Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains."
A few days ago, I was sitting in my car driving south to Austin. It was late, and clouds covered the sky like someone had wrapped the world in a thick layer of gauze. My twin brother woke up from his car nap, and we listened to a mourning cello and watched the bleakness of interstate 35 speed by at way too many miles per hour for me to admit in public.
There in the car, we began one of those conversations that you have with your family members that you only have when things haven’t been going well for you, and they can tell, and you can’t hide it- raw, vulnerable, and scary. We both confessed our heartache from a series of conversations we had each had with different people throughout the week.
Both of us had been rejected by people that we cared deeply about and had been doing ministry with-- and not just rejected in a harsh conversation or critical sort of way, but a complete breaking of relationship sort of way. A, “not only am I never going to talk to you again, but I am also going to try and make everyone else do the same,” sort of way. We were talking through what had happened, and what had gone wrong, and admitting that we were both confused about what we should have done differently.
Three months earlier, on a chilly December night, I was nervously pacing around my room, two hours into a conversation with a high schooler who I had been discipling for two years. He was one of the strongest, most promising leaders in the youth group, and he was angry about the leadership position I had given him. “You haven’t been listening to me! he yelled. “There is nothing underneath this. It has nothing to do with anything else deeper.” I told him I loved him, that I was proud of him, that I believed in him. Then I asked him two more questions about his feelings, and they broke open a huge spiritual problem that he was internally facing that he hadn’t been aware of.
We ended the conversation with an incredible, joyful experience of prayer and liberation. He admitted that the problem was not that he was in the wrong role, but that he couldn’t trust anyone around him. He said that this came from a really deep hurt he had suffered from his mother who had abused him when he was younger. He prayed over the hurt that surrounded it, and said, “God I trust you. God I trust you.” The relief that came over him was immediate. The next two days, his joy was pervasive.
But it didn’t stick. We lost touch over the holiday festivities until I got a phone call from him on New Years, and his anger and intensity were back with a vengeance. He told me that we were through, and that he didn’t trust anything that I said anymore. His voice trembled under the weight of his anger, like the legs of a man who is lifting more weight that he should. I tried to ask him about what had happened. He wouldn’t say.
I was stunned. I became angry with him. I knew that there was something else bothering him, something had come up that was activating all the wounds that we had tried to heal before. I was hurt, and I didn’t know what to do. My heart was broken. We spent more meetings with other leaders and other youth, and each time I saw him, the frustration in his face thickened. He left the ministry, and spread a great deal of negativity into the leadership team in the process.
Weeks later, I was in the car, driving to Austin with my brother, listening to Yo Yo Ma playing cello and trying not to cry.
Just try listening to that for the rest of this blog and not tearing up.
I know that not everyone believes that youth ministry should be as intense as I described above. Many believe that we should mainly stick to talking about theology and why high schoolers shouldn’t go to parties or do drugs or have sex. However, those of us who are doing discipleship, where teaching comes with a close and open relationship built on trust, we know that sometimes these conversations about behavior or about what is going on at home, etc, happen, and it is never clear what the outcome is going to be.
Ministry is hard, because the truth is, no one that we love has to love us back. And it is especially hard because sometimes love means that we have to tell people what their sin is, and the most common response to being shown your own sin is to get really, really angry.
No matter how much you love the people you are ministering too, no matter how much trust you have built with them by having lunch, playing, late night games during retreats, laughing at you tube videos, and having deep, soul sharing talks, there is still going to come a day when you see that person’s error, and you know that you must point it out to him. We feel as Jeremiah did… even if we try to hold it back, “his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” And so we do, in whatever clumsy, bumbling, or tactful way that we can, and we have to just hope that they don’t hate us for it. And unfortunately, sometimes, they do.
When I had that conversation with the aforementioned high schooler, I didn’t say, you are in sin. But I did say, you aren’t seeing the situation correctly- the problem isn’t with the other people in the ministry, it’s not with your position or whatever else you want to blame. It is with you, with a fear that you have that you haven’t dealt with. Is that “sin?” Yes, it absolutely is. It is the root. I happen to know because I am a sinner with some literally damning flaws that other Christians have courageously shown me- by the grace of God. The funny thing about our root sins is that we almost never can see them on our own. We can spot the easy stuff, but the more nasty, petty, life altering stuff is all but completely invisible to us. And when it is pointed out, it is horrifying, and even the most timid of us gets very angry when someone turns the light on when we would rather stay blind.
As the damp dusk turned to night, and continued driving south on the same road, my brother and I turned the conversation to Jesus to look for help. Somehow we began to talk about the gospel from this past Sunday. In it, Jesus heals a blind guy with some mud. How does this connect to calling out sin? Welllll… because Jesus does exactly the thing we are talking about in the end. The Pharisees find out Jesus was up to his nogoodhealingduringthesabbath ways, and they get a tad upset. Then the ex-blind guy calls them out for not trusting someone who was obviously sent by God, and they get way more upset and throw him out of the Temple. And then Jesus, deciding not to wait for a more pastorally advisable time when everyone has calmed the heck down, basically calls them out again. Normal Jesus-Pharisee interaction thus far. But then things get really intense. Jesus basically calls them blind, and tells them that since they aren’t willing to see themselves, their “guilt remains.”
Jesus didn’t just point out that they were wrong. Everyone is actually pretty used to that. Teachers arguing theological finer points with each other about the sabbath law and the observance of the Lord’s day- that’s pretty much par for the course. Everyone gets to yell at each other a bit and then go home feeling very right and ready blow off some steam with some great kabaabs and some wine. (Wait… is this 1st century Jerusalem or a contemporary liberal arts catholic university?)
