Let Jesus Be Himself
After 2,000 years, many Christians have yet to discover the real Jesus. Author John Eldredge talks about why the truth is often hidden in plain sight
By Erin Gieschen
Think of the people you’re crazy about, inspired by, devoted to—the people you deeply love. You don’t love just parts of them; after all, you want real relationships. So love compels you to embrace the whole person, because in the end, you want them to be themselves.
But we often treat God differently by telling Him how He can or can’t act; we interpret His intentions through our own personal filters rather than let Him show us who He is. Yet the first time God was asked to name Himself, He said, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). He is simply—and infinitely—Himself. And in the person of Jesus, He invited people to get to know Him in the context of a face-to-face relationship.
This realization led author John Eldredge to write his latest book, Beautiful Outlaw, about the singular beauty of Christ’s often overlooked personality and how it can transform us.
In Touch: You point out something that’s supposed to be a Christian no-brainer: that when we see Jesus’ personality in the gospels, we’re seeing God’s personality. Yet there’s a huge disconnect between what Scripture shows us and the way we often relate to Him. Why do you think this is?
John Eldredge: Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (NIV). That’s why Jesus came—to be incarnate, to live before us. He said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9). And “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). If He’s “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), then His personality hasn’t changed.
The startling thing about Jesus of Nazareth is how specific He is. “God” can be such a general term; people have all sorts of thoughts about “God.” But when you turn to Jesus, you encounter God incarnate standing right in front of you. And to be honest, I think that unnerves a lot of people. “God” can be comforting but distant; “God” can be safe. But Jesus is like the lion Aslan [of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia]—He is not safe. He intrudes; He comes close. Honestly, I think we prefer the distance.
But let’s also take this into account: Knowing Jesus Christ as He really is is the greatest thing that can ever happen to a person. Ever. Do we think our Enemy is going to let that happen unopposed? No way. Down through the centuries, his number one task has been to prevent the real Jesus from being known.
The Enemy tried to stop the early church but couldn't. So he tried to infiltrate it with a counterfeit. If you want to destroy an economy, you flood the market with counterfeit bills, because it devalues the currency. And so you can’t understand church history or our struggle to know God if you don’t recognize how the Enemy has used a counterfeit religious spirit—1 John 4:6 calls it the spirit of falsehood—to misrepresent Jesus. And that’s been far more effective at getting in the way of people’s genuine faith than any sort of atheistic argument.
Maybe we even project our distorted ideas about God back onto what we read in the Bible and completely misinterpret Jesus’ words and actions.
We’ve been naive—we’ve thought that knowing God would just kind of happen, like waking up in the morning. But it doesn’t. You have to fight for it. If the single most important thing in life is knowing Jesus, how invested do you think the Enemy is in trying to prevent that? So I think that when we come to our Bible reading, there’s often a ton of fog we have to clear away so the Scriptures can speak to us as they were intended.
Scripture shows that Jesus continuously astonished the people who knew Him. What are some of His personality traits that would change our relationship with Him and how we understand His work in our lives, if were we to recognize and embrace them?
Consider His disruptiveness. For far too long we have portrayed Jesus as kindly and loving in a soft way. Think “elevator music." It’s music . . . kind of. Well, we’ve done the same sort of thing with the word love. We’ve made it a very sweet, sappy, two-dimensional kind-of love. We’ve made elevator music with the personality of Jesus.
But Jesus was radically disruptive. Not obnoxious, but unnerving and massively unsettling. He had the courage to say things we would never say. Love is not always a get-well card; sometimes it’s an intervention. Sometimes love requires that you refuse to let the drunk drive himself home.
When you read the Gospels, one of the most helpful things [you can remember] is: I’m watching love in action. This is what love looks like. So in the clearing of the temple, when Jesus makes a weapon and drives men and animals out of the temple, that’s love in action. Love is fierce, protective. You watch Him with the rich young ruler—love is brilliantly cunning. With the Pharisees—love is intolerant of religious hypocrisy. Jesus gives us a far more powerful picture of love.
Then there's His trueness. Jesus is so true to Himself. How much of what we do is motivated by fear of man? To be entirely free of false guilt, pressure, and false allegiances would be absolutely extraordinary. This is what gives Jesus the ability to say such startlingly honest things to people. It is what enables Him to be so scandalous.
This is the secret of His ability to navigate praise and contempt. Neither success nor opposition has power over Him. One day, the crowds love Him; the next, they’re shouting for His crucifixion. Jesus is the same man—the same personality—through the swirling tempest. Jesus is free from the fear of man.
And although we don't often recognize it, He is so cunning. Do we interpret His actions in our lives as perhaps part of some cunning plan? That delayed answer to prayer—is there something brilliant about the timing? Would it help us rest if we thought so? When He answers our prayers with “No,” do we see Him sparing us some unseen danger?
Last year, we scheduled a major event for men in South Africa. Then Jesus told us to postpone, which was awkward and a bit embarrassing. But when the month we’d planned to go arrived, we understood. One member of our team was in chemo, one just lost his brother, another was doing his daughter’s wedding, and I personally was wiped out. We couldn’t have done it; Jesus rescued us. When we recognize His cunning, we trust Him far more in the ways He leads us.
We don’t appreciate Jesus’ cunning because we cling to our naive view of the world. We just want life to be easy. We don’t want to deal with evil, so we pretend we don’t have to. [According to Luke 16:1-8 (NIV)], Jesus is more impressed with the cunning of “the people of this world” than He is the naiveté so common to “the people of the light.” But He urges us: “I want you to be smart in the same way . . . and not complacently just get by on good behavior” (The Message, v. 8).
Unmistakably, Jesus characterizes beauty and humility. Start with the incarnation—the Word became flesh (John 1:14). The humility of this act, of God becoming human, is stunning. [Jesus shows us] that it has nothing to do with hating yourself or pretending to be less than you are. His humility is so honest and breathtaking. I want that!
It’s stunning to realize that He allows us to see Him as we expect to rather than force us to see His beauty. We create these limits we insist He works within. That's why in Revelation 3:20, He says, “I stand at the door and knock.” Somebody locked that door, and it wasn’t Jesus. He’s speaking to Christians—that’s a letter written to the church—and He’s saying, You’ve locked Me out. Please let Me in.
We tend to interpret Jesus through our brokenness and create ways to lock Him out. For example, there’s the Christian who says, “Well, God doesn’t speak directly to me.” It’s going to be very difficult for that person to discern God speaking to him because he’s already created a limit that says, “No, He doesn’t act this way.”
Now, what’s so beautiful about the heart of God is that He will live within these limits for a while because He wants relationship with you. He’ll try to come in through some other door, trying to keep the relationship open—as a loving parent would do with a teenager. You don’t just slam the door on the teenager. You say, “Okay, if these are the ground rules you’re creating, then in order to keep communication open, I’ll relate to you like this for a while.” For a while.
But Jesus says, “I’m still knocking. Please stop shutting the door.” So what happens when we begin to take down these barriers that keep us from experiencing Him in our lives? How amazing it would be for that person who believes God never speaks to them to pray, “I renounce every barrier, every limit that I have placed on You. I give You full permission to be Yourself with me. I ask for the real You.” They're going to experience God speaking to them. That’s the life we were made for!
To know Jesus as He really is is to trust Him, to give yourself over to Him. That’s why this is so crucial. A bland Jesus equals bland Christianity and bland Christians. But the more you see His beauty, the more you love Him.