There’s a reason I don’t read that many Christian books.
Too often, I feel like throwing them across the room.
Like the one I opened up the other day, which had this Christian wisdom nugget: “Jesus is teaching me to live by faith, not by my feelings.”
On one hand, I completely agree with the author. Jesus is with me, whether I feel like it or not. Sometimes, that knowledge has been a lifesaver to me.
But there’s the underside of that cliché, where we completely ignore our feelings about our faith, because we believe they’re not trustworthy.
Don’t want to read your Bible? Do it anyway.
Hesitant to evangelize? You need more faith.
Filled with doubt and distress about your beliefs? Soldier on!
I was reading Jesus Girls, a great compilation of women raised in the Evangelical faith, and one of the writers put her finger on what bothered me about the aforementioned quote. She said, “I worry that people who grow up in the church learn to deny their own humanity.”
I think we expect our faith to be less than human, too.
We ignore our feelings and keep moving forward, with less and less excitement. We expect ourselves to be above emotion, singing the tune of perfect faith even when our breath has turned into a metallic rattle.
We look on the trappings of faith, spiritual disciplines, church, right beliefs like buttons on a spirituality machine. Press the right activities in the right order and our hearts and spirits will surely come alive again.
We long to be robots for Jesus.
We long to unzip our human emotions, frailties, contradictions like a haz-mat suit and experience faith free from messiness.
But God didn’t make us to be robots.
No, he asks us to bring our whole selves to the altar.
I lost my breath reading the Bible the other day. I got to Matthew. Jesus tells his disciples to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him.
Deny yourself, the passage thrummed. Deny deny deny deny.
That time, I wanted to throw the Bible across the room.
I didn’t. Instead, I asked some friends about the verse. I thought about it. I breathed.
I know I cannot go back to a faith where I need to cut out the deepest parts of me to belong to Jesus. I am done believing that that’s what he asks of me.
The truth is, if I believe Jesus is a good God, I must believe that he isn’t asking me to lop off my humanity, my emotions, my soul.
There has to be another way.
So I sat with that verse. And I noticed a few things.
First: Denying one’s self isn’t the point of the verse. Following is. And as a friend said, how you deny yourself really depends on what you mean by “follow.”
Second: I’m supposed to be following Jesus. Not following Evangelical (or Presbyterian or Reformed) Christianity. Not doing what Christian authors or my old youth group leader or pastor says.
This verse does not say Deny yourself and Read your Bible. It does not just say Deny yourself. No.
So: what does following Jesus really look like? That is really the question I need to be focused on.
The truth is, it’s only recently that I’ve been asking Jesus what it means to follow him. It’s only recently that I’ve been clinging to him to move each part of me into his footsteps. It’s only recently that I haven’t been watching everyone else out of the corner of my eye, figuring out what works for them and making sure I followed suit.
Following Jesus is turning out to work better.
I’m urging you today, like Eugene Peterson paraphrased, to bring your whole self to Jesus. Your faith, your uncomfortable feelings, your unacceptable bits, your grumbling, your cynicism to Jesus.
Feel the feelings. Lift them up to him. Trust him to surprise you. The thoughts, doubts and emotions I am sometimes most ashamed of are proving to be refining fire, burning away my pious woolgathering. The unacceptable bits are the ones bringing to my knees in thankfulness.
Deny yourself means something more whole than we humans can understand.
I am sure of this: when we stand before Jesus, we will be more fully ourselves, more fully alive and aware of our emotions than we’ve ever been.
Be done with your clockwork faith. Do not go automatic for Jesus. Uncog your wheels, let your robotics run down.
And be you, really authentically you, feelings, emotions and all.
Image credit: Dominique Verstraeten