out of school for fighting and stealing, and developed a porn addiction that lasted more than eight years.
High school began, and things only got worse. I didn't even attempt to turn in any of my assignments, and so I flunked out my freshman year. I went to school just to keep in touch with friends and talk to girls. My mom knew my friends weren't good influences, and so we moved—again— to another town about thirty minutes away.
To some degree this was an awesome fresh start. I immediately got plugged in with the "good" kids who didn't party or drink, and I loved them. I also loved baseball and made it onto the school team. My life was baseball and my friends—it was looking good.
Then, my junior year of high school, my mom told me what was devastating news at the time. She came into my room, sat me down, and told me she was gay. She went on to include that she had fought it all her life and that the woman whom she had invited to live with us months earlier under the pretense that she was just a friend who needed help was actually her partner. (She fessed up after a fight between them.)
I felt betrayed by my mom, embarrassed for not figuring out why another woman lived in our house, and ashamed that my mom was gay. What would my friends think? My attitude was so self-centered back then. All I could think about was myself. I was a good Christian kid, so I couldn't have a gay mom, right?
After that, my mom threw in the towel on the traditional Christian faith. The treatment of gays by conservative Christians finally got to her. My initial thought was, Well, if Jesus didn't work for her, why would he work for me? So I gave up on God too. I was in pain. I was lonely. I wanted to escape but couldn't. I went from religion to rebellion. I figured if it felt good, I should do it. I worshiped girls, relationships, and my reputation. If getting more girls and drinking more beer meant I'd be "cool," then why not? But I soon discovered that lifestyle was like drinking saltwater. If you are extremely thirsty, you'll settle for it, but it just makes you thirstier. Every girl eventually became tiresome, and it was on to the next one.
On top of all this, I began to resent my mom. I despised her. Bitterness grew heavy. We lived in the same house but rarely spoke. I partied even harder and cared even less. I stopped looking for the right girl and started looking for an easy girl. I had the world's idea of pleasure at my fingertips, but something deep inside kept gnawing at me. Most of the time I was going too fast to notice it. It was only those few minutes before I'd fall asleep at night that my soul would be quiet enough to tell me what I was doing wasn't working.
I hear a lot of people say that the fear of death and the fear of public speaking are two of the main fears in my generation, but I disagree. I think it's the fear of silence. We refuse to turn off our computers, turn off our phones, log off Facebook, and just sit in silence, because in those moments we might actually have to face up to who we really are. We fear silence like it's an invisible monster, gnawing at us, ripping us open, and showing us our dissatisfaction. Silence is terrifying.
Then I graduated, had a fun summer, and headed off to a Christian college. In San Diego. Completely on my own. I didn't go because the school was Christian. I went because they had an awesome baseball team and a beautiful field. The campus—and baseball field—is literally on the beach; you can almost hit a home run into the water. It's no surprise that within the first semester, I got put on academic probation, cut from the baseball team, and dumped by my first serious girlfriend. Because baseball and girls were my life, I felt I had lost everything important. It was devastating, and for the first time in my life, I wasn't "good enough." I was broken.
Initially I blamed God for the pain in my life, but slowly I started to hear the whisper of his grace. I didn't know it then, but God broke me to fix me because he loved me. Author C. S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."1
Because of this, I was finally ready to listen. It was a messy process, however.
Looking back, I can't pinpoint one day when it all seemed to click. It was more like a period of three to four months when I stood at arm's length with Jesus. I really had nothing to lose, but this whole grace thing didn't make much sense to me. My mom said I was the annoying kid who always asked "why" after everything. (I pray to Jesus this particular character trait doesn't get passed down to my future kids.) I am still like that to this day, and it played out when I finally started to get drawn in by grace. I had to investigate. I had to have the answers. I had to know if grace was real.
I still remember going to the college library one day and asking how many books a student could check out at one time. The answer was fifteen, so I went back to my dorm room with fifteen books on Jesus, Christianity, and apologetics. Through some of those authors, God's grace slowly melted the crust off my heart. I started to see an enormous difference in the Christianity I thought I knew and the Christianity proclaimed in the New Testament. I finally started to see:
The Bible isn't a rule book. It's a love letter. I'm not an employee. I'm a child. It's not about my performance. It's about Jesus' performance for me.
