I remember attending a Pentecostal youth conference as an impressionable teenager. A preacher spoke of the blind man in the Gospel of Mark who sat by the side of the road and, upon hearing that Jesus had just passed by, began to shout at the top of his lungs, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” When the people around him tried to shut him up, he shouted all the more! “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Sure enough, Jesus returned to the blind man and restored his sight.
I like to think that Jesus was moved by love and compassion for the hurting man and that is what precipitated his action in that man’s life. However, the Pentecostal preacher had a different take on the story.
Rather that focusing on the heart of Jesus, he zeroed in on the actions of the blind man. “Did you notice that Jesus passed by the blind man? But did he stop the first time? No! He kept on walking! What was it that made Jesus turn around and come back?” Yelled the preacher with great evangelistic fervor.
He concluded that it was the blind man’s desperate yelling that made Jesus come back. Then he made us all close our eyes and imagine that Jesus had just walked past us and ignored us. “There he goes!” said the Preacher man, as the music from the worship band swelled behind him, “Jesus is walking away from you! What are you going to do? Cry out to him now!”
That is how I found myself on my knees fervently praying that Jesus wouldn’t pass me by. “Please! Please come back, Jesus!” I pleaded through tears, wondering if Jesus would even notice me in the room full of crowded teenagers who were all vying for a piece of Jesus’s attention. The noise of a thousand young people simultaneously praying a thousand prayers reached a fever pitch, and I was left wondering, how would Jesus hear me above a thousand competing voices?
Louder and louder and louder, I yelled.
Photo by Edward Cisneros on Unsplash
What I learned about Jesus that day
At that Pentecostal conference, and others like it, I learned plenty about Jesus — almost all of it wrong. Worse than that, I carried many of those ‘lessons’ around with me for many years and, only now, have I begun to unlearn them. Let’s unpack some of the baggage that I have been carrying around as a result of my ‘Christian youth.’ Here’s what I learned that day about Jesus:
You need to get Jesus to notice you
Jesus is a busy guy. It’s likely that if you happened to be sitting beside life’s road in a puddle of personal tragedy, he’d probably not have time to stop and stoop down into the dirt. He’s got places to be and people to see; Important people — like Presidents and priests and Pentecostal preachers at large youth conferences. But, as a concession, he may pause on his way to do more important things, if you shout at him and convince him that you are being sincere.
If he doesn’t notice you, put in more effort
If Jesus doesn’t notice you immediately, then it’s your fault for not being noticeable enough. You need to yell louder, stand out from the crowd, have more faith and put in more effort. Try harder. Get better. Whether or not you get Jesus’s attention is dependent on you!
Fake it until you make it
There are probably plenty of people in the room who are a bit skeptical about the idea of shouting at Jesus to make Jesus notice them but, whatever you do, don’t let on that you are one of them. This is a crowd where there are expectations about what a good Christian says and does. Close you eyes. Raise your hands. Everyone else is doing it and you don’t want people to judge you.
Prayer is about getting Jesus to do what you want
Remember, the purpose of prayer is to get God to do what you want. You are the one who understands what is best for you and it’s up to you to get it from God. If you are suffering, it’s your own fault for not praying hard enough and having more faith. There is no purpose or redemptive plan in your pain. It needs to be eliminated and Jesus is the guy who can fix it — that’s if you can convince him.
You are an inconvenience to Jesus
Maybe — just maybe — if you do all the right things, Jesus might look over his shoulder at you, but only with great reluctance. I mean, the fact that he walked past you in the first place shows that Jesus wasn’t really planning on stopping for you, right? In fact, the whole incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ was probably a giant inconvenience to God. Just remember, it was your sin that nailed him to that cross. Hasn’t he already done enough for you?
And the lessons stuck
Of course, these ‘lessons’ were not explicitly stated! However, what is said and what is actually communicated are two very different things. And, sadly, I carried these lessons through much of my life, believing that God’s favor was dependent on the frequency and fervency of my prayers and my ability to be good. I longed to hear something — anything — from him. I perpetually believed that he must be on his way to do something else for someone else and, if I really wanted him, I had to plead and beg for him to stop. And if all I got was silence and absence, then it was definitely my fault.
