Responding to Betrayal: The Ongoing Obligations of Love

An Outlaw Pastor: Rob Bell

Rob Bell was born on August 23, 1970 to a family that was deeply committed to the evangelical movement in America. His father, a U.S. District Judge appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Regan, worked with Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority, a political organization that played a key role in mobilizing conservative Christians in the 1980s.

After finishing high school, Rob went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and, after experiencing a call to ministry, a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. As a young pastor, he was mentored by Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids Michigan before going on to start Mars Hills Bible Church in 1999.

While his new church started with a few hundred people, within a few years it grew to over 10,000 in Sunday morning worship. By all metrics, Rob’s ministry was wildly successful, but at the same time he wrestled with difficult questions that emerged through deep study of the Bible and critical reflection on his own experience. Through this honest struggle, he eventually realized that he could no longer accept some of the central tenants of American evangelicalism, such as the infallibility of scripture. He also felt uneasy about the cozy relationship between evangelicals and neo-conservative politicians. As the insights kept coming they had a cumulative affect that launched him on a new spiritual journey.

Authenticity became a hallmark of Rob’s ministry which impacted his preaching and teaching. He decided to be honest with his congregation regarding his spiritual questions and to only preach about things he had experienced firsthand. While some found his transparency refreshing, others found it threatening, which led to conflicts at Mars Hill. For example, in 2003 he gave a message series on the equality of women, and some of the church leaders tried to have him fired. When he decided to empower women to serve in church leadership roles, worship attendance dropped by 2,000.

While these experiences were painful, Rob didn’t turn back, and his relationship with Mars Hills reached a turning point in 2011 after publishing Love Wins, a controversial book that questioned traditional teachings on hell. He was quickly labeled a heretic in evangelical circles and within a year decided to leave his church in Michigan to pursue other avenues of ministry in Los Angeles, California.

While many people at Rob’s church lovingly supported his spiritual transformation, others were not as encouraging. Before leaving Mars Hills, some wealthy church members tried to leverage him with money to return to the standard evangelical message, the old “we will take our money and leave if you don’t do what we want” trick. Remembering this betrayal, he said in an interview, “It broke me, but it also gave me this nuclear engine of resolve to keep going.”[i]

Rob has certainly landed on his feet, writing numerous books, preaching and teaching in sold-out auditoriums, broadcasting a popular podcast, and making the list of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. But this didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly wasn’t easy. He was treated horribly by people who once declared him their torch bearer, launching smear campaigns on television, radio, social media, and public speaking. Some of the very people that he led to Jesus called his faith into question, accused him of being a false teacher, and publicly protested his speaking engagements.

Amid all the hostility, Rob didn’t lash-out in anger or check-out in resignation. Rather, he remained true to himself, true to his relationship with God, and true to the values of the gospel as he understood them. In this way, he serves a real-life example of someone who has walked the first path of the Quadratos; someone who has accepted the call to a new spiritual journey, struggled with fears of the unknown, navigated big change, and responded to hatred with compassion and equanimity. Regardless of what you think about the specifics of his teaching, Rob is a good example of how to follow Jesus in the face of betrayal.

 

Being Betrayed: Jesus

Most people, whether they regularly attend church or not, can tell you that Jesus was betrayed by a man named Judas, but when we dive into the details of the story as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we discover some helpful lessons for the first path of the Quadratos.

One of these lessons is not to be surprised by betrayal. In certain ways, it’s to be expected when we embark on a new spiritual journey that subverts old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.

It certainly didn’t surprise Jesus. At the Last Supper, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” Upon hearing this, the disciples became “greatly distressed” and said one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me” (Matthew 26:21-23). This is clearly a foreshadowing of Judas’ betrayal (vv. 14-16, 47-50), but Jesus knew that Judas would not be the only one. In first century Palestine, meals were typically served from a common bowl. Each person around the table would tear a piece of bread, shape it into a scoop, and reach into the bowl for food. Since everyone at the Last Supper would have dipped their hand in the bowl, Jesus was not only foreshadowing Judas’ betrayal but that of all his disciples.[ii]

We see this play out in the story of Jesus’ passion. He predicted that Peter would deny him three times (Matthew 26:33-34), and he did (vv. 69-75). He predicted that all his disciples would become deserters (v. 31), and they did. According to Matthew, none of the disciples were at the foot of the cross, only the women.

