Each week a few devout atheists respond to my essays. Mostly on social media rather than on the blog or via email. Some of them want to engage in a genuine way. Others are snarky and dismissive and apparently want nothing more than to announce how dim I am.
Recently, one comment caught my attention and stayed with me for a while. The person told me that he was enjoying the article until Jesus popped up.
What came to mind for me initially was the image of Jesus leaping out from behind a door to say “boo” or springing out of a jack-in-the-box. It made me chuckle. But eventually the comment made me think about what it is about this Jesus that has such a hold on me.
Well, it’s something Jesus said. And it might be surprising to some people that these particular words would draw me so powerfully to Jesus that I would devote my life to following him. But, anyway, here it is. Jesus said, “They do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a)
He didn’t say it like, “What a group of numbskulls!” Or, “How clueless can you get!” Or, “You can’t fix stupid!” And he certainly didn’t say, “To hell with those people!” On the contrary, he said, “Forgive them.” “Let’s work with this.”
Jesus embodies compassion. He sees us for who we really are and embraces us. Jesus understands that we all act like we know exactly what we’re doing and we’re really desperate to find out how to get the most important things in life right and hoping that nobody figures out what frauds we actually are.
The character Fleabag—from the BBC series by the same name—put it this way:
“I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life … because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.” (Fleabag, Season 2, Episode 4)
Me too, Fleabag! I want to love and sometimes I manage to do just that, but mostly I realize, in retrospect, that I could have done that whole love thing much better had I known what I know now. I feel like I stumble and blunder my way through life’s most important stuff.
It’s not like I go about breaking the Ten Commandments because I haven’t memorized them adequately or have never learned them in the first place. Following the obvious rules like don’t murder your obnoxious relative and don’t steal your neighbor’s riding mower is pretty easy.
No, where I struggle is on the murky judgment calls. How much free rein is enough and how much is too much for your kids? When do you walk away and when do you die in a ditch? When should you risk trusting the person who hurt you or lied to you or betrayed you, if ever? How do you embody both justice and grace in this messy, messy world?
To be honest, I need—I yearn for—someone to tell me how to live my life because I haven’t been perfect by a long shot. Well, actually, just telling me won’t be enough. I learn by watching an example and then by committing myself to endless, imperfect repetition of what I’ve observed.
That is precisely what Jesus gives me: the example of what love looks like. He gives us lots of examples. He heals the sick and feeds the hungry and parties with the down and out. But the most startling one of all was the very last one. He showed us how to love even as Roman soldiers nailed him to a cross.
He said, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a) Sometimes we purposely wreak havoc. And the more challenging truth is that we unwittingly cause damage and leave messes for others to clean up all the time.
Deep down, that’s not what we had in mind. We wanted to raise children with no future therapy bills, to leave a better world for those who come after us, and to be remembered fondly for having been on this planet.
Jesus gets that about us. And instead of tossing us aside as a bunch of screwups, he forgives. He commits to our healing and our growth. He says that our future is more important than our past.
We see in Jesus just how God responds to us. And we also see how to live with each other. Life is about love. And love is about being there for one another even when it’s going to hurt.
Like I said, Jesus didn’t just tell us about love. He lived it. And that’s why he has such a hold on me.