A few weeks ago I happened to read an article titled “Five Phrases I think Christians Shouldn’t Say.” You’ve probably heard most of these Christian-isms thrown around—they’re phrases like “I love the sinner and hate the sin” or “You shouldn’t do that, it’s just not Christian.” As I made my way through the list of well-worn clichés, I kept nodding along in agreement with the author. I really do wish Christians wouldn’t say things like “it’s all in God’s plan” or “you just have to do God’s will,” because normally I can’t hear them without cringing a little bit on the inside.
Near as I can tell, the reason these phrases are so irksome is that they don’t actually mean what they sound like they mean. All of these trite Christian-isms make me feel a bit like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Wallace Shawn’s character Vizzini keeps expressing his surprise by saying, “Inconceivable!” To which Montoya replies “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It’s like how “I love the sinner and hate the sin” most of the time actually means “I hate that gay people are gay but I’m okay with all of the other fundamental aspects of their personhood.” That phrase doesn’t mean what you think it means.
If it was my article, I probably would’ve added one more phrase—“what scripture plainly teaches.” Think of anytime you’ve heard someone slip in “what scripture plainly teaches” into some type of religious discussion. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that what people really mean when they invoke scripture’s plain teaching is that they’re absolutely unwilling to consider the possibility that their views might be flawed. Not to mention that the phrase “what scripture plainly teaches”—besides being rigidly self-righteous—simply isn’t accurate.
Peter Gomes liked to say that “the Bible is not a book. It is a library.” With the point being that the authors of the Bible usually don’t speak from one unified perspective, and rarely if ever do they speak on the same themes. So when we’re trying to navigate scripture it’s oftentimes helpful to remember that “not everything biblical is Christlike.” (Coffin) Where scripture is confounding, the spirit of Christ ought to lend some clarity. An old Christmas carol captures the spirit of Christ perfectly—“His law is love and his gospel is peace.” So far as religious ideas go, that’s pretty plain.
The teachings of Christ are a different story altogether. I can say with a pretty high level of confidence that anyone who says something like “what Jesus plainly teaches” hasn’t spent very much time with the actual teachings of Jesus. “Plain” is not one of the first words that comes to mind when thinking of Jesus’ teachings. It probably shouldn’t come to mind at all. Jesus’s teachings are perplexing, shrill, and demanding. He exaggerates, he’s contrarian, and sometimes he doesn’t make much sense at all. Plain is not the right word.
Jesus was like any good teacher in that he had a knack for shifting responsibility away from himself and onto the learner. I think Jesus knew what Dostoevsky knew—that “if we understand too quickly, we may not understand well.” Parables like the ones we read today don’t mean anything at all until they’re mulled over, grappled with. In telling parables, Jesus says, essentially, “figure it out for yourself.” So whatever understanding we reach from Jesus’ parables isn’t simply handed to us. We can’t be passive recipients; the responsibility is ours.
That Jesus refuses to give simplistic, clear-cut answers ought to make you at least a little bit uncomfortable. Simple answers, if nothing else, are comfortable. If we’re being honest I think you’ll agree that it feels pretty good to know that you’re right and anyone who disagrees with you must be either stupid or evil. Trouble is, the emotional certainty that comes from simple answers can only take hold when empathy and love are out to lunch. Because when we love people enough to understand them—to really understand them well—it’s hard to bolster our own sense of being by believing that they must be stupid or evil. Most people, as it turns out, are not knowingly stupid or evil.
One more thing about Jesus and simplicity: if we’re paying attention, we should start to notice something about all of the big religious questions. The most wide-ranging and important religious concerns are usually met with the most cryptic, confounding answers. Jesus-following is a thinkers’ vocation.
Probably the biggest religious idea in the New Testament is the reign of God, the “basileia tou theou,” as its rendered in Greek. One of my mentors likes to refer to the reign of God by different terminology—“God’s New Social Order.” I think that really gets at the expansiveness and bigness of the idea. When we consider what God’s New Social Order might be like, we’re starting to get at some of the most basic, universal human questions. From where do we derive our basic sense of identity? Put differently, who or what tells us who we are? The reign of God is loaded with social questions too. How should people exist in relation to one another? These are big questions.
One of Jesus’ preferred ways of talking about the reign of God is to spout off about agriculture and foliage. “The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed…” or “The reign of God is like a mustard seed…” Well, great. What’s that supposed to mean?
Here’s something you haven’t heard from pulpits nearly enough: I really do not know. Near as I can tell, though, these parables are meant to make us think about the way in which the Spirit of God is sown into our hearts, and how the Spirit leads us to grow into the sort of people who point towards the reign of God with everything we do.
“The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” We’ve lost some of that earthy mystery. I can’t help but think, “actually, Mr. Jesus, I do know how a seed sprouts and grows. I learned all about photosynthesis several grades ago, thank you very much.” So at this point in the service I need to remind you how photosynthesis works, which is another thing you probably haven’t heard from the pulpit very many times before. The short of it is that plants absorb sunlight and water, then they work their plant-magic and produce glucose and oxygen. The glucose is the good stuff, they use that to grow. Oxygen is waste, more or less. It has no useful function as it relates to the plant’s growth, so they release it into the air and that’s the end of that.
