Why Trying to ‘Live Like Jesus’ Leads to Disaster

I both love this statement AND see a deep problem with it…

“Jesus is a model for living more than an object of worship.”

I read it on an email from one of my spiritual heroes, Fr. Richard Rohr. I know he means well with it and totally understands what I’m about to say a hundred times more than I do. I just think that it can be a dangerous statement if taken the wrong way.

First, I’ll address the last part of the sentence — the part about the ‘object of worship’… In one sense, I agree. I don’t think that Jesus wanted us to ‘worship’ him in the common sense of the word. When I think of ‘worshipping’ someone, I tend to think of it in a tribal sense. In a religious “My God/king/president is better than yours and I’m more righteous than you” kind of way.

The way I’ve read it, the Gospel of Jesus is diametrically opposed to this way of ‘worshipping’ him. Yes, Jesus had his feet washed and kissed, but he also returned the favor. He was a living and breathing divine dichotomy — the loving servant and suffering victim who never lost his divine inheritance as the Son of God.

The Christian tradition that I follow doesn’t worship Jesus in the common tribal sense of the word. We ‘worship’ him using the theology of the cross as our interpretive key. Rather than a theology of glory (“Our God can kick your God’s ass so you’d better bow down…”), the theology of the cross recognizes that our God suffers and dies along with the most wretched and victimized of humans. However, that’s never the end of the story. This Christian death leads to resurrection and renewal. But the cross cannot be skipped in order to get there.

It is through our brokenness that God finds Her way in.

The Gospel is a leveling force. It doesn’t lift Christians above anyone else. Rather, it lifts an unconditionally loving God above everyone allowing us to extend that love in the midst of human brokenness.

Christian worship was never meant to take place on a pedestal above the rest of humanity. Rather, it takes place on the ground. From here, we see everyone in constant need of God’s love and restoration at all times. This is what the theology of the cross so profoundly reminds us of.

Now I’ll jump back to the first part of that sentence (the part about seeing Jesus as a model of living)…

Again, in one sense, yes. It would be amazing if we could all live like Jesus. But we just can’t do it!!

Seriously, go out today and try to ‘live like Jesus’ and see what happens. Here’s how I see that going to some degree (and I speak from experience here)…

The first part of your day is amazing. You’re riding on a cloud of spiritual integrity so high that you buy a pair of new Birkenstocks before noon. When people inquire about how ‘different’ you seem (or even if they don’t), you tell them that you’ve turned over a new leaf and are “Really starting to try to live like Jesus — you know, leading a life of kenotic self-emptying love,” (or something spiritually vague like this).

Later that day, you realize that you didn’t recycle that bottle of kombucha that you drank earlier. You shrug it off and tell yourself, “Agh… It’s okay… God forgives. Now, get it together, self. Jesus would’ve recycled that! Model Jesus. Model Jesus. Model Jesus.”

The next day, when you see someone throwing a plastic bottle in the trash, you call them out (not personally but in a tweet or Facebook post).

That night, as you put gas in your car, the thought hits you, “Shit… Jesus would never support the giant oil companies or contribute to the destruction of the planet like this.” It’s starting to wear on you, but you keep your chin up and carry on…

A few evenings later (after you sell your car), on your way to the bus stop, you find yourself glaring disdainfully at every SUV that goes by. In order to stamp out the bitterness, you remember that you’re modeling Jesus and are using public transit to get to the gym.

On the way to the bus stop, you notice someone sleeping on the sidewalk. You know Jesus would probably stop to perform some miraculous healing act or at least say some profound words to warm and enliven their soul. But you also know that your HIIT class starts in 20 minutes and you pay $100 a month for it and have missed the last two classes, so you walk (run) around them to catch your bus.

When you’re on the bus, that’s when you realize… You’re done. That’s it… This Jesus-modeling thing is just too much. Life is damn hard and you’re a decent person. Plus it’s November in Chicago and those Birkenstocks aren’t cutting it anymore. This whole ‘Christian’ thing is ridiculous, legalistic, and irrelevant to the modern world.

When I try to ‘model Jesus’, for one, I find out that it’s impossible. But before I come to that conclusion, I find myself looking around at others and sizing myself up to them. I see some who live more like Jesus than I do (who I envy). And I see others who live like heathens (who I‌ despise). In other words,

When I try to live like Jesus, I turn into my worst self. But when I live as being loved by Jesus — even on my worst day, I’m restored. Time and time again.

I’ll put it like this… It’s not your job (or mine) to live like Jesus. Let’s let Jesus be Jesus. God loves you as you.

I give you this example because I’ve BEEN‌ THERE (though I’m too lazy for HIIT classes and I’ve never followed the urge to buy Birkenstocks — I’m more of a Crocs guy). ‘Modeling Jesus,’ in my experience, has always turned out to be an impossible disaster (and I know I’m not the only one).

Ideally, it sounds fantastic. I WISH I/we could do this. But here’s what the human mind does with the exhortation to “live like Jesus”…

The human ego (aka, sin) takes this well-meaning inspiration to model Jesus and turns it into law. It becomes an internal demand to muster enough spiritual gusto in order to do this.

Again, these self-given demands are pure and well-intended. If we could follow their directions, the world would be a much better place. No doubt. But here’s the thing…

If the ‘law’ worked to make us humans live better, we would’ve established world peace long before Jesus showed up on the scene.

We would’ve just followed the carefully crafted 600+ ancient Levitical laws and been good to go as a species. But what did we do?

We failed miserably! Jesus came to drive this point home by showing us in vivid color that EVEN‌ LIVING‌ 10 COMMANDMENTS IS‌ IMPOSSIBLE FOR HUMANS! He didn’t proclaim this to shame us, he just wanted to tell us that we’re setting ourselves up for failure. He wasn’t against the law, he just knew that the ego (again: sin) makes it impossible to follow it. In fact, he knew that it makes us do the opposite of what it tells us to do!

See, Jesus was in relationship with a God (Father) who loved him (and all of us). Humanity knew of a God (king) who ruled over them. Jesus came to die to humanity’s idolatrous God and replace it with a new type of relationship to the divine that only receives God’s unconditional love.

Jesus submitted to the cross and died so as to replace impossible law with unending grace.

When his heart stopped, the law was finished and all that was left was God’s endless love for us. Jesus knew that the only thing that brings true restoration to the human heart is when we’re undeservedly forgiven for our failings and loved in our most trying moments. Since humans have a hard time doing this to each other, he had to remind us that this is the stance that God always takes towards creation and has since the big bang boomed.

This post was previously published on A Sacramental Life and is republished here with permission from the author.


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