A few months ago I stumbled on an old friend’s Facebook profile. We used to be pastoral leaders at a large suburban church. Now he’s an atheist employed as a “secular humanist chaplain” who seems to make much of his “unconversion” from Christianity.
The Bible has a word for the course of my friend’s life—shipwreck, as in Paul’s sober assessment of two Christian leaders who “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19). But after my initial shock, I found that I couldn’t judge him. Instead, looking at his shiny, confident “evangelistic” atheist posts caused me to think about my own life. I wondered why and how my faith is still intact and seaworthy. Honestly, over the past 40 years of following Christ, there have been times when I’ve considered steering my little boat into some rocks and walking away. Unlike my friend, I find atheism untenable, but I’ve flirted with my own version of shipwreck—a kind of cozy, comfortable, less demanding “God, I won’t bother You too much if You don’t bother me too much” approach to faith.
I have my compelling reasons: intellectual doubts, my own rebel heart that wants what it wants, and the behavior of unchristian Christians, to name a few. But here’s the biggest reason: Following Jesus is ridiculously hard. Loving the church, walking with the poor, pursuing sexual integrity, practicing spiritual disciplines, living generously with my hard-earned money—most of this Jesus stuff is starkly and painfully counterintuitive and counter-me. As the 20th-century atheist Bertrand Russell once quipped about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, “There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.”
So, yeah, sometimes I feel like quitting, hitting the unsubscribe button, or at least slacking off so I can coast and do my thing. About six years ago I was standing in the cracker aisle of Trader Joe’s on Christmas Eve, considering if I should attend church or just opt out. After two decades of having to show up for church services, this time I didn’t have to go because I wasn’t a pastor anymore and had moved halfway across the country. Nobody expected me to be there. I could just grab some chips and salsa and stay home. Come to think of it, I could just drop out of Sunday mornings for good, sleep in, read The New York Times, and eat bagels and cream cheese like all my sophisticated secular friends. I had my out, and it looked pretty good.
So in light of my friend’s “unconversion” and my seemingly good excuses to shipwreck my faith, I wondered why I remain a Christian. What prevents me from ditching or at least diluting major parts of it? I can summarize it in one word: Jesus. I just can’t get away from Him. He’s just too loving, demanding, compelling, surprising, and downright unrelenting.
The secular writer John Jeremiah Sullivan sheepishly admits that he still can’t get over what he calls his “Jesus phase.” In high school, Sullivan cracked open the door of his life to Jesus, and now he can’t quite shake Him. “[My problem] is not that I feel a sucker for having bought it all,” Sullivan wrote. “It’s that I love Jesus Christ ... Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier?”
I can relate to Sullivan’s frustration. Only, Jesus doesn’t just vex me. He draws me in. He seeks and finds me. And despite all my doubts and attempts to escape, I can’t get away. And over the years I’ve learned that whenever Jesus shows up, He comes only as Lord, not as my servant. In other words, I don’t just get Him; I get everything and everyone that’s associated with Jesus. I get life on His terms, not mine.
It starts like this. Sometimes when I feel lured to leave, I back up to a small scene in the Gospels: Jesus walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, telling a handful of fishermen, “Follow Me.” I ask myself, Do I believe that happened? Sure, it’s a quiet, unspectacular story about first-century fishermen tending their nets after a hard day’s work. They weren’t crazy mystics or fanatics. They’re like diesel mechanics cleaning up after overhauling an engine or surgical nurses washing their hands after an appendectomy. But then I have to ask, What kind of person could rip four fishermen away from their family business, permanently changing their life’s trajectory? How did He transform uneducated men into bold, brilliant leaders of a new multiethnic spiritual revolution, who were willing to die for their Lord and Savior? And Jesus did all that in two words—“Follow Me.” How does He pull that off?
As I ponder the story (or a hundred other gospel narratives that have the same effect), once again, just as He did over 40 years ago, He starts knocking at the door of my heart. But when Jesus, being so Jesus-like, shows up in your life, He never comes alone.
When I was a teenager and a new Christian, I enjoyed reading a booklet called My Heart—Christ’s Home. It’s a sweet parable about how Jesus knocks on the front door and then proceeds to walk through the various “rooms” (the kitchen, the study, the dining room, the hall closet, etc.) in the man’s heart-home. The book still moves me, but it seems to endorse one theological error: Jesus comes alone to my heart. It’s just Jesus and me hanging out.
