A growing cluster of malcontents are confronting the popular caricature of Jesus as the sweetest guy to skip across ancient soil and are, as author Mark Galli claims, “filling in the picture.” Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, is among the best authors who are emancipating Jesus from well-meaning yet hazardous sermons, books, and songs that portray him as history’s all-time Nicest Guy.
Submerge yourself in this genre of contra-writing that challenges soppy Christianity (you can save yourself some money and just read the Gospels), and listen to some of America’s most popular preachers and ask yourself, Whose Jesus are they talking about? Their promise-fulfillment Jesus, eager to meet my every want, is more like a cosmic bellhop than the creator of the Universe. He’s so approachable that he appears co-dependent. He’s so much my buddy, so me-centered, that it makes me feel that the only person I can really turn to when my chips are down is a composite of my own wants and desires. When I’m lost and I’m told about a tender-only Jesus, I’m not convinced that I’ll ever be found, let alone rescued. My faith falters. Their Jesus is too much like me, but with a killer smile and silkier hair.
Galli’s new book, Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker Books), a work of firm persuasion, reminds me why we should thank God that Jesus is not our best friend. You don’t pray to your best friend. You don’t offer him your tithe. Loaning him money is dicey enough. You may admire him, but I hope you don’t worship him. Chances are your best friend is as lost as you — especially when it comes to inevitable grief and suffering. He may pick you up when your car breaks down, which is a blessing, but how well can he counsel and console you when your mom dies? Your child?
A dessert-portioned Jesus is who Jennifer got when her son died a few days before his sixth birthday. “People told me that ‘Jesus loved your son so much that He couldn’t wait to bring him home’ and to ‘Consider it all joy.’ Stuff like that.” She told me that she sank into a gray lagoon of depression where she felt like no one nowhere. Her platitude Jesus couldn’t reach her there.
She hated this sentimental savior but then found her faith awakened when she witnessed the real and tough Jesus who went through emotional turmoil like her, and who expressed desperate emotions like her, and who didn’t pretend that He had to put a smiley face on life all the time and who, contrary to her spiritual training, described life’s darkness with unflinching detail. She, like Him, could really "feel life," and in doing so could see life more clearly. She was better able to throw off the shackles of confusion that always gouge our minds when we can’t get to the truth. Jesus’ toughness helped her combat falsehood, a requirement for repentance. She spoke as if she were born again, again.
Though many don’t want Galli’s “mean and wild” Jesus, we need Him for long-haul faith and for abundant living. I had the underreported and sometimes maligned Jennifers of the world in mind when I asked Galli the following questions; people whose faith took a Scud-missile hit when Kleenex Christianity, weak and boring, buckled under the weight of their grief and sorrow.
Paul Couglin: What do you want the readers to know about you, especially in relation to your book?
Mark Galli: That I am not writing from a position of strength. My family and friends tell me that I do indeed live out Jesus’ “mean and wild” love — courage, boldness, righteous anger, etc. — more than many people. But I still feel that I am addicted to niceness, and that there are many instances when my courage to act in love fails me. So I’m looking to Jesus to help me grow in this area.
PC: What was your motive for writing this book?
MG: I wanted to address a subculture in many churches that emphasizes the gentler and more feminine virtues, which are great, but sometimes don’t address the tougher virtues like courage and boldness. This subculture puts out sermons where we hear how Jesus never got angry, never lost His cool, never said a mean thing and was always patient. This isn’t what you find in the Gospels. I personally was stunned by His boldness and anger found in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark.
PC: Jesus is God’s expression of love. What misconceptions stop us from seeing this love?
MG: We live in a therapeutic society, which puts a huge emphasis on empathy and self-esteem in order to feel good about oneself. This, nearly exclusively, has come to be associated with love.
Also, a lot of people have abuse in their background. So there’s a lack of understanding about how sometimes the tough and painful path in life can actually be the good path to take.
Love takes a variety of forms, which you learn quickly as a parent. A good parent is tender and tough, depending on what his child needs. We have a hard time translating this truth into our adult lives when we relate to God. Sometimes God is stiff and tough with us because He loves us. He’s not being abusive. Athletes tend to understand this concept better than the rest of the population.
Then there are social forces that stop us from expressing tougher acts of love. No one likes to be around others who make them uncomfortable. Tougher love requires courage, which we don’t talk much about today. We would rather behave nicely so others will treat us nicely. It keeps our relationships well-greased, but not always truthful.
PC: Why do we ignore the tougher portions of Scripture?
MG: I just led a class that addressed this topic. There was a discernable discomfort when I talked about the tougher scriptures. A lot of this discomfort revolved around the misconceptions by some Christians that anger and conflict are always wrong and that Jesus is always nice. We need to topple this false idol of Jesus that we’ve made.
One reason why we think that all conflict is wrong is because of how some people handle conflict. They yell the truth about a situation when often a bold calmness while proclaiming the truth gets the job done better.
PC: When people hear about a tough Jesus, their mind sometimes goes toward the preaching of hellfire and brimstone. But this isn't what you mean. What part of Jesus are you talking about?
