Believing in Jesus

My very first memory of Christmas has little to do with Christ: it is that of unwrapping a large present, a wind-up robot that walked, shot sparks out its ears and which had a rolling image of a space landscape in its chest. In short, it was an awesome toy. I can remember the living room, the rug, the iron grates over the air vents in the floor, the tree, but no Jesus.

My second memory of Christmas, a couple of years later, is only marginally better: I remember a Christmas scene, with little plastic figurines. But the figurine I remember most was not little Baby Jesus, lyin’ there in his ghost manger, just lookin’ at Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors — no, it was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was, at age 5, a big fan of the Rankin/Bass Rudolph special (indeed, of the entire Rankin/Bass repertoire, especially the otherwise wretched The Year Without a Santa Claus, if only because of the Miser Brothers). So I cuddled that little Rudolph figurine, sang it sweet Christmas songs and played games with it — for after all, all of the other reindeer laughed and called Rudolph names, and wouldn’t play with him. But no Jesus.

Who is this?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely become more familiar with our Christmas narratives and with the LDS depictions of Christ, His birth and death. But I don’t know that my mental image of Jesus is much better now than it was when I was a child. I can conjure up in my mind those contextual images — the chilly night of His Birth, or the scorching desert of his fasting, for example — but I find it harder to find Jesus as a person, as someone to talk to. Personally, it’s easier for me to reach out and know Heavenly Father, whose name I do not know [1], than Jesus, whose name is the one by which we are to be saved. Similarly, I feel more affinity for the notions of salvation — chains of family running through eternity, salvific power coursing through generations — than for the cipher that is Christ as a person. It is as if, at first blush, I understand the trappings of Christmas, but not the reason for the season.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like to think I understand the workings of the Atonement as well as the next fellow. I know what it’s like to pray, and repent, and to feel forgiven. But when people say “let Jesus change your heart” or “keep the memory of Jesus with you”, I get the impression they are talking about some internal workings that I have not experienced, or perhaps that their descriptions are not what’s really going on. I do not turn my heart over to Jesus for change the way I turn my watch over to the jeweler to replace the batteries.

So what am I missing here?

———————-
[1] Yes, I know Heavenly Father has a name. But I don’t know if that is really His name, and I don’t think we vest it with the sort of tetragrammatonic power that perhaps His real name would possess. And we’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Comments

  1. I almost sobbed when I read this….because this is exactly how I feel, and I have always felt there was something wrong with me and that no one could understand, and even if I tried to explain they would just think I was blasphemous.

  2. Steve,

    I really like this. I relate a lot to feeling more personal or natural in my communication with Heavenly Father as a person. Of course, part of that likely comes from praying to Heavenly Father and not Christ. Though it’s always been my impression that anyone holy could be listening at any time, so that’s cool. But I think it would be nice to remove oneself from the depiction of Christ for a few seasons and try to experience him primarily through prayer and fasting, isolated from other presentations.

  3. I have always felt the same way, Steve, and I’m reminded of it each week during the sacrament. It’s a question to which I haven’t figured out a satisfactory answer. The beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ fills me with awe, but I can’t figure out how to relate to its central figure.

    Perhaps it’s because he has motivations that I don’t come close to sharing. Perhaps it’s because of the differences between the Lord’s words in our different books of scripture, which make it hard to form a cohesive picture.

    In any case, I appreciate this post and look forward to Part II, wherein you share the resolution.

  4. MikeInWeHo says:

    Perhaps it’s because what we know of Jesus from the scriptures (single? childless? intentionally poor?) has very little to do with contemporary Mormon ideals. How can a good Mormon today relate to him?

  5. Mike, that’s possible. But I can picture the Buddha. Explain that.

  6. I’ve felt similarly. Last night, at a colleagues Christmas party, he offered a prayer before we ate and I noted how it wasn’t a prayer to HF but to Jesus (“we thank you, Jesus, for coming down and sacrificing for us…”). I guess in my naivete I’ve never really thought about how the rest of the Christian world prays to Jesus Himself. Do you think this makes a difference in our perceptions? Maybe they have these more personal feelings because they talk to him directly? I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve wanted and wondered about those feelings that you mentioned.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    I can’t, Steve. Personally, I can’t picture the Buddha at all.