The Bible presents a very different picture. It’s more like practicing African hospitality. My friend from Rwanda likes to remind me that when you invite an African friend over for dinner, he may arrive with five or 10 more guests. You open the door and—surprise!—you find the equivalent of an entire soccer team lined up behind your one invited guest, smiling and confidently expecting you to wave all of them in for dinner … and maybe a week of hospitality.
That’s a better comparison to explain how Jesus works. Sure, there’s Jesus, always showing up as Himself, talking and acting in His unique style. He’s oozing with love and tenderness, but He also stands firm on everything He’s ever said about sin and repentance, heaven and hell, lust and anger, greed and treasure, death and resurrection, global missions and good deeds, and His own authority and power.
But then there’s also a long row of other guests, smiling and waiting to burst into your home for a nice long stay. Who are they? Well, there’s Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, David, Isaiah, and the entire Old Testament, the story stretching from Genesis to the Law and the Psalms and Prophets, with its cast of thousands. Jesus clearly loved this wild, heartrending, hope-teeming, and sometimes weird story of God’s crazy love affair with the Jewish people, the rest of humanity, and even all of creation. It was always on His lips and in His heart, and Jesus took it with Him everywhere.
And look, there’s the church—the apostles, the entire New Testament, and that whole ragged and sometimes wacky mob of saints and sinners (but mostly just sinning saints). Yet it’s not just the people and spiritual leaders from your church; it’s all the followers of Christ spread throughout the globe “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues,” scattered throughout 2,000 years of church history (Revelation 7:9). At times, they’ll drive you nuts and can even break your heart. But they always come with Jesus, and you get to love and learn from them.
Standing right behind Jesus are the poor and the lost, the people in your life who need a Savior—the powerful and the marginalized, the arrogant and the brokenhearted, the religiously self-righteous and the smug secularists. There’s the undocumented Guatemalan woman who works 12-hour days at your favorite restaurant. And there’s your dentist, Dr. Ted, the friendly but spiritually asleep agnostic. Everyone in the world doesn’t show up with Jesus at your door, just the people you can touch with your little life.
So there they are—Jesus and His way of life, Jesus and His loves—standing at your door.
But before you get overwhelmed, remember that Jesus is there, too, front and center, His head tipped back in laughter. So if you’re wondering how you’re going to love and enjoy this motley band, He’s there to help you do what’s utterly counterintuitive.
What prevents me from ditching or at least diluting major parts of it? I can summarize it in one word: Jesus. I just can’t get away from Him.
Pastor and author Tim Keller compares the Lordship of Jesus Christ to a “life quake.” Think of a big truck going over a little bridge, Keller says. The whole bridge shakes in the presence of the truck. It’s a bridge quake. Or think of a huge man stepping onto the thin ice you’re standing on, making the ice crack and tremble. It’s an ice quake. Now think of Jesus coming into your life. If He’s just another big-name historical figure, a run-of-the-mill Messiah-revolutionary, or even the preeminent teacher of love and tolerance, He can fit neatly into one little life. But if He is “the Lord,” then whenever He steps into your home or mine, there will be a life quake. And with that, Keller writes, “Everything is reordered … Any view, any conviction, any idea, any behavior, any relationship. He may change it, He may not change it, but at the beginning of the relationship you have to say, ‘In everything He must have the supremacy.’” (See Col. 1:18 NIV.)
Ultimately this life quake isn’t grim or sad, because Jesus also shows up with something else—exuberant, outlandish, prodigal promises. Promises like, The gentle will inherit the earth, the mourners will be comforted, the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied, and the merciful will receive mercy (Matt. 5:3-11). Or promises like, Everyone who has left houses or relatives or friends for Jesus’ sake will receive a hundred times as much—and eternal life to boot (Matt. 19:29). Or, The kingdom of heaven is like finding a treasure in a field or the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46). No wonder Peter, when faced with the profound cost of Jesus’ Lordship, could still proclaim, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
Thankfully, I left Trader Joe’s that Christmas Eve and went to church. It wasn’t always easy, but I went back every Sunday, too. I’m glad I did. And as for Jesus and His posse, yes, they’re still around—still causing holy trouble and creating much joy.