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Transformation Blog



The Ministry of Reality (Hospitality VI)

Brandon Cook

Jesus’ ministry had a sharp edge to it—and still does. It is the Ministry of Reality. Jesus cannot heal in theory, he can only heal in realty. Thus, Jesus can only heal when people confront reality, which means confronting all the ways in which they’ve buried their humanity. This is painful, which is why following Jesus is painful. It’s why C.S. Lewis calls Jesus “not safe, but good.”[1]Jesus is not safe to the part of us that wants to avoid reality for the sake of avoiding pain.

For this reason, Jesus is not shy about making people address their hearts. If you don’t understand the Ministry of Reality and the fact that healing only happens in reality, you might just conclude that Jesus is a jerk. He says some hard, even harsh, things. But if you understand his ministry and his aim, you’ll understand the urgency with which he calls people to reality, and thecompassionthat undergirds it all. I don’t whisper when I tell my child not to touch a hot stove, and Jesus doesn’t hold back when calling people into reality. Jesus always stands before people and calls them out of whatever has dehumanized them, separating their true desire for God with all the false ways they have gone about satisfying that desire to their own detriment and to the burying of their heart and their humanity. 

When a rich young man came to Jesus asking about eternal life, but was unwilling to let go of his possessions, Jesus looked on him “with compassion” before telling him to go and sell his goods.[2]Jesus makes people address their hearts.This is the only way he can bring them into reality, where they can be saved.Sometimes only hard words can bring someone into reality, where they can be touched and healed. Similarly, when Jesus converses with the Samaritan woman, he is not shy to point out that she has been in a string of immoral relationships, even if this is embarrassing for her.[3]Jesus always points out the things we cling to—money, sex, power, religion—that actually dehumanize us, so that he can reconnect us with our humanity’s deepest longings, which we have often abandoned. Jesus must lead us into the reality of these deeper longings, and crossing through the regret of all our bad choices is painful; nevertheless, across that bridge is the only way back to our own selves. Jesus is like a doctor setting a bone: it’s painful, but it’s the only way you’re going to walk again. 

Jesus goes about re-humanizing those he encounters in myriad ways. With Zacchaeus, he invites himself over. On the Emmaus road, he creates a container for telling the story of God by asking questions and drawing out the story of the disciples, then he completes it by having a meal with them. Jesus must first draw out the humanity of his listeners so that they can hear the divine story. Once someone is standing back in their humanity, they can hear the story of God. By the same token, people can generally not hear the divine story unless their humanity is being addressed. Thus, Jesus first creates a container. If he just gives his Bible lesson on the Emmaus road without first connecting with the humanity of his hearers, they will be much less likely to hear. It will just be theoretical—theology without grounding, big ideas disconnected from the hearts of the hearers. God knows we humans love big ideas that we can bat around without ever having to confront our true selves. On the other hand, once you’re in somebody’s story and once they are connected to their own heart, God can visit there. If we are open to it, God will always visit the unburying of our humanity. Jesus knows this, and so he asks questions. He doesn’t just enter into the disciples’ home, he enters into their story.

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

[1]Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Puffin Books, New York, NY. 1959. Page 75. 

[2]Mark 10:17-27.

[3]John 4:1-28.

Jesus Re-Humanizes II (Hospitality V)

Brandon Cook

Forgive the vernacular, but Jesus sees past all the crap you have done and the crap that has been done to you. He sees into the core of your humanity, where you are deeply loved by God. He sees past the drinking of my neighbor and into the core of her humanity, into the shining heart that is still somewhere within her, even if she is now unaware of it. God cannot help but see this core part of you—your true self—as beautiful, nor can the God of love help but love you. He sees past all the false selves that, in your pursuit of comfort and power outside of God, have become disconnected from this true self, leaving you with the sense you are fractured, damaged, incomplete. This is what is so breathtakingly beautiful about Jesus. “A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”[1]Jesus sees all of our conflicted, unsorted self, and responds with compassion. Jesus always honors our humanity, our original longing for God, even if it has been misspent in the pursuit of pleasure. He invites the moralists to stop pretending that she’s fine without God.[2]He confronts the sin while embracing the longing beneath it, redirecting us away from sin and back to God. 

This changes the way I am withmy neighbor. It doesn’t mean I approve of her drinking, but that’s far from the point. The point is to be with her in a way that helps re-humanize her, that honors her, and that calls out the image of God within her. 

