July 10, 2020

iMonk Classic: Looking For An Exit From The Journey With Jesus

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First published in March 2009

Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?”

Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again? The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.”

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”

Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.

– John 6:60-69, NLT

* * *

Have you ever come to a place where you wanted to say, “Let me off. I’m done?”

Maybe you were in a car with an 88 year old driver who shouldn’t have been driving anywhere, much less down an interstate.

Maybe you were about to get on an amusement park ride that you really didn’t want to ride.

Maybe you were going back for week two of a job that was not at all what you thought it would be.

You said to yourself- or to anyone else who would listen- “I think it’s time for me to quit.”

After listening to Jesus give what may have been his most intense, challenging and disturbing talk, it seems that some of Jesus’ disciples were ready to quit. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” was their place to get off the bus.

We tend to think of the people who followed Jesus as an “easy sell.” They were sitting around, doing nothing, just waiting for a prophet or rabbi to show up so they could spend years following him. Like eager customers at a car dealership, they were ready to buy from minute one and never doubted.

I doubt that such a scenario is true. It’s more likely that many days ended with some of the disciples saying “I’ve had enough. I’m going home.” I imagine many late nights around the campfire were punctuated with one disciple talking another out of leaving, or arguments that ended in departures the next morning.

Why? The scriptures suggest to me at least three issues that may have caused some of Jesus’ followers to look for the next exit.

Some were frightened because of what they saw Jesus do. When Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples were terrified. We may think it was wonderful, but if you and I had been there, it’s likely we would have said, “If this is God, I don’t want to be around him.”

Some may have just heard enough of what they couldn’t believe. Jesus didn’t hesitate to put the choice to be a disciple in less than “attractional” language. He seemed to purposely offend with hard words to force a choice. We would be a bit silly to think that every disciple heard Jesus make statements about the decisive choice to suffer, go against family or embrace the cross and easily said “Yes. I choose that way.” Some certainly heard Jesus say “If anyone would come after me….” and said “I’m not coming after you any more.”

I especially think about the traumatic experience of having all your certainties about God, life, the Kingdom, the Messiah, scripture and the future exploded every day. Jesus relentlessly took on the certainties of religion and politics, redefining and reanimating them all with whole new meanings. This couldn’t have been easy. At times it must have sometimes been infuriating and depressing. Some would have said, “I don’t want my whole world turned upside down. I’m quitting.”

As evangelicals, we’re often blind to this segment of the people we relate to and communicate with. We are oriented to think that our witness is to people who are open to be convinced or are moving toward the truth. In fact, Jesus had many people move the other way as the truth about himself himself came clearer.

There are many in evangelicalism who are close to that same place. They are looking for the best time and place to quit. They are moving away from Jesus and away from those who believe in and say they follow Jesus. We often write these people off as “quitters” or we simply don’t admit their existence. But they are there. Sometimes they are a son, daughter or close friend. Sometimes, it’s been some of us.

Why are they thinking that it’s time for them to “get off” the evangelical/Christian journey?

1. They can’t believe in the God we’ve told them about any more.

2. They can’t live the Christian life as it’s been presented to them.

3. They don’t want to be like the Christians they see and many they know.

4. They tried “it” and “it” didn’t work.

5. They’ve thought about it, and something other than Christianity makes more sense for the moment.

Many Christians would immediately present arguments, apologetics and a pile of reasons to these people.

Jesus gives an interesting response.

In John 6:61-62, Jesus says, “If you are offended now, you haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until you get the big picture of who I am.”

His offensive words about flesh and blood would soon be overtaken by the resurrection and the ascension. A puzzling and mysterious Jesus would be replaced by a world overcoming/world transcending Jesus.

Jesus says all our objections are ultimately dwarfed by the truth of who he really is. It’s not that our objections and reasons to quit are irrational. They simply can’t compare to the truth that is so much greater than any of our questions, objections and even rejections.

Peter says, “Yes, it’s difficult sometimes, but where else and to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Where else can we go is a great response. It’s honest and authentic. It doesn’t make Christianity a game of “How many questions can be answered?” No, it’s a matter of WHO Jesus is, and despite the mystery, the challenge, the intimidation and the difficulty, who else comes to us as God on earth, with the words of eternal life?

In the story of the prodigal son, both boys learn that the Father’s love and grace are greater than what stands in the way of understanding him. The Father’s love and grace to the wasteful son overwhelms his sin and his religious plan to get back in the family. The Father’s love and grace is greater than the moralistic, legalistic system of reward that the older son thought guaranteed him his place in the family.

