Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Jesus I Never Knew

When I read a "Whatsoever" book, a book I intend to contemplate on and learn from, I mark all the places I'd like to go back and read over again.  With my Kindle, this is as easy as tapping the screen to bookmark my favorite passages.  With my (dwindling) supply of paper books, I dog-ear the pages.  When I was in college, I read Phillip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew for a Bible class.  I hadn't read it since, but I must have remembered it being a good book because it survived all the book purges in the thirteen years since taking the class.  When Helene and I decided we needed to do a month on following Jesus, I offered to review this little treasure for Whatsoever Wednesday.  Have you ever seen a book where a third of the pages are dog-eared?  It isn't pretty!  

Yancey has a gift for contrasting the Jesus found in the gospels with the skewed view of Jesus that even many of the most well intentioned Christians have.  "Jesus, I found, bore little resemblance to the Mister Rogers figure I had met in Sunday school, and was remarkably unlike the person I had studied in Bible college" (p. 23).  I have to admit that when I read the Bible, the characters, including Jesus, sometimes seem flat to me.  Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time reading novels with more descriptive language and deep character development.  The Gospels are not a novel, but Yancy points out that the development of the character of Jesus is there for those who will read it without bias.  "The Gospels present a man who has such charisma that people will sit three days straight, without food, just to hear his riveting words.  He seems excitable, impulsively 'moved with compassion' or 'filled with pity.' The Gospels reveal a range of Jesus' emotional responses."  

Perhaps the most striking contrast the author provides is in our view of ideals and grace.  Yancey gives his own "Whatsoever" recommendation in the process, comparing the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the impact they had on his life, and especially his understanding of the Sermon on the Mount.  Tolstoy was acutely aware of the Ideal that Jesus set before men in that Sermon, and he strove ever to meet that ideal.  However, he never had a true understanding of the grace of Christ (a trap I often fall into). Dostoevsky, despite being a gambler and drunkard, wrote novels full of grace and mercy.  In comparing the two, Yancey says, "From Tolstoy I learned the need to look inside, to the kingdom of God that is within me.  I saw how miserably I had failed the high ideals of the gospel. But from Dostoevsky, I learned the full extent of grace.  Not only the kingdom of God is within me, Christ himself dwells there" (p. 142).  When he took a look at the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed the whole life of Christ, he found the same message.  God is perfect.  We should strive to be like him, but we also know we will never reach that ideal here on earth, so we are grateful every day for a Savior who bridges that gap for us.  "Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace" (p. 144).  

While the author's treatment of 19th century Russian novelists gave me a good idea of another book to read, his conclusions about who Jesus is and what he wants for us cut to my very heart.  One conclusion is that Jesus is a "sinless friend of sinners."  As the author says, I should be convicted on both counts.  I am not sinless; only by Jesus's blood can I even stand in God's presence.  When I feel smug about how "good" I am, I need a fresh reminder of how much gunk Jesus had to wash away.  This is especially true because that very smugness keeps me from being the "friend to sinners" that Jesus was.  Yancey says that the church is often viewed as the enemy of sinners, and that is my fault as much as anyone's.  I admit that I have put much more emphasis on hating the sin than I have loving the sinner.  Jesus's hatred of sin is not what caused the people he encountered to change.  It was his all consuming love that made them want to do right.  I need to show that kind of love.  

Rarely have I learned so much from one book (other than the Bible, of course).  I learned to slow down and catch the nuances of emotion that are sprinkled throughout the gospels.  Jesus is not the emotionless robot or the solemn monk I have sometimes seen him to be.  I learned about some books I would love to read in my "whatsoever quest."  (I already downloaded the Brothers Karamazov).  I learned that I need to take a hard look at myself and my own sin.  Remembering how far short I fall, remembering the mercy of the Father, will keep me from spending all my time hating the sin around me.  Instead, I can do as Jesus did, and love the sinner so much that they want to change for the sake of the Savior. 
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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