It is strange indeed that those who bear the name of the Christ in the world can sometimes seem to be among the most likely to adapt the ways of “the Satan.” And yet so much of this behavior seems to come from an utterly sincere but sincerely dangerous assumption on our behalf that God is somehow under threat, and that we are somehow responsible for defending Him.
It’s the same well-intentioned mistake the apostle Peter makes, when the angry crowd comes with swords and spears to capture Jesus. Just betrayed by Judas, the man himself offers no resistance to his captors: “Friend, do what you came here to do,” Jesus says to Judas, with that same characteristically terrible tenderness that splits your heart in two. Leaping to his defense, Peter unsheathes his sword, and quickly hacks off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus says to him what he would say to us when we feel God is somehow under threat and in need of our protection: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
Jesus is not in need of our defense. He is not in danger—he has already risen from the dead! Even before his crucifixion, Jesus refused to defend himself. He insisted on not standing up for Himself, insisting that God would vindicate, God would justify. Inevitably, whenever we speak or act from a place of defense, we too often veer from the constructive agenda of God’s radical love. In the words of Marilynne Robinson’s wise novel Gilead, “Nothing true about God can be said from a posture of defense.” Cross-shaped love speaks for itself, but does not need to defend itself. The unique claim of the Church is that the worst thing that could happen in the world has already happened through our violent murder of God, but God has already overcome through resurrection! So for us, there is never reason to feel afraid or threatened by outsiders or antagonists. We are enabled through the cross of Jesus to speak and act in the confidence/assurance of love.
It sounds pious to “stand up for Jesus.” But the reality is that Jesus does not ask for us to stand up for him—Jesus asks us to stand up with him. Jesus is not in danger, but so many people around us are—in danger from sickness, terror, the broken systems of the world, even the consequence of their own choices. The Jesus depicted in the gospels was not standing up for Himself, but for the broken people around him. Jesus stands up for the woman caught in adultery, standing between the accused and her accusers. That’s where Jesus was standing then, that’s where Jesus is standing now. If we are truly serious about standing for him, then we will stand with him. But if we, in a desire to protect Jesus from the world, attempt to leap to his defense, his message will be the same to us as it was for Peter—“put away your sword.”
When we don’t what we are for
For a moment, I want to return to the scene of the denominational meeting I described in the last post. As I have many times before or sense, there was a deep queasiness, that I can only describe as a kind of spiritual unease, at the “spirit” (that is tone, disposition) of the meeting. It felt like there was something like glee in the air at all the ways we felt different from the people we denounced. But I didn’t know precisely how to name all of that at the time, until one particular moment when it all crystalized for me: just after the declaration on marriage with the pep rally atmosphere and the long ovation, another resolution was read—this one regarding caring for immigrants in the US. It was beautifully written, and unlike the one against gay marriage, chock full of Scripture, chapter and verse—Old Testament and New. It felt reverent, liturgical, full of light and love and truth. The ultimate aim of the resolution was quite simple: that those within our denomination would not treat any persons as political issues, but would rather adopt a simple, gospel-shaped posture: no matter who came to our churches or how they got here, it is the role of God’s people to care for the alien, the stranger, the immigrant. It was elegantly simple, and robustly Scripture-formed in its conception. I had tears in my eyes.
Yet when it was time for us to affirm the resolution, unlike the one on traditional marriage, it was if all the energy in the room had siphoned out. There was a kind of corporate sigh. We generally don’t debate resolutions, but a number of people around me shouted “no” to it. Those who affirmed did so softly, and cautiously. The collective discomfort with the resolution was palpable. And yet, when we stated what we were against, the ovation had been thunderous.
That was when I realized just how far off we really were. The intoxication of defining ourselves over against a people group was drug-like. The room seemed all too clear about what to be against, but we had no idea what we for—even with an avalanche of beautiful Scripture to guide us, as opposed to the handful of proof texts that accompanied the prior resolution. For human groups, especially religious ones, accusation comes far more naturally to us than advocacy. It is much more natural for us to stand up against than to stand up for.
Advocates or accusers
While “the Satan” is presented to us from the beginning as “the accuser,” the Son of Love occupies a very different role in Christian Scripture. Jesus is, according to I John, “our advocate with the Father.” In the words of the apostle Paul, he “ever lives to make intercession for us.” While Jesus does not defend himself or plead his own case, he does plead ours. If the very definition of demonic or Satanic behavior is to imitate the accuser, imitation of God is conversely a life lived following the advocate.
The weight ascribed to this role for Jesus simply cannot be overstated. This priestly function is not just a part of what Jesus does, but the central definition of his work after the resurrection. Even on the cross, Jesus is pleading for us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those who would take Jesus seriously simply have to accept this as the definitive portrait of God. It is precisely at this point where I find Christians are most confused about the nature of their own vocation in the world. They see the love and mercy on display in Jesus as intercessor and advocate to be just one dimension of who (and what) God is. We often cannot truly embrace the bold, simple claim of the apostle John, that “God is love.”
