Jesus is to blame. The Christ of the cross is to blame. If it weren’t for him I might be able to find some peace but he and his cross disturb me and won’t let me be content with what I see when I look within and around me. If your loved one is quadriplegic you know that in many ways he or she isn’t physically able to help you care for them and in some sense you adjust to the situation—you expect nothing and in that respect you aren’t disappointed. If you truly believe there’s nothing better to be hoped for in this world I suppose you might rage in your hopelessness or eat, drink (or starve) and die tomorrow; but if hope were dead would there not be some kind of resignation, a reluctant, numbed acceptance of things as they are? Maybe, but would that not be better than vainly hoping? Is that not what the old Greek story means to say in the story of Pandora’s “box”—when she opened the forbidden box everything in it escaped except…hope. And it became the source of torment to all because they could never be content with things as they are.
In an early essay Bertrand Russell said that because we know the truth of human existence—that it’s a pointless accident—we must face it and build a future on “unyielding despair.” Well, it’s into this world, with all its pain, loss, disappointment, loneliness, cruelty, entrenched evils and invincible selfishness that Jesus came, making claims and promising much.
In the first century he offended the Romans and their view of power and empire. He offended the Greeks and their view of God and wisdom. He offended the Jews and their view of God’s faithfulness and their place in his purposes. And he continues to scandalize us all to this day.
The people who care nothing for him—and never did—aren’t affected by him. The crass hedonists think life’s a one way ticket so, to the degree that they can manage it, they party the nights away. Maybe towards the end they think of “fire insurance” (though even that’s not of great concern now). The world can’t be made better—certainly not in their lifetimes—so why worry about it? Get what you can as quick as you can, throw a handful of coins in the direction of the world’s needy during a big public musical concert and get back to the usual partying.
Ignore the tiny churches with their inner squabbles. Or, listen for a while to their squabbles and discover how pathetic they are in the face of the world’s great needs and wrongs, and then go back to the partying. Not a bad philosophy that; a happy life and an endless sleep at the end.
The Jesus of the cross disturbs me in three general areas. There’s the state of the world and the church and my own personal situation.
Jesus is too stubbornly real and I can’t get away from him. Not that I’m trying to, you understand. I neither try to nor want to get away from him but being in his presence and listening to his kingly promises that are written in blood I become impatient with the chaotic, oppressive, confused, rebellious and cruel world. Why hasn’t his sovereignty transformed the world already? As sad-spoken Matthew Arnold said, in the beginning, the tide of faith was fully in and covered the earth like a garment. But now—it would appear—all we hear is the faint sound of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as it retreats and leaves bare the naked shingled shores of the world. Sometimes I sorely want the present King of Kings to show himself more powerfully—more powerfully, that is, in the more common understanding of power. I’d like him to obliterate all the oppressive structures of the world—structures that we have neither the desire to destroy nor the strength to do it, supposing we had the desire. And why would we desire it, aren’t we the ones that build them? The state of the world is completely contrary to the Christian’s claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords.
And when I look at the church as a whole and consider how pathetic and weak it is, how self-serving, as it fine-tunes its theology and gorges on rich truth while a world of Lazaruses starves. Not content to draw lines of fellowship in places where the heart of the gospel is attacked, many church leaders insist on keeping us all in separate pens based on the flimsiest differences and call it “defending the faith.” We pay our ministers to “stand for the truth” if they’re willing to stand for the truth that we pay them to stand for.
It’s much easier to believe the too-rich-to-be-fully-grasped doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ in and as whom God revealed himself than it is to believe in the church as it church-shops its way from one assembly to another. And as we shop our first question is not, “What is your gospel here?” it’s, “What programs do you have to suit me here?” At one end of the spectrum we have these primetime hucksters that ceaselessly beg for money to fund their programs (or other hidden things) and on the other there are churches that are offended if there’s talk about sharing our wealth. Time and money is spent on leadership agendas that usually have to do with “making our church grow.” Then there’s the “preaching” [?] that is nothing but a series on sessions filled with secular suggestions on how to fine-tune your marriage or raise nice kids or cultivate nice friends. This kind of “preaching” is done by secularists, agnostics and atheists every bit as well as preachers. It changes nothing that preachers throw in some Bible verses for religious coloration. The Lord Jesus is ignored in the “preaching” for months of suggestions that might be of some use socially.
And then there’s the personal, bitter disappointment with oneself. There are times when you think you see real progress and then like a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap events expose your heart—it’s seems as shriveled as ever it was even after years of longing for better. Just when you think you’ve experienced significant growth you’re brought face to face with outrageous meanness or corruption or bitterness that pours out of you. Then you understand what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:
I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart, I will not listen to talk of heroic things, But be content to play some simple part, Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings… Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.
Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence, That mirror of strange glories; I am I; What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense, Drive me not mad so with the mockery Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!
And for a while—a day, a week, a month, a year—you sulk and snarl and prowl. Then you see him! He’s always been there; you just didn’t notice during that wretched period. You see him looking at you with those big eyes of his, calm and compelling, and as he moves away he looks back and motions with his head, “You comin’?”