The Father was greater than all that they brought to the table. In the end, they were left not with answers to their questions, but a Father whose love and purpose to save couldn’t and wouldn’t fail.

For all those who are looking for the next place to “get off” the path of following Jesus and/or being a Christian, there is no list of answers. There is only one who overwhelms all questions and answers; one to whom we ultimately say “Even with all my objections and reservations, where else could I go, Jesus, except to you.”

I realize it seems a bit devotional to say that Jesus is the answer to all those reasons to “quit.” I’m not naive. I’m expounding scripture, and that may have already hit the trash bin. I’m giving my own testimony- Jesus is all that keeps me on board these days- and that isn’t everyone’s story. I realize all of this.

But I do think that sometimes it’s not at all the court case we make a spiritual divorce out to be. Sometimes the answer is simply coming to know that there is One who, as love himself, makes all the questions move back a few rows so our faith can have a place to sit.

I pray that many will stay with the journey a while longer, and learn that a Jesus shaped faith contains one whose great grace overturns our hurts and fears.

Comments

  1. Sometimes I feel like I am hanging on by my finger nails….just holding on….

  2. “Sometimes the answer is simply coming to know that there is One who, as love himself, makes all the questions move back a few rows so our faith can have a place to sit.”

    Good words from Michael Spencer. I am so happy that his focus was always on Jesus. Like Simon Peter said, “Lord, to whom would we go?”

    • Amen, Joanie. I am often one of little faith, anxious and sinful and totally self-absorbed, but in my adult life I have never considered walking away from Jesus (or the Church where I find Him in His fulness). As you say, quoting my favorite loud bumbler of an Apostle….where else would I go, Lord. You are “I am” and rule the universe and all in it. All I can do follow in my OWN bumbling and stupid way….

    • Have found that over the last 8-10 years that I’ve had the opposite. Jesus has made those questions come up right front and centre to me. It seems as though I’m being asked, “Who do you say I am?” And by extension, “why do you believe this about me?” Maybe this is how The Lord works in someone who has had more of an intellectual bent towards life…

      • “An intellectual bent towards life” seems like quite a euphemism to apply to St. Peter. 😛 Just sayin…

        • Miguel, well I wasn’t unintentionally trying to refer to St Peter there! :p

          Maybe more so to myself though I do share the same impetuous nature as St Peter at times! 😀

          • What I meant was that the question “Who do you say I am,” as it was posed to St. Peter, is given to everyone to answer, intellectual or not. Thinkers may pick up on it more quickly, but Peter certainly doesn’t seem like one of them!

  3. I’ve successfully jumped from the evangelical train, but I can’t ditch Jesus or the Scriptures. It’s almost like a different version of being able to check out any time I like but I can never leave.

    I have considered an exit too many times to number. I have seen and read some friends who have, but that to me wouldn’t solve anything. I would need to manufacture a false belief. I can see myself as a wandering sheep, but I’m still a sheep.

    We’ve never heard Jesus tell us face to face those horrifying hard sayings. But we’ve never had him tell us face to face comforting words about salvation coming to our house or having our names recorded in heaven. Did Thomas believe because he saw? Are we blessed because we yet believe without ever having seen?

  4. Items one through three concern the misrepresentation of the faith by the church, i.e. the God people reject is not necessarily the true God but an idol. Item four, i.e., “It didn’t work” is also the fault of the church, if the church marketed “god” as a product that will “work” or “fix” or “cure” – like a snake oil huckster.

  5. I am still on board the evangelical Christian train, but only because I haven’t found the connection to the train that has Jesus on it. 😉 Seriously, after 3 decades of sitting under people with all the right theological answers, but an inability to be honest about the mystery of God and the shortcomings in their own lives, I am wondering how to find Jesus. The one who loved me while I was(am) yet a sinner. Who can inspire me to take up my cross.

    I suppose this sounds like:
    3. They don’t want to be like the Christians they see and many they know.

    Thank God for a handful of friends who are walking an honest walk, who seem to know Jesus in a way that I want to. So, hopeful. Barely.

  6. Notice the subtext: Spencer subtly suggests that there is something wrong with abandoning the “evangelical/Christian journey.” He simply assumes that his readers will agree with him (and are from this background). Defectors are defective.

    • David Cornwell says

      Sorry, I do not see that. He says that there may be many reasons to leave the journey. But there are also some reasons to stay the course. And he never assumes or says everyone is from the same background. None of it seems very subtle to me.

      What course have you stayed with? What road are you traveling? Is it a good one? What’s ahead? Thought about trying another one?

      Just curious.

  7. My interpretation of Peter’s response: “If you’re not the living God, we’re toast no matter how you cut it.” There is NOWHERE else to go.
    *
    ( And that’s my own personal testimony. There is nowhere else to turn.”

