Thursday, December 08, 2005

Antithesis #1: Jesus Christ Does Not Want to Come Into Your Heart and Live

No, really. Stay with me for a few moments, and feel free to leave a comment at the end. Also remember that the point is not just to deconstruct an idea that's bad for us, but to replace the lie with something true (i.e. biblical and orthodox).

First, I’d like to make some generalizing remarks about ideas of conversion in the Scriptures. They are simplified and they are debatable, but I think they could be well supported if you push me.

In the Old Testament, the prophets of YHWH talk about turning away from idolatry, cultic pollution, and injustices against one’s neighbor and turning toward himself, seeking to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [one’s] God.” Oh, and some stuff about orphans, widows and strangers.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the Baptizer call people to believe the Good News of the Kingdom, which I’ll argue (but not right now) meant that the coming Reign of God was breaking into the present in and through the work of Jesus. The call seems to be something like, “believe, repent, be baptized to identify with the remnant of Israel, follow Jesus, and adjust your ethics accordingly” for the disciples, and “believe, repent, and get ready for your ethics to be adjusted” for others. In John, Jesus calls people to place faith and trust in himself.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the thrust appears to be, “Jesus was and is the Reign of God, and has been exalted as his viceroy over the earth. Repent (turn around) and be baptized for initiation into the community of that Reign.” Israel has been redefined not by a particular way of obedience to the Torah and the temple cult, but rather identification with Jesus. Paul talks about an identification with Jesus and union with God’s work in him through baptism, and enactment of Christ’s death and resurrection.

One popular contemporary notion that is conspicuously absent from any of this is that Jesus might want us to “ask him into our hearts,” whether “by faith” or any other way. It is biblically unfounded, and I maintain that it is at best pastorally inconvenient, and at worst, dangerously misleading.

There is one occurrence of a similar phrase in the New Testament when Paul prays that "Christ [might] dwell in [our] hearts through faith,” but this is shaky ground for the language of conversion and discipleship. It can even be harmful because it a) fails to do any justice to the richness of Christian faith and b) lacks the content of biblical notions of conversion.

One metaphorical motif that Paul is much more fond of is the idea of “putting on Christ,” or being “baptized into Christ,” “being found in Christ,” etc. The believer is safely seated with and in Christ, according to the New Testament, and is even sealed by the Holy Spirit. The “personal decision for Christ” is still implicit, but while “asking Jesus into my heart” and an over reliance on the idea of “Christ in me (which has a little more biblical support) places one’s security in Christ upon one’s subjective feelings about Jesus, being placed into Christ builds one’s identity on theological reality that one is clearly incapable of critiquing on the basis of feelings.

The language of being “in Christ” is far healthier emotionally, and better grounded biblically.

Finally, the language of “asking Jesus into my heart” is devoid of biblical concepts of repentance and union with the Christian Church and so necessarily a workable concept of discipleship. Any individualistic language in religion is inherently anti-Christian (but we’ll talk about that next time).

I suggest, therefore, that Jesus does not want to come into our hearts to live. He rather calls us to believe, to repent, to identify with him and join the Christian Community in baptism, then sends the Holy Spirit to catch us up in the life of Holy Trinity for our transformation and abundant life.

“Feeling” any of that is purely optional.


JHearne said...

But, Kyle, how is he going to be my personal savior if I can't lock him away in my heart?

Seriously, though, I enjoy the post. It articulates something I've been trying to articulate for a little bit.

Thanks, Kyle.

+ Alan said...

Hmm, mostly I'm with you I think - especially in reference to being in union with Christ is being in union with the Church - not merely personal but communal union. That's just how it is. It IS that whether we talk about it like that or recognize it or not.

If there's any trouble, though, it's that perhaps, and I know this is not nearly a full exposition of thought on this subject - perhaps the ignoring of definite themes in Scripture, especially in the New Testament, as well as in Tradition, which point to a real internal, spiritual union with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

And then there's pesky theology - the prayerful thought and working out of what all that Scripture and life stuff means - where we figure out how it all works together. Is it merely a matter of making up my mind to be part of a religion that Jesus started, to do what He said do and believe what He said believe? Even plain Scripture points to something deeper and more mystical than that.