    Lately I have been wishing we knew more about Heavenly Mother. This may be related to my joining the Feminist Mormon Housewives Society group on Facebook, though.

  8. # 6, Meems, I converted to Christianity when I was 15, and have always had trouble with Jesus. I pray to God (I love the Mormon nomenclature of Heavenly Father!) and although I can feel thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice, etc, he remains much more abstract than God does. Funny, how that works. Maybe you need to grow up with that tradition to really feel it.

    Also, isn’t the Mormon understanding of the trinity a bit different? Perhaps it’s easier to pray to Jesus when you believe him and God to be the same being. Although then I don’t know what my excuse is! ;-)

  9. Steve, wonderful post. I have a different but related problem. I find parts of Jesus’ ministry quite real; when he touches another person or shares bread with his disciples. These tangible and embodied acts of compassion are present in my own memories of Jesus but at the same time I cannot relate to the Resurrected Christ.

  10. Antonio Parr says:

    Steve:

    I have the benefit of having been raised a protestant, where I was told the stories of Jesus every Sunday and in summer Bible camp. As a result, I have perceived Him to be a close friend from the days of my earliest childhood.

    The life and times of Jesus the Nazarene is often missing from LDS meetings, crowded out by other scriptures and effectively reduced to a once-ever-four-year topic as a result of our current curriculum. It is a sad thing to fall short in talking of Christ and rejoicing in Christ, but that is the lot for many Latter-Day Saints.

    And yet . . .

    The LDS inclusion of Gesthamane as an essential part of the atonement process has increased my feeling of kinship with and love towards Jesus. This man of sorrows who is well acquainted with grief knows intimately ~my~ sorrow and ~my~ grief, and, in that sense, I trust Him more than any being who has ever walked the earth.

    When the “good thief” was facing the final tortured moments of his mortal journey, he turned to the one person who understood — ~really~ understood his plight, i.e., the Savior on the cross who, like HIm, was nailed to a cross. I feel like that thief. When my unique, personal burdens seem too much to bear, I can turn to the Nazarene as the person who understands those burden because, in bearing them, He shares them.

    This excerpt from a poem by Susan Chock entitled “The Lord” better expresses the above sentiment:

    Come to him
    needing.
    as the parched man the
    freshet
    Come.

    Show him your wounds.
    Not perfunctorily
    in the dim night-light just before sleep —
    but knee-stone hard by the naked
    bulb,
    bare them all.
    The Christ will not
    flinch, or paling,
    look away.
    They are his wounds too,
    every one.

    This Christ is someone I can trust completely, and in whom I feel the most intimate and valued of relationships. He not just “the Savior”, He is ~my~ Savior.

    As is typically the case with your essays, I found it to be exceptionally well written and extraordinarily honest. I have heard others in the Church express similar sentiments, although not with the same candor and depth as your writing. I wish you well on your journey.

  11. For Evangelicals it’s exactly the opposite, of course. If you’re hearing “let Jesus change your heart” or “keep the memory of Jesus with you” from fellow Saints that would be incredibly strange, in my experience. That’s very Evangelical-sounding language. It sounds like you’re feeling a dissonance between knowing that institutionally the Church regularly emphasizes an emphasis on Christ but in practice when we speak to one another about our relationships with the divine it’s often about our relationships with Heavenly Father. In a way, one wonders if Christ himself wouldn’t be pleased with that. We’re emulating him, after all, in the way we pray to the Father and divulge ourselves to him.

