The Barest Message of Jesus

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Recently I saw a comment on social media that lamented the current state of Christianity, with its focus on sexual purity and other rules as opposed to what Christ taught. The barest message of Christ in the New Testament, this person claimed, is honor and acceptance — and modern Christianity papers over that message with a host of rules that keep us judging others instead. Elsewhere (today), I saw another comment that implied being Christlike rarely means pointing out sin — and that by pointing out sin, we are generally being unChristlike.

I’ve written on similar subjects before. But I thought I would briefly touch on the pure love of Christ. Christ taught charity, a genuine concern for the welfare of others, an abiding sort of love that seeks to uplift every soul and — as Christ taught — is not partial to people because of what they’ve done, where they come from, or where they are currently at in their lives. This enduring flame of love is not quenched when others fall short of our expectations, nor even when they hurt us with their actions. It is a universal love that sees every son and daughter of God as uniquely precious.

But it is simply false that the barest message of Jesus was “honor and acceptance.” Those who argue this are not teaching the message of Christ from the New Testament — they are most likely proselyting a competing religion called moralistic therapeutic deism. The Jesus of the New Testament is not the god of therapeutic deism (who doesn’t give us many rules and only tells people to accept others and be nice to people) — He is quite a different person entirely.

Understanding the Pharisees

So how do we get the impression that Jesus was like this? I think it’s because Jesus strongly condemned the Pharisees of the New Testament, and we often misunderstand what exactly the Pharisees did that was so wrong. Today, we have this mental image of the Pharisees as a group of legalistic judgmentalists who stridently placed hedges around the Mosaic law and condemned anyone who violated their narrow system of rules. And so today, we see anyone who seeks to reinforce moral norms as “Pharisee-like.”

But I think this has it all backwards. The Pharisees were self-righteous, quick to judgment, and legalistic, yes — but what Christ condemned was not meticulously following the law (and inviting others to as well), but using a legalistic understanding of the law to excuse and justify one’s own sinful heart. By formalizing rules and boundaries, they could then consider themselves holy for staying within those boundaries even when they are anything but.

A Pharisaic approach seeks to exonerate oneself because of the law. For example, when the law says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” a Pharisaic approach would say, “But who is my neighbor?” Everything hinges on that word–surely, they might say, this does not refer to my enemies. Or to the Samaritans. Thus they might use the language of the law to rationalize their contempt for others. If the law says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” a Pharisaic approach would say, “I have never had sex with another woman, so I am not an adulterer,” even as they watch pornography and fantasize about other women. They would use the language of the law to rationalize their lustful heart.

I’ve seen this sort of thinking all over the place. I’ve seen it in myself! It includes Latter-day Saints who casually make out with strangers and justify it by claiming they’ve never “violated the law of chastity.” Or Latter-day Saints who claim that same-sex dating isn’t a violation of the law of chastity as long as there’s no sex involved. Both these examples rely on a legalistic (and narrow) understanding of chastity (“not having intercourse”), and rationalizing sinful ways by staying within the boundaries of that legalistic interpretation.

I’ve done this aplenty in my life. If I’m meticulous to avoid working or shopping on the Sabbath, but do nothing to make the day a holy day, I’m living in precisely this way: I’m relying on a legalistic understanding of the law (don’t do X, Y, or Z) while neglecting the purpose of the law. And Christ condemned this kind of hypocrisy, this “spiritual security theater” that keeps us feel proud of our efforts to live the law while reaping no actual benefits from doing so.

Understanding Jesus

And this brings us to the next point. The Jesus of the New Testament pierced right through the excuses of those who sought to trivialize or minimize their sinful ways. Here’s a few example (in my own words):

Christ: “Love thy neighbor.”
Them: “But who is my neighbor? Surely not my enemy…”
Christ: “Yes, even your enemy.”

Christ: “Live chastely.”
Them: “But we have never committed adultery!”
Christ: “If you have lusted after another man’s wife, you are just as adulterous as if you had.”

Christ: “Keep the Sabbath day holy.”
Them: “We do so meticulously!”
Christ: “Have you given any thought to doing good and serving God? If not, then you have made it different, but not particularly holy.”

Does this sound like someone whose barest message is acceptance? Does this sound like someone who overlooks sin in others? Jesus had an even stricter view of the law than the Pharisees did! While others said, “Don’t have sex with other women,” Jesus taught us not to even lust after them. While others said, “Don’t kill people,” Jesus taught that wrath and anger — even when unexpressed — were sins that warrant sincere repentance. And so forth.

The barest message of Jesus was not honor and acceptance. It was reconciling ourselves with God by forsaking our sins (whether those sins be sexual impropriety, slothful Sabbath worship, or self-righteous pride). By condemning self-righteousness, He was not trivializing other sins (e.g., narrowing the list of sins), he was expanding the list of sins to include self-righteousness, pride, overzealous judgment, etc. He was making sure no one could consider themselves without sin, and that everyone saw need for repentance and reconciliation with God.

Becoming like Christ

The closer we come to Christ, the more we become like Him, the more we see sin as a serious matter worthy of sincere repentance. The more like Christ we become, the more we will notice sin in the lives of others around us and in ourselves. Becoming like Christ means that we are more apt to see right through the excuses we give ourselves and that others give us. We see rationalization for what it is, and recognize our fallen-ness before God. Joseph Smith taught,

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

In short, many seem to believe that becoming like Christ means learning to overlook sin. They believe that when we become like Christ, we stop seeing sins in the lives of those around us. However, Christ did not and does not overlook sin, nor does He ask us to either. Quite the opposite. To become like Him is to also become “ready to detect in every false way.”

But this includes the falseness of self-righteousness and all of its siblings and cousins. Self-righteousness is not an unwillingness to overlook sin — rather, self-righteousness is overlooking sin. More than likely, it’s overlooking a host of sins in our own lives that we do not yet detect (because we have not become sufficiently like Christ). At the very least, it’s overlooking at least one sin: the sin of pride, and pride is a sin as serious as any other.

In short, instead of making us self-righteous, or puffing us up with pride, truly becoming “quick to detect in every false way” makes us humble. This is because we see all those same tendencies within ourselves. We recognize our complete dependence on the mercies of God and the merits of Christ to save. And we see others are brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow inheritors of this same fallen-ness. As Joseph Smith further taught: “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”

We become most like Christ not by blinding ourselves to sin, but by seeing it more clearly. The surest sign of God’s presence in my life is that I stop making excuses for myself. And that means I stop overlooking the various ways I alienate myself from God. And it also means that I stop overlooking the pride that cankers my heart towards others in my life. It is when I truly see the most clearly (and like everyone else, I rarely do) that I fully realize the utter depths of my dependence on Christ, and everyone else’s too. And that’s the realization that helps me see them with compassion and charity.

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