So, mystical and metaphysical union (spirit in spirit) inside us - personal because it is in "me" - communal as a whole because ALL of Christ is not in "me," but in "us." So my living into the fullness of who I am in Christ and into the Life that is Christ cannot be had by myself. But this inner union of spiritual essences is what makes all the other possible. So, in that sense, it is very much pastorally useful, even practical, to speak of such things. That could go on and on, but that's it for now. As always, interesting stuff sir Kyle. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Amen!Well expressed Kyle -- very D. Willard-ish expecially in your connection of a "personal decision" to the necessary discipleship/spiritual formation that follows. Just for arguments sake, though, what about Gal. 2:19-20? "... it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me .."

Just wondering...

Unknown said...


Is there a difference in looking at Jesus living in my heart metaphorically and literally? I wonder if i can say "Christ lives in my heart" and that could metaphorically say what you are describing, while i do not think Christ is literally taking up residence in my heart?

New Life said...

Brother Kyle,

When the flames of hell are consuming you I hope you don't expect a drop of water to fall from the fingertips of us who know Jesus and have asked in in our hearts.

Just Kidding.

This may be my favorite post you have written. Great work.

Anonymous said...

My friend,
I think you are a scholar and an exegete. This is the stuff, as I said in my comment on your last post, well reasoned and sensible. I could not add a thing, not could I articulate it as well as you have. Outstanding.

Bryan said...

Don't tell Kyle that'll make his ego grow.

Anonymous said...

Yes Bryan, I have become aware that that is a danger with Kyle.

Anonymous said...

I must confess that, as a child, I had an "asking Jesus into my heart" experience. I recall the event with mirth because it was the first day I officially signed on to this thing called Christianity to believe in this guy called Jesus. I didn't really know Jesus then, although I knew stuff about him, but it was the first step I took to walk in the life that I've chosen.

My parents worked hard to make me understand what the metaphor meant. Of course Jesus didn't literally come to live in my cardiac muscle, and I came to understand that a decision to ask Jesus into my heart was a symbolic one signifying real demands on my behavior and the way I lived my life. It also provided my young mind with an image to associate just what the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is like and I knew at least in some small childlike way that I wasn't ever alone because Christ lived in me.

Of course my sentiments have matured and I have a much deeper notion about what Christ does with me, but I don't consider my initial conversion misguided or wrongheaded. It wasn't about some emotional high as maybe it is for other people, but because my parents taught me so well I understood the metaphor.

I don't think I'd have a problem with my own children "asking Jesus into their hearts" as long as I felt that they understand the metaphor at least as well as children can. (It may be argued that children shouldn't be encouraged to convert as such at all, but that's another subject.)

As usual, very well said Kyle. You critique is probably spot on in the case of many people, but I felt I had to testify to my own experience, which of course is very limited, but I still feel is valid. I confess that the statement is not as biblical as the ones you mentioned and CERTAINLY isn't necessary, but I don't think it is without some merit.

Feel free to respond everyone. I may be in the extreme minority here, but I'm OK with that. =) I enjoy new perspectives.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Have you read James Alison's 'Knowing Jesus'? If you haven't, it's something I think you'd appreciate. It's all about this topic, and he's very sane.

SlantRight 2.0 said...

Perhaps Christ living in the heart can be better equated with life or death existence. Light or darkness existence is another example. In the physical realm, a beating heart is the center for the existence of physical life. Christ entering the spiritual heart - the true center of a human's existence - centers a person's existence on the totality of the Life of Christ. However then we the problem of praxis and position. I can tell from your article that praxis is the pre-imminent path. Some would argue Position is the foundation path.

Kyle said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone. I'm glad that you find some ideas worth both listening to and challenging.

In response to some specific arguments,

Alan seems to tease out (among other things) something I think is especially important: I'd rather put my trust in Jesus' work in me than what I do about Jesus. And really, is Jesus inviting us into something, or are we inviting him? I prefer the former idea...

Harry, I'll deal with Galatians 2:19-20 in the same way I do Ephesians 3:16-18: the idea of Christ dwelling in us in some manner is not absent from the New Testament, but it is comparatively rare. I have tried to argue that what people do with that metaphor (which is never used in reference to conversion!) lacks specific precident in scripture, and there's other Pauline language that I think is far more helpful as well as prevelant.

Danny, by the same token, of course it is a metaphor. But, my point is that this metaphor with slim biblical support does not convey the ideas that I'm talking about, especially in the context of conversion. Saying "Jesus lives in my heart," usually doesn't say much at all. It's just better to say what we mean and actually elaborate the Christian story, which is what I think Jesse is getting at.

