Once after a particularly sacrilegious string of jokes, snarky comedian, Dennis Miller, gave voice to what some in the audience might be thinking, “How can you talk like that, Dennis, don’t you believe in God?” To which he responded, “Yeah, I believe in God; it’s just that my God thinks I’m funny as h__l.” The crowd was shocked into laughter, I think, my Mr. Miller’s honest admission of something that everybody tends to do.
Jadon, my 15-year-old, wanted to listen to Johnny Cash this morning on the way into football practice. So, I went to the Johnny Cash playlist on Spotify and clicked “shuffle.” We skipped a couple of prison songs and then settled on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” The song continued a little after I dropped my son at the fieldhouse. I contemplated its message of warning against going to cowboy hell. Apparently Johnny Cash’s God didn’t think hell was as funny as Dennis Miller.
As I reached the next light, Johnny started singing his cover of Depeche Mode’s, “Personal Jesus.” It was kind of jarring. It seemed undignified for a country legend to cover some emo pop group. It also shook me that an avowed Christian would sing about acquiring a tailor-made savior. I just have to tell myself that the song is satire and that’s why Johnny Cash sang it.
Dennis Miller’s “God” is his own personal Jesus. Someone to hear his prayers. Someone who’s there.
We can’t touch, see, or hear God, but we need him. So, we manufacture our own personal Jesus who agrees with our morals and shares our disgust with our ideological rivals. Our own personal Jesus wants us to be happy and relatively good by our own standards. He’s on our side.
Here’s the problem with personal Jesus – he doesn’t exist. He doesn’t hear our prayers and he’s not there.
I know a woman who abandoned her faith in her thirties. When I asked her why, she said, “Because I prayed repeatedly for God to help me with raising my boys and he didn’t.”
Her personal Jesus wasn’t the one who said that we need to hate our family in order to be his disciples.¹ He was the one obsessed with healthy, happy nuclear families. Her Jesus didn’t come down from heaven; he sprung from the minds of church leaders seeking to entice young families into their buildings. He existed to serve her family and when he failed to do that, he ceased to exist. It’s just math.
I think the major difference between real Jesus and personal Jesus can be seen in our reaction to him. I’m reading through Luke with my cousin. This morning I got to Luke 5:1-11, the calling of Christ’s first disciples. In that section, Jesus commandeers Peter’s boat as a speaking platform and then afterwards tells Peter to, “put out into deep water for a catch.” This instruction made no sense to Peter, but he did it anyway. A massive catch of fish filled his and his partners’ boats so that they nearly sank.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:8-11 NIV)
Peter was undone in the presence of real Jesus. Peter knew the truth – that he didn’t deserve to be near Jesus. Because he knew this truth, Peter could accept grace. Because he’d tasted of grace, he gladly left everything (including the huge haul of fish) to follow Christ.
Personal Jesus is too easy going to leave us in a heap at his feet. He doesn’t have to counsel us not to fear him, because we’re just not that impressed. Rather than leave everything and follow him, we invite him to join our fishing enterprise as a useful, silent partner.
We can’t meet Jesus in person on a boat like Peter did, but we can meet him at the cross. There, we see the just penalty for each of our sin. There, we can be undone. At the cross, we also see our reason not be afraid and, in our relief, we find the will to leave everything and follow him.