So I was looking at my blog stats on WordPress – being a data geek and all – and saw that someone had visited this blog after searching for the phrase frightened and threatened by Jesus. Now, I feel more than a bit awed at the thought of taking this on, but I felt that I needed to respond. And my response has three main points:
- Yes, in the gospels, Jesus says a lot of things that are frightening and threatening.
- But also in those same gospels, Jesus says a lot of other things that are comforting and loving.
- My direct experiences of Jesus have always, without exception, been loving, supporting, and upholding – never negative or frightening.
So first – those threatening things. Jesus was very threatening to the powers that be of his time, to the status quo. His message turned the laws of Moses – and the story in the Old Testament says that Moses was basically taking dictation straight from God – on their heads. Jesus told us we have to think about the law, that we have to know how and when to apply it based on a very simple, though not very easy, rule. Jesus said there are basically two things to remember: (1) Love God. (2) Love everybody here on earth. And all the other laws in the Old Testament come from these. So Jesus broke the OT laws by healing people on the Sabbath, because it violates the law of love to force someone in pain to wait for Sunday or Monday for their healing. Jesus ate meals with people who were ritually unclean, because it violated the law of love to reject them. Jesus pronounced forgiveness of sin, because forgiveness bubbles up from love, like a spring of water in the desert.
The problem with all of this is, we don’t get to blindly follow rules any more, now that we have Jesus. We have to put all of the gifts God has given us to use – our minds, our hearts, our spirits – to find the path of love. “Love everybody” is a simple rule, but in practice, it is not always easy to carry out. There are people who are very difficult to love, and it can be hard to behave in loving ways when we don’t feel particularly lovable ourselves. But that is the rule Jesus has given us; that is the life we are called to as Christians. But the good news is, this love doesn’t come from nothing; we don’t have to muster it up ourselves. Love flows into us and through us from God, and when love is difficult for us, all we have to do is pray. I believe very deeply that one of God’s most favorite prayers is the one that goes, “God, I just can’t love this person on my own. Please help me love her!” And I have noticed that the more love we give away, the more love flows into us from the Divine One. Love comes to us from God freely, and the price of it is that we give it away to everyone we meet.
Jesus had a lot of other loving and comforting things to say in the gospels. I will give you rest. I am the good shepherd. If you ask, I will give you living water. Your sins are forgiven. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. Peace I give you; my own peace I give you. Jesus gave us our new rules – Love God. Love everybody else, too. – and then showed us that we are given everything we need to carry these rules out. Once, I was severely depressed and afraid to sleep, and I talked with my therapist at about 9:30pm. He gave me a bit of lectio divina to do, prescribing for me this passage. Jesus walked right through a locked door, to where his best friends were cowering in fear. And he wished them peace. He offered them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and gave to them the awesome responsibility of forgiving others. It was indeed very comforting for me that night. If Jesus can walk through a locked door to comfort his frightened friends – which was somehow easier for me to believe than Jesus literally and physically rising from the tomb – then I can sleep one night without fear. Jesus does not want us to live in fear. Jesus wants us to live in the knowledge that we are loved, completely, wastefully, without limit. That nothing we do – and nothing done to us – can ever separate us from that perfect divine love. Yes, it is best if we can live by that rule of love. But even if we don’t, we are still loved. Perfectly. Wholly. Completely. Without limit.
I have had a few direct experiences of Jesus. In guided imaging with my spiritual director, I have invited Jesus onto a ledge in The Pit (of depression) with me, where he looked on me with great love and sorrow. I asked him why I had to hurt so bad, and he told me that I was doing it to myself. When I could gather the courage to speak to him again, I asked if he would help me. And Jesus just looked at me, with an expression on his face that said, “Child, could you BE any more clueless?!?” I had to laugh – I couldn’t help it! – and when I shared this with my spiritual director, she laughed, too. “That is the real thing, warriormare,” she said. “That is the true and authentic Jesus!” And I knew this to be so – Jesus was a bit of a smart-aleck, and I have no reason to believe that this would change. In another imaging, Jesus and I were walking down the street after a rainstorm, holding hands and jumping into puddles together. At in one moment, it would seem like I was a child, reaching up to hold a grown-up’s hand, and in the next moment, we would be children together. It was playful and funny and fun, and I still treasure this memory. These are the kinds of wonderful moments we remember and treasure from our childhood, and it was even more precious to me because it was Jesus.
But these experiences of Jesus – he may have been challenging me, there in The Pit, but he was not being frightening or threatening to me in any way. In fact, Jesus wanted to support me, to help me find how I was causing hurt to myself and how to heal those wounds. Other experiences of Jesus have been positive, encouraging, uplifting. Playful sometimes, and always loving.
I am a little wary of this generalization, but I suspect that an encounter with Jesus that feels frightening and threatening may not truly be an encounter with the Divine One, but with the Enemy. Ignatian discernment tells us that if we are walking a sinful path, then the Enemy will send encouragements and the Divine One will send fear, to motivate us to move to a better path. Conversely, if we are walking a faithful path, then the Divine One will send graces and blessings to confirm to us that we are moving in the right direction, and the Enemy will try to threaten us and make us fearful. This is a very simple model, but I have found it to be full of Truth. So it may be that a frightening encounter with Jesus did come about to try to help one move from a path of sin to a path of faith. To anyone who has had such a frightening experience, I would recommend working with a person of faith – a spiritual director, a religious, a member of the clergy who is wise and trusted – to discern the meaning of the experience.
But above all, I want to be clear that Jesus does not want us to live in fear. Jesus wants us to live in love. You, my frightened and fearful friend – you are a unique and precious child of God, you are God’s beloved, and in you God is well pleased. Peace be with you, sisters and brothers, and may you be blessed by God’s perfect love for you today.