I Still Love Jesus (But Not “Useful Jesus”)

Please indulge me as I get confrontational for a moment. This is something that really, really matters to me.

Perhaps you would say to me, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus.” Do you, though?

What “Jesus” do you say that you love?

I know of three kinds of “Jesus” that aren’t real, and I know One who is.

1. Mascot Jesus

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

John 6:14–15

Mascot Jesus is more common outside the church, but I’ve seen professing Christians relate to Jesus this way, too. You like this Jesus because he says and does things that you like. You’ve got a cause you’re wanting to promote. You’re trying to get someone else to behave in a certain way. And you need a mascot, a powerful symbol or spokesman for the message you want to send.

  • Are you a gun control activist? “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
  • A Second Amendment enthusiast? “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36).
  • An LGBT rights activist? “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).
  • A warrior against the corrupt elites? “Making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple” (John 2:15).
  • A pleasant teacher of kindness? “A bruised reed he will not break” (Matthew 12:20).
  • A champion of the poor? “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20).

These are useful quotes. Mascot Jesus is a useful Jesus. Never mind the context—never mind why Jesus said that particular thing in that particular circumstance. Never mind the integrated complexity of Jesus’ thought—how he connected all these things with the rest of his teaching. Simple soundbites like these are gold for my cause.

Sometimes I call this “Sock Puppet Jesus.” The way a sock puppet works is that you insert your hand into the puppet, so that it looks like the puppet is doing the talking, but really it’s your own hand operating the puppet mouth, and your own voice saying what the puppet says. Sock Puppet Jesus says whatever you want him to say. He can be a socialist or a capitalist; he can be an inclusive ally or an anti-Muslim crusader; he can be a feminist or a macho man. What’s important to you is that this Jesus is on your side, providing the fuel you need for your cause. And best of all, chastising those who oppose your cause. You get to claim that you’re “following” him, and to demand that others “follow” him—but the voice you’re demanding obedience to sounds remarkably like your own.

Oddly, by their own admission, many people who like Mascot Jesus haven’t cracked open a Bible in years. They just quote the soundbites. It’s almost as though they have no interest in who Jesus actually is, how he actually thinks.

There’s a kernel of truth to this false image of Jesus; Jesus really did have things to say that are relevant and important to issues of justice and righteousness. He really does challenge the status quo. But his teaching goes beyond the simplistic and myopic rallying cries of our own age. Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, whether you claim to be a Christian or not, Mascot Jesus is merely useful.

2. Therapist Jesus

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this?”

John 6:60–61

Therapist Jesus is popular both outside and inside the church. You like this Jesus because of the way he makes you feel. Whereas Mascot Jesus suits your ambitions, Therapist Jesus suits your anxieties. He’s a comforting notion, a gentle opiate, a love song, a boyfriend pillow.

Sometimes I call this “Teddy Bear Jesus.” When you’re feeling sad or lonely or discouraged, you know he’s always there to give you a big fuzzy hug.

But just like Mascot Jesus, this is a one-sided relationship. You’re getting something out of Jesus, just as long as he says nothing troubling and asks nothing hard or unpleasant of you. You’re showing up to bask in an hour of unconditional positive regard. You’re not really interested in knowing and following the real Jesus; you just want the good feelings that come with “Jesus loves me, this I know.” You want him as your Therapist, not as your Lord.

There’s a kernel of truth to this false image of Jesus; Jesus really is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and he really does bring us comfort and encouragement. But to quote the accidental theologian John Mayer, “Who do you love? Me, or the thought of me?” Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, whether you claim to be a Christian or not, Therapist Jesus is merely useful.

3. Delivery Jesus

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

John 6:26

Delivery Jesus is really common inside the church. In this one, you like Jesus because of the good stuff he can bring you. You’re not here to know Jesus as a person. You’re here for all the good stuff Jesus is going to deliver you. Maybe he’ll make you healthy again. Maybe he’ll make you wealthy and prosperous. Or maybe he’ll give you the success and social standing that you’re looking for. Maybe he’ll deliver you the happy marriage and family that you’ve always dreamed of. Maybe he’ll deliver you wisdom to live an untroubled life. Or maybe he’ll deliver the doctrinal knowledge that will make you feel intelligent and mature. Maybe you recognize that Jesus brings atonement of sin and salvation, so you’re here to punch that ticket to heaven, but you’re not here to know him. You scarcely think of him as a real person. After all, who orders a pizza and gets excited about the delivery boy?

