The Danger of Portraying a Soft Jesus

I have been reflecting on how we portray Jesus in art. I did a quick google search using the words “paintings Jesus.” The results were about what I expected, but it still astonished me. It seems we are very comfortable with Jesus as the gentle teacher, compassionate healer and the good shepherd. We also seem to be oddly comfortable with the suffering Jesus, the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Jesus. Of course those are all true, but what about Jesus the Lion of Judah, the courageous man with calloused hands, cleanser of the temple, judge of the nations, the one who is coming back wielding a sword and sceptre, wearing a robe dipped in blood? I even googled “lion of judah paintings” which primarily displayed cute gentle pet-able lions. I tried various terms related to the second coming and came up with a preponderance of soft gentle images. How ironic since Revelations chapter 19 juxtaposes the wedding of the Lamb and the rider of the white horse who will strike down the nations. We don’t get one with out the other.

I guess this bias should not surprise me. We all like the idea of a loving merciful Jesus. I certainly do. We are, however, less comfortable talking about Jesus the King of the armies of heaven coming in judgment. Please  understand that I am not suggesting we ditch the gentle and compassionate depictions of Jesus, but i think that we are choosing to miss something. The good news of the Gospel is only good news because there is a judgment. The wonder of the mercy and grace of Jesus finds substance because he is also the King of Kings and Lord or Lords who will judge the nations. Grace and mercy are only needed in the face of judgment and condemnation.

The fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus only has meaning if there is condemnation for those who are not. There is nothing politically correct about that statement. I will seem harsh, even arrogant to others. Understand that I don’t like it either, but as I accept grace of Jesus as taught in the Bible, so I must also accept the judgement it teaches. As unlikely as it might seem to some, this is also the reason the Church must act as the hands and feet of Jesus spreading His grace and mercy through the gospel. This should drive Christians to love – radical love offering radical grace in the face of judgment.

Below are some of the few paintings that depict Jesus as the courageous warrior Lord.

Rembrant, Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galiliee

File:Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.jpg


Bernardino Mei, Christ Cleansing the Temple

File:Mei, Bernardino - Christ Cleansing the Temple - c. 1655.jpg


Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

File:Michelangelo, Giudizio Universale 02.jpg

The Church, Anger and Cupcakes

A friend of mine and fellow pastor, Marvin Penner, posted a link on face book to an article by Scott Boren titled “Are You Angry at the Church.” If you have ever been disappointed by church, I highly recommend it.

In sum, Scott Boren tells the story of his own journey from a youth in the church who learned to play the church game. He did all the right stuff and looked the part, or at least close enough to it, to fly under the radar. Then in college, he had what he called a “radical encounter with God.” Basically he made the jump from empty religion to a vital relationship with God.

Then came the anger. In his words…

I wanted to know why the people in my life—those who had listened to my stories about depression, those who had seen me struggle to prove myself to others, those who had observed my judgmentalism and critical spirit—never said anything.

While my advanced ability to cover up my inner life was one of the reasons for this reality, I also quickly saw that there was another problem. I had learned to perform according to the rules of the church. I knew how to do the church game. And I was good at it. And the church system rewarded me for it.

Scott’s experience is all too common. We have a generation – or is it generations? – that are angry with the church. Their hurts are real, although I’m not always sure that we get past the symptoms to the root cause. To some extent, the gospel they have been taught seems at odds with the church they have experienced. As Scott points out, many books have been written of late that dump all over the “traditional institutional” church as if they are the sole cause of the world’s problems.

Some of the complaints have merit even if not always graciously presented. Other complaints…some days I just want to say,’ get over it cup cake, it isn’t about you and your pettiness.’ Of course, that would be equally ungracious even though Jesus was no less pointed to the religious “we’ve got the answer” folks. Yes, I am suggesting that some of the church bashers out there are as judgmental and self assured as the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

In fairness, many who are struggling with the church as they have experienced it, are not caught up in hating and bashing the typical meet on Sunday, songs, sermons, offering, go home and carry on with life church experience. They just know that something is missing. Just attending the Sunday church event has left them unimpressed…rightly so.

