If one makes a statement by the type of entrance one makes, then God made quite a statement with Jesus.
Jesus was born, says the Bible, with a virginal conception—decidedly not in accord with the normal order of things. Then there was a host of angels who announced the birth to some startled shepherds with what will turn out to be ironic words: "Peace on earth!" For the first memorable political act after the birth of Immanuel—"God with us"—is the mass murder of infants preceded by the exile of the holy family. The first sign of God's coming leads to disruption and confusion.
Even in his childhood, Jesus signaled that he was about something startling. He was only 12 when he disobeyed his parents, staying behind in Jerusalem to teach in the temple after they had started home. He flouted one of the Ten Commandments—"Honor your father and your mother"—apparently believing that the fifth commandment was not made for man, but man for the fifth commandment. His parents are naturally hurt at his disrespect: "Son, why have you treated us so?" But Jesus just rebukes them for not recognizing his mission (Luke 2:4149). Jesus was not a good, well-behaved little boy.
Things get really interesting when Jesus begins his ministry some 18 years later. His opening sermon—the one in which he announces his mission of liberation—sets the tone. He's in Nazareth, his home town. He has an opportunity to win the favor of family and friends, so they can send him off on his ministry with good will. Instead, he picks the occasion to shame them for their parochialism. He notes that God is just as interested in freely sharing his mercy with Gentiles as he is with his chosen people. You know Jesus has touched a raw nerve when his friends and relatives—the people who have a natural deep affection for him—drag him to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29).
We shouldn't be surprised subsequently to see Jesus time and again challenge the religious order of his day—sometimes openly flouting custom and law. He encouraged his disciples to break the Sabbath. He associated with the morally disreputable. He welcomed women, second class citizens in his day, to participate in his mission. He questioned customs of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
Many examples can be given, but one in particular (Luke 6:6-11) reveals Jesus at his destabilizing best. One Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. In addition to the congregation, Luke notes that "scribes and Pharisees" were also present, as was a man whose right hand was withered. The religious leaders had come to catch Jesus breaking religious law, in particular, healing on the Sabbath.
Now, Jesus had a lot of ways to avoid a confrontation, and he'd have known these if he had read How to Win Friends and Influence People. First, the man with the withered hand does not actually ask for healing. Jesus is not backed into a no-win situation, where he either has to deny the request to heal or flaunt religious custom. Since the man never asked to be healed, Jesus could simply have done nothing.
Further, even if he felt compelled to heal the man, there is no reason Jesus could not have waited just a few hours, until the sun set. Then the Sabbath would be over, and the healing would be perfectly legal. The man had likely lived with this impediment for years, if not decades. He certainly could have waited a few hours to be healed. Jesus could have avoided working on the Sabbath, healed the man, and dodged controversy with religious leaders—a win-win-win! What ministry leader wouldn't strive for that?
But Jesus is not interested in maintaining a social or religious order that thwarts the dynamic work of God. So he calls the man forward in the middle of the service, in the middle of the day, before God and everybody right on the Sabbath, and heals him. Jesus deliberately provokes. Jesus initiates controversy. Jesus destabilizes the situation.
It is this sort of behavior, of course, that eventually gets him into trouble. But not before he manages to upset every expectation about God and his Messiah and the religious life. He says God is not so much enamored with the pious and the religious, but more with the poor, the sad, the meek, the hungry. No, the rich have not been blessed by God, Jesus says, but are an object of God's deepest concern for the state of their souls. He says that rather than retaliating, one should forgive. Rather than hating enemies, one should love them. Rather than keeping what is rightfully yours, you should give it away.
A man who goes about challenging such political, religious, and moral sensibilities could be mistaken for a revolutionary. And he was—and he was killed for it. We like to move through that part of the story as quickly as possible, and get on to something more hopeful, like the Resurrection. But disorder and confusion abound when we come to this part of the story as well.
In one account, the men guarding the tomb, Matthew tells us, "trembled and became like dead men" (Matt. 28:4). In another resurrection appearance, the disciples are "frightened and startled" (Luke 24:37). The characteristic response to the Resurrection—an event that instills confusion and disorder even to this day—is that of the women, who, Mark says, "fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8).
In the centuries since, Christians have tried to tame the Resurrection, shoring it up with logical and historical proofs, talking about it as if it makes perfect sense if you only think about it. But a resurrection that has merely become a comforting tale of hope is not the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus announces a new world order, doing so first by upsetting and demolishing the old world order. It is not the mere resuscitation of a body, but a signal that everything that is dead—predictable, rigid, lifeless, and orderly—is going to be made unpredictable, free, lively, and new.
That's the type of thing God does. He shatters the order that has become an oppressive order. He throws out of control that which had been hyper-controlled. He forces everyone to make a choice: hold on tighter to the life made in our image, or let go and see the new, liberating thing God is doing in our midst.
