Justifying Jesus

“The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”—G. K. Chesterton

Lets not be coy about it. There’s a lot we don’t like about being a Christian. ‘Godless people seem to enjoy life a lot more than we do. Their indulgence inspires resentment in the best of us. The Psalmist was envious, Jeremiah was bitter and Job was inconsolable. The righteous life comes not without its woes.

I admit my secret jealously of the unshackled, God-free life. Perhaps if I wasn’t a Christian, I’d curse often, party hard, question everything, fight for marriage equality, commit myself to a promiscuous single life and stop giving money to the church. I might be less interested in religious banter, more tolerant of other faiths, more eager to meet new people and far more interested in the arts, literature and theatre. Not to define the ‘faithless’ in such trite, cliched and colorless terms, but these are truly the points of tension for many a Christian. There are desires we must deny that our bodies struggle to suppress.

Its troubling to follow Jesus. It seems unreasonable when there’s so much in our cravings that cry out against His decrees. We’re given sexual urges but commanded to control them. We’re told that God made the world, even though everyone says it was Darwin. We’re offensive, intolerant, judgmental and politically incorrect. We believe in virgin births and second comings, parted seas and dead men rising. Our people embarrass us by going to war in the name of God, touching boys they ought to be teaching, killing grown men to protect unborn children and concealing adultery while condemning every last homosexual person to the thirty-sixth chamber of hell. These are good reasons to leave the Church.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d have made a career out of writing against religion. Its easy, its popular and it sells. After all, its perfectly acceptable to be skeptical, cynical and dismissive of all things religion. Its completely respectable to question everything and believe nothing. You’re open-minded as long as you’re seeking, searching and exploring. But the second you seem to have found something, you’re politely escorted into the company of narrow-minded bigots.

I understand the rage against unreasonable religion. And if I may say so, it takes a religious person to feel a special sense of rage when faith is abused. Its heart-wrenching to see people take something so personal to you and abuse it in the public square, misrepresenting every person in the world who happens to take their faith seriously. A skeptic will never understand the frustration of spiritual betrayal.

But it isn’t intellectually satisfying to believe that the answer to bad religion is no religion at all. St. Augustine’s voice of reason is needed here – “We should never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” Stalin remains a scar on the face of atheism, but he is no reason not to be an atheist. During the controversy over the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York, a Muslim cleric was criticized by a Christian for crimes in the name of Islam. He responded to her by saying, “You bring the best that Christianity has to offer. I’ll bring the best that Islam has to offer. Lets begin our conversation there.”

Jesus is the best Christianity has to offer. Its a way of life that should be judged by the weight of His love and character, not by the foolishness of dissidents who will answer to Him for their folly. Their fate will not be enviable.

When skeptics commonly quote Old Testament scriptures that call for the stoning of the adulterer, they forget what the writer of the law Himself did when He was instigated to enforce it against a woman ‘caught in the act’ of adultery. In dismissing the self-righteous bigots that day, He rebukes everyone who takes it upon himself to act as custodians of the law, without the necessary qualifications for pronouncing wrongful judgment. As far as Jesus goes, Grace is better than the law He wrote. In fact, the law inspires the need for Grace.

The person of Jesus is the litmus test for Christianity today. Its the Bible’s internal self-correcting mechanism, so that we don’t need a skeptic, or even a Christian, to tell the difference between true religion and its impostor.

Jesus rebuked religious hypocrites, bestowed dignity on social outcasts, rejected the stale patterns of patriarchal culture, befriended the morally questionable, rescued women condemned to stoning, loved his betrayer to the very end, forgave his executors in his last breath and rose from the dead to confirm the coming of better kingdom. His first visit was a foretaste of things to come. It was a way of telling us, and showing us, that the world we all want is coming – and it’ll be better than its ever been.

But they tell me I should have outgrown religious fairy tales by now. Its not as if I still believe in Santa Claus, Unicorns or the Tooth Fairy anymore. Why should God survive our childhood? But I’m a Christian today because it makes more sense to me, as an adult, than it did as a child. In fact, as a boy I believed in it for childish reasons. My father was a preacher. I went to Sunday school. I found solace in prayer before my exams. Today, I follow Him because He makes the most sense of the world we live in.

The more I read the doubters, the more I find them criticizing a caricature of Christianity that Jesus would criticize Himself. They tell me the wicked are violent because of the same religion that teaches me to be a peacemaker. When Mother Theresa and Anders Brevik find inspiration in the same religion, questions have to be asked about who made the error in application. They reject Jesus because they believe in evolution, even though the Bible can cozy up to any scientific theory, from the left or the right. Genesis tells you why God made the world more than how he did it. They want me to believe truth isn’t exclusive – everyone has a right to their rightness – but they’re unwilling to include my suspicion. The Bible tells me its in the nature of truth to cause division because it separates itself from falsehood. But the test of truth is whether its told in the language of grace. Otherwise, it isn’t true. For every comment on the proper way of looking at the world, I find that Jesus makes more sense, despite the foolishness of some of His followers.

I remain a Christian, then, for the riveting personality of Jesus and the genuine lack of a credible alternative. There are things that don’t make sense to me. There are, often, even things I wouldn’t do myself, were I in the place of God. But its simpler, though not easier, to trust Him in things that are difficult to understand on the weight of the things that are clearly understandable. What makes sense helps to make sense of what doesn’t make sense.

To be sure, Christianity is misunderstood, miscommunicated and misrepresented. But surely in that sense, it isn’t entirely unique. Following Jesus remains neither easy nor desirable. It takes a bit of grit, courage and spine. But its no more offensive than its critics; no more unreasonable than its alternatives and no less appealing than its competitors. As reasonable or respectable as other beliefs might be, I remain a Christian because Jesus makes better sense of the universe and the human condition as a whole, than anything else on table.

Jesus always stands at a crossroad. Its one way or the other. His way or another. Its the sort of constancy, commitment and trust we expect in a faithful wife, a loyal child and a loving husband. Its not unreasonable for Him to ask from us what we want from each other. Still, He gives no less than He desires and offers much more than we might imagine. This is the comic irony at the heart of the message of Jesus. The most confusing thing about Jesus, then, is not how irrational it is to follow Him, but how unreasonable it is to be treasured by Him. That remains a mystery beyond the reach of my mind.

Image Credit: Thomas Guignard

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