Jesus Recast as an Ever-Compliant Contortionist

I’ve often heard it said that the single most important thing about any individual is what comes to his or her mind when you use the word “God” in their presence. That sure seems right to me.

“Who is God?” “How do we come to know God?” “What does God want from me?” An individual’s response to the most basic questions about God will tell you much about how they respond to just about everything else; if I have a somewhat-accurate picture of your conceptions about God, then I can more readily understand how you might respond to various life situations. If I have an extremely-detailed understanding of your personal conceptions about God, I might even be able to predict your responses with uncanny accuracy…assuming, of course, that you respond faithfully, in accordance with your beliefs.

By now, I am sure that you have noticed how our ideas about God can tend to conform to how we are already living our lives. After all, the pursuit of holiness is so much easier if, instead of committing ourselves to radical change, we can devise clever arguments to show how we are already in near-total compliance with what the God of our imagination expects. In short, we tend to ascribe attributes to God based more on our personal agendas and desires than on anything we will ever find within the pages of the Bible. “I like to think of God as…” That sort of thing.

At the tender young age of four, my son has already become a world-class theologian, his doctrine and worldview both very much in keeping with postmodern thought. With just a tad bit more sophistication, he could probably publish a bestselling book that would fit in quite well with some of the self-proclaimed “Christian” authors who are relentlessly bending and twisting their convictions about God to fit in comfortably with what most of us desire anyway. The following theological debate took place in our home just a few days ago:

Eli: (Loudly) “I think I should watch…”

Mom: (Cutting him off mid-sentence) “No TV right now, Buddy.”

Eli: “God says we need to watch what we like.”

Mom: “Ummmm, I don’t think God is a big fan of television, Eli.”

Eli: “Of course He is!”

Of course, we all laugh at the foolish, hopelessly self-serving theological musings of a four-year-old intent on watching his “Toy Story” DVD for the 38th time, but I’d like to suggest that we see our own hearts most clearly whenever “the volume gets turned up a bit.” In other words, the bald-faced desire for God to conform Himself to the craven desires of our own darkened hearts is something we all battle well beyond age four, though we’ve all learned to be (somewhat) more subtle than my son when it comes to expressing these convictions. I honestly think that having a young son later in life has done more to teach me biblical truths about the heart of God than all of the textbooks that I am (slowly!) working my way through as a grad student at Covenant.

Obviously, Shelly and I want every good thing for our son. Because we love him with all our hearts, we will frequently say “No” to his relentlessly self-serving requests as we have his ultimate, best interests in mind. We will say no to another “Toy Story” matinee if we know that what he really needs is rest or a good meal. On a more serious note, we will physically restrain him, if need be, so that a nurse can jab both of his legs with needles, immunizing him against a variety of dreaded diseases that might otherwise disable or perhaps even kill him. How does a young son, lacking the mental acuity to understand what is happening, view his loving father as not just one, but two needles are jammed into his legs, apparently with that loving father’s full cooperation?*

I think we would all recognize that saying no to too much TV and cooperating in the childhood immunization process are both the acts of a loving parent, and no one would seriously challenge the idea that denying our son something he asks for – or inflicting physical pain in the manner described above – is ultimately in his own best interest…he is just too young and too immature in his thinking to grasp the greater good that is at hand.

How much more does this illustration apply to us as we pray to God for deliverance from suffering, perhaps not realizing that this suffering was lovingly ordained by God for our benefit? We take an enormous leap in faith, I suppose, when we stop demanding that God explain Himself to us, and trust instead that His plan for us is best, regardless of the amount of existential pain we receive in the process. “Stop demanding an explanation from God” is easy to say, but extremely hard to live out. My own heart vacillates back and forth on this score, and I have personally lived through enough inexplicable pain that I do not use those words lightly or casually with anyone. Pain is the crucible in which what we say we believe about God is either refined in purity or burned up into ash.

In the course of my life, I have heard some fairly-astonishing theological statements made about Jesus, or at least a heavily-customized, “cleaned-up” version of Jesus. I have heard massively-successful preachers tell me that Jesus wants me to be rich and healthy. I have heard ministers validate unrepentant lives of fornication and/or homosexuality by cherry-picking Bible verses completely out of context. I have listened to people justify their adultery, alcoholism, porn addictions, drug abuse, and all other manner of sinful behavior by quoting an obviously-flawed interpretation such as “Look, I know enough about the Bible to know that I can’t lose my salvation…no matter what.” And now, apparently, Jesus wants my son to watch as much TV as he wants…books, outdoor playtime, rest and proper nutrition can wait!

We human beings, while made in our Creator God’s image, nevertheless seem to have a relentless tendency to want to trust our own plan for our lives more than God’s good plan, and we very often take this tendency one deadly step further when we begin constructing a customized theology to dovetail conveniently with what our wants and desires are. I shudder to think what the preachers who advocate false gospels like those mentioned above will be dealing with when they face the Almighty God and give an account (Matthew 12:30-37; Matthew 18:7; Luke 17:1-2; James 3:1).

I started out by noting that the most important thing about a person is what he or she believes about God. I think I’d like to close by suggesting that the single most dangerous lie anyone can believe is a lie told with God’s name attached to it. If you lie to me about the security of my retirement fund, the only thing I might lose is all of my money. If you lie to me about the safety rating of a new set of tires, I might get a flat or even have a serious accident. But if you lie to me about the true nature of Who God is, and I live out my life believing that lie, I may well lose my eternal soul.

The pastors at The Crossing have lately been hammering the congregation with a fairly-simple equation, which goes like this: “Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Everything minus Jesus equals nothing.” If that equation is true, and Scripture routinely affirms that this is indeed the case (Mark 8:34-38), then it makes a lot of sense for us to figure out what exactly it means to be “in Christ.” Instead of “bending” Jesus to fit into our own preconceived notions of what a good life should look like, it seems like it would be absolutely vital for us to reset our expectations and seek His will, not our own.

2 Timothy 4:1-5 (ESV)
“Preach the Word”

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

*While he may well have swiped it from someone else, I am nevertheless greatly indebted to Dave Cover for the word picture of a loving father allowing his child to receive immunizations, i.e. God inflicting temporal pain in our lives in order to gain our greater good. I have used that illustration numerous times when talking to others about their suffering and reflected on it plenty in the midst of my own.

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