Grace isn't there for some future me but for the real me. The me who struggled. The me who was messy. The me who was addicted to porn. The me who didn't have all the answers. The me who was insecure. He loved me in my mess; he was not waiting until I cleaned myself up. That truth changed my life, and I'm convinced it can change yours.
FINDING THE REAL JESUS
After my head-on collision with grace, I couldn't get enough of Jesus. It wasn't that everything difficult disappeared, but I now felt an anchor amid the pain. Being a new Christian, however, I didn't know what to do, how to act, what Bible studies to go to, or what CDs to listen to. I had a lot of friends, but not many of them were Christians. The first six months of my new life with Jesus, I was alone and guessing how to "do" the Christian faith. I spent a lot of nights in my dorm room reading my Bible—which was better than going out and partying like I did the semester before.
Though I didn't have many Christian friends, I was at a Christian university. So I decided to copy what "being a Christian" was all about by watching others. I took off my earrings, stopped wearing basketball jerseys, tried my hardest to memorize Hillsong United's greatest hits, and listened to the Christian radio station. I thought that if I did enough Christian things, it would bring peace to my life. It didn't work.
Six months in, I had done everything I thought I should be doing as a Christian, but I still had desires I thought were supposed to disappear—lust, pride, and pleasure. Wasn't Jesus supposed to make my life better? I had been duped. My "Christianity" was once again just the American religion of work hard, do good, feel good, and maybe God will say, "We good."
I realized I was following the wrong Jesus—not that there is a "wrong" Jesus—but I was following a fake version of the real one. This realization came to me as I listened to a Christian radio station one day. During a commercial break, they did a fifteen-second spot about the station that consisted of kids laughing, happy music, and the slogan, "Music you can trust, because it's safe for the whole family!"
I remember thinking, Safe for the whole family? Is Jesus really safe for the whole family?
I realized we had created a Jesus who's safe for the whole family. But if we were honest, we'd ask, how is a homeless dude who was murdered on a cross for saying he was God safe for the whole family? Not to mention that Paul told us if we choose to follow his example as a follower of Jesus, we will be treated the way that he was.
We've lost the real Jesus—or at least exchanged him for a newer, safer, sanitized, ineffectual one. We've created a Christian subculture that comes with its own set of customs, rules, rituals, paradigms, and products that are nowhere near the rugged, revolutionary faith of biblical Christianity. In our subculture Jesus would have never been crucified— he's too nice.
We claim Jesus is our homeboy, but sometimes we look more like the people Jesus railed against. The same scathing indictments Jesus brought against the religious leaders of his day—the scribes and Pharisees—he could bring down on many of America's Christian leaders.3 No wonder the world hates us. Most of the time we're persecuted not because we love Jesus, but because we're prideful, arrogant jerks who don't love the real Jesus. We're often judgmental, hypocritical, and legalistic while claiming to follow a Jesus who is forgiving, authentic, and loving.
Sometimes people will hate us because we preach the same gospel Jesus preached, and sometimes people will hate us because we're jerks. Let's not do the second one and blame it on the first. If we honestly reflected on Scripture and the state of American Christianity today, we'd be hard-pressed to say we haven't exchanged the real Jesus for one of our own invention.
God didn't create us to work at the food bank once a year and feel good about ourselves. He didn't create us to say looking at porn only once a month is a victory. He didn't create us to walk by a homeless guy begging for money and think. He'll probably just buy some beer. God didn't create us to come to him only when we need him—like he's our eternal dentist or something.
The Jesus of the Bible is a radical man with a radical message, changing people's lives in a radical way. In the Scriptures, Jesus isn't safe. No one knew what to do with him. The liberals called him too conservative, and the conservatives called him too liberal. I mean, think about it: His first miracle was turning water into wine. He made a whip of leather and went UFC on people who'd pimped out his father's temple. He completely disregarded any social, gender, or racial boundary his society imposed. He called himself the Son of God. He called himself the judge over everyone, determining who goes to heaven and hell. He said things like, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."4 That's dangerous—and weird.