This is where I feel a particular kindred heart with Scott Boren. Although our journeys have been very different, I think we have both been at this same place where we knew something was missing, and we became hurt and angry. I remember as a new Christian in my twenties that it took only a year or so to realize something wasn’t right. Over the next several years, moving to an new city and new church experiences, it slowly began to get resolved, although it is still a work in progress.

Fortunately – oops, I mean by God’s grace, I also experienced the best side of the church, where Sunday services were wonderful celebrations, times of intense prayer for those in need and faithful teaching. During the week we had close fellowship with other believers and a sense of participating in God’s mission.

It was there at Willingdon Church in Burnaby British Columbia that I responded to the call (I jokingly call it my mid life crisis) to pastoral ministry and ended up the pastor of the considerably smaller Clareview Community Church in Edmonton Alberta.

My response to the disappointments with the church that I felt in my early adult hood was ultimately to engage in the Church and make a difference. Please note that I made that a capital ‘C’ Church.  By that I mean Christ’s Church, not just the local organization although that is important too. I will come back to that, but let me tell you of a couple of turning points in my life.

Without going into unnecessary details, several years ago, long before perusing pastoral ministry, I helped to coordinate a large inter-church event at the church we were part of. The speaker was good, but…there were issues. I recall sitting down with the senior pastor afterwards to debrief. In the course of our excellent conversation about the event I came to realize two important things. First, church work can be messy and second, those who lead the church are human. I know that may not sound like a profound revelation, but face it, our expectations of churches and leaders are often inhumane and quasi divine. For the record, I totally agreed with the senior pastor’s assessment of the event. It was also very encouraging to know that pastoral life was complicated (it made it human). Sometimes things in ministry are messy and that’s OK.

The other event was more like a season of life when I went through some personal challenges that shook me to the core. There is nothing quite as enjoyable as discovering that you are falling apart – yes that was sarcasm. Skipping the details, it left me with little patience for glib pat answers. Life is messy. Our best sucks. Whatever the outer veneer looks like, it is what is underneath that is the substance of our lives. Sometimes that substance is flimsy. The church is like that too.

Apart from Jesus Christ, we are doomed. That goes for the church too. The problem as I see it is that many Christians, myself included, spend a lot of time on the veneer and not enough time on the substance. Face it, that is our human nature. From our childhood on we are taught to “suck it up and be a man,” or whatever girls are told. We are taught to put on a mask, polish the veneer and hope the substance will catch up or at least not be found out. It’s sort of like the salesman wearing the fake expensive watch to impress clients hoping that one day he can afford the real thing. Personally I find that kind of spiritual veneer putrid…now if only I wasn’t part of the problem.

That leads me back to the topic of the day. We have probably all heard the cliché, “if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem.” There is a lot of truth in that.

As I see it, the biggest problem with the church, thinking of the traditional North American church, is that for many, “church” has become a weekly event instead of the body that gathers weekly. It is an ontological problem. The church has it’s being in an event to celebrate Jesus Christ, rather than in Jesus Christ 24/7. Celebrating Jesus and learning about Him is good, but it is not the substance. Too often we replace being part of the body, the community of believers in relationship with Jesus Christ and one another, with showing up at an event. Hear me, the event is good, but it is not the sum total.

I don’t know of one pastor who is at peace with this. Every pastor I talk to desires for the church to be the relational ministering body that is the Church with Jesus as the head. Most pastors I know, including my self, see the Sunday gathering as an important event in the weekly life of the church. Face it, it is the only time many can gather. It is worth something.

However, watching a hockey game does not make you a hockey player. You might enjoy it, maybe even enjoy it with friends, and even learn something, but that’s the end of it. Being a Christian means lacing up the skates, getting on the ice and taking your bumps and bruises. Most of all, it takes commitment. No one plays in the big leagues with out a lot of hours invested and sacrifices made.

The great temptation of the church is for people to confuse the event in the life of the church, for the life of the church. Every hockey player watches hockey, if only from the bench and game tapes. However, the game is played on the ice. As Christians, we ought to enjoy the celebrating and worshipping with others, but that is the reward for working hard the rest of the week as servants of Jesus Christ. That is the substance of living the Christian life.

