“I don’t have time or energy for friends, only for my church and my family.”
A good friend and pastor recently said this to me, and then noted that emotional support from his church has been nearly nonexistent this past year. I remarked that it is unhealthy and dangerous to expect that much support from his spouse—that marriages don’t work that way.
“But I don’t get my support from my family,” he said.
“Then if not your family or your church (nor your friends), then from whom?” I asked.
“I get my support from Jesus.”
Enter “Magical Jesus.” Magical Jesus is, well, magical! For example, Magical Jesus can do anything (“For God all things are possible.” Mt 19:26) and helps me do anything (“I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” Phil 4:13).
Now I have two problems with Magical Jesus.
First, contact with Magical Jesus is entirely personal (and thus no one can challenge my view of the matter) and divine (and thus it defies explanation). As such, when Magical Jesus is the reason for an action, then that action is beyond critique.
Now if people were perfect, maybe Magical Jesus would be too. But because Christians believe in (and perpetuate!) wrong-doing and self-deception, anything impervious to criticism is also a great place to hide one’s true intentions and motives, especially from oneself. In short, Magical Jesus conveniently sidesteps the requirement of providing truth values in order to substantiate our truth claims.
Second, biblical and historical evidence show that Jesus doesn’t work this way. Against general notions that “everything is possible” for God and I can “do anything” through God, the Bible shows that what God ‘empowers people to do’ is to communicate the good news concerning Jesus despite the most daunting of circumstances.1 In turn, what is “possible for God” is for this good news to find purchase (and so restore right relationship with God) with the most unlikely of people.2
Thus we (its messengers) are strengthened to bring the good news and God (whose message it is) is capable of fructifying that message for all.
History too shows the matter differently. Take Blaise Pascal and Thomas Aquinas. Both claimed direct, personal encounters with God. The results were staggering. After his encounter Aquinas, author of some of Christianity’s most esteemed theological writings to that point, viewed all his writing “as straw.” Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician, saw his life’s work as nothing in comparison to the God he encountered, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not of philosophers or scientists.”
When I challenged this pastor he seemed dumbstruck, like I wasn’t allowed to question what was between him and Jesus. The problem for me, as his friend, is that Magical Jesus was coming between us—making my relationship with him unnecessary.
In fact, Magical Jesus actually opposes truth and deters love. So by appealing to Magical Jesus my friend all but sidestepped the hard questions about truth (i.e., why he’s acting this way) and, because such appeals cut off critique, the only valid response is acceptance. This in turn withers any relationship, such as caring friendship, that will not be so constrained.
But where Magical Jesus opposes truth and deters love, the real Jesus does just the opposite. Pascal’s perspective adds a finer point on the matter.
It was not that Pascal’s profession (as mathematician and philosopher) was unimportant. Rather, God’s interest is in people—Abraham and Isaac; you and me. Thus Jesus came to renew right relationship (person to person, person to world, and person to God). In this context, God’s truth that is quintessentially “for me” is the claim that I am deeply beloved by one whom I may love / by whom I would most desire to be loved.
And while this truth may remain incomprehensible for many, surely understanding it begins with parallels in our real-life relationships: sometimes with parents and siblings, sometimes with spouses and children. And sometimes, too, with friends.
- Mt 19:26, Mk 10:27, Lk 18:27 all refer to it being possible for a rich person to be saved (“Then who can be saved? . . . For God all things are possible”). Mk 14:36 is conditioned by Mk 14:35, with similar notions in Mt 26:39. ↩
- Likewise the context of Phil 4:13 is set by Paul’s comments about not worrying (4:6) and about being able to go with or without food (4:12), and is conditioned by similar notions in Rom 16:25, Eph 3:16, 1Th 3:13, 2Th 3:3, 1 Pet 4:11 & 5:10 . ↩