No, what was way out of control was when Jesus told the Pharisees that they were blind to their own guilt. The impact of that statement can be lost on an audience of people who already totally believe that the pharisees are blind, but if you step back, and think about the conversation as if you were an onlooker who knew nothing about the situation, you probably would have thought that even if it was true, it was way below the belt. Or/and you would probably thought, this guy is going to get himself killed.
And he did. The pharisees killed Jesus, not because he challenged their worldview, not because he claimed to be God, but because he called them hypocrites, and it horrified them.
Imagine the relationship developing. The pharisees see a rising star, a radical zealot from Judah, who is getting quite the following. So they invite him over for dinner at first. They see him (in the beginning) as a potential ally or a formidable asset. “You are radical, we are radical, maybe we can help each other” they say. And then people start following this Jesus over them, and he starts pointing out their flaws, and at at some point, they stopped inviting him over. Then they kept having these conversations where Jesus called them out, and they were forced to choose between killing him to shut him up, or listening and looking at themselves. So they killed him.
We all know why. I have seen this in my own life over and over. When someone points out to me that I have a problem, and I deny that I have it, if they come back and tell me that I have a problem causing me to not see my own problem, I get very angry. Why? Because if I am honest, under that anger is an absolute, earth shaking fear that they might be right, and if they are right, then all will be lost, and I will be a failure, alone forever.
There are two ways that we can respond to this sort of callout. One, we can trust God enough to open our eyes to ourselves and look at what we are afraid of, what our flaws are, what we have buried and locked and thrown away the the key to. Or two, we can turn our anger into hate and then totally discredit the person who called this out in us. If we can convince ourselves that the other person is an complete-idiot at best, or a blasphemous traitor (more likely), then we don’t have to change.
Psychologically, the only way that the Pharisees could respond to Jesus without looking at themselves and changing, was to absolutely hate him. They had to kill his image in their brains- they had to destroy his credibility, read everything that he ever said through its most daemonizing lense, they had to literally associate him with the devil- anything and everything that they could do to hate him in order to justify not looking their own sin in the eye. It was forced blindness. It was literally what they were doing when Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.
What have I learned from all this?
The next time someone makes me very very angry, when I feel hatred towards them, the way to deal with that hatred is not to curse the person to whom this anger or hatred is attached- the way of the Christian is to look inside, and to deal with what we are actually afraid of. To do this, we have to trust God that we will be totally accepted, no matter what is down there.
If I was a pharisee, what I should have done would have thought to myself- I am feeling incredible anger and hatred towards this man. Why do I feel this way?
Normally, when we feel anger or hatred towards someone, and someone asks us why we feel that way, we will not talk about feelings at all. We will say things like, “I feel like he was just stroking his own ego,” or “I feel like he said that because he has always hated people like me.” Which of course, are not feelings at all. What we really want to do is come up with a laundry list of reasons detailing why this person we are angry with is basically the devil and why everyone else should hate them too. If we are very subtle, we can even reinforce our position by throwing in a couple kind statements, like, he probably didn't mean to, or sometimes I feel sorry for him but, etc, in order to portray ourselves as more just and kind and unbiased.
However, if someone were to ask us why this particular thing that someone did or said made us so angry, and asked us not to talk at all about that person or why they were wrong-- to only talk about our own emotion, we would be dumbfounded. Why? Because we would have to answer by examining what the root emotion was. Save yourself the trouble and of the laundry list of hatred and start with your own emotion. This is the path to true freedom. It is what Christ wants us to do.
“But Anthony,” you say, “what if the person truly was completely wrong! (I.e. What if they really are demonic idiots that deserve death and I am not wrong at all)?” Ok sparkey. Stop there. You are too defensive to trust your own self reflection right now. Step one- trust God enough to say, maybe I do have problems- and if I do, God will still love me, and he will walk with me through them. Then, ask yourself to speak about yourself, not about anyone else.
You will find that your fear and anger will swell up until you find the source, and then they will vanish once God and others offer you affirmation there. Only then, once the fear and anger are gone, can we decide what behavior we need to change. We can forgave our friends or even our enemies for pointing flaws out to us (even if they are wrong), and be happy for the opportunity to examine ourselves more deeply. We may or may not come out of that seeing our criticisers as right, but either way, we can commit to not fearing the critique or what it showed in us.
Secondly, know that your ministry is going to get you crucified if you are doing it right. Some people will choose to stay blind, and they will try to make you feel and seem like a complete gigantic jerk (a stronger word is probably more close to the feeling) for pointing out what you did.
Now, this is not license to go around diving head first into these conversations carelessly. We can see in the one mentioned above, Jesus did not seek out the conversation on his own, and he easily could have. He also did do all of the relationship building necessary with with the pharisees to gain trust- he went to their parties and their houses, he healed their friends, etc. We should do everything that we can to create the sort of relationship with people that would withstand the fallout before we ask people about how their deep fears are affecting their relationships, or about why they seem to be over reactively angry about that thing someone said.
But ultimately, we as Christians are called to be the sort of people that say the things that get us crucified. That means shining light on the things that other people are unwilling to see in themselves. We shouldn’t shy from that when the time comes, and we should expect that it will change some people for the better, and others, for the (much) worse.
Anthony D'Ambrosio is a writer for Crossroads Initiative, a ministry devoted to helping contemporary culture intersect with the ancient wisdom of Christ and his followers. Find more of his writing here, and listen to his music here: