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.

I Still Need the Bible

Frog and Toad Are Friends.

That’s the first book I remember reading from start to finish. I picked up on reading quickly, training myself on the backs of cereal boxes at age 4. But I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction about this book. For the first time, I could immerse myself in an entire story, by myself. (With assistance from Mom, Dad, and Arnold Lobel.) I read it out loud, of course—the only way a child knows. I remember reaching the final word of the book: together. I didn’t recognize the word, so I ended the book with my own triumphant pronunciation: “TOGG-e-ther!”

I never stopped loving books. As a child, I enjoyed learning and reading about all sorts of subjects: dinosaurs, space, the Titanic, the human body, how stuff worked. I spent hours staring at the pages and diagrams. And of course, stories. I graduated to novels such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael Crichton thrillers. And then, anything with a story: comic strips, video games, TV shows, movies.

It’s easy to disappear into a good story.

Several years ago, I was seated in the Phoenix airport, waiting for a flight to begin boarding. This airport is officially known as the “Phoenix Sky Harbor”—filling my head with absurd visions of a gleaming airborne structure drifting above the desert, to which are moored a dozen giant Zeppelins. The reality is mundane: it was a large but ordinary airport, and my departure gate was undergoing renovation. So I had to sit a couple gates farther down that day. I began reading a Stanislaw Lem book (good sci-fi!), and I was engrossed. I “woke up” from my intense focus and looked at my watch. I was bewildered to see that my departure time had come and gone. What! I hurried to the gate counter, where the unimpressed staff told me they had paged me on the P.A. system several times. Then they finally gave up and let the flight depart. In my defence, that P.A. system was blaring out so much incessant, irrelevant information that I had mentally tuned it out. But in so doing, I had tuned out my own name. I had withdrawn from our world of bland airports with their pretentious names and irritating P.A. systems, and into a realm of scientific and philosophical wonder.

I’m told I was often lost in a book as a child. I sometimes wonder whether this explains why I don’t have many clear, precise memories from my childhood. My mind devoted itself to other worlds revealed in books and stories. From the vantage point of an adult, I don’t know whether this was always a good thing. I think one reason I have withdrawn over the years has been to avoid difficult relationships and situations that I didn’t know how to handle. Put those difficult things in a room in your mind, close the door behind them, then withdraw into another room where a better story is being told. Sometimes I told my own stories: my brothers and I built a vast world of Lego sets, less interested in engineering new creations, and more interested in telling new stories. By the time we stopped buying Lego, we had nearly 200 mini-figures. They all had different names, personalities, backstories. All absurd and outlandish, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even wrote down a few stories about them.

Then there were the stories I heard again and again. I knew the stories of scripture—not only in Sunday School, but in family worship as Mom invited us to read them. In high school, I read the Bible all the way through for the first time. I’d like to say I understood it all—I certainly thought I did. I always loved the Bible, enough that I gave away my well-worn NIV as a gift once, because it was the most meaningful thing I owned.

The Bible has been different from any other story I’ve ever read. A truly engrossing story would pull me in for a while. I would binge on stories long before Netflix made it cool. Then the story would be over, and the time would come to leave the universe of the author (or auteur) and re-enter the real world. The real world—with its overbearing people, overwhelming situations, its confusion and complexities. The refuge of a good, simple story never lasted long. It couldn’t hold the real world at bay forever.

The Bible did something different. It led me back into the real world.

I didn’t recognize this as a child, because I didn’t understand the Bible well then. But in university, I started reading it and comprehending what I was reading. Through the help of faithful teachers, the Holy Spirit began putting the pieces together for me. I understood the gospel, the central message of the Christian faith. I began reading it with new eyes. And I found that the Bible didn’t speak of an imaginary religious world; it speaks of the real world I had been avoiding all those years. It speaks of people who were a lot like the people I knew—and a lot like me. It speaks of the problems of sin, shame, and suffering. It speaks of God and all he has done to create, redeem, and one day restore the real world. He is not a God of the illusory, but of the real. He is not the God of another world, but of our world. So the Bible has slowly led me back into the real world.

More than that, the Bible led me to Jesus Christ. I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was younger. I affirmed all the things Christians are supposed to believe about Jesus Christ, but I didn’t find myself enthralled by him as a person. That’s something that has changed. The older I get, and the more I know people, the more I marvel at the holy, wise, loving person of Jesus Christ. (More about that in a couple weeks.)

What’s obvious to me is that, during his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ treasured the Bible he had (the Old Testament) even more than I do. When you cut Jesus, he bled Bible. He would critique his enemies with challenges such as “have you never read…?” (Mark 2:25) or “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). He was quoting it constantly, and not simply for instructional or polemical purposes, but as the Word of God, the words of his own life and faith. Jesus trusted the Bible, and he loved it. In fact, I have never encountered a person who loves the scriptures more than Jesus did.