There’s a kernel of truth in this, that Jesus does bring the Christian many good and beautiful things for us to enjoy and express gratitude for. But have you lost sight of Jesus himself? Would you be perfectly happy with all the blessings of God’s kingdom, even if you never got to be with your King? Delivery Jesus is merely useful.

The Real Jesus

As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.

John 6:57

One day we will all stand before Jesus Christ and give an account to him of how we merely used him. On that day, you will want to say: I have loved Jesus because of who he is as a person. To say you know him and you love him. To hear the Lord call you not his user, but look toward you and call you “friend.”

The Real Jesus is someone you want to know. It’s vital to approach Jesus in this way, because it’s the only way of finding life in the Son of God. This Jesus isn’t just a Sock Puppet who gives you life by agreeing with everything you say. He isn’t a Teddy Bear who gives you life by surrounding you with fuzzy feelings. He isn’t a Delivery Boy who gives you life by filling you up with the things you want. This Jesus gives you life when you come to know him as he really is, as you put your trust in him, as you honour him as Lord. That’s how Jesus becomes the source of your life. You “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Maturing toward sanity

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:66–69

I grew up in a Christian home, became active in church ministry during my university years, worked at a church as an intern for four years (including three years of seminary). Was I a Christian all those years? Yes. Did I love Jesus all those years? Sort of. I confessed him as the Son of God. But functionally, I found him merely useful—the Jesus I preferred was Delivery Jesus. He was a nebulous wrapper for doctrines and arguments and apologetics, which was the stuff that I really loved. (I suppose you could say I was what Twitter people now call a “theobro.”) All that stuff, as good as it is, was useful to help me feel in command and in control. Life’s a lot simpler and safer when you have a ready answer and an argument for everything.

The Lord has been deeply patient with me, gradually showing me that I need the real Jesus—and I not only need him, but I love him. I have been “slow at heart” to learn these things.

The Lord helped me realize, first, that the real me needed to be honest with the real God. He began getting personal this way back in 2009 when I read Paul Miller’s book A Praying Life for the first time.

The Lord led me to consider the question of who Jesus is—on Jesus’ terms—as I studied the Gospel of Mark at Faith Bible Seminary, then watched Max McLean’s stage performance of The Gospel of Mark, and then began writing down my own observations in 2010 for my Four Minutes in Mark series.

The Lord further opened my eyes to the person of Jesus Christ—who he is as a person—through Paul Miller’s The Love Course and book Love Walked Among Us in 2016. This was when I first began to recognize that Jesus is beautiful. All this was further uncovered by books like Michael Reeve’s Delighting in the Trinity and (several years later) Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly.

Through those same resources, and through the CCEF course Helping Relationships in 2019, the Lord began to reveal my own need for relational wisdom and dependence on the Spirit. This has further unfolded over the last few years, as it has become very clear to me how much of this wisdom and dependence I have lacked. I think of the people I have known over the years who were filled with the gracious love of Jesus Christ, a love that seems so rare and out of place. They are men and women from another world, just as he is (John 17:18).

I have a few clear convictions about Jesus Christ: He is fully God. He is fully man. He is baffling and brilliant and beautiful and impossible to invent. And he is the only sane human being who has ever lived. The rest of us are dulled, warped, and—to some degree or other—nuts. Jesus is not only fully human; he is humanity in its full flower, unsullied by sin, living dependent on the Father and the Spirit.

It is common in our culture for a person to say, “I want to be the best version of myself.” To reach my full potential. To achieve my ideal self. And Jesus might be useful for that goal. But he will never be that goal.

My one unwavering desire is to become as much like Jesus Christ as any human being can possibly be. To fix my eyes on him and to become what I behold (as the saying goes). If nothing else good in my life comes true, I will still be happy and blessed if I can be like him.

In the turbulent waters of our present age, the historical fact of his resurrection is my one sure anchor, and the beautiful character of his person is my one true North Star. As long as I hold to these things, I can hold to everything else that comes with them, and I will not wander off course.

But only if he holds onto me. Between the two of us, he’s the one who is faithful and true—and sane. Remember, I’m the one who’s nuts.

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