Love is thought to be just one aspect of God, which then must be put on a seesaw with wrath in order to have some kind of “balance.” No wonder we are unclear as to whether or not love should ultimately be our only posture to the world—we are not yet clear as to whether or not is God’s only posture toward us. So long as we understand God to be capricious toward humanity, we will be capricious in our judgments of fellow humans. We will be unclear as to whether or not our role is to play the role of advocate rather than accuser, in all times and all places, if we are not certain whether or not we have a God in Jesus who always advocates for us. The scandalous thing about Jesus, of course, is that he advocates not only for the innocent, but for the guilty. “But God demonstrates His own love for us,” the apostle Paul writes, “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
I am aware that for many Christians, who like Peter when he drew his sword, have the best of intentions—there is tension within the Biblical witness itself about these matters. It’s why it becomes nearly impossible for a lot of contemporary Christians to come to any consensus as to whether or not God really looks like Jesus: “yes, I know Jesus said to turn the other cheek and bless your enemies in the Sermon on the Mount. But God told His people to wipe out all the bad guys in the book of Judges.” I will see your Jesus as presented in the gospels, and I will raise you the God of Leviticus. Because we see this as some sort of unsolvable mystery, in the name of holding the tension between these kinds of texts, we maintain absolute ambiguity about the God presented in them. This is useful when we are in some kind of conflict with outsiders, because if we deem an individual or group to be awful enough, we do not necessarily have to follow the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount with regards to them. The people we don’t like are on the wrong side of God, like the bad guys in Judges, and will have to be dealt with as such. Because see there is all this tension.
I would be the first to say that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures comprise a mysterious book, that is indeed fraught with tensions of all sorts that cannot be prematurely resolved. But I frankly think its lazy and intellectually dishonest to refuse to come to some basic conclusions about what we believe about who God is. It is a calculated laziness too, because so long as the God we serve picks and chooses who He will show mercy toward, we feel that we are entitled to pick and choose, too. There is a broad consensus of course among Christians (theoretically) that the central point of Scripture is to teach us to follow Jesus, but which Jesus do we follow? Which God are we called to imitate? How we read these complex texts makes all the difference in the world in how we approach these issues.
I have written recently (and at length) about how we interpret Scripture in light of the revelation of Jesus here. Rather than recapping or recasting all of that, I’ll refer you to that piece here for more. But the heart of the argument for me is that Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is the definitive revelation of God to humanity. The image of the crucified God is the definitive portrait of the heart of God for the world. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the “image of the invisible God,” transforms everything we thought we understood, and demands that we radically reinterpret all that came before Jesus through the lens of his story.
Far too many of us still cling to an image of God that is not yet Christlike. Or we buy into distorted theological systems that somehow sets the Father against the Son into some kind of good cop/bad cop relationship. But Jesus is not the foil to God the Father, but the revelation of His heart for us all along. I remember being shaken to my core when I read the New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s work, and he gave this simple rubric to understand God’s activity in the book of Revelation: “Whatever you see the lamb doing, that’s what God is doing.” I believe that to be true not only for Revelation, but for all of Scripture—whatever you see the lamb doing, you see God doing.
The God revealed in Jesus is the one who cries out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” while being tortured to death on the cross. He is the advocate and intercessor, even now, pleading our case, arguing on our behalf, taking up our cause. He is the one who stood up for us, and He is standing for us even now. When we become like him, we do not adopt a posture of judgment—we allow God to the job that God alone is qualified to do. But unlike judgment, the work of advocacy, of intercession—of prayer—is the work all of God’s sons and daughters are called to imitate. Being formed into the character and image of the Christ is to imitate the advocate, and rejecting the blaming, condemning, scapegoating way of the accuser—to reject the ways of the world.
Rather than living from the ego, which always tries to differentiate from others based on some sense of superior judgment against another, the trappings of ego and image management are being upended and uprooted by divine love. We are no longer looking to establish ourselves or our identities by being over against, but are becoming secure in the ways only God’s love can ground us.
This does not mean that those who follow Jesus are not called to a life of consecration, to a kind of set-apartness (again, I hope you’ll read this piece on Scripture interpretation as a companion here, where I explore this notion more at length). But in the biblical narrative, the call of God to His sons and daughters is not against the world, but for the world. Abraham is called by God so that through him, all the families of the earth will one day be blessed (through Jesus of Nazareth). Jesus is set apart/consecrated for the sake of the world. The elect are chosen for the sake of the non-elect. Jesus Himself, as the chosen one, identifies with us in our weakness, and according to Hebrews, is crucified “outside the gate” of the city on our behalf. He comes for us and to us, He comes to where we are. This is not just something Jesus did for us in history, it is very trajectory of a life with God—to follow the advocate to the fringes of the world, for the sake of the world.
The more deeply we plunge into the life of advocacy, intercession, prayer, compassion—the more we live this kind of consecrated life for the world—the more the world is transfigured. Hence in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, the best way the church serves the world is simply to be the church. This community of love and compassion is in fact a radical alternative to the world, but it’s witness is for the world, not against it. The systems of the world—the us vs. them spirit, the ego-building project I described earlier—is the world we are called to reject. The world as defined as people is the world for whom the lovesick Christ lived, suffered and died, and the world we are now called to love.