Jesus expected betrayal, and this allowed him to prepare for it. Instead of being surprised and compulsively reacting to emotional triggers, he saw it coming and prepared to respond with intentional acts of love. In this way, he navigated between two common pitfalls.

First, Jesus did not retaliate with a spirit of resentment.

When Judas appeared in Gethsemane with a large crowd to apprehend Jesus and then betrayed him with a kiss, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”

Did you catch that? Jesus addressed Judas as friend, the man who sold him down the river for thirty pieces of silver. As Alexander John Shaia explains, “By using this address, he completely embodies the principles he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, returning nothing but the greatest love and respect even when it [was] not offered to him.”[iii] The betrayal didn’t change who he was—he remained true to himself and faithful to God. Instead of lashing out in punitive anger, Jesus responded with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

Second, when experiencing the pain of betrayal, Jesus did not disconnect from himself or those who betrayed him as a way of escaping the hard work of reconciliation. How often do we do this? Someone betrays us, and we disconnect from ourselves in mindless distractions and disconnect from them by pretending they don’t exist. If we happen to encounter them after the betrayal, it’s easy to ignore them in hopes that the conflict will simply go away. Isolation, denial, hiding, pretending, ignoring, blaming—all are attempts to escape the ongoing obligations of love.

But Jesus didn’t do this. He didn’t hide from those who betrayed him. Nor did he disconnect from himself, which can be seen when he was hanging on the cross and rejected the offer of gall (a bitter substance mixed with wine to deaden pain). He chose to remain fully awake, “to face and feel every moment with an open mind, heart, and body . . .”[iv] He stayed connected to his own experience, so he could continue to practice the gospel in the presence of those who were seeking to destroy him.

Interestingly, the two pitfalls of lashing-out and checking-out are different ways of acting-out a victim mentality. But Jesus would have none of this. Even in the depth of betrayal, humiliation, and suffering, he refused to see himself as a victim. He not only expected betrayal, he accepted it as a natural consequence of choosing the way of love in a fallen world.

In Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus made a conscious decision to walk into the holy city knowing it would be the beginning of the end. Resolute in his mission, he accepted the predictable consequences of speaking truth to power: betrayal, torture, and death. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18).

Since he refused to see himself as a victim, he had no to need to punish people with anger or disconnect in fear. By refusing victimhood, he could continue acting with intentionality according to the law of love. This is a great example to us as we too experience betrayal on the first path of the Quadratos.

Like Jesus, we should expect betrayal so that we can prepare for it. As we embark on new spiritual journeys, there will be people that will try to pull us backwards into old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.[v] This pull can be gentle or forceful, and one forceful way of pressuring someone is by betraying them or accusing them of betrayal. This is especially true of authoritarian people who are plagued by the fear of losing control. The more fearful and insecure, the more authoritarian, demanding, judgmental, and punishing. So, don’t be surprised when some people don’t celebrate your new journey and pressure you to go back to your old self. It is easier for them if you conform to the old pattern because then they don’t have to change and readjust to the new dynamic in your relationship. As you push through their resistance and continue moving forward, don’t be surprised when those same people betray you or accuse you of betraying them.

But be careful how you press forward and respond to betrayal. Remember the two pitfalls: betraying the very values of the spiritual transformation we seek by lashing out in anger and disconnecting from those who hurt us in hopes of avoiding the ongoing obligations of love. Like Christ, we are called to forsake a victim-mentality, so we can intentionally choose to act with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. This is no small order, and we fail all the time, but we must keep pursuing the way of Jesus Christ as part of our spiritual transformation.

As a note of caution, the law of love does not require us to be a doormat for the dysfunctional or a victim of abuse. God’s love cannot be separated from God’s justice, and to love someone involves telling them the truth (Ephesians 4:15). The same principle can be found in reconciliation, which is made possible only by mutual truth telling and changed behavior. Consequently, submitting yourself to ongoing abuse is not an indication that you’re being faithful to the law of love but that you’re operating out of an unhealthy and self-destructive frame of mind. What is needed in these situations is emotional and spiritual healing, which almost always requires you to separate yourself from the abuser long enough to interrupt the dysfunctional system and gain enough health to make better choices. As many have learned the hard way, sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone hellbent on destruction and abuse is tell them goodbye.