Of course I can always rely on Jesse to push me to moderate my positions! Darned inconvenient sometimes. Jesse, what I think we'll certainly agree on is that the really important thing is in how our ideas of discipleship are formed or not over the long term. Some people have this symbol and nothing else. Without some real teaching undergirding it, of course it would be empty, and this really is the key: "I came to understand that a decision to ask Jesus into my heart was a symbolic one signifying real demands on my behavior and the way I lived my life." I would be harsher with folks who employ the metaphor without real teaching (which is sadly very common).

When it gets right down to it, theology is done in the language of symbols and metaphors. That language is not the poorer cousin of high brow philosophical formulations, indeed, it is good and true metaphors that will come in and unpack meaning for us. And while I think that any picture that presents us as asking Jesus to join the life that we've got going on, rather than him asking us to join his life is going to be inappropriate. Which one is the picture presented by the New Testament? Which seems more in line with individualistic, revivalist religion? That being said, I must also acknowledge 1) that the work of Christian discipleship does not stand or fall on the basis of the use or abuse of one particular metaphor. Life in general and life in Christ is a bit more complicated than that. 2) While I might think the controlling metaphor of Jesse's conversion experience to be inappropriate, I would not consider that conversion to be "misguided or wrongheaded." I hope that everyone knows that!

The emphasis, after all, is not on "my conversion to Jesus," and what I suppose the content was, but rather "my conversion to Jesus" and what he himself did. And that is my overall concern anyway.

How's that?

Stephen Newell said...

I'm interested in understanding how you answer Romans 10:8-10, simply because it makes clear that belief (or faith) is of the heart. If faith is of the heart, then it makes sense of the Ephesians passage about Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith.

It just seems silly to dismiss this concept on the evidence you have provided. It's actually very biblical to ask Jesus to dwell in our hearts--that's the response of repentant faith!

Anonymous said...

I don't care for a phrase like that, one I wouldn't use for anything else. I do think Jesus wants to come into my life to reign, and there is plenty in Holy Scripture to support that idea; plenty in my personal experience of conversion to support that. To meddle a little with Jesus, this is something I did, eventually I reached a fork in the road when it became time to (I guess) "make a decision" because the Lord was tired of making repairs and demanded to take over the whole project. I suppose "ask him into my heart" would be the Precious Moments version of what I did...He came and reaped havoc...did a complete tear down..the project is still a long ways from done.

Stephen Newell said...

Isn't that the beauty and offense of the gospel, though? The gospel doesn't care about what you and I might care for. It's the most offensive thing ever because it dares say we can't hack it and need God's help in Jesus. Even more compelling about asking Jesus to "come into our hearts" is the fact that He takes this heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh that we can believe. There's nothing "Precious Moments" about it--more accurately it's "Passion of the Christ."

Kyle said...

Jedi, I question whether you read farther than the title! I have argued that the metaphor is weak pastorally, and has slim biblical support.

And Tom is picking up on a very important point: what could be reappropriated as a biblical idea (though I still could not use it as a primary conversion metaphor) is used in the religious culture as a nearly meaningless cliché.

Also, calling an argument "silly" is not the same as engaging and countering it, and c'mon, really? "The Passion of the Christ"? Christian theology deserves more than soundbites!

All those who would have ears, let them stop expressing the faith of the Church in meaningless clichés, and start telling the Christian story.

naak said...

Kyle, your post was great and I agree that the language of "asking Christ into one's heart" is dangerous. But as you pointed out, as well as others, the Bible does use the idea of Christ dwelling in us. So even though I agree with your disliking of the phrase, we must remain in balance to what the Scripture says. That Christ dwells in us and us in Him. So that when both are used and understood according to the context in which they are written the best result is possible.

Stephen Newell said...

If you want to talk about not using cliches, that's fine. Don't use them. But that doesn't answer what I've stated, which you've carefully avoided by insinuating I didn't read your post. You've got to do better than that.

Kyle said...

Actually, I could avoid you altogether if I saw fit. But would you like to point out specifically what question I've avoided?

Not here anymore said...

"...I think that any picture that presents us as asking Jesus to join the life that we've got going on, rather than him asking us to join his life is going to be inappropriate." Would have been sufficient for me. :)

Anonymous said...

Nicely put. I agree that there has been a unfounded push towards a personalized God in Western Evangelicalism. I believe that this rise of individualistic "religion" has produced a church (I speak mainly about American Christianity because that is what I am most familiar with)that has forgotten about the paramountcy of the community of Christ which leaves the visible kingdom (community) feeling empty and powerless.

Great thoughts.