I am not a brand,
Some corporeal mottled mass
Shaped upon the pedestal of style
Hard dependent all upon the whims of other men.
I am not a brand,
Seeking distinction from the mass
Through nuanced wit or nuanced style
Discontent to rank behind the fame of other men.
I am not a brand,
Some light ablaze amidst the mass,
A prophet-priest of the self-styled,
Ascerbic guardians who dream they love their fellow man.
It is humiliating to have my identity be Jesus Christ. I am not Jesus. I am Nate Brooks of Atascadero, California; not Jesus of Nazareth. Nate Brooks won the AWANA clubber of the year award at the C&M Alliance church in Elma, Washington in the 3rd grade. Jesus of Nazareth did not. Nate Brooks’ first theology book was RC Sproul’s Chosen By God, picked up and devoured in the 10th grade. Jesus of Nazareth’s was not. Nate Brooks was named Most Inspirational Player on his high school basketball team, Jesus of Nazareth was not. Nate Brooks graduated as valedictorian of his high school. Jesus of Nazareth did not.
Nate Brooks stayed up late into the night with his friend, watching the deepening shadows of the evening describe yet again the deepening clouds of depression begin to eclipse the wonders of the gospel in his affections. Jesus of Nazareth did not. Nate Brooks cut his teeth in preaching before a crowd of rehabilitating drug addicts, listening to the most off-key praises sung to the Lord you could ever imagine, but with a gusto that brought tears to his eyes. Jesus of Nazareth did not preach there. Nate Brooks served alongside a very faithful pastor for a year, teaching the youth group what it means to be wise in a very unwise world. Jesus of Nazareth did not do this either. And Nate Brooks is in seminary, writes a blog and gets good grades. Jesus of Nazareth scores a zero yet again.
Jesus of Nazareth is a man who lived and died 2000 years ago in a place of the world I’ve never been and will probably never visit. His life bears very little resemblance to mine. I drive, He walked. My days are spent with books and conversation, his were filled with stonecutting. I’ve driven over the western part of the United States. He never ventured more than a 100 miles from the place of his birth. And most strikingly I’ve never even received a speeding ticket. He was crucified as an insurrectionist.
It is humiliating to have my identity be Jesus Christ. Seen through the eyes of unbelief, my life is virtuous. It’s moral. There are no glaring weaknesses or dark stains to hide. But seen through the eyes of true understanding I’ve left a wasteland in my path. I wreak destruction upon the universe, and if I was the only one upon the earth, it would groan for release from me. Even after I accepted Jesus Christ ten years ago, even after my heart has been regenerated and I have been given the desires to do what is right every footfall sounds insufficiency.
This is why I have been bought with a price. And that price was not something trifling like silver or gold, the metals that men give to those they care most about, and the metals that men fight and kill each other over. A price of gold or silver would have been insufficient. “You were ransomed” says Peter, “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). And how does this reshuffle my identity? “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Either Jesus Christ is my entire identity, or I am hopeless. My only hope lies in having an intercessor, a man who can stand before the great Judge and say “Count my life, not his.” This is humiliating. Absolutely humiliating. The kingdom of God is home to no self-made man. It is home to men and women who have renounced their own identities, their own claim to having anything within them or done by them to qualify themselves to stand before the bench and be sentenced to anything other than death. Jesus Christ is our identity or we are undone.
Matthew 23 is a terrifying passage. I used to read it with relish, delighting in Jesus’ dissection of the Pharisees in front of his disciples and the weighty masses. Now I read it with tears and trepidation, sorrowful over the deluded state of the blinded Pharisees and grave over the realization that self-deception is a terrible master.
Self-deception as a category is horrifying. It does not equate to blindness, for the blind know they lack something others possess, even if sight is an imaginary concept to them. They understand they’re missing something. It does not equate to slavery, for the slave understands that he is not free, that he is doing the bidding of another man. Rather it is blind slavery, as the hapless victim of self-deception is blind to the reality that he is not as free as he thinks. He is bound by heavy chains and thinks them wings.
Which means no man ever considers himself to be self-deceived. The second comprehension of his self-deception flashes across his mind, it transitions from self-deception to choice. Will he continue living in willful servitude, or will he cast off the cords that bind him?
The Pharisees were convinced of their rightness. They were convinced their rules and regulations pleased God, served God, worshipped God. They judged the liberal Sadducees as playing fast and loose with the Law, rightfully condemning them for their faithlessness. And so the seas watched the Pharisees skate across them, men on a mission to save their brothers. And they were saving them into deeper slavery, self-deluded men making others self-deluded as well.