MG: I’m mostly referring to Jesus’ courage, boldness, speaking the truth, confronting evil. But part of speaking the truth is to remind people — when the occasion is appropriate — that there are real and lasting consequences for ignoring Jesus, one of which is eternal separation from God.
PC: You write that those who are accustomed to “Jesus meek and mild” will be frightened at first by Jesus Mean and Wild. Why?
MG: Well, they won’t recognize Him at first. He’ll seem like somebody they don’t know, and they won’t know whether to trust Him. But if they hang in there, they will soon recognize that the tougher Jesus is the same Jesus who invites those who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him for rest. What we all have to learn is that Jesus’ love comes to us in a variety of ways; sometimes it feels good; sometimes it doesn’t. But if we give it time, we’ll see that many of the things that didn’t feel good were really means of God shaping us, preparing us, disciplining us, loving us.
PC: When you think of Christians who exemplify Christ’s tougher-yet-virtuous side, who comes to mind and why?
MG: I tend to think of two universally recognized “saints” of our era. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his courage to stand up for African-American civil rights. Mother Teresa, and her daily and hourly tenacity to comfort the dying. I think of the many people who have been fighting against abortion. I think of those who put on uniforms to defend their country against vicious enemies or to defend their communities against crime and violence. I think of the alcoholic mother who has vowed to give up drinking, and the busy father who has decided to give up a promotion to be a stronger influence in his family. I think of both large and small acts of courage and truth-telling.
PC: I have written about how following a Sweet Savior hurt my life. What’s your personal experience with following a sweet Jesus?
MG: The main problem with only a Sweet Savior is that He is finally incapable of helping us in life’s most difficult moments. I need a Savior who empathizes with my pain, but I also need a Savior who is strong to save — who has the power to defeat satanic influences in my life, who will overcome evil in the world one day. In the end, the Sweet Savior merely feels bad for me but is helpless in the face of evil.
PC: What happens when children of Christians are shown only a gentle Jesus meek and mild? Does this prepare them well for the real world?
MG: Ditto above. In addition, we need to show children, especially boys, the complete picture of Jesus. If we show only His compassion, they may be tempted to think of Jesus as a wimp — certainly not someone worth giving their lives to. And if we show only the “mean and wild” side, they may become merely arrogant and abusive.
PC: What happens to someone’s faith and life when they follow the Nice Nazerene?
MG: I think they become sentimental instead of compassionate. They give evil a pass instead of confronting it boldly. They become nice instead of loving.
PC: Is indoctrinating people into believing in a "gentle Jesus meek and mild" a form of spiritual abuse? Why or why not?
MG: Maybe not “abuse,” but perhaps “spiritual neglect.” To leave this dimension out is to misrepresent Jesus, and that can only create crippled disciples.
PC: Being nice makes us turn a blind eye to evil, among other problems. Do you think such behavior makes us accomplices to evil? Why or why not?
MG: That depends on how conscious one is of one’s behavior. There are lots of evils going on in the world that I could be doing something about. A lot of them I’m just not aware of on a day-to-day basis. But there are a few that really bother me, that God has “laid on my heart,” as they say. If they continue to bother me, and I refuse to do anything about them, then I’m an accomplice to that evil.
PC: You write, “The person who is always nice, always decorous, always even-keeled is likely a person who ultimately does not care about what God cares about" (page 69). Mark, you just described what I’ve been told is the spiritual giant in most churches, the Ideal Christian Man. Something doesn’t add up. What is it?
MG: Many Christians are confused about the Ideal Christian Man because they take their cues from the culture, and not primarily from Scripture. Thus, some think the Ideal Christian Man is a conservative ethical businessman who climbs the corporate ladder and takes care of his family financially and who goes to his kids' soccer games. For others, he is a male version of a nurturing mother. And on it goes. The Ideal Christian Man, however, should increasingly look like Jesus, and as I outline in my book, Jesus is much more dynamic that our cultural stereotypes allow men to be.
PC: Do some people believe in the Gospel of Nice in order to hide from the real nature of God?
MG: Probably. Whenever we find ourselves saying, “A loving God wouldn’t do X,” or “God would never disapprove of Y,” we may want to think a little harder. Such statements often reveal more about what we wish was true — because if it were, it would make our life that much easier. Meeting the real God is more dangerous and exhilarating than we’ve been led to believe. But meeting the real God means letting go of the old one; it means you are no longer in charge of your faith. It’s scary to get to know this God. But it’s also life’s greatest adventure.
PC: Why is it that love is capable of making enemies, which is the name of one of your chapters? What does this tell us about the true nature of love?
MG: One thing love must do is speak the truth. And many people “can’t handle the truth,” as a famous movie line puts it. The truth makes them examine some behavior in their life, or some belief they might have to abandon. They know if they admit this truth, they’ll have to change. And most of us don’t like change. I know I don’t.
Paul Coughlin is a former newspaper editor and author of No More Christian Nice Guy and its companion study guide. He speaks internationally about the Christian Nice Guy problem and also provides individual instruction on how to overcome it. He and his wife Sandy wrote Married But Not Engaged, which helps wives of passive and checked out husbands better understand them and how best to create a better marriage.