    Its complicated, though, because Christ is by far more of a central figure in the scriptures than the Father. And there does seem to be a substantive difference when we talk about “Jesus” versus when we talk about “Christ.” There’s a sense that Jesus is Jesus pre-resurrection, one who is one of us, feeding the poor, being with the sick and afflicted, suffering like we do. Post-resurrection, he’s the Christ, an omnipotent being delivering divine messages and revelations. And that Jesus Christ is very emphasized in Mormonism, though the Jesus of the Gospels is often preached from the pulpit in conference. But then there are those poignant passages of scripture like in D&C 19 and 3 Nephi 11-12 where those two dynamics of Jesus and the Christ come together in a beautiful and moving way. Anyway, I’m not sure that you’re missing anything any more uniquely than the rest of us just don’t “get” the entire picture most of the time. We’re learning and revising (or should be) all the time. We should be more concerned with allowing ourselves to be moved more freely by that which uplifts, inspires, and saves.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Jacob, I think that’s incredibly perceptive. And like Aaron R., the resurrected Christ is a little more tricky to fathom in some respects – though I think the Book of Mormon helps a great deal in that regard.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Antonio, thanks much. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

  14. Jacob, your exactly right about those passages, which is probably why I find them quite moving. However it is easier for me to connect them those instances with Jesus that with what the resurrection means. In many ways I find 3 Nephi both jarring and inspirational; in fact it is probably because of this mixture that I find the NT Jesus more compelling (despite the complexity) than the BoM Christ.

    Antonio, that really is a beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Aaron: “In many ways I find 3 Nephi both jarring and inspirational.”

    Perfect! Exactly the way the scriptures should be for us :)

  16. Love that poem, Antonio.

  17. Steve,

    I can relate to your thoughts on christmas. I honestly can remember when I realized that Christ was the important part of Christmas and not Santa.

    Perhaps that is the fault of secular society, where public christmas trees and lights are acceptable but nativity scene’s are not (ok perhaps the christmas trees are disapearing too)

    During a season that is supposed to be about the Birth of Christ, giving, and good will toward men, we are worried about presents and our own selfish desires.

    Great post!

  18. Andy Hardwick Houston TX says:

    If you want a relationship with Christ, re-read the Book of Mormon. It is Christocentric The OT prophets had a personal relationship with Jehovah/Jesus because that was the only God they dealt with. I sometimes pray to or at least address Jehovah because Joseph Smith also addressed Jehovah in the temple dedications. The God who speaks in D&C is Jesus not the Father. I think you are not close to Christ or at least as close as you would like to be because there needs to be a relationship developed. The B of Book of Mormon did it for me.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks EAG. I remember a similar moment!

    Andy, no doubt the BoM helps a lot. But it is not a cure-all.

  20. Mark A. Clifford says:

    Steve:

    Merry Christmas.

    I love your post, mostly because of it provokes in me profound respect for the varieties of Mormon experience. You see, I have quite the opposite problem.

    I hate God. I cannot tolerate even the idea of Him. I do not merely disbelieve Him (that would be simple, like disbelieving in ghosts) rather, I un-, even anti-believe Him. I do not want Him. I cannot tolerate His implacable perfectionism, His relentless awesomeness, His capricious and smug Holiness. He literally makes me insane, and that is saying something (I am a psychiatrist by trade). I feel hungry for protection from anything that great, that demanding, that inconsiderate of the crushing weight of mortality. What could He ever know about being broken like us?

    Jesus, on the other hand, is something else. When I met him (not really, I am not one of those guys) I felt – and still feel, by the way, I almost drove myself off of the road this morning driving into work thinking about this, realizing how true it is, bawling my head off, don’t do that when you are driving in Fairbanks – infinitely, completely relieved. As if I had been, like I am: Saved. Sheltered from the Wrath of that Holy Other that I cannot ever understand and who’s demands I fear.

    And now I am become that kind of Mormon who feels enlivened by a secret. No matter how much the Father is out to get me, out to mercilessly afflict my children or try me or burn up the world or whatever it is that He has gotten into His head at the moment, I have someone to deal with Him: Jesus Christ.

    A Jesus who is infinitely particular, present, physical, real, and immediate. Who shares humanity with us, knows all of our secrets, carries them and does not hate us for it. Who came to us, for us, and who is God For Us.

    The Jesus I know is so good that he puts God, all of the gods, to absolute shame.

    This is the Jesus who, at the moment that Authority came for him, reached down and put the dude’s ear back on. He did not run, or fear, or turn from him, or me, or all of us at that time. Rather he begged God to forgive us because we do not know what we are doing; because he finally, completely knew in the last agony of distress that he was with us and we, thereby, will be with him forever.

