I love questions, and recently a friend asked why’d they’d need Jesus if they were already deeply spiritual. This friend IS deeply spiritual and speaks on behalf of many of my friends who wonder the same thing. What’s so special about Jesus? Why would I need him in my life if I’m already a spiritual person? These friends already have a sense of God in their lives, in their work and friendships and 12-step communities. They experience meaning and transcendence through music, nature, art, exercise, astrology, yoga, higher education, gaming, friendship. They experience a sense of the holy at concerts and in relationships, in regular spiritual practices that have been life-saving and purposeful, like working for justice and love and recovery. So why do they need Jesus? It’s a great question.
Doesn’t Jesus just narrow and limit the options for experiencing life in all of its fullness? Isn’t Jesus too specific and particular and exclusive by being one human life in a particular time and place? And hasn’t his legacy been part of a rule-bound system of doctrine that’s connected to so much violence and division in the world? Why would I need that when I’m trying to get healthy and balanced and less depressed, and expand my horizons, not narrow them?
These are great questions. And YET. My friend who asked it was kind of mysteriously drawn to Jesus anyway. He could not explain why, but he was curious. There’s just Something about Jesus. So he came to a meeting and asked the question.
I’m going to offer some of the answers I heard from my cellmates, with their permission. My cell often helps with life’s most important questions!
One of my cellmates was raised Hindu. She described being raised to worship idols when she was little, and noticing that none of them spoke back to her. But Jesus did. Jesus answered her prayer, not in an audible voice, but something big and deep in her spirit that she knew was God. Now as an adult, she is amazed at how sometimes she can literally feel God’s presence, as if he is alive.
Another cellmate said that she felt like she was always running away from God for most of her life, wanting to NOT “need” Jesus. She was trying to resist the love and truth she sensed there, but what she couldn’t deny after awhile was this sense that Jesus kept gently pursuing her no matter how much she kept trying to get away. At one point she decided to read other religious texts like the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and she decided she would just note when she read something that reminded her of the God she knew. Well. She ended up making a LOT of notecards and concluding that Jesus was present all over the place in ways she didn’t even understand and couldn’t contain. She couldn’t even keep him in the “Christianity” box.
Both of these friends were surprised by the simultaneous limitlessness (big, cosmic, inclusive, generous) nature of God along with a personal and pursuing revelation of love. I like how the apostle Paul describes the fullness of Jesus’s being and purpose in his letter to the Colossians:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might be Lord. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
I think my friends were on to something big in their discoveries of Jesus: that he wasn’t just a great human teacher and prophet, founder of another religious program. Apparently he was present before time began, in order to do something new and connective right now, and forevermore!
It’s difficult to even wrap our minds around it or put into words. It is beyond words, and we need more than words right now, as my friend Mable said yesterday. It is grammatically impossible to describe the invisible force of love that created the energy of the expanding universe and organized it into the beauty we can barely glimpse, let alone understand, through our microscopes and telescopes and relationships. That this love would reveal itself in the most vulnerable human form is rather unspeakable. Sometimes I can only close my eyes and feel it. And that is what some of my spiritual-but-not-religious friends do, too. Many of us “know” even in our unknowing. On some level we can sense this magnitude of love that mysteriously and miraculously holds all things together even, and maybe especially, when it seems like everything is falling apart. We know because we are human, and God shared in our humanity through Jesus.
I love how my friend described Jesus pursuing her, because it shines a new ray of light on this question. Maybe it’s not so much a question of “needing” Jesus as much as God wanting us! Maybe it’s primarily about God’s love and desire to be with us. The Bible says “we love him because he first loved us.” God initiates this relationship. Other programs may need to be striven for, or achieved, but in the Bible we see a God, even in the Old Testament, who calls people into belonging even when they’re wandering around complaining and not paying any attention. Jesus offers an image of standing at a door and knocking, and if anyone hears him they can open the door and feast with him. He also offers an image of a shepherd who goes out looking for sheep who get lost from the rest of the crew, even when it’s just one.
Did you ever see that old picture of Jesus hanging off the side of a cliff to rescue that one sheep who is ready to go off the edge? I keep that picture in my office to remind myself that God is like that, looking out for me even when I consciously forget his love and go wandering off toward danger. I appreciate that painting partly because I did fall off a 60-ft literal cliff when I was 19. It was a rock climbing accident that I probably shouldn’t have survived, but by some mystery, I did.
So the painting reminds me that this Good Shepherd can’t really be underestimated or fully understood or explained. All I know is that when I wander off blindly, thinking there are no options left and everything is doomed and I should pull the proverbial covers over my head because people keep hurting each other and the earth continues to warm up, the Great Shepherd comes looking for me again on the cliffside. Jesus is the soul friend who finds me there. He reaches down and brings me back to into the fold of fellowship with the other ones to who love him, too. He takes me to quiet waters where I can be refreshed. He shows me what I can do to share that refreshment with others who are looking.
To me, the most mind-blowing part of that description of Jesus in Colossians is the part where “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus.” That word fullness in Greek, pleroma, tries to describe the totality of aeons — all atoms, matter, energy, and essence of being from the beginning of time into eternity. And it’s hard to distinguish between whether the word fullness or God is the more probable subject of the sentence! It suggests that everything good and beautiful and “spiritual” and EVERYTHING?! is revealed and disclosed in Jesus. It is distributed through him personally in a way that holds all things together.
I don’t understand it. I can’t understand it. But it does give me great comfort in this time where it often feels like many things are breaking up and breaking down. What if Jesus is holding everything together beyond what we can see, designing and creating something new from the pieces that seem to be flying in opposite directions? That is the God of the impossible that we are promised through the Spirit. The Comforter who advocates for us without words. The seed of hope that is planted in people in the worst of times and situations. The One who feeds us in the desert of our despair, whispering that we’ll rise again.
In sum, I believe that all of my spiritual friends already know something about Jesus, being the essence of spirituality that he is. I believe he’s already in the recovery group, the work, the advocacy, the art, the exercise, the books, the music, the wonder of creation and friendship, all the ways and times we experience transcendence and meaning and holiness. He is there, holding it all together, especially in our seeking and questions. And we can know him personally, just as we are known.