 

Doing the Betraying: Peter and Judas

In conclusion, it’s important to offer a few words for those who have inflicted betrayal on others. Just as Jesus said of the disciples, so is true of us. At some point in life, we all betray someone (which should make us more compassionate for those who betray us). It says in Romans 3:23 that everyone falls short of what God expects, which is another way of saying that all of us succumb to the backward pull of our former life, causing us to betray Jesus, others, and ourselves. Like the disciples, we all become deserters. So how do we get back up, find our footing, and start walking the road to transformation again? Fortunately, the passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew also provides guidance for this problem, especially as we consider the examples of Peter and Judas.

As already mentioned, Peter denied Jesus three times before he was crucified. Can you imagine the pain he must have felt when the full realization of his unfaithfulness dawned on his consciousness? Can you imagine how uncomfortable Peter must have been upon seeing Jesus again after the resurrection?

Although he was deeply ashamed of himself, he was able to accept responsibility for his own failure. As he stood before the one he betrayed, he found forgiveness rather than judgement, reconciliation rather than condemnation. As with us, it was probably easier to receive forgiveness from Jesus than it was to forgive himself, but by the grace of God Peter was able to do just that—and it saved his life.

This part of the story reminds us that even in the worst kinds of betrayal there is still the possibility of forgiveness and redemption for those who stay close to God and are willing to do the difficult work of reconciliation. We see this played out not only in the life of Peter but all the disciples, except Judas. All betrayed Jesus and all were forgiven and restored.

Just as all the disciples became deserters, all of us become deserters too. It’s almost like failure is built into the first path of the Quadratos. When embarking on a new spiritual journey, we all start in weakness, confusion, and fear, and we must all learn the lessons that our unfaithfulness teaches. After all, how can we proclaim the good news of forgiveness unless we have been recipients of this gift ourselves?

It’s important to keep all these gospel truths in mind because if we don’t it can kill us.

Like Peter and the other disciples, Judas betrayed Jesus too. We sometimes think of Judas as the only one, or assume his betrayal was worse than that of the others. But I don’t think so. Betrayal is betrayal, and if Judas had come back to Jesus after the resurrection and asked for forgiveness, I think Jesus would have embraced and restored him, just as he did with the others. So why did it turn out so differently for him?

I think it has to do with self-hatred. After betraying Jesus, Judas became the victim of his own despair. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe in Jesus, and I’m not talking about the kind of believing in which you receive Jesus as your personal savior. I mean he literally didn’t believe Jesus’ message about God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s true that Judas felt horrible after coming to terms with what he had done, leading him to repent and return the blood money to the religious leaders. However, when he realized that this act of contrition could not stop the destruction he had set in motion, he descended into a dark pit of self-loathing. He could not imagine Jesus forgiving him. He could not imagine forgiving himself. So, he went into the woods and killed himself (Matthew 27:3-5).

Like Judas, we too can descend into a pit of despair after betraying someone we love. Self-hatred can blind us to the possibility of forgiveness and steal the hope of the gospel. As Dante knew, this is the definition of hell, a place devoid of hope, because once we lose hope we experience death—spiritually, emotionally, and, sometimes even physically. This is why believing in Jesus is a matter of life and death for many people.

 

Challenge

As we navigate change on the path to transformation, we experience resistance. Will we choose to keep walking even when others around us do not? Even when they pressure us to return to old ways of thinking and betray us when we do conform? Will we choose to stay awake to our own experience and remain connected to others, even as we confront our fears and the death of ego? Will we let go of resentment and choose love, acting with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity? Will we forgive others, remain open to reconciliation, and attend to the ongoing obligations of love? Will we believe the promises of Jesus, accept God’s forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves when we are the ones who have failed?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I experience betrayal, help me to respond in love with a wise mind, a compassionate heart, and a calm spirit. When I betray others, help me to honestly see the wrong I’ve done, repent, forgive myself, and move forward in ways that increase the possibility for reconciliation. Amen.

 

(This post is the seventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

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[i] The Hell-Raiser, video uploaded on The New Yorker, “A Megachurch Pastor’s Search for a More Forgiving Faith,” December 16, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-megachurch-pastors-search-for-a-more-forgiving-faith. See also the documentary, “The Heretic.”