    This is Jesus, a God so beyond all gods that he could not even stay dead; who repudiates death, and who fills me with hope to stand in the presence of God no matter how terrible that God might be. I believe in nothing else.

    Through him I come to God in a way I can bear. If Jesus says that he has a Father, I will believe it, if he tells me that his father is greater than him, I will believe it although my mind rebels at the suggestion. Almost anything else from him I would believe. But greater? I find myself doubtful. Whoever that person was who introduced Jesus to Joseph Smith, or spoke on the day of his baptism, has a lot to live up to.

  21. Because I read the Old Test. first as a child, I had a hard time understanding why a Christ at all. It seems the Israelites had a relationship with God (arguably Jehovah/Jesus) without a savior. I feel the cleansing power of repentance in my own life, but am not sure how it quite works.
    And as Aaron notes, we pray to God the Father, I don’t think that’s insignificant. I think for me it may be easier to envision the Buddha because he symbolizes something simple—something I can aim for, whereas Jesus is a much more multi-faceted and dynamic figure. It is hard for me to grasp all that he is, and just how I am supposed to be like him.

  22. Angela H. says:

    Steve, I’ve been wrestling with the exact same thing for a while, and it’s bothered me for a long time. Why does everyone speak of their relationship with Jesus with such ease when I feel this distance? I *believe* in Jesus, I understand the atonement, I’m grateful for all Christ has done for me . . . but I don’t know him like I should. I had an excellent conversation with a bunch of smart women at the Segullah retreat this summer, though, when I finally got up the courage to admit that I must be missing something. Some of these women really KNOW Jesus, and I want to be like them. I wish I’d recorded the conversation somehow because it gave me a lot of needed clarity on the subject, at least in the moment that the conversation was happening. (Clarity can be a slippery thing for me.)

    Here’s what I think: our particularly Mormon understanding of the Trinity can have a profound effect on our relationship with Jesus since, technically, we don’t pray to Jesus and therefore might not be building a relationship with him. I’ve spent a good deal more time with my Heavenly Father, at least so far in my life. He’s who I feel that I’m praying to. He’s who I turn to for comfort. When we use phrases like “God loves us,” or “God will protect us,” it is God the Father that I’ve always imagined loving and protecting me. Mark Clifford’s comment above is interesting to me, because while I can see why many view God the Father with trepidation (there’s all sorts of scriptural justification in that), for me, God the Father has always been loving and forgiving and interested in me personally. I’m his daughter, after all. Perhaps my ability to believe that God the Father loves me is because my relationship with my earthly father has always been an easy one? I don’t know. I suppose the way our relationship with our earthly father influences our relationship with our heavenly one is another post entirely.

    Anyway, ever since the Segullah retreat I have made a more conscious effort to think about Jesus when I pray. Call out to him. Envision Christ as the one who’s comforting me. This has made a really big difference. A surprising difference. I’m also in the middle of reading Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright (Anglican Bishop and scholar). I haven’t finished it yet so can’t offer a definitive opinion of the book, but it’s helped me to get to know the Jesus of the New Testament better as well. This has been my year-of-getting-to-know-Jesus, and it’s been one of the most spiritually significant years of my life. I’m almost 40. Better late than never, right?

  23. I find it hard to conceive of a difficulty in relating to Jesus Christ. Even as a resurrected and glorified God he still is someone who can be embraced and touched, who eats and even feeds us. He has experienced not only mortal life in general, he has experienced all of the sins and pains of our lives, and redeemed us from them. He is the example we are called to follow. He invites us to take up his yoke so that we may rest, because he is carrying the burden for both of us. He had a mortal mother, four brothers and at least two sisters. Real people like Peter and John, Mary and Martha and Lazarus were his friends. And he offers to make all of us into his friends.
    In our ward choir we are practicing songs for the Christmas program. I have a problem singing the last verses because every time we express the joy of his coming to earth again, I choke up and tears come to my eyes. I want to declare with John the last words if Revelation: Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

  24. Steve, this post is awesome, if not only for the Talladega NIghts quote. (As an aside, I roll with laughter during that scene every time. My husband unexpectedly quoted that scene for me one sleepless night when I was having trouble with our first kid. I had to laugh.)