Photo By Love You Stock on Shutterstock — purchased with license
The great ‘unlearning’
I’m going to give the Pentecostal preacher the benefit of the doubt. I think that he meant well and really had no idea that his terrible theology might actually drive a young person to believe that the best way to get Jesus’s attention is to muster up some desperation — real or pretend — and start begging and pleading like a mad man. And for what?
The effort that it takes to maintain such an intense relationship with an invisible deity was, to be honest, exhausting. I couldn’t stomach performance-based religion a moment longer. All the striving to reach him, hear from him, please him — it just left me worn out, burned out and disenchanted.
So I quit.
I gave up striving to get God to notice me. I stopped performing for God. To my surprise, when I did, a great unlearning started to take place. The unfortunate lessons of my youth gave way to a new way of thinking about Jesus — one that I have found truly life-giving. Here’s what I have learned:
Jesus can’t walk away
Bad spiritual teaching says, “Jesus is only here,” or “Jesus is only there,” or “There goes Jesus! Better get his attention before he is gone!” But good spiritual teaching says Jesus is always and everywhere and for everyone at any time. He didn’t go to all the trouble of living a human life and dying a human death in order to reconnect humanity to the divine, so that people would continue to strive for the divine as if it were something that needed to be pursued through human effort. Anyone who tells you that Jesus is here or there, coming or going, doesn’t understand the whole point of Christ. Christ is everywhere present, and that means he can’t walk away.
Connecting with God is not dependent on effort
The Christian faith is based purely and completely on the idea that God’s love is poured out unconditionally, indiscriminately, freely and graciously on all of humanity. It is not dependent on human goodness or effort. You cannot get God to do anything by trying harder, praying more, being good and especially by yelling louder.
My children are loved because they are my children — not because of anything in particular that they have done, but by virtue of the fact that they are mine. If they threw themselves to their knees and starting pleading for me to notice them, I might find that behavior a bit odd. If all three of my children started simultaneously yelling at me, I would that that was downright annoying. They don’t have to beg for my love, my affection, my attention. They don’t have to earn it or perform for it. It is already theirs.
I’d love to go to a Christian conference where people were able to be authentic about their struggles, their doubts, their sins and their pain. Too often though, we feel like we must check all these thing out at the door and put our best foot forward. We are taught that Christians always “walk in victory.” Life teaches us otherwise.
It’s funny. The word hypocrite — in the first instance — was actually the word for “actor” or “one who wears a mask.” What a pity that the Christian faith is full of actors, performing for God and each other, when all God wants is authenticity.
You can say the right things for the wrong reasons
When I am really honest with myself, the reason that I was crying out to God at that Pentecostal youth conference was simply because I was chasing some kind of reassurance in the form of a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. I might have been an insecure teenager, struggling with poor self image and low self-esteem, but I sure as heck wasn’t suffering like the blind man in the Bible. His cry for help was sincere. My cry for attention was selfish. I was just trying to get God to bless me for the sake of me, and I was told by the preacher man that this was how you do it.
The same words can come out of the mouths of two people and one person’s words can be good, and the other person’s words can be bad, depending on the heart behind those words.
God is not angry or annoyed at me
Sometimes I get annoyed at my own children. I am only human, after all. However, I am not perpetually annoyed at them. Even when they disappointment me, my negative emotions towards them are brief and momentary, and quickly surrender to the delight that I experience simply in the fact that they are my children and I love them. Should the situation ever arise — God forbid — where they got into a position where they needed saving at my own expense, I would not even have to think. I would act — almost instinctively. Now, I suppose that if I would do that — even though I am an imperfect Father — that God would feel it all the more.
In fact, the Bible says that all that God has done for us was for his good pleasure. I was his delight to do it.
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash
Did Jesus come back for me?
I look back at the memory of this Pentecostal conference now and I shake my head at my own naivety. I didn’t see it at the time, but this occurrence demonstrates a number of key misconceptions about the nature of God that many churches teach both explicitly and implicitly. They promote a kind of performance-based religion that requires us to strive to attain that which Christ has already given freely — his favor, his presence, his love.
For all the yelling and weeping that I did at that youth conference, did Jesus come back for me?
I don’t think he did.
I think he tapped me on the shoulder and gently and tenderly whispered in my ear: “There’s no need to yell, Son. I’m right here next to you and I never left.”
But I was so busy yelling, I never heard him.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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