In most of my book events, I’ve been talking about my book How Jesus Saves the World from Us but not reading directly from it. This Monday night at the Regulator bookshop in Durham, they wanted me to read a little bit of the text. So I decided to share the conclusion since it’s a distillation of what I say in the book as a whole. Here it is.
Christianity has always been about getting saved. But today what we need saving from most is the toxic understanding of salvation we’ve received through bad theology, corrupted by our worldly ideologies of empire. God is not a cold-hearted banker who cares only about getting paid back. He’s not a ruthless, stereotypical gym coach. He’s not an ultrafastidious American Idol judge. He’s not a bloodthirsty, empire-building conquistador. He’s not an inflexible bureaucrat, whose hands are tied by the demands of our logic.
When we think of God, what God wants us to see is a man gasping for breath on a cross, a man whose body has absorbed all of our self-righteous hate and fury, but who says in response, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus forgives us for crucifying him today, just as he forgave the religious authorities in his time. All that he wants is for us to receive his mercy and become his mercy for the world. That’s what it means for us to be saved.
To be a true Christian is to expect a lifetime of personal repentance. It means admitting over and over again how wrong we are and being liberated over time from the slavish defensiveness of needing to be always right. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means to “see beyond.” So it’s not enough to go through the exhibitionist humility of talking about what horrible sinners we are and how unworthy we are of receiving God’s grace. A life of metanoia is a life of continually reexamining and surrendering our most tightly held convictions to God, so that we can receive deeper wisdom that enables us to turn our hearts more completely over to Jesus. The goal is not to know all things and conquer all people. The goal is to lose ourselves so thoroughly in the freely given love of an extravagantly generous God that we become vessels by which this love can be shared with others.
The glory of God’s holy, infinite truth is like light we cannot seize in our hands and wind we cannot put into a box. We must be emptied of our demonic need to conquer, control, and colonize, if we want to delight in this light and wind. We cannot get God’s song right if we’re trying to be right; it can only happen if we’re surrendered enough that the song starts playing us. That is the freedom that being justified by God’s grace is supposed to open up for us. Likewise, we cannot hear the voice of our Shepherd if we’re completely preoccupied with our own platform building. To hear Jesus speak, we must sit at the feet of the youngest and most marginalized voices in our community.
When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, this is not a mandate for conquistadors. It is the invitation to the freedom of a life unchained from worldly status and power. A cross is no longer Jesus’ cross if it is planted on a beach to claim territory for a worldly empire, whether we’re talking about the original colonialism of European nation-states or today’s colonialism of Christian celebrity and brand marketization. There is no greater obstacle to the kingdom of God than the Christianity that has become a special-interest lobbying group and salvation industrial complex. That Christianity will continue to draw the largest crowds and get the most attention from our media.
But there is also a Christianity that has never stopped being crucified, where the kingdom of God is not drowned out by the hype of worldly triumphalism. This Christianity can be found in the quiet, meek corners of dying and thriving churches alike. It happens wherever people’s self-assuredness has been shattered enough that they cry out to God in desperation and receive the power of new life that can be encountered only on the other side of the cross. These Christians may not appear to be winning by worldly standards. But they are the ones who are being saved. And they are our greatest hope for reaching a broken world that has been alienated by the meanest, loudest voices among us.
There are many reasons to be cynical and hopeless about the state of our world, but the more we let Jesus save the world from us, the more our eyes will be opened to the glory of a kingdom far more beautiful than any stadium or program we could manufacture. “Come further in!” says the Holy Spirit. “Come further in.”