In some sense, by perpetuating the traditional Sunday gathering we perpetuate the problem. I know of many people who have and are fighting back against this by ditching the traditional Sunday “worship service.” I don’t blame them. Even as a pastor of a traditional-ish church, I feel like that some days. I hear their call to build a solid foundation of relationship and ministry. I hear their call for spiritual intimacy and authentic Christian lives. I hear their call to know that someone cares and is willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their lives.

I have no doubt that our typical Sunday gatherings do precious little to make that happen. The questions is, why do we expect them to? Why do we expect meeting together for and hour or so on Sunday morning to fulfill our deep spiritual needs? Could it be that the reason why so many seem to be unsatisfied with “church” is that they treat Sunday mornings as a spiritual fix like a drug that can be taken once a week to get a spiritual high? After while the drug no longer satisfies and they go looking for a new, more exciting spiritual drug?

Let’s be honest, not many of us would eat one meal a week if we had a choice. We understand that eating and drinking is part of our daily lives. Jesus said in John 6:35  … “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” There is rich meaning to this, but we ought not miss the obvious, eating and drinking are daily necessities.

The problem with the “traditional institutional” church is not so much what it isn’t, but our bizarre expectations of it. A Sunday service and all the excellent programs will never make up for a lack of daily spiritual vitality. Sunday services and mid week programs can facilitate and even augment relationships and spiritual intimacy, but they are not the substance. The substance is in our own hearts, minds and souls.

I appreciate what Scott had to day near the end of his article…

It’s time to move beyond our anger and hurt. It’s time to move beyond what we are against. I believe we can still create space to allow the Spirit to reshape the church in new ways without having to hold on to that anger. And we don’t have to be afraid of the fact that traditional forms of church life will remain intact.

Whether you choose to be part of a traditional church, a house church or a network of small groups is of little concern to me as long as you realize two things.

First, as a believer you are part of The Church, the body. To distance yourself from other believers is to divorce yourself from Jesus Christ because He is the head of the body. A chopped off finger will rot and decay. The finger needs the body even if it is imperfect.

Second, understand that no form of gathering will satisfy your spiritual longings. Sooner or later it just becomes the new tradition complete with the realization that something is missing. Might as well figure out what is missing and fix it instead of building a new veneer. The substance is living in Christ and in His Church, serving Him in the world daily.

Oh  yeah…that leads to a third thing. If you get this figured out, the church needs you. Live your life so we can see it and learn from it.


I originally posted this on my church web site. I thought I would x-post it here in my personal blog.

One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is the impulse to give answers to people’s questions…even the ones they don’t ask. I am, however, becoming increasingly convinced that questions are far more valuable than answers. Let me explain.

The more I learn from the Scriptures, the more questions I have. Although the questions become deeper, sometimes the questions raised are “simple” ones. It isn’t that the Scriptures don’t provide answers. The issue is, what kind of answers do we seek?

An answer that raises no questions, acknowledges no questions or even doubt, is a dead end. There is no where to go to dig deeper, grow in understanding and perhaps even correcting error. On the other hand, answers that raise new questions promote deeper understanding, open the door for fresh dialogue and yes, even correction. This means of course that there are in a sense, no answers, only new questions.

Some may find this endless line of questioning troublesome, but I don’t. It is through the questions that we gain understanding. We grow in our knowledge of the Scriptures, of Theology, of God Himself as we dig deeper, asking new questions. We stagnate when we merely accept answers with no further questions. Our life as Christians becomes stale when we quit asking questions.

My own journey with Christ began not with answers, but with questions. I asked a couple of Christian friends a question. They tried to answer it, but realized that the answer they had was inadequate. That lead us to embark on a journey of questions together and the rest is history. By the way, I haven’t found the answer to the question.

To Be A Christian

From time to time I go back to those basic questions of the Christian faith. I need to step back because it seems as humans we are constantly complicating things. With respect to being a Christian, we add on expectations and duties we deem necessary if one is to be considered a “real Christian.”

Consider this statement, “if you are right with God you will read your Bible every day.” Is that a true statement? How about, “if you are living for Christ you will be in a right relationship with everyone else around you.” Is that a true statement? I know some people who would say yes, but I say no.