If the Bible was an anchor for Jesus when everyone around him was falling away, why would I not want the same for myself? God’s Word is my anchor, too. Lies may have more power for a time than the truth, but this Story is truth that outlasts every lie. My faith, hope, and love are built on God’s promises, and I find them in the Bible.

Of all the stories I watched and read, of all the stories I told and wrote, this is the only one that has ever been True.

This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the LORD proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

Psalm 18:30 (ESV)

Vote for the Candidate You Want

There is a political argument, common to the Left and the Right, that is wrong and lazy, and harmful to democracy in general and the United States of America in particular.

A vote for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is a vote for Donald Trump who is mentally unstable and is not qualified to be President.

The fact of the matter is that either Trump or Clinton will be president. Hillary WILL appoint the most radical leftist Supreme Court judges which will alter the course of the nation for decades to come. Sitting at home on one’s moral high horse will not alter that fact.…Doing nothing is a vote for Hillary.

(Source: Random people on Facebook)

This is an argument from pragmatism. It keeps appearing on social media and in political op/eds. The “lesser of two evils” argument is used by Trump and Clinton supporters to guilt and browbeat their fellow citizens into voting for someone they don’t want in office.

Perhaps you don’t like either candidate, and a friend or relative has targeted you with this argument from pragmatism. Let’s look at the essence of the argument, why it’s wrong and lazy, why it’s harmful, and how you should instead vote for the candidate you want. Then I’ll answer a couple objections that might occur to you.

The essence of the argument from pragmatism

Here are the logical steps that form the argument.

  1. Candidate “Bad” and Candidate “Worse” are the only viable options in a civic election.
  2. The candidate who receives the most votes will win the election.
  3. It is morally unacceptable for Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
  4. A voter who fails to vote for Candidate “Bad” is enabling Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
  5. Therefore, one should vote for Candidate “Bad.”

Can you identify the weak link? Premises 1, 2, and 3 are true. It’s premise 4 that is false. Let me show you why.

Why the argument from pragmatism is wrong and lazy

Here’s a brutal reality that no politician will ever tell you: Your vote has zero practical value.

Let’s suppose you were a US citizen who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. On Election Day, you were walking out to your car to drive to the voting booth, but you slipped on a patch of ice and fell and broke your hip. As a result, you failed to vote for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Did your failure to vote change the outcome? Would Romney have won if only your fragile hip had survived the fall intact? Of course not. Your vote had precisely zero influence on the 2012 presidential election. It had no practical value whatsoever. Only in the smallest civic elections might your vote have even a tiny chance of making a difference.

If you were truly behaving pragmatically in 2012, you would not have voted at all. You would have saved your half-hour at the polls and spent it on a more productive task—shopping for groceries, or vacuuming the house, or researching hip replacement surgery. The only reason that a pragmatist votes is that he or she has not followed this pragmatic line of thinking to its logical conclusion, but has quit thinking halfway to the end. He or she is a lazy thinker, blurting out an argument that is lazy and wrong.

So if your friend or relative is going to urge you to act pragmatically on Election Day, follow their argument to its foolish end. Tell them that the brilliance of their pragmatism has persuaded you. Tell them you have decided not to vote for Clinton and not to vote for Trump. Tell them you have decided not to vote at all, but rather to spend that half-hour on election day with a pragmatism and productivity that will put theirs to shame. For that half-hour, they can find you at home, folding your laundry.

Why the argument from pragmatism is harmful

The argument from pragmatism is harmful for at least three reasons.

First, it encourages people not to vote.

Why is voter turnout so low in many democratic elections? It’s because people are acting pragmatically in the months leading up to Election Day and on the day itself. They’re not spending their time learning about the candidates and their platforms and their merits. They’re not spending the time to vote. They’re doing other things that have genuine practical value. They’re not lazy; they’re pragmatic. They are following the argument from pragmatism to its logical conclusion.

Second, it enables bad candidates and corrupt parties.

How have the Democratic and Republican parties maintained the two-party system for the last 150 years? They have employed the argument from pragmatism. They have manipulated voters into believing that their vote must be cast for a candidate from one of their parties. It is in the interest of both parties to perpetuate this nonsense. Anyone who repeats this argument is either speaking as a cynical manipulator or working to recruit you as a fellow pawn.

Third, it guts our democratic process of its dignity.