    I also have always felt closer to Heavenly Father and sometimes squirm when we talk about Jesus without the qualifying “Christ” label. Something I’ve done lately to help quell those uncomfortable feelings is to think of Christ (there it is again) as praying with me when I say my prayers. I think of Him being my advocate and working with me on my prayers, almost like a cheerleader/speech writer. It has helped a bit. Who knows how to close that gap though?

  25. I kind of relate to Steve’s post. My intimacy has always been with my Heavenly Father. Jesus is more like my greatest hero, the celebrity I love and literally worship, but with whom I might feel awkward. I’m always a little awkward with people whose opinions of me really matter to me, and as ridiculous as it sounds, I’m afraid He might not like me. I know He loves me (He’s proven that), but that doesn’t mean He’d like me. I wouldn’t hesitate to throw myself at His feet, but I’d hesitate to look Him in the eye.

  26. Okay, so I still feel new to the bloggernacle, but this post makes me feel at home precisely because I cannot relate. I have felt Christ as real and personal; I have not trouble picturing him. One thing I find so great about posts like this is how they speak to some people and provide a contrast for others. Very cool. This reminds me of what I call “The Cilantro Principle.” I heard an NPR story about how people who cannot smell in a certain range don’t like cilantro. For them, it tastes like a weed. For those who can smell, it is great. One thing about the bloggernacle is that you find people who can and who cannot smell the cilantro–relate to a particular interest or concern. This helps you both feel at home with those who can, and appreciate those who do not.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98695984

  27. I have been on a hunt for years for art which reflects some image of Christ which I can relate to. I’ve found a few art pieces, but Jesus’ image itself is not what speaks to me. In my kitchen is Bloch’s painting of the Daughter of Jairus, her mother grieving over her while the Savior stands in the dawn-lit doorway. In my bedroom is another Bloch picture of Christ being comforted by an angel. Both paintings have particular meaning to me which transcends the features of the people portrayed.
    I have had moments of feeling calmed by something beyond me, which I relate to Christ. When I have gone to the temple in despair and returned in joy, it feels like Jesus has indeed changed my heart.
    Thanks for this post, Steve. It’s beautiful.

  28. Wonderful post, Steve.

    Fwiw, I always have had a hard time feeling intimately close even to people I know well in this life, so, honestly, I’ve never been bothered that I don’t feel intimately close to Jesus. **It’s just not who I am, and I have come to understand and accept that.**

    I love and admire my father greatly, however – so I have no problem “relating to” Heavenly Father.

    On an intellectual level, I also read the NT and see someone (Jesus) trying hard to get people to reconnect with his Father – not to idealize or worship him in place of his Father. I see the fanatical obsession with Jesus all around us as, in a way, a descent back to the condition which Jesus himself strove to correct – so I am not bothered intellectually by my strong feelings of affinity with my Father in Heaven and my lesser feelings of affinity with my Savior. I know well how Mormon that is, but I have learned to understand and accept that, as well.

  29. For me it’s the opposite. When I converted, it was Christ’s image who touched me. My earthly father was rather terrifying in many ways, and I guessed that might be why I had such a hard time relating to God the Father. Christ first came to me as a little child. That’s who I relate to best. Heavenly Parents for me are more distant, unknown, and unknowable. Christ is each of us, everyone who suffers, every being who is innocent on this earth and innocently meets with agony and death, that scene that acts itself out over and over again as the birds and beasts, and the babies on our world meet their innumerable ends. Christ is who I know.

  30. I believed in God before I believed in Jesus. But then I figured out that if their is a God who placed us in our present state, there must be a Christ. I think the Holy Ghost is the glue that holds it all together, since you can’t just drive to Jesus’s house and hang out.

  31. Steve Evans says:

    Shawn, I hear you re: cilantro, except people that hate cilantro are evil demons without souls.

    Margaret, thanks for your comment. If it helps, I feel like I perceive and understand Jesus better when I associate with people like you.