But what about injustice?
When you understand the gospel in this way, it’s easy to see just how much it really is “good news” to all humans, in all times and all places. The good news is that God is for us, not against us; that the Son of Love is ever making our case to a Father who is already heartsick for us. The Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Love, conspires for our good, even in our most broken places. What’s not to love about a God like that, and a gospel like that?!
If we believe that God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ the advocate, then simply put, we are never more like Christ than when we advocate. Conversely, we are never more like Satan than when we accuse. In one way, this simplifies life considerably. Growing in our awareness of this God means we must devote our lives to coming alongside more so than siding against—coming alongside those who are poor, broken, marginalized, abused, and in need. We have to be suspicious of our native inclination to find our life and our identity by naming who or what we are against. We have to align our lives broadly to hard-edged hope, rather than cynicism. This is what it means to be formed into the character of Christ.
But on the other hand, this only seems to complicate matters more, when we consider the amount of injustice and abuse at work in the world. What about those who abuse children and batter spouses? What about ISIS killing Christians in the middle east, and children being born into brothels in India? There is real injustice to the world, and an enormous part of how the kingdom of God comes to earth is through the writing of such wrongs. So yes, we need organizations like the International Justice Mission to kick down the door of brothels and rescue children, and seek prosecution for those who exploit them. No, an abused spouse should not stay in an unsafe relationship in the name of Christlikeness. People who are on the wrong side of these and other injustices need advocates who will stand with Jesus between the abused and the abuser!
There is a real, prophetic calling that will not ask but demand, at times, that God’s people stand against worldly systems of injustice that exploit the powerless. But—and this is an awfully big but here—this prophetic call always, always, always has to do with standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves. That is the very heart of what it is to “stand with” Jesus, the place that Christ is already standing and waiting for us to join him. It is not a way of taking a stand for ourselves, taking a stand for our easily damaged egos, or taking a stand for our wounded feelings. When it comes right down to it, most of what happens in the name of “standing up for Jesus” in North America amounts to little more than privileged people protecting their own egos. Our “culture wars” are often little more than over-pietized, self-righteous attempts to impose our beliefs and values on the rest of the world. That is hardly standing against injustice.
I don’t think there is a more important calling in the world than the call to “prophesy,” to bear witness to God’s love in solidarity with those that suffer. It’s a universal call of the Spirit to all of God’s son and daughters, and there is more on that in the chapters to come. But it is precisely because the gift of prophecy is so powerful and dynamic that it can so easily be abused and perverted. All who would dare to prophesy, to speak on behalf of God and the marginalized, have to carefully guard their spirit from the unholy, blaming spirit at loose in the world. I think this is precisely what Paul has in view when he describes “the spirit of the age.” It is easy to say the “right thing” from the wrong posture, from a poisoned spirit. It is easy to allow a sincere desire to prophesy to turn into self-righteousness and a masturbatory love of being right.
Moral indignation, outrage, are spiritually nuclear emotions that must be handled with great care. There is a time and place for them, especially when the powerful are exploiting the powerless (even more so when it happens in the name of religion!). We have no examples in the gospels of Jesus being outraged or indignant, mind you, because someone was “naughty” or broke some kind of purity code. The only example we have of Jesus expressing something like outrage was when he cleansed the temple of the moneychangers, who were exploiting those who came to God’s house for mercy for financial gain—once again, the powerful exploiting the powerless.
This is, of course, the favorite proof text for those who live in a constant state of “how dare they?!” As a general rule, “righteous” indignation is frankly, a fairly uncommon emotion. Most all our indignation of any sort is based in some kind of personal offense; the “injustices” we are most aware of are the ones where we feel slighted or that we didn’t get something we deserved. These so-called injustices don’t need to be resisted or balked against, but internalized so our monstrous egos can be whittled down to size. Do not place to much stock in your own indignation. The obvious but most often overlooked contrast with our often petty outrage and Jesus’ display of anger in the temple is that WE ARE NOT JESUS. If we are honest with ourselves, our inclination to turn over the tables in someone else’s temple is little more than a diversionary tactic to keep Jesus from turning over the necessary tables in our own lives. Given how slippery all of our egos really are, we should not be so quick to aggrandize ourselves as “prophets.”
The Christian position is not that there is no judgment, but that only God is good enough, holy enough, wise enough, and informed enough to execute judgment. God will let us occupy most any job except his own. Because sin is self-destructive by nature, there is no reason for us to fear that anyone is not going to “get what they deserve.” But beyond the ways we reap the natural consequences of our own actions, any further verdicts on human behavior must be rendered by God and God alone. Being aware of our own capacity for self-deception and allowing others to see and know us in our own broken places in the context of Christian community is the best way to protect ourselves from the ever present threat of self-righteousness. Even when we are called to some kind of prophetic task, the goal must be always and only be safety and protection for those who are hurt or exploited, not making sure somebody else gets what we think they have coming. This is why any and all kinds of prophetic work in the world are so radically contingent on prayer in order to be healthy—“prophets” whose hearts are not kept tender through prayer become angry, petty, self-involved, and generally just burn themselves out (along with the people who work alongside them).