This is haunting. What if I am self-deceived? What if I either do not trust the gospel or have misread the gospel and stand therefore condemned? What if what I call sincere devotion to the Lord is not that at all, but genuine affection for Him is something that I cannot even conceive of, for no one can picture life with God as Father without actually being in that relationship?
These questions could be paralyzing. But being paralyzed by them would not answer them. My answer to them is simple, and it is the cornerstone of the gospel. God did it. Dive deep into the soil of my faith in Jesus Christ, and there rests as absolute bedrock the belief that I am reconciled to God because God wants me to be reconciled to Him. And what God wants will happen. My hope is in God, not in myself. And anything other than that could never be considered to be good news, for I look at the train wreck that is my desires, my thoughts, my actions and realize that who I am could never please any deity.
Assumptions must exist for believing the gospel. I trust that the Bible is divine, that it is God’s communication to mankind for the purpose of making himself known. I trust that a straightforward reading of that book will yield an understandable message, which is the hope for humanity as a whole and myself as a person.
And so I believe that Jesus Christ is God become man for the purpose of buying back a people from enslavement to sin. I believe that he stands as an intercessor between the Father and me, absorbing all the wrath and providing a way for my adoption as a son of God. I believe that it is through the renouncing of any work I could do and placing my singular hope upon Christ’s intervention for me as sufficient that His work is applied to me. And I pray that if there be self-deception in this that God would be merciful to reveal it to me, that I might indeed know Him.
My family has a peculiar inside joke, a throwaway punchline that adorns the occasional phone conversation. “The higher, the fewer.” Spoken originally to Warf’s son Alexander by an overly pensive holodeck clown in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this little aphorism bears itself well in the world. The higher, the fewer. There are far more Hondas than Aston Martins, far more accountants than Evel Kenevils. The higher the effort required to become something, the fewer there will be who undertake the challenge. The higher the danger, the fewer participants will be willing to take the risk.
Except in the Christian life. And that is incredibly puzzling. Why is it that far more Christians would be willing to stare down the barrel of the gun of their murderous persecutors than are willing to live the hard aspects of discipleship? Why are far more willing to die for Christ than to live for him?
I don’t have any hard and fast data on what I’ve just said. And it certainly is not my intent to scoff at or imply that martyrdom is easy. It’s no act of courage to write from the bomb shelter about the fun of life in the front-line trench. The closest I’ve ever come to being martyred was when an off-duty coworker referred to me as a “fag” for refusing to refill her friend’s Pepsi through the Taco Bell drive thru. Intense persecution, that Taco Bell name-calling is.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote eight letters as his 2nd century Roman guards marched him across Asia Minor towards his impending execution at Rome. Seven were to churches, one to his new friend Polycarp who would one day too die at the hands of the Romans. To the church in Rome Ignatius writes,
Leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am his wheat, ground fine by the lion’s teeth to be made purest bread. . . . Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body – let ever horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus!
These are no metaphors. It’s staring at your hand, watching the fire melt your skin and muscle off your bones. It’s being sewn inside the skin of a goat and feeling a lion scrape his teeth across your ribcage until your life slowly bleeds out of you. It’s feeling the slow and building pressure, followed by the sharp snap and fire of shattered bones and shredded ligaments again and again and again, punctuated by the sound of your screams and jailer’s laughter.
I, like you, bleach white at the thought of this. Reading causes me to pause and wonder if ever placed in the place of Ignatius of Antioch, what I would say. Would I deny? Would I?
No. Perhaps in the moment I would. But utterly and finally, I could not. For the Spirit of Christ will not let those He indwells deny Him by whom He was sent. The Trinity will not rest at odds with one another. And so it is with all who believe. Whatever the cost, we will follow, knowing that the world has hated our Master and so will also hate us. Certainly our churches would be smaller. Few people are tempted to use God for their own advancement when that advancement takes the shape of a bullet hole in the forehead. The higher the cost of discipleship, the fewer the disciples.
And yet, how puzzling it is that amongst those who would willing to die for Christ, so many of us struggle to live for him in present, easy circumstances. We’re willing to sell our lives, yet reluctant to pay what is a pittance in comparison. How many of us would refuse to deny, but also refuse to pick up the phone, dial that number, and actively work to restore that fractured relationship? How many treasure Christ above life, but give sparingly from their earthly treasures for the advancement of the Kingdom? How many would never blaspheme, but mark their days with slander? How many would never have less than pure worship, but live with impure eyes?
The higher, the fewer? Not this time. Not here. Why is it that those who would pay the ultimate price are so often hesitant or resistant to paying one of far less cost?