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  Jesus Never Manipulates to Win Soul

 

    All the passages below are taken from Philip Yancey’s book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” published in 1995.

 

The more I get to know Jesus, the more impressed I am by what Ivan Karamazov called "the miracle of restraint." The miracles Satan suggested, the signs and wonders the Pharisees demanded, the final proofs I yearn for---these would offer no serious obstacle to an omnipotent God. More amazing is his refusal to perform and to overwhelm. God's terrible insistence on human freedom is so absolute that he granted us the power to live as though he did not exist, to spit in his face, to crucify him. All this Jesus must have known as he faced down the tempter in the desert, focusing his mighty power on the energy of restraint.

I believe God insists on such restraint because no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve the response he desires. Although power can force obedience, only love can summon a response of love, which is the one thing God wants from us and the reason he created us. "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself," Jesus said. In case we miss the point John adds, "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die." God's nature is self-giving; he bases his appeal on sacrificial love.

I remember one afternoon in Chicago sitting in an outdoor restaurant listening to a broken man relate the story of his prodigal son. Jake, the son, could not keep a job. He wasted all his money on drugs and alcohol. He rarely called home, and brought little joy and much grief to both parents. Jake's father described to me his feeling of helplessness in words not unlike those Jesus used about Jerusalem. "If only I could bring him back, and shelter him and try to show how much I love him," he said. He paused to gain control of his voice, then added, "The strange thing is, even though he rejects me, Jake's love means more to me than that of my other three, responsible children. Odd, isn't it? That's how love is."

I sense in that final four-word sentence more insight into the mystery of God's restraint than I have found in any book of theodicy. Why does God content himself with the slow, unencouraging way of making righteousness grow rather than avenging it? That's how love is. Love has its own power, the only power ultimately capable of conquering the human heart.

 

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Though rebuffed in all three temptations, Satan may well have departed from the confrontation wearing a smirk. Jesus' steadfast refusal to play by Satan's rules meant that Satan himself could continue playing by those rules. He still had the kingdoms of the world at his disposal, after all, and now he had learned a lesson about God's restraint. Restraint by God creates opportunity for those opposed to God.

Other skirmishes would come, of course. Jesus would forcibly cast out demons, but the Spirit he replaced them with was far less possessive and depended always on the will of the one possessed. Occasions for mischief abounded: Jesus admitted as much in his analogy of the kingdom of God growing up in the midst of evil, like wheat among the weeds.

From Satan's perspective, the Temptation offered a new lease on life. The kids from Lord of the Flies could roam the island awhile longer, apparently free of adult authority. Furthermore, God could be blamed for what went wrong. If God insisted on sitting on his hands while devilment like the Crusades and the Holocaust went on, why not blame the Parent, not the kids?

It occurs to me that by turning down the temptations in the desert, Jesus put God's own reputation at risk. God has promised to restore earth to perfection one day, but what about the meantime? The swamp of human history, the brutality even of church history, the apocalypse to come---are all these worth the divine restraint? To put it bluntly, is human freedom worth the cost?

No one who lives in the midst of the restoration process, not at its end, can answer that question fairly. All I can do is recall that Jesus, a single combat warrior facing Evil head-on with the power to destroy it, chose a different way. For him, preserving the free will of a notoriously flawed species seemed worth the cost. The choice could not have been easy, for it involved his own pain as well as his followers'.

As I survey the rest of Jesus' life, I see that the pattern of restraint established in the desert persisted throughout his life. I never sense Jesus twisting a person's arm. Rather, he stated the consequences of a choice, then threw the decision back to the other party. He answered a wealthy man's question with uncompromising words and then let him walk away. Mark pointedly adds this comment: "Jesus looked at him and loved him." Jesus had a realistic view of how the world would respond to him: "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold."

We sometimes use the term "savior complex" to describe an unhealthy syndrome of obsession over curing others' problems. The true Savior, however, seemed remarkably free of such a complex. He had no compulsion to convert the entire world in his lifetime or to cure people who were not ready to be cured. In Milton's words, Jesus

 

"held it more humane, more heavenly first

By winning words to conquer willing hearts,

And make persuasion do the work of fear."

 

In short, Jesus showed an incredible respect for human freedom. When Satan asked for the chance to test Peter and sift him as wheat, even then Jesus did not refuse the request. His response: "I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail." When the crowds turned away and many disciples deserted him, Jesus said to the Twelve, almost plaintively, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" As his life moved toward doom in Jerusalem, he exposed Judas but did not try to prevent his evil deed-that, too, a consequence of restraint.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus said, in the least manipulative invitation that has ever been given.

 

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This quality of restraint in Jesus---one could almost call it a divine shyness---took me by surprise. I realized, as I absorbed the story of Jesus in the Gospels, that I had expected from him the same qualities I had met in the southern fundamentalist church of my childhood. There, I often felt the victim of emotional pressures. Doctrine was dished out in a "Believe and don't ask questions!" style. Wielding the power of miracle, mystery, and authority, the church left no place for doubt. I also learned manipulative techniques for "soul-winning," some of which involved misrepresenting myself to the person I was talking to. Yet now I am unable to find any of these qualities in the life of Jesus.

If I read church history correctly, many other followers of Jesus have yielded to the very temptations he resisted. Dostoevsky shrewdly replayed the Temptation scene in the torture cell of the Grand Inquisitor. How could a church founded by the One who withstood the Temptation carry out an Inquisition of forced belief that lasted half a millennium? Meanwhile, in a milder Protestant version in the city of Geneva, officials were making attendance at church compulsory and refusal to take the Eucharist a crime. Heretics there, too, were burned at the stake.

To its shame, Christian history reveals unrelieved attempts to improve on the way of Christ. Sometimes the church joins hands with a government that offers a shortcut path to power. "The worship of success is generally the form of idol worship which the devil cultivates most assiduously," wrote Helmut Thielicke about the German church's early infatuation with Adolf Hitler. "We could observe in the first years after 1933 the almost suggestive compulsion that emanates from great successes and how, under the influence of these successes, men, even Christians, stopped asking in whose name and at what price...."

Sometimes the church grows its own mini-Hitlers, men with names like Jim Jones and David Koresh, who understand all too well the power represented in miracle, mystery, and authority. And sometimes the church simply borrows the tools of manipulation perfected by politicians, salesmen, and advertising copywriters.

I am quick to diagnose these flaws. Yet when I turn from church history and examine myself, I find that I too am vulnerable to the Temptation. I lack the willpower to resist shortcut solutions to human needs. I lack the patience to allow God to work in a slow, "gentlemanly" way. I want to seize control myself, to compel others to help accomplish the causes I believe in. I am willing to trade away certain freedoms for the guarantee of safety and protection. I am willing to trade away even more for the chance to realize my ambitions.

When I feel those temptations rising within me, I return to the story of Jesus and Satan in the desert. Jesus' resistance against Satan's temptations preserved for me the very freedom I exercise when I face my own temptations. I pray for the same trust and patience that Jesus showed. And I rejoice that, as Hebrews said, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are---yet without sin.... Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." [78-82]

 

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