[ii] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, Second Edition, Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico 2017, pp. 103-104.  

[iii] Heart and Mind 107.

[iv] Heart and Mind 113. Matthew 27:34.

[v] One way of illustrating this can be found in family systems theory. In all groups, individuals assume different roles and then relate to each other in ways that aim at homeostasis, a stable equilibrium between the various roles. Since homeostasis is determined by the predictable interactions of all the various roles people play, when one person decides to change, it not only affects that individual but throws the whole system out of whack. Great pressure is exerted on the individual to go back to their previous role so that the system can be restored to balance. Whether it’s your family, church, or small group, if someone decides to deviate from their role, then people in that group will almost inevitably make efforts to pull that person backwards.

 

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Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

The Temptation to Escape Pain: Three Stumbling Blocks to Spiritual Transformation

“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach[1] was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.

I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”

What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.

How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.

But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.

 

How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help

We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.

 

Trial 1

After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.

At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.

Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.

 

Trial 2

Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).

How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).

Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”

In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.

 

Trial 3

Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”

As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

 

Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation

These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.

But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.

  1. All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
  2. We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
  3. There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.

Of course, these assumptions are false.

Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).

Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”

And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.

 

Challenge

How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?

Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.

 

(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[1] The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.

Radical Transformation: Introducing the Quadratos

I used to be significantly overweight.

There were several reasons for this, but one contributing factor was the habit of eating six fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies every night after dinner. Before I knew it, the scale was reading 226. This might not seem too bad since I’m 6’1”, but due to a small bone frame, my ideal weight is around 170.

For my body type, I was obese. This not only affected me physically but also emotionally. So one day I got fed-up and made a decision to change. I was going to lose weight and transform my health.

I started educating myself about proper nutrition and exercise, which helped me understand the specific actions I needed to take. When reading the experts, I believed what they were saying and, based on their suggestions, I created a change plan. I trusted that this plan would work if I acted on it daily. So I went to the gym almost every morning and did all the exercises the best I could, even the ones I hated like lunges (which are from the devil). I also ate healthy, properly portioned meals.

Through consistent, daily, disciplined action, I gradually transformed my body, going from 226 to as low as 156 . . . at which point my mother told me to eat a sandwich. Nevertheless, I was in the best shape of my life.

While I have never returned to 226, my weight has fluctuated over the years. The reason is simple: I stop working my plan. Sometimes I recognize that I’m gaining weight, which creates a desire to get fit. But my awareness and desire is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even make a decision to get healthy again. “On Monday, I’m going to start eating right and exercising.” But the decision by itself is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even return to the fitness and nutrition literature and create a new plan. But my knowledge and planning are not enough to transform me. I can even believe in my heart of hearts that the plan will work if I follow it. But my belief in the plan is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even take a step in the right direction by buying healthy food, rejoining the gym, and working my new plan for a couple of days or weeks. But these initial steps are not enough to transform me.

Transformation only happens when I put all these things together in a consistent way over a long period time, which is the whole point of a fitness plan.

 

Christianity and Transformation

Similarly, the whole point of Christianity is radical transformation. While Christians take comfort in knowing that we rest in the eternal care of a loving God upon death, being a Jesus follower is not primarily about dying and going to heaven. Rather, it’s about a radical transformation that happens over time as we daily follow Jesus, a transformation that makes us more loving, just, kind, compassionate, peaceful, and joyful. In this way, we enjoy life to its fullest and become a blessing to others.

Jesus says in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Likewise, in Ephesians 4 we are called to renounce our former way of life, our old self, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. This is an invitation to a new way of life, which leads to a new self.  

Being a Christian is about being a disciple; being a disciple is about being a follower; and being a follower is about learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives until we draw our last breath. This is the path to radical transformation—what the tradition calls sanctification—and there are no magic pills or shortcuts.

This means that being a Christian cannot be reduced to an awareness, for example an awareness of our need for God. It’s not simply about confessing sin in a moment of heighted guilt, or even believing that Jesus can save us. Nor it is about giving intellectual assent to a set of biblical or theological propositions, like when a church gives you a checklist of religious claims and says, “If you can tick-off all the boxes with a clear conscience then you can join our tribe.”  Christianity is not about becoming a member of a church. You can do all these things and still not be a true follower of Jesus. You can do all of this and still not experience radical transformation.

