I’ve been a noncommittal Catholic who slipped out of church right after communion.
I’ve been a combative fundamentalist who feared his faith was always under siege.
I’ve been a bookish Baptist who underlined and highlighted page after page of Paul’s epistles.
I’ve been an uneasy Calvinist who finally found peace among Wesleyans and charismatics.
My faith has passed from certainty to confusion, to doubt, to peace in the presence of God.
I have alienated friends and insulted family members in the name of Christ. I have failed to serve my neighbors, and oh how I have judged fellow Christians. Through it all, I’ve clung to Jesus. Sometimes it’s just been ideas about Jesus. Other times it’s been more of a feeling that he is present.
After spending the past year unpacking the stories about Jesus and walking in the shoes of his original audience for my book Unfollowers, there’s one thing that I finally realized about my journey through the stories about Jesus:
Jesus is always better than I expected.
Working on Unfollowers was often frustrating and disturbing, as I saw one person after another choose to “unfollow” Jesus because he didn’t meet their expectations. They expected Jesus affirm their life choices, match their theology, exclude the same people, and fight the same battles.
Over and over again, Jesus disappointed them. Instead of affirming their wealth, he encouraged them to give it away. Instead of affirming their theology, he pushed them to seek the life of God. Instead of excluding notorious sinners, he shared meals with them and healed those who were open to him. Instead of fighting political battles, he spoke in parables about a Kingdom that is in this world without playing by its rules.
On the one hand, Jesus can be extremely frustrating for those who cling to their assumptions about him. If Jesus must meet certain standards or affirm certain choices, there’s a good chance we won’t follow him.
However, if we can let go of our assumptions about him fade away, we’ll find that he is both far more challenging and far better than what we could imagine. My expectations about Jesus have always fallen short of his capacity for healing and the depths of his love.
There’s almost a universal rule at play here: Jesus is always better than we expect. I don’t always see it right away. However, Jesus is already more willing to forgive, heal, restore, bless, and love than I expect.
Letting go of my expectations, religious systems, and assumptions about what pleases God is a tough, ongoing battle. It’s a miracle of sorts that I’ve ever let go of them in the first place. I’m easily distracted along the way. I lose sight of my priorities. I make bad choices. I start to play games with Jesus—if I do this for you, you should do this for me.
How easily I exchange grace for a contract.
Jesus is in the business of ripping up contracts, breaking down walls, and restoring prodigals. Every time I think I have him figured out, he pushes me to see how much wider, deeper, and higher his love can be.
On one occasion in the Gospels, Jesus asked a crippled man, “Do you want to get well?” Loaded in that question was a catch-22 of sorts. If Jesus healed that man, it would take place on the Sabbath. The religious leaders classified that as “working on the Sabbath,” and would put him at odds with their ironclad teachings. He had to let go of something if he wanted to be restored by Jesus.
We face a similar choice each day.
Do we want to get well?
Are we willing to leave our expectations, assumptions, and religious systems behind? Are we willing to take a chance on Jesus, even if that means we have to leave behind much of what we thought we knew about God?
It’s a leap of faith.
Do we want to get well?
Answering yes is a leap into the unknown. The result may not be what we expect. I face these leaps over and over again in life. Answering with a “Yes!” has led me to freedom and peace that I didn’t think possible.
Jesus is always better than we could expect.