I don't care what church you grew up in, that sounds less like the Jesus we think we know and more like Hannibal Lecter. Jesus also forgives sins, which is dangerous because only God can forgive sins, yet the religious people claimed Jesus was just a man.5
But we don t like a dangerous Jesus because a dangerous Jesus isn't a profitable Jesus. So, weVe made a safe Jesus:
We don't celebrate the gift of Jesus on Christmas.
We celebrate the gifts we get.
We don't celebrate his triumphant resurrection and victory over Satan, sin, and death on Easter. We talk about the brunch.
We don't call Jesus God. We call him good.
We don't tell people they're sinners in need of a savior, because they might stop coming—and giving—to church.
In many ways, Christianity has become all about those green pieces of paper with dead presidents on them. In 2010 Americans spent a little over $135 billion on Christmas and another $13 billion on Easter.6 Who would have thought a little baby born in a filthy animal barn some two thousand years ago would be such a great excuse to feed our material addictions?
We have branded Jesus beyond recognition. Church has become a business. Jesus is our marketing scheme. We create bookstores, T-shirts, bracelets, bumper stickers, and board games all in the name of Jesus. In 2007 some woman even made national news for selling a pancake with Jesus' face on it on eBay.7
Now don't get me wrong. There's a degree to which that stuff is okay. I mean, chances are you bought the book you're reading right now. I know I buy my fair share of Christian books—in fact, my wife says I buy too many, and I'm going to make us broke. But questions continue coming back to me: Are we really getting it? Have we made that stuff more important than Jesus? How come American Christianity is so different from the Bible's vibrant, uncontrollable, and unpredictable Christianity?
The reason we aren't fulfilled or satisfied by our version of Christianity is because it isn't Christianity.
We have religion, but we don't have Jesus.
We have a good role model, but we don't have God.
We have theological debates, but we don't have the living Word.
We have good works, but we don't have the source of good works.
We have love, but not the God who is love.
We have completely neutered grace (my good works save me, but we still call it grace), made God a math equation (God will like me if I'm good), and turned Jesus into Mr. Rogers ("Howdy, neighbor"). But Jesus isn't rocking a cardigan, and he doesn't talk softly through his nose. He's a roaring lion.
In author C. S. Lewis's classic book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the kids ask if the lion, Asian—who represents Jesus—is safe. "'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver; 'don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.'"8
That's what the real Jesus is like. He isn't safe. His words, his life, and his cross completely destroy the notion of him being safe. His grace is dangerous, ferocious, violent, and uncontrollable. It can't be tamed. Does it bother anyone else that seemingly the first, and sometimes only, prayer people pray when they go on mission trips is that they'd stay "safe"?
It's important that we discover the real Jesus by seeing what the Bible says about him. I think you might be as surprised as I was.
NOT YOUR MOM'S JESUS
Looking back on my time in Sunday school and Christian summer camp, I remember two verses that were often shared to encourage us kids:
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.9
These verses say that God has a beautiful plan for our lives, that we're precious and unique snowflakes, and that when we wait on him, he'll raise us up on wings of eagles.
Are these verses true? Yes. But not in the way we might think. God does have a great plan for our lives, but it probably isn't our plan. In the early years of Christianity, most Christians were enemies of the state, and some were used as food for the animals in the Roman gladiator games. So next time you quote those verses, remind yourself that they were just as true for the people having their flesh ripped apart by lions as they are for you. Would you be down with God if that was his plan for your welfare?
Looking back, though, I realize I'd completely prostituted those verses and made them fit my feel-good Christianity. Surely God disciplining me or putting me through trials wouldn't be his "good plan" for my life! It must be from the devil, right? The truth is, sometimes the good plan he has for our lives is to make us look more like him, which more often than not takes pain. But we don't use the verses in that context. We'd rather just put them on T-shirts and bumper stickers.
Just once, I'd like to see a T-shirt that reads—even if it doesn't all fit on the front—"From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords."10
But we don't like that verse. It's dangerous and doesn't fit with our modern view of God. Yet that verse is just as true as the ones we put on our bookmarks. When Jesus comes back the second time, he isn't coming to sprinkle love dust on everyone. He's coming to make war on sin and rebellion.
Do you believe in that Jesus?