My friend and fellow pastor Jaci Anderson taught me a wonderful frame for helping people see how they are made in God’s image. When she sees certain traits in a friend or neighbor, she says, “I think you and God have that in common.” For example, she might say to a friend who delights in good food or good art, “I think you and God share this love of beauty.” What a wonderful way to point someone not only to the divine fingerprint within them but also to God Himself! It’s a way to both affirm someone while speaking truth about God. Disciples are those who help re-claim the humanity—born in the image of God—of those Jesus gives them to love while telling the story of God in the process.

All of this may be a different way of thinking about our humanity. After all, perhaps we dislike our humanity. We might hold it in contempt. We may have been trained to think of it as bad or depraved. Perhaps we think we just need to whip it until it gets in line. But Jesus makes it clear that our humanity, with all of its weakness, is where and how we connect with God. Before there was any notion of original sin, there was original blessing: God saw that our humanity was good, rooted as it is in the Imago Dei. Even if we are fallen, that original blessing remains.[3]Theologians often beat and berate our humanity, or they curse our bodies as corrupt; meanwhile, Jesus is busy trying to liberate both. 

When Christianity is seen as false or hollow, it’s because Christians are not willing to deal with our humanity in the same way that Jesus did. Jesus wades fearlessly into humanity, confronting all of its pain and messiness directly. Most of his religious contemporaries, on the other hand, just wanted people to put a nice face on and act religious so that they could avoid their humanity and the messiness of their deepest longings. That approach felt sincere to them, yet it's exactlywhat Jesus called them out for. They focused on cleaning “the outside of the cup,” while in their hearts they were full of untouched “greed and self-indulgence,” the telltale signs of a humanity numbed out instead of brought into life in God.[4]Dallas Willard says the same thing about the Church today: “Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally… The current gospel then becomes a ‘gospel of sin management.’  Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.”[5]

Unless we in the Church are willing to deal with our humanity, and not just the trappings, we cannot deal in transformation in Jesus’ name. The result—what Willard calls “sin management”—is an anemic shrinking-down of the Gospel in which Christians are only focused on going to heaven when they die and being good, religious people rather than people who are actually transformed from the inside out. Again, this is messy! It’s only through the vulnerable unmasking of our humanity that Jesus can bothliberate usand liberate others through us. It’s painful, but it’s at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

[1]Isaiah 42:3.

[2]E.g., John 4, “The Woman at the Well.”

[3]Genesis 1:27-31.

[4]Matthew 23:25.

[5]Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. HarperCollins, New York, NY. 1998. See Chapter 2, in general; this quote, page 41.

Jesus Re-Humanizes (Hospitality IV)

Brandon Cook

Imagine that I buy my wife Becca some beautiful chocolate bonbons. Exquisitely crafted, carefully chosen. But instead of wrapping them up in box laced with ribbon, I put them in a Tupperware box. Then, when she comes home and sits down, I throw the box onto the couch and say, “Enjoy!” as bon-bons go flying everywhere. 

This would be… unfortunate. It would probably not land as a gift of love because, ultimately—deliciousness of the chocolates aside—the container matters.

This has often been my experience within the Church. We’ve got chocolates, but the container stinks. We have good news of new life available in and through God, but if we don’t demonstrate the care of Jesus and his posture in how we are with people, the message rings hollow. 

I hate it when I see people standing on street corners with “repent or perish” signs. The context around their invitation is so different than the context Jesus put around his. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, at least they’re doing something.” But I fear they are doing more damage than good.[1]The message to repent is actually good news, a good chocolate, but the way it gets packaged, without a container of care and compassion, reduces it to liverwurst. They aren’tdoing what Jesus did, which was to make present the Reign of God as the container of his message. Jesus gave hard words to people, but he didn’t broadcast them broadly from a street corner. He was withpeople. He healed them, and he revealed that God is about life and wholeness. He went to the houses of outcasts, like Zacchaeus, and shared meals with them. He made present the love of God as an invitation into the Reign of God. From this place of love, we—like Jesus—can challenge people to believe. It’s not our place to do so from any other posture. 

Jesus lives in this posture of hospitality and invitation because, ultimately, he has a higher goal in mind than just getting people to “straighten up” or “get in line.” Within his commitment to redeem all things, Jesus is focused on re-humanizing those that God the Father gives him to love.

Our humanity is precious, but it often gets lost. It gets buried within us. 

