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Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Four Popular Distortions

Jesus just isn’t what he used to be.

At least, not among Christians in our country. The identity of Jesus in American Christianity largely depends on who you ask. While many can rattle off orthodox statements heard from the pulpit about who Christ is, the role and personality American evangelicals project onto Jesus is varied. They find bits and pieces about Jesus they like, discard those they dislike, and fashion their own “Jesus.” This Jesus tends to be whichever Christ is safe, convenient, and helpful for the individual’s life in the moment.

Here are four of the most popular versions of Jesus found in American churches. 

1. Heirloom Jesus

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Heirloom Jesus is doubtless the shallowest and, sadly, most common Jesus found in America. This Jesus was treasured by great-grandma and has been passed down generation by generation, but with increasingly less value. He might bring back great memories of times and persons gone by, but he’s no longer of practical use to the family. Heirloom Jesus is merely kept out of duty—like an old figurine on a dusty shelf.

As a beloved figurine might be considered “part of the family,” so too is this Jesus. Those who’ve inherited him have no problem calling themselves “Christian,” because the name is embedded in the family identity: “To be a [last name] is to be a Christian.” Such folks attend church on Christmas and Easter, ensure their kids receive proper dedications and baptisms, and politely bow their heads before meals at the family reunion.

2. Political Jesus

Political Jesus is used to support arguments that are, well, largely political. Despite being leveraged by every side and faction, the whole picture of him is seldom seen. Like the disciples who followed Jesus in hopes of increased position and glory after his expected military feats (Mark 10:32–45), these Christians ride his coattails for their own advancement in politics and that ultimate court of opinion: Facebook.

This Jesus doesn’t so much represent God as the political beliefs of the individual. Politicians love to use this Jesus on the campaign trail, drawing on his reputation to win a demographic.

Pastors sometimes exploit this Jesus to drum up church attendance, using him to inspire the congregation by bemoaning the nation. Political Jesus supports the party, but not the body.

3. Insurance Agent Jesus

Insurance Agent Jesus can exist in the heart of a true believers, but their spiritual growth is stunted by a need to feel safe. This Jesus is summoned exclusively during crisis. Like a good neighbor, this Jesus is there in the event of serious injury, terminal illness, job loss, divorce, or property loss.

He functions like an insurance agent. When things go wrong, he is just a prayer away. But when things go well, he is, like an insurance agent, largely forgotten. This is not Prosperity Gospel Jesus; Insurance Agent Jesus doesn’t offer prosperity, but reassures safety. Many Christians will gladly announce they can go without a new BMW or lake house. But once the safety net has been removed, the house foreclosed, or the child lost, boasts of faith are shattered as they run to find the Bible left on the car floor from Sunday. They flip through the pages, hoping to find the right words to pray.

Insurance Agent Jesus is worshiped fervently and wholeheartedly—but only for a short time. When the season of trouble has passed, personal devotion goes with it, and the follower of this Jesus falls back into her old religious routine.

4. Therapist Jesus

Therapist Jesus is the most popular—and most handicapping—version of Jesus in the American church. Here one is urged to put trust in Jesus, not due to a need for forgiveness of sin but due to emotional turmoil. 

Therapist Jesus lives to make you feel better. He is a homeboy, a friend in the storm. Are you depressed? Does your life feel meaningless? This Jesus is here to soothe.

Now, it is a true and precious promise that Christ will never leave nor forsake his children. Those who follow Therapist Jesus, however, misprioritize these comforting promises and forget that Jesus came first to remove the condemnation of sin. They aren’t concerned with living a holy life, only a happy one. Therapist Jesus provides a shoulder to cry on, not a Savior to believe in. He functions like a motivational bumper sticker.

And Therapist Jesus sells books at high-volume rates.

So many cling to Therapist Jesus. Though patients in need of a surgeon, they prefer a masseur. They need to be cut but want to be coddled. They cling to the other models of Jesus for similar, self-focused reasons. 

The Real Jesus

The Jesus of the Bible didn’t come merely to make us feel better. He came to make us better.

But he came first to forgive our sins.

The pain we feel, hurt we endure, and trials we face are all real, and he comforts us amid them all. But they’re symptoms, and a good doctor tells his patients that symptoms are warning signs. It’s foolish, then, to seek a God who medicates the symptoms but dismisses the danger. Better to worship the God who removes the danger first.

On the cross, Christ finished the surgery to remove the tumor of sin from his people. The cuts on his back and punctures in his side provide healing for the sin-afflicted. This is the Jesus we must treasure. This is the Jesus we must obey. He looks at us in love and says, “This is going to hurt, but don’t fear; I’ve borne the pain for you.”

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