Why? Because Christianity is a way of life under the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. The earliest Christians were called “Followers of the Way,” referring to the way of life Jesus revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. Being a Christian is about deciding every day to completely surrender our will and lives over to the care and guidance of Christ. This decision is manifest in action as we learn more about Jesus through diligent study and prayer and practice these teaching in our daily interactions. This is a long, challenging, and even messy process, with many ups and downs, successes and failures. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. But if we dedicate our lives to learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus and keep moving forward then we are promised radical transformation. To hope for anything less is to embrace a partial or false gospel.

 

The Quadratos as a Guide to Transformation

Fortunately, we are not without guidance on this journey toward transformation. We have scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us. Regarding scripture, we are gifted with the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which contain the core teachings of Jesus.

While there are different ways of reading these Gospels, one that is particularly helpful is called the Quadratos (Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind, 2017). This interpretive tool helps us see the Gospels as a fourfold path to transformation, disclosing four major movements in the life of faith.

The first path begins with the Gospel of Matthew, where we are reminded that human beings desire permanence and resist change. Nevertheless, the world is in constant flux, and at various points we all experience significant change and loss, which evokes fear, betrayal, grief, and confusion. If we don’t handle these experiences wisely, they can throw us off-course on our journey. Facing life during significant change requires new spiritual resources, which the Gospel of Matthew helps us cultivate.

The Second path of the journey continues with the Gospel of Mark. In the first path, we are called to confront our fears and insecurities in the face of deep change, but as we continue to the second path these fears and insecurities fight back. The Gospel of Mark speaks to people who are undergoing intense emotional and spiritual suffering, people who are feeling isolated and abandoned. This season of life is like crossing a stormy sea or walking through an arid desert, but Christians have the Gospel of Mark to help them move through suffering on the journey to transformation. This is by far the most painful and difficult path of our journey.

As we faithfully follow Jesus, he leads us through change and suffering with the promise of great joy, which is the fruit of the third path revealed in the Gospel of John. As we remain faithful through the difficulties and missteps of the first two paths, God gives us times in which we experience the joy of intimate communion with the mystery of the world. These are sometimes described as unitive experiences, where we feel the oneness of all creation in the deep embrace of the divine. While this ecstatic experience is difficult to describe, people universally speak of a profound sense that everything—the totality of reality—is a pure gift of grace, which generates a deep sense of gratitude. This season of life is like resting in beautiful garden, and the Gospel of John helps us to recognize and receive these moments of joy in ways that are generative and productive for our journey.

But experience teaches us that we cannot stay in the garden. After receiving the joy of intimate communion with God, we are called to walk the road of loving service and to share our gifts with others. We are called to the fourth path revealed in the Gospel of Luke. Through patient trial and error, we learn to author our own life in service to others, especially those around us who are most vulnerable and needy. Filled with new energy, excitement, and perspective on the third path, we step out of the garden of John into the gifts and challenges of daily life. As we remain in the courage of our journey, we find more joy and transformation than we ever thought possible. On Luke’s fourth path, we are shown how to cultivate patience, faith, and equanimity. Our hearts and minds are reshaped by humility, compassion, and love.

It’s important to note that we do not simply walk these four paths once, but cycle through them repeatedly throughout life. This repetition is not a vicious circle but a spiral that moves us forward in productive ways. As we experience each part of the fold-fold journey, we learn important lessons, develop new spiritual and emotional resources, and acquire helpful tools, all of which, when integrated, help us mature. As a season of life returns (e.g., a time of seismic change or intense suffering) we experience it in a new way because we have seen it before and have learned important lessons. With each cycle of the four paths, we become wiser, stronger, and more courageous, all of which provides evidence for our ongoing transformation.

 

Challenge

As you pray and meditate this week, spend some time reflecting on personal experiences of significant change. What was the change? What feelings did it generate in you, both good and bad? How did you handle it? How did you get through it? What lessons did you learn? What did all of that teach you about facing change in the future?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, give us ears to hear your call to radical transformation and help us discern the first step of a new journey.

 

(This post is the first in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter three in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)