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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Opting Out

It seems to me there are more than a few Christians out there looking for God to give them a personal pass on many of the hard things entailed in being a true follower of Christ.

I’m not looking down on this crowd from any position of superiority: I’m one of them through and through. But a careful reading of the New Testament explains to us why it should not be so. The Christian life was never intended to be a cakewalk. In fact, the Lord Jesus plainly told his followers to have peace in the face of the reality that in the world we will have tribulation.

Then, having set what seems to us an intolerable standard of self-abnegation and perfection of character, he immediately met and vastly exceeded it. Having told us the world was our enemy, he went right out and overcame it.

There was no “pass” to be had for the Son of Man.    

No Exceptions for Deity

It strikes me that the Lord not only took upon himself humanity, but he also took upon himself the very worst possible sort of life experience, at least by any standard we would acknowledge.

In being “found in human form”, he didn’t just embrace humanity; he imposed upon himself a life of homelessness, discriminationdependence, perpetual conflict and rigorous self-discipline.

And those are just the obvious negatives. There are several more worth exploring:

A Man Alone

Despite the extra-textual speculations about the Lord’s sexuality in secular quarters, the believer understands that since he (1) never married and (2) “did no sin”, he was indisputably celibate. Modernism makes sexuality into a god and the impulse for regular intimacy into both a right and a necessity. Failure to prioritize our own fulfillment in this area makes us abnormal or defective in the eyes of the world, and yet the Lord’s lack of interest in exploring this area of human experience shortchanged him in no significant way. It did not render him incomplete in the eyes of God, in fact it was the opposite. On reflection, it almost had to be this way: for the Lord to be an exemplar for all mankind, it was appropriate for him to identify most strongly with those segments of society esteemed to be at the greatest disadvantage in every possible way.

There are many who defend the right to satisfy their sexual desires as they please while calling themselves followers of Christ. Then there are those who claim the burden of loneliness is sufficient cause for seeking whatever companionship there is to be had. But for the Lord, the apostle Paul and many others throughout history, this was not a priority.

Those of us who elevate our perceived sexual “needs” above the kingdom of God may still be beneficiaries of the Lord’s mercy, but it is with dubious moral legitimacy that we refer to ourselves as his disciples.

A Man Without Natural Advantage

Also, it is clear that notwithstanding his portrayal in the arts through the centuries, the Lord was not physically appealing. I don’t mean that he was repulsive or notably ugly. That would be going beyond scripture. I mean that he was at best “plain”. He was an average-looking human being, physically unnoteworthy. He drew no attention by way of his appearance. He had “no form or majesty”. No beauty. Nothing visible contributed to his desirability.

Many people today feel terribly shortchanged with the physical package they acquired at conception. I’m not talking about lifestyle choices here. A certain amount of fitness is within our control, but there are aspects of our bodies that are intractable. All the diet and exercise in the world won’t add a foot to my height, and that’s something that significantly impacts my place in the world as a man, including my ability to lead. If my hair falls out when I’m 25, then it’s gone. Modern cosmetic surgery and transplants can minimize the damage but, let’s face it, nobody’s fooled by Donald Trump’s rug.

When it comes right down to it, no amount of pressure from feminists and beauty standards activists will change the visceral, largely unexpressed reaction in the heart of the average man or woman on the street to obvious physical beauty or ugliness. Those of us who are less aesthetically pleasing to the world suffer for it in ways that our more attractive peers cannot imagine.

So the Lord identified with the disadvantaged in this area too. We can safely affirm with the prophet that he charmed no one. He did not pull in the crowds with mere charisma. Those truly and spiritually attracted to him were drawn by his words and character.

Which, actually, is as it should be.

The Man of Sorrows

The Lord was in touch with the true nature of fallen creation. He was not fooled for a moment by appearances. Isaiah tells us he was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”. Again, it would be going beyond the words of scripture to suggest that Jesus Christ suffered from depression, but he more than anyone in history was acutely aware of everything wrong with mankind: every lie, every false motive, every self-deception, every manipulation, every display of baseless and offensive pride, every prejudice, every stumbling block, every betrayal, every bit of selfishness, bile and venom in the human heart. He knew “what was in man”. If anyone had legitimate cause to claim a serious case of clinical depression, it was our Lord.

Further, he knew what was wrong with the world. When Lazarus died, “Jesus wept”, not because he was powerless to raise him, but for the sorrow caused by sin and the near-incalculable damage it has brought to mankind. Incalculable to us, that is. The Lord Jesus could see every genetic deviation, every mutational horror and every bitter consequence of the Fall.

The apostle Paul compares the current agony of creation to the sound made by a woman in the pains of childbirth, but it is a sound to which only the Lord, of all men, was ever truly attuned.

One day he will undo it all. He will “wipe every tear from their eyes”. But that time has not yet come, and so the Lord identified with “those who mourn”, and indeed, he was comforted. In this area, as in all others, he is the believer’s role model.

The Spotless Victim Dies

Finally, the Lord was a victim. “Behold the Lamb of God,” said John the Baptist. He was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” records Isaiah.

But (you may protest) that will not do, for the Lord Jesus was not really “victimized” in the way other humans are. Nobody could compel him to endure anything. For him, becoming a victim was entirely voluntary. He could have opted out at every moment until the last. Twelve legions of angels would have made one serious mess of Jerusalem.

So he was not a victim in the way we are. And that actually made it worse for him, not better.

Because his victimization was entirely voluntary, the Lord was denied all the perverse consolations human victims derive from their own sufferings: the pleasure of fatalism, the gloss of self-righteous pride and the frisson of schadenfreude when, as happens all too rarely, the cause of one’s suffering gets what he or she has coming to them.

He could not fall back on “it was inevitable” or “it had to be this way”: it wasn’t and it didn’t. He could have easily left us in our sin and continued to enjoy fellowship with the Father for eternity. But he would not pass the cup. And fatalism was no option.

He never mustered any false pride in his lowliness, his humility or how completely he mastered himself in the face of near-ageless evil, though heaven knows (and it does!) he was more than entitled to it. He did not, in the words of the prophet, “cry aloud or lift up his voice”. Self-righteousness did not become him and he would not indulge it, and consequently it has been left to the Father to declare it to the world.

He took no delight in the inevitable punishment of those who cheered as he was sentenced and crucified. He truly loved his enemies. He prayed for those who persecuted him. In fact, he asked specifically that they be forgiven on his behalf.

Behold the spotless victim indeed.

The Task at Hand

Any one of us may be asked to follow the Lord Jesus in one or more of these many areas of selfless obedience, each of which he excelled and conquered. But who among us can complain that we have been asked to follow him in all of them? Who can object that he or she has been disadvantaged, humbled and laid low in the same way the Lord Jesus voluntarily expended himself on our behalf?

There was no “pass” to be had for the Son of Man. In our much smaller trials, should his servants really expect one?

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