I have a neighbor whose sorrow is so intense that she drowns it almost nightly with Jim Beam. She used to come over and talk with me, slightly drunk (sometimes more than slightly). However, at some point—no doubt after a few times sobering up and remembering her behavior—she got embarrassed. She rarely comes by our house anymore. She is slowly drinking herself to death in a bid to numb the pain she feels so deeply, trying to stay one step ahead of it. She has endured so much heartache and disappointment that avoidance and survival is the only path she sees. She is a woman whose story needs to be heard, whose pain needs to be held. That’s the way that healing comes. But she is terrified of telling her story and of facing that darkness. It’s easier to turn to the bottle. In the short-term, it’s always easier to avoid, even if it costs us everything over time.

Our humanity is the place that holds our deepest longing. When God created us, we were made “in His image” as vessels that contain the same longing for love and relationship that lives within God Himself.[2]In fact, God Himself isa relationship, which we call the Trinity. Our humanity, made in His image, yearns for relationship in which we can know and be known, love and be loved, belong and be safe and in turn invite others to be the same.[3]This longing is the center of the Imago Dei, the Image of God, within us. Think of this core part of us as a vibrant, shining heart which is unable to be dampened. It can be covered over, but the light itself can never be extinguished. To be human is to experience this longing for love burning within us, just as it burns in God. This longing means we can be satisfied, but it also means we can be racked with loneliness, pain, and despair. 

To staunch our pain, we often do things that dehumanize us. Things that are less than what we are intended for. This was the first sin of Adam and Eve, who used discontent with their station in the universe as a pretense for justifying their rebellion against God.[4]They attempted to get power on their own terms through knowledge that would be “like God’s,” so that they wouldn’t have to be so dependent on Him. This has become the human pattern: we look for some power that can free us from our need for God and from our need for relationship in general. Real relationship require vulnerability, which can feel terrifying; it’s easier to figure out how to meet or control our emotional needs on our terms, without having to be vulnerable. This leads to self-focus, which is the heart of sin.[5]Sin is the movement of focusing on our own needs, independent of others and without regard or repentance for our behavior’s impact on others. It takes us out of relationship and, since we were designed for relationship, dehumanizes us. Adam and Eve, as humans, were meant to dwell with God, but they were dehumanized through their fall.[6]They literally hid from God, a posture exactly opposite from the flourishing, with God and with one another, that God intended.[7]

Indeed, when we try to find new ways of being powerful through sin, we always become dehumanized. When I was five, I pretended not to hear my best friend as he called my name, simply to hurt him, so that I could feel the sense of power that comes from wounding someone else rather than being the one wounded. My neighbor drinks to find some power that can, even for a moment, push away the pain of her humanity. When we engage these temptations to gain power over our vulnerability—when we engage sin—it leads to death, just as it did for Adam and Eve.[8]Part of this death is feeling less than human, less aware of our connection to the Divine and to the image of God within each of us. The vibrancy of our bright heart and our God-longing gets buried beneath shame and guilt and pain. 

How do we address these realities? And how do I approach my neighbor? Her humanity has become saturated by pain, and she is no longer living to fulfill the longing for love but rather to stay one step ahead of despair. She is living to survive. I could call her out on her sin of over-drinking (and in fact, we have discussed it). After all, Jesus doesconfront sin. But Jesus’ goal is never justto confront sin; Jesus’ goal is to re-humanize. Unless we understand that, we can’t understand his mission in the world, nor how to be with others. Jesus doesn’t condemn because he always sees through the pain and into the humanity, into the original intent of creation, into the Imago Dei of the person who is before him.[9]

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

[1]I’m not arguing that God can’t ever use such signs, just that we shouldn’t confuse the mercy of God (who can use almost anything to lead people to hope) with the bone-headedness on the part of people. 

[2]Genesis 1:26; I John 4:8.

[3]Perichoresisis a Greek word used to describe the continual movement of self-giving love within the Trinity, the mutuality of endless relationship within the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

[4]See Genesis 3.

[5]Sin, in Scripture, most literally means “missing the mark.” Since God is love, anything which is not others-focused love, such self-focus and self-obsession, misses the mark.

[6]It is of note that many scholarsthink the phrase “Son of Man,” used often in reference to Jesus and used by Jesus to describe himself, can also be translated “The Truly Human One.” Cf. Luke 9:22, et al.

[7]Genesis 3:8.

[8]Cf. James 1:13-15.

[9]John 3:17.