  32. Thanks to some loving cash-strapped parents I don’t have a hard time getting Jesus into Christmas. (The rule was you got 3 gifts from Santa because that’s what Jesus got, everything else was from family) The downside though: its awfully hard to enjoy the season when everyone else seems too busy buying gifts.

    But as for helping Jesus to be more than just a concept, I’m in the same boat as you.

  33. bhurst234 says:

    Great post. I normally don’t comment on posts here, other than the General Conference live threads (people say “lurker” like it’s a bad thing…) but I really enjoyed this one and I felt like I could add to the discussion. For me, I used to think that I knew Jesus and God pretty well. I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on them. Eventually, though, I began to realize that my Jesus was different from other people’s Jesuses (Jesi? I’ve, uh, never had to make “Jesus” be plural before). I noticed that Greg Olsen’s thin, caring Jesus differed from Del Parson’s most famous stern and fatherly Jesus, and that both differed from the tragic (and, notably, Jewish) Jesus of Rembrandt. I noticed that, in Elders Quorum, one person’s Jesus would be empathetic and forgiving, while another’s would be harsh and unforgiving for what Brigham Young would call “Covenant Breakers.” It was after noticing all of this that I realized–we create our own Jesus. Everyone’s Jesus is a projection of that person’s ideal self. My Jesus reflects the qualities that I believe a perfect person would have, just like your Jesus does, but my idea of a perfect person may differ from your idea. If you’re a devoted father, your Jesus is mindful and fatherly; if you’re a firm believer in social reform, your Jesus is going to be more revolutionary. Anyway, I welcome any other thoughts about this; if anyone’s interested, I wrote a bit more in depth on this topic on a different blog.

  34. bhurst234 says:

    And, of course, who could forget Del Parson’s unsettling Smiling Jesus?

  35. To answer “So what am I missing here?”, I would have to say you are missing certain qualities of Jesus. When a Christian “turns his life over to Jesus”, it’s really very simple. We realize the great sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross. It’s there that he died in our place; he took our sins upon his sinless self. A Christian understands that since Christ died for us, belief in that fact is all that is needed; we want to love and serve God out of gratitude. This is a hard concept for many to understand, but there is no requirement for a Christian to perform good works. A Christian does good works because of what Christ did for us, not to earn anything (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are saved by grace.

  36. After years of having a lack of interest, I’ve finally begun jumping into the Historical Jesus research, with Meier’s A Marginal Jew series being extremely profound, and giving me a fantastic new backdrop on which to consider scriptural interpretation. It has also had a fascinating effect of making Jesus far more…real. I see him as someone who lived in a real time, in a real place, and had real day to day struggles. As someone who didn’t automagically have all the answers downloaded into his brain.

    Related to this, I actually have found that a parallel study of the Historical Jesus with a study of the history and context of Joseph Smith and the early Mormonism was far more enlightening than I would have thought.

    While some feel that a historio-critical examination of Jesus is designed to strip away faith, it has, in fact done the opposite for me, and served to increase my admiration for Jesus, and expanded my ability to relate to Him, and learn from Him.

  37. It’s important to realize that the Atonement took place on the cross, with the death of Christ. His death was the atonement for humans, in that “he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…(Philipians 2:6-11). He laid aside his deity, so that he could pay the price for the sins of the faithful. Of course he suffered in Gethsemene, but that was a relatively short time, and was not as significant as His death.

  38. Steve Evans says:

    Steve, I’m betting you’re not mormon. Thanks for your insights.

  39. Right Steve – I’m not a Mormon, I’m a Christian. I mean no disrespect – I found this public blog and was hoping to provide some support for the Jesus that is described in the Bible…. [typical evangelical claims against mormonism edited]

    I don’t hate mormons, and please don’t say I’m persecuting anyone. I’m not judging, I’m stating what I believe. It relates to the topic of this blog post. I pray that you come to know the real Jesus.

  40. Sigh. Steve, it’s amazing how quick you lapsed into straight up anti-Mormonism. I’m afraid you’ve worn out your welcome.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,625 other followers