Are Jesus’ commands unrealistic (or does it just seem that way)?

Generations of people in the western world were brought up to believe in Jesus. They were taught that he was the good and loving Son of God who died for people’s sins and was resurrected three days later. They seldom think about these claims, but they do believe them.

And not only do they believe in the veracity of the claims, they believe in Jesus. They go beyond acceptance of the propositional truths of Christianity to form a trust-connection with Jesus. They rely on him for help in this life and put their hope in him for the life to come.

This idea of “believing in Jesus” is deeply rooted in the New Testament. The best-known verse in the entire Bible states: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Believing in him (or “into him,” as the original language has it) indicates reliance on a person, not just acceptance of a proposition.

Millions of people – perhaps billions – believe in Jesus in this way. But is it possible to believe in Jesus without believing what he believed?

It certainly seems to be. Many people who claim to believe in Jesus have no idea what Jesus believed. They’ve never read the Gospel accounts of him, nor do they have the slightest idea what he taught.

This ignorance is due, in part, to the unfortunate rift in Protestant Christianity that left conservatives stressing Jesus’ role as savior almost to the exclusion of his role as teacher. The result has been disastrous. People who have rightly trusted Jesus to be their savior have, tragically, never trusted him to be their teacher. They expect him to save them when they die, but they don’t expect him to teach them how to live.

While it is possible to “believe in Jesus” without believing what he believed, it is impossible to obey Jesus without believing what he believed. One cannot consistently follow Jesus’ instructions while holding beliefs that are in conflict with his own.

This explains why so many people who profess faith in Jesus (and do so sincerely) lead lives totally unlike the one to which he called his followers. Whenever Jesus’ instructions are introduced into an incompatible worldview (such as the dominant worldview in western culture), they will seem unrealistic – and sometimes preposterously so. But within the context of Jesus’ own beliefs about God, himself and the world, his instructions make perfect sense.

Jesus told us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” But we are storage experts. We store our surplus goods in rented storage units and our extra money in retirement accounts because we believe our future well-being depends on accumulating more and more. But Jesus believed in a God who was attentive to his needs and concerned for his welfare. He was at liberty to share his present resources, whether time or money, because he was confident that his heavenly Father would provide for his future needs.

Or take the requirement that his followers must deny themselves in order to follow him. This flies in the face not only of cultural wisdom, but of personal instinct. But if Jesus was right that self-denial necessarily precedes self-fulfillment – that only a person who loses his (counterfeit) life can ever find his true one – then this instruction is completely logical.

St. John says that “his commands are not burdensome.” That may be true, but they will certainly seem burdensome until the people who “believe in Jesus” actually believe what Jesus believed – and taught.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 10, 2013

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