  8. petrushka1611 says

    Interesting that you posted this today. Just Saturday, my wife and I had lunch with a guy I’m older than, but who’d grown up with me in the church my dad started (Independent, fundamental Baptist, KJV-only, etc.). My friend has, sometime in the last few years, become an atheist, and he described it as a born-again experience, in a way: all the weight of the contradictions fell off his shoulders.

    This weekend, atheism has looked more appealing than ever before. I’ve wondered if all I’ve been doing for the last 38 years is torturing myself with Christianity. The thing that keeps nagging at me is, if the Gospel is so great, then why doesn’t it (seem to) work?

    • What are you expecting the Gospel to do? Forgiveness, life, and salvation are a pretty sweet deal in the long run. In the meantime, the cross is also promised.

      • When I saw the word “torturing” in petrushka1611’s comment with reference to Christianity, I wonder whether or not what had been preached to him in church over the last 38 years has been the Gospel. Sounds by that one word to be more like pharasaical-legalistic-Pelagianism instead to me.

      • Don’t get me wrong, petrushka, “torture” is quite an appropriate word for too much of the church experience, including a significant part of my own. Believe me, I can see how atheism could be a genuine relief for many. I just can’t help but wonder if maybe part of that is due to false expectations put on Christianity, which are then dashed against reality. I’m such a pessimist these days I just don’t really expect the Gospel to do much of anything. Except, of course, for reviving my dead corpse, which I’ll gladly take.

    • petrushka1611 says

      You do, of course, realize that I wouldn’t know exactly what you’d mean by legalism and Pelagianism if I weren’t pretty much on the other side of them now. 😉 Back when they were problems, I would have had no grasp on what you are saying.

      What do I expect the gospel to do? For one, make a difference in the ones who preach it the most. Maybe I’m going just off my own experience, but I watched as the pastor who showed me that the gospel was for Christians as well as the lost, who I learned about Pelagianism from, who introduced me to the roles of Law and Gospel — I watched as he piled legalism on law on my fiancee and me, added some Gothardism for good measure, spiritually abused my fiancee from the pulpit…I could go on. *sigh* It was a major factor in breaking apart her family, and it put us through the fire for two years.

      Part of the torture is never being able to square some things up. Since I’ve pretty much let go of inerrancy, I feel like what all the Bible teachers and Chick tracts prophesied: I’m left holding tatters of my Bible, not knowing what to trust, or even how to read what I have left. Creationism (at least YEC) stopped making sense a long time ago, but anything else I’ve looked into has left me with just as many questions. I have no idea how to read my Bible, so I just don’t. It’s not just legalism and semi-Pelagianism.

      And everywhere I look, I see people waving their arms telling me how I’m missing the boat by not reading the Bible and understanding Christianity a certain way — NT Wright, Peter Enns, Thomas Merton, Joseph Ratzinger, CFW Walther. It’s like, for years, I believed in a form of Christianity that kept me in turbulence and left me exhausted at the end. Then I found concepts like Law and Gospel and they seemed to clear things up for a while, but after a while…nothing.

      Or, take the historical Adam. I see a lot more evidence against one than for one, but not having one seems to create more problems for me. I’ve read a lot of the explanations but I don’t find them convincing. So, what do I do — believe in a historical Adam so I’m finally at peace? Then, it doesn’t matter whether or not he existed; it only matters what I believe. Well, THAT isn’t any better!

      • petrushka, I feel very badly for you after you shared more of your backstory. For you to have any faith left (even if it is only by a single thread) is nothing short of a miracle. You have my prayers (if that is any comfort for you). I do apologize if the tone of my previous comment might have come across as snarky.

        For me this issue of inerrancy seems to be something of a preoccupation with American Protestants (particularly of the fundagelical kind). And it then ends up being used as a club against the faithful. I haven’t seen as much on that issue here in Australia or in SE Asia (where I’m originally from).

        FWIW, the fact that you are in this sort of doubting mode and you can open up and vent about it to us (and maybe also God) is a reassuring sign for me. I had something similar happen to me a couple of years ago and while I’m still in the fold now, obviously your mileage may vary. Blessings on your journey onwards.

  9. onehitwonder says

    Jesus said it would be difficult….I just didn’t think it would be this difficult…he said I would have to lose my life to find it….I am unsure of how much more I have to give….he said “follow me” and I have followed…..and it has cost me more than I counted on…yet I cant stop following Him…I am in love with Him..His voice…His words….our long talks and quiet moments…..no one loves me like he does…..I will follow Him or die…