Once I began to realize the packaged Christianity I grew up with didn't tell the whole story, I began to see this dangerous Jesus everywhere in Scripture. I would come across passages that completely confronted my sanitized Christianity.
Jesus was homeless?
Jesus called people sons of the devil?
Jesus actually told his disciples they needed to physically follow him, not just sign a card and raise their hands?
Jesus told people they couldn't be a follower of him until they took up the most brutal torture device ever invented, the cross?11
One of my favorite verses can be found in the book of Isaiah: "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags."12 We often miss that our "righteous acts" are "filthy" before God. Not just our bad days, but our extremely good days too! Praying, reading the Bible, giving to the poor, and going to church nine times a week? Filthy rags apart from Jesus and his cross. Tell me that isn't just a little bit controversial.
And if that God isn't shocking enough for you, author Francis Chan shares in his book Crazy Love that the Hebrew word for "filthy rags" can be interpreted as "menstrual garments."13 In that verse God says our good works are no better than a bloody tampon. Next time you're in a public restroom and you see the waste can, feel free to remind yourself that's your righteousness apart from Jesus. (Gross, I know.)
This abrasive message wasn't just from God the Father either. Jesus delivered his fair share of one-liners to the most religiously zealous of his day—"hypocrites," "brood of vipers," and "murderers."14 Would this Jesus get kicked out of your church or criticized on your blog for not being gracious or kind enough?
And don't you find it interesting that some of Jesus' harshest words were reserved for the most devout religious people of his day? You would think he would condemn the bad sins of marginalized people of society such as prostitutes, drug dealers, and tax collectors, right? Instead, speaking to the religious leaders, he said stuff like, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John [the Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him."15
If that won't make a religious person faint, I don't know what will.
Jesus hung out with the most marginalized and disrespected people of society, and he was fiercely opposed to anyone representing him in a hypocritical way. His words should not only shock us but also make us fear, because they were written just as much to us Christians today as they were to the religious leaders of his day the Pharisees.
I certainly have focused on outward appearance and made extra to-do lists to add to my salvation, all while neglecting the simple needs of others. I'm often more Pharisee than saint. I'd rather people tell me how awesome I am than how awesome Jesus is. I'd rather concentrate on other people's sins before I look at my own. More often than not, I sense the toxic Pharisee spirit rising up within me.
THE REAL THING
Do you ever have internal arguments with yourself? When you know something is wrong but you can't seem to beat it? That's me when I have a self-righteous or legalistic attitude. Sometimes I hate the way I treat people. I often get bothered by how words come out of my mouth. I occasionally even get depressed when I read the New Testament because I read the stories of the Pharisees and humbly have to admit I act more like them sometimes even though I want to be more like Jesus. Whenever I'm stuck in a rut, it is Jesus' sharp words that wake me up. There's something about the tone and force of Jesus' words that shocks me back into reality. It's important to understand that Jesus never says something without a purpose. He desires everyone to come to repentance, and if he speaks harshly it's so that we'll come to know the real thing. Sometimes soft words don't penetrate, don t cut, don t wake us up. In the same way we need a hard shovel to break up hard soil, Jesus sometimes has to use hard words to break up hard hearts. He does it in hopes of bringing us to joy.
I think Jesus was using those harsh statements to say that we've traded in the real thing for things that don't matter. We've completely missed what God is after, what he's doing, and how to relate to him. He made it very clear that he's not after our external behaviors but instead after our hearts.16 He doesn't want what you do. He just wants you. Have you ever sat in that? Have you ever had a moment where that sank in?
Jesus is so much greater than "don't smoke, don't drink, and don't have sex." As Christians, we need to stop forcing the Bible into our own judgments and instead humbly and prayerfully open our minds in hopes that God might reveal himself deeply. It's a dangerous and scary proposition for sure, but there is so much freedom and life in no longer defending or molding Jesus to our own liking, and just letting him be who he says he is—a cultural iconoclast who makes it difficult for any of us to put him in our nice, cute, and tidy "Christian" box.
When I was trying to earn Jesus by being good, I missed the real Jesus who wants us to love him and serve him not for what he gives but for who he is—dangerous, unpredictable, radical, and amazing.