The problem is that both of these imply the necessity of the action, reading your Bible or being in right relationship, in order to be “right with God” or “living for Christ.” There is an implicit priority of doing the “right thing” to be acceptable to God. As well intended as these kind of statements are, they are wrong.

The statements are wrong for two reasons. First they presume, if only by a thread, that our works justify us before God. The implicit priority is right behavior and then acceptability. “You are good when you do ________ .” Second, and closely related, they negate grace. The statements in effect suggest, modify behavior and then “be right with God.”

That is not to say that what we do does not matter. For that matter, there is even something of a priority of act. Consider Matthew 10:38,

And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

… and Matthew 16:24,

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Exactly what it means to ‘take up your cross’ is no trivial question. The question of how do we ‘follow Jesus’ is also no trivial question. A life time is too short to fully grasp either one, yet as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12-13,

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

That God works in us is nothing other than grace, grace that makes it possible to take up our cross and follow Christ. What that means is something we work out daily in our lives. That is the Christian life.

One of the ways we figure this out daily is by spending time reading the Bible and meditating upon it. Reading the Bible, a relatively modern benefit of the printing press and literacy, is an important way of growing in knowledge and being shaped by God, but we are not “right with God” because we spend time in the Bible. We are right with God because God made it possible through Jesus Christ to be right with God the Father.

Likewise, doing our best to live in right relationship with other people is not living for Christ. On the contrary, it is because we are in Christ, with our warts, thorns and relational thistles, that we have any hope of living at peace with one another. Yes, as we become more Christ like, we will become easier to love. Perhaps more importantly, we will find it easier to love those who are the hardest to love.

When Jesus took up His cross, He demonstrated His love for those who were hard to love. Jesus did not need to do what He did, but His love for sinners was worth more than death on a cross.

When we take up our cross and follow Him, at least in part, it means that we love others, warts, thorns, thistles and all. Loving like that is impossible for us apart from the grace of Jesus Christ and the formative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

So to return to our two opening statements, let me suggest another way of wording them. “By the grace of God we can spend time daily reading the Bible.” “By the grace of God we can walk by the Holy Spirit, growing in Christ-like love for one another.”

More importantly, “By the Grace and Mercy of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can take up our cross and follow Jesus.” That is the heart of the Christian life. That changes how we live.

I have returned

For those who have read my blog in the past, I apologize for the scarcity of posts over the past many months. At long last we are settled into our new home–well almost settled in. After four months of house sitting, as wonderful a blessing as that was, it is a delight to be in our own town home. It isn’t anything exotic, but it is a place to call home. The need to have a place to belong, a place that is ours, is probably worth reflecting on in the months ahead.

Another topic that I have been grappling with is the tension between personal holiness and loving those who are unholy. Of course we are the unholy in and of ourselves, but in Christ we are made holy. We are called to be blameless and above reproach, yet also to love as Jesus loved. Jesus didn’t exactly avoid the blamable and the reproachable, if He did, what hope would there be for us?

So here we are, called to holiness and to love the unholy. Putting aside the “who are you to call yourself holy or to judge others as unholy” question–for that is not the immediate question here–we are left with what appears to be an irresolvable disjunction. How can the “holy” love the “unholy” with out becoming unholy. It sounds like taking a mud bath and staying clean. Yet, is that not what Jesus did?

It is hard to blame the Pharisees for questioning how Jesus could be the Messiah when He ate and drank with sinners. All we have to do is to look in the mirror and see our own tendency to distance our selves from the “unholy” when we are feeling “holy.” It is as if fleeing un-holiness makes us holy.

So what of it? Can we grow in holiness while growing in love for the unholy? Can we be holy and love those who Jesus loves?

Maybe the better question is, can we grow in holiness apart from growing in love for those who we would judge as “holiness challenged”?

Paul, in a prayer for the Thessalonians wrote,

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).

It would seem that love for one another–the “holiness challenged” apparently not excluded–is a prerequisite for being established “blameless in holiness.”

This does not mean that we love un-holiness, but it does mean that we do love one another despite our mutual un-holiness. In that sense, we are called to love those who are un-holy. After all, Christ loved us first while we were “un-holy,” and apart from Christ we have no holiness worth speaking of anyway.

Perhaps the, or at least a measure of our own holiness is our love for those who seem to us to be “unholy.”