It encourages realpolitik, the embrace of amoral pragmatism and Machiavellian politics. It encourages citizens to vote out of fear, hatred, and loathing of the opposition candidate. It ensures that wicked campaigners will gain power, and corrupt elites will remain in power, by infesting voters with their fear, hatred, and loathing of the alternative. If all this sounds like America circa 2016, it’s because we have made our bed, and now we are lying in it.

Vote for the candidate you want

Your vote, and my vote, has no pragmatic value. It will not sway the results of all but the smallest civic election. So why do we vote?

You and I vote not because it’s practical, but because it’s our duty and our dignity. We vote for ideological reasons. We are citizens of a state that, for all its faults and corruption, protects us from harm, enforces justice, and promotes what is good. It is my responsibility to the state to vote in a civic election, because my vote is my voice. I use it to communicate what kind of person I believe should be in office, and what kind of platform they should run on. I want my community, my state or province, and my country to be led by someone who is virtuous and just and wise, and who makes decisions with virtue, justice, and wisdom.

There is only reason to vote for a candidate for public office: you vote for the candidate because you want him or her to hold that office. It is a violation of your civic duty, a betrayal of your citizenship, to vote for someone you don’t want.

If you’re an American citizen, here’s how you should vote in the 2016 presidential election:

  1. If you want Donald Trump to be President, then vote for Donald Trump.
  2. If you want Hillary Clinton to be President, then vote for Hillary Clinton.
  3. If you don’t want either one to be President, then research your third party alternatives, find a candidate that you do want to be President, and vote for that candidate.
  4. If you can’t find a third-party candidate that you want to be President, then write in the name of a person you would like to be President, if your state permits it.
  5. If your state does not permit a write-in vote, or restricts it to names you don’t find acceptable, then do not cast a vote for President. (Do, however, cast a vote for other elected offices on the ballot.)

Remember: Your vote has no practical value. It will make no difference. And so you are free to vote for the candidate you want.

Objections answered

If everyone thought this way, then Candidate “Worse” might be elected!

Don’t forget that if everyone were thinking this way, then the supporters of Candidate “Worse” would also be thinking this way. Many of them would vote for someone else. Remember, they are voting for this candidate only because in their opinion, it is Candidate “Bad” who is the worst! Given an alternative, many would choose someone better. So in the end, this objection only leads to speculation and worry, both of which are hardly pragmatic.

Al Gore lost Florida to George W. Bush by 537 votes. If the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had instead voted for Al Gore, then Gore would have won Florida—and the election. So didn’t this ideological voting for Nader cost Gore the 2000 presidential election?

Once again, it’s speculation to assume that Ralph Nader’s supporters would have voted at all if Nader weren’t an option. And if we’re going to speculate, why not speculate about the party nominations in that election? Would Al Gore and George W. Bush have even been nominated as candidates if party members had voted ideologically rather than pragmatically? And would prior presidential elections have been reshaped by ideological voting, fundamentally altering the political landscape for the 2000 election? We don’t know.

The point is this: It’s not your civic responsibility, or mine, to speculate about the results of your voting. It’s your civic responsibility to vote for the candidate you want.

Furthermore, you are not responsible for other people’s votes, but only your own. And if you had been one of those Nader supporters, changing your vote to Al Gore would not have won him the election. With your help, he still would have lost—by 536 votes.

Semipsalm 23: The Lord Is My Manager

Sometimes, the Bible seems boring. It’s because we’re familiar with it. The words have lost their edge.

So when biblical counselor David Powlison wrote Antipsalm 23 a few months ago, I actually found it to be refreshing. It was refreshing because this “antipsalm” echoed and exposed the way I think sometimes. It was refreshing because it brought into stark relief the comfort and the beauty of Psalm 23.

So here’s my own take. Instead of a mega-depressing Antipsalm 23, in which God is absent from my life, I’ve written a moderately-depressing Semipsalm 23, in which God is a distant manager of my life instead of a loving shepherd. Sad to say, this is the way I tend to think of him. It’s hard to love and feel loved by a God like this.

Semipsalm 23

The LORD is my manager;
I’m equipped with what I need to be successful.
He makes sure I have enough to eat and drink,
And that I’m not too stressed out.
He gives me what I need to get by;
He communicates good advice
so I can keep him satisfied with my progress.

But when the darkness closes in and I feel half-dead,
I’m frightened by all the pain that grips me,
Because you seem so far away from me,
And your distant management of my life leaves me alone and afraid.

You do let me help myself to the leftovers from your table,
Which I suppose is better than what my enemies get.
You acknowledge my presence at dinner,
And you let me pour a little wine into my cup.
I guess I have an adequate and decent life most of the time,
And I can always stay at the LORD’s house for a few days if I ever feel the need.