This disruptive, resurrection life only becomes more so after Jesus left the Holy Spirit, the so-called "comforter." The first and most dramatic example comes on the day of Pentecost—when the coming of God is so confusing and upsetting, the only way a bystander has of describing it is as a "drunken party." The next example comes with the conversion of Paul, when a blinding light throws him to the ground and leaves him in darkness for three days and nights. The next comes when Peter has a most disturbing dream, which leaves him sleepless and anxious until he eventually discovers that God is calling him to abandon a life-long prejudice, no easy thing to do.
This is the God—the God who comes to us in the often disturbing Jesus Christ and through the disruptive Holy Spirit—whom the Christian church claims to worship, but you'd never know it some days. It's as if we're on earth, and a grandfatherly God sits far, far away in heaven, looking down on us benignly. But Annie Dillard, in her essay "Teaching a Stone to Talk," reminds us what is actually happening in the worship of the God who has come to us in Jesus:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
The problem—our temptation to make Christianity a religion of order and safety and niceness—begins with our failure to grasp who Jesus Christ is and how, in the Holy Spirit, he continues to speak and work among us. Dorothy Sayers put it this way:
We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.
What are we to make of this New Testament picture of God in our own lives?
For one we can stop pretending God is nice, as if it's his job to make our lives well-adjusted or religious or even spiritual. Jesus did not say he came to give us happiness, only blessedness. He did not promise an easy life, only an abundant one. He doesn't call us to be religious or spiritual, but to love God and love others. We can save ourselves a lot of grief if we recognize that up front.
This means at least two things: (1) He's not going to spare us from heartache, suffering, and chaos. (2) He's actually going to bring heartache, suffering, and chaos into our lives sometimes.
We hear about the first often, and we've been rightly told that when evil embeds itself in our lives through death or disease or destruction that the truths of the gospel remain: God is still Emmanuel, with us. He is, even in the worst circumstances, taking that worst thing, like he took the death of his Son, and turning it into something redemptive. It's only a matter of time.
But the biblical picture shows us that sometimes God doesn't merely react to the evil chaos in our lives, he sometimes creates what might be called holy chaos. Like he did to the Pharisees. And to Peter. And to Paul. And to the disciples at Pentecost. He does things in our lives that leave us confused and bewildered for a time.
In this, too, we are wise to remember that God is still Emmanuel, with us. In this case, he's not merely using chaos, he is instilling a holy chaos into our lives.
We're tempted to speculate which circumstances are merely evil, that God simply responds to, and which are a holy rattling. But that information is not usually granted us. What news has been given is good: God is working in, with, and under the chaos to shape us into the image of Christ.
But we're not going to get to that place of redemption until we learn to live in the chaos as a divine gift. No matter how the chaos comes to us, we need to recognize that God in his sovereign power could instantly remove from us the sad and discouraging consequences of the chaos—the grief, the loss, the confusion, the bewilderment, the suffering. He could heal us immediately. But he doesn't, and we need to see the fact that he doesn't as a gift of a loving God. The chaos becomes, then, a kind of cross, and thus becomes a moment of grace. And we cannot know the resurrection if we're not willing to endure the cross and grave for a full three days.
If we're living with the heartache and pain of failure—failure at work, failure of a marriage, failure in morals, failure at raising children—we must let the heartache and pain work its way into our hearts and minds. Not salve it with, "You'll do better next time!" or "You did your best" or "Try this way of doing it!" No, we must say what a thing is—a failure on our part—and let the reality embed itself in our consciousness. Only then will we see a gracious space in our souls, where God has already entered and said, "I forgive your failure."
The examples could go on and on, for human suffering takes manifold forms and God's redemption takes on just as many forms and more. What the particular chaos is designed to do for each of us can be difficult to discern. Many have found that after a moral or personal failure, only then have they been able to be forgiving and patient with others' failings.
Sometimes we may never know in this life the redemption that is being worked out in and through our divinely appointed suffering. A parishioner in one church I served had lost a son when the boy was very young. She told me she lived with the pain of that loss her whole life. She said the first thing she was going to ask God in heaven was why he took her son from her at such a young age. She couldn't see the point of it.
I couldn't tell her the point of it all either, but I could see one significant sign of redemption: This woman who had suffered such a loss was one of the most understanding, forgiving, and empathetic people I've known. She was the type of person into whose eyes you could look and see she had suffered, and because of that, she knew how to love; you felt you could tell her anything and that you wouldn't be judged. Sometimes we cannot see the redemption God is working in us, but—without our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing—we have as a result become a blessing to others.
Jesus refuses to be put in a religious box. He's not a nice Savior, whose goal is to make us feel better about ourselves and become well-adjusted, productive members of society. All that is well and good, and it is part of our lot in life. But this is not the mission of Jesus. He's not interested in nice, well-adjusted people, but mostly in people who forgive and love. And sometimes he has to bring a little chaos into our lives to help us become the people he's called us to be.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This article is adapted from his latest book, Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Why Doubters and Non-Doubters Share a Common Faith | And why it's really not about "their" faith anyway. (September 1, 2011)
Trusting God with the Ones You Love | Few things are harder or scarier than trusting God to do what is just and right and good. (August 18, 2011)
John Stott and the Weary Evangelical | What the movement looks like at its best. (August 4, 2011)