Following Jesus as never been easy, but some believe it’s becoming even more difficult as Western cultures become increasingly post-Christian. Today, fewer people identify as “Christian,” fewer attend church with any regularity, and the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the so-called Nones—those with no religious affiliation. Along with these demographic changes, fewer people see the Bible as a source for moral or spiritual wisdom, and popular attitudes toward traditional Christian sexual ethics now reside somewhere between indifference and hostility.
As a result, some Christians who once felt welcomed and accepted by the culture now feel pushed to the edges or the public square. It’s natural to interpret this marginalization as a kind of cultural punishment, the natural outcome of holding on to beliefs and values the society would prefer to abandon. This has led some Christians to cry “Persecution!” and assume the posture of victims, and no doubt there are real cases of unjust hostility toward followers of Jesus. In response to this social banishment, these embattled believers sometimes assemble into political platoons to fight the culture war with the goal of retaking the land for Jesus.
This interpretation of the current cultural landscape assumes Christians are marginalized because we take Jesus too seriously. This view says if we’d just relax, hold our faith more loosely, and let popular values override biblical ones then we’d find more acceptance in the culture.
But what if we have it backwards? What if the underlying malady affecting Christians today isn’t that we take Jesus too seriously, but that we’ve failed to take Him seriously enough? What if much of the culture’s judgment of Christians isn’t the result of obeying Jesus, but the result of Christians ignoring Him?
Several years ago, I taught a class at my church on the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ most famous message, which contains many of our faith’s most important ethical teachings. On the first day of the class, after reading the full sermon together, I asked the students, “How many of you think Jesus actually expects us to live out these commands?” No one raised their hand. I was surprised, so I dug deeper. I asked, “Why shouldn’t we take the Sermon on the Mount seriously?”
“It’s impossible to obey,” one person said. “No one can live like this.”
“Jesus was just showing how we all need God’s grace,” another student shared. “He was illustrating what a perfect life looks like and how none of us can attain it.”
In their view, Jesus must have preached this sermon while frequently winking at His disciples to communicate, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to take any of this seriously.” Never mind that He ended the sermon with a story about the perils of not obeying His words. Today, many Christians simply dismiss the Sermon on the Mount as irrelevant, even as they stridently proclaim their allegiance to Jesus in the culture.
Consider an interview a Christian leader had with a reporter in 2018. The reporter asked why so many Christians were willing to support political candidates who revel in disobeying Jesus’ teachings. “I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully,” the Christian leader replied.
“What happened to turning the other cheek?” the reporter asked, referring to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about nonretaliation.
“You know, you only have two cheeks,” the Christian replied.
Still, the Christian leader’s point is revealing. He apparently thinks Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are to be followed up to a point. Once important things are at risk, like political power, it’s okay to ignore Jesus’ commands. I call this the “Only Two Cheeks” excuse, and it’s one I’ve heard a lot.
In my class on the Sermon on the Mount, one student offered a version of this excuse when he said, “Jesus’ commands aren’t practical. If we took Him seriously, people would walk all over us.” Others agreed. Loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, and giving to anyone who asks is foolish. It’s no way to get ahead, let alone survive, in a dangerous world.
“Was Jesus a fool for following these ideas Himself?” I asked. “After all, by loving His enemies He ended up on a Roman cross.” I had the class in a corner. None of these good, Christian people wanted to call Jesus a fool, but they didn’t want to say His teachings were important for us to follow, either.
This tension between praising Jesus and actually obeying Him explains why so much of contemporary Christianity has lost its moral authority and spiritual credibility. On Sunday, contemporary Christians are eager to worship a crucified Savior who loved and forgave His enemies. But on Monday, we want permission to behave like the schoolyard bully who uses fear and anger to get ahead.
Once we recognize how eager contemporary Christians are to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount, our perception within the broader culture begins to make more sense. For example, data compiled by numerous researchers have found, “Evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general.” And Christian researcher George Barna concluded, “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus’ modern-day disciples do not act like Jesus.” All this confirms why the culture generally views Christians as hypocrites. Statistically speaking, we are.
Far from being hostile toward Jesus’ message, my experience has been that our society is hungry for precisely the kind of integrity, gentleness, kindness, and love Jesus reveals in His sermon. We who claim to be Jesus’ followers and seek a life shaped by His kingdom hold the antidote to the division and anger that is poisoning our culture. If we want the culture to take Jesus more seriously, maybe we should try it first. After that, if the culture still rejects Christians and our message, at least it will be for the right reason.
Excerpted from What If Jesus Was Serious?: A Visual Guide to the Teachings of Jesus We Love to Ignore by Skye Jethani (Moody Publishers, June 2020).