One of our most persistent and nagging human problems is that—when it comes to processing everything life throws our way—we do a really poor job of identifying and casting-off waste. The Spirit of God, when it’s working to guide us, works on all of our experiences and turns some of them into fuel for spiritual growth—glucose for the soul. Others experiences are processed and rightly identified as waste. They don’t inform our sense of being as participants in the reign of God nor should they, and so they’re released.
What’s incredibly easy is to look at all of our disappointments, failings, regrets, and sorrows and think to ourselves “All of that stuff is waste. Of that I am so certain that I don’t even need to process or deal with it.” I wish that were true, but it isn’t. Henri Nouwen wrote some words we should all bear in mind: “Now I know that my sorrows are mine and will not leave me. In fact I know they are very old and very deep sorrows, and that no amount of positive thinking or optimism will make them less.” And to positive thinking and optimism I’ll add avoidance. Nouwen’s experience—however grim it sounds—is the human experience. Each of us has unmet emotional needs, failings, and sorrows. They linger in our thoughts and psyches, and all of the tactics that we like to use to make them go away quickly and easily are futile. All of these things are painful, but they have to be dealt with. We can’t be sure what experiences the spirit of God will turn into fuel for growth before we let it work on our entire life and all of our experiences. Spiritual photosynthesis doesn’t know shortcuts.
Most problems with religion stem from the fact that the things we most want from God are things that God has no intention of giving us. A lot of people seek out an experience of God that’s best described by what my undergraduate mentor liked to call gentle-Jesus-come-and-squeeze-us Christianity. They’re looking for a God that offers full protection from any and all things unpleasant, a God who will simply erase away the hurt. It doesn’t work that way.
The mystery of God-with-us is not that life is transformed into an experience of unfiltered comfort and bliss. And that’s a good thing, because you probably wouldn’t want that anyway.
In 1974, a philosopher named Robert Nozick put forth a thought experiment centered around the idea of something he called The Experience Machine. It goes like this: Someone has created a machine with the power to shape your mental experience in whatever way you might desire. Just imagine it and then that’s your reality. You could be a multi-sport professional athlete turned astronaut. Maybe later in life you’re elected President and your approval rating is 98%. Or maybe it’s less imaginative. Maybe you just want a loved one back or to be immune from the experience of death. Whatever it is, just name it and plug yourself into The Experience Machine. Once you’re plugged in, that’ll be your life. You won’t know that it’s fake. Your brain will be off planting a flag on Mars but your body will be resting under a flickering light in a dingy, abandoned warehouse. Nozick argues that most of us will choose not to plug into The Experience Machine. We prefer a mixed experience of reality over a perfect fantasy.
A God who turns our lives into an experience of constant comfort is every bit as fanciful as The Experience Machine. The Spirit of God doesn’t immune people from certain unpleasant experiences of humanity. It draws them more fully into the experience of all things human, and when it’s done working on our lives everything is rendered vividly meaningful. Our sorrows are still very real. They’re here to stay like Henri Nouwen said, but now they frame and heighten our joys.
So some of the things we’d rather not deal with are actually glucose for the soul in another form. We just need the work of the spirit to transform them. But not everything that occupies our inner lives has the potential to help us grow into spiritually mature people. Some ways of thinking or being serve no function other than to squelch your identity as a unique and infinitely valuable child of God.
The spirit of God works with our most inward and basic sense of being. Some things about you God has no desire to change, and they aren’t too hard to identify. They’re those same things that you have no power over; things like your appearance, personality, sexual-orientation, or mannerisms. Trying to grow as a person of God in a way that changes any of those things is like grinding a tulip bulb to a pulp and then expecting it to grow.
Anything that challenges your basic sense of worth and adequacy as a child of God is directly opposed to the work of the Spirit in your life. Think of it this way: your identity as a child of God is like a seed. Just as an acorn will always grow into an oak or an orange seed into an orange tree, some aspects of who you are have been hard-wired into your person. The spirit of God is the spirit of life that bursts forth from healthy, living things. No one can predict exactly where an orange tree will put down roots or sprout new branches, but we know that if it’s healthy it will grow. The Spirit of God animates our core so we can grow into the sort of people we’re meant to be. We’ll grow and adapt as the Spirit leads—probably in some unexpected ways. One thing that should never change is our unique, God-given identity.
I’ll finish with what I read as a modern day agricultural parable. When Governor Romney was campaigning in my home state of Michigan he remarked “I love this state. The trees are the right height here.” Besides being a really bizarre way to pander to a political audience, it’s true. All of the trees everywhere are the right height, what other height would they be? Saying a tree is the wrong height would just be another way of saying you wish it was something else. It’s saying you can’t appreciate it for what it is.
Try to see yourself the way Governor Romney sees Michigan’s trees—adequate just as you are, but with an open sky above you welcoming you to reach upwards and grow.