Can Jesus Christ Empower Us to be True to Ourselves?

I once overheard a young woman all but violently diss her pastor.  He had offered his sermon that Sunday on the commandment of Jesus to "love your neighbor as yourself".  But, while her fool of a pastor thought "neighbor" referred to everyone and anyone, she just knew that Jesus meant by "neighbor" only those folks who were members of her church. "How could her pastor be so wrong?"

When I was younger, I assumed that whatever influence the teachings of Jesus had on people was straight-forward.  That is, I assumed if someone read, say, "love your neighbor as yourself", they would either reject that teaching or accept it, and if they accepted it, they would attempt to live up to it.  What I did not grasp for many years was the extent to which people would interpret the teachings of Jesus, to say nothing of interpreting the rest of the Bible.

The Bible is the book everyone quotes and no one reads.  Hence, ignorance of the Bible might explain how there can be so many interpretations of Jesus' teachings.  But another possibility is a bit more subtle.  We often project ourselves into things without realizing it.  Or, as an old joke has it:
A new patient comes to see a psychiatrist. The doc decides to give the patient a Rorshach Test, and shows him a series of cards with different inkblots on them.

“What do you see on the first one?” asks the shrink.
“That’s a man and a woman making love.”

“And the second one?”

“That’s a couple who just finished making love.”

“And the third one?”

“That’s a man asking a woman to make love, and she’s deciding what to do.”

The shrink asks, “Don’t you think it’s interesting that you see sex in every card?”

“Don’t blame me,” says the patient “they’re your cards.”
So ignorance of the Bible might not be the main culprit here.  Instead, it might well be that many of us -- perhaps even most of us -- interpret Jesus in light of our own selves.  If we love everyone we meet, then we tend to think Jesus meant everyone we meet by "neighbor".  If we love only those we feel a strong commonality with, then we tend to think Jesus meant only a our favorite group by "neighbor".  But whatever the case, we read into the teachings of Jesus as least as much as we get out of them.

I often hear the religious folk among us talk about being "empowered by Christ's message".  And, almost as often, I find myself wondering what that really means.  And, in attempting to answer that question -- "What does it mean to feel empowered by Christ's message" -- I naturally turn to my own experience.  That is, I do exactly what I have suggested many (or most) of us do when interpreting Jesus' teachings: I project myself into the message.

As it happens, I was once a Christian.  My "Christian phase", which occurred during middle school, lasted less than a month, and in the end, I rejected Christianity on the grounds that -- if my unsaved family was going to hell -- I would rather join them in hell than be separated from them, though in heaven.  For a short while, however, I was Jesus-intoxicated, and hour by hour yearned and stretched myself to live up Christian ideals -- as I understood those ideals. 

That experience, however brief, was enough to teach me how strangely empowering it is to feel Jesus is on your side.  For instance, when I was a kid, I valued honesty, but I didn't always feel I was supported in that by my peers and teachers. After I became a Christian, however, I felt immensely supported in that valuation because now Christ was on my side.  If I had any doubts about whether honesty was appropriate in some given circumstance, I had only to ask, "What would Jesus want me to do?"  And Jesus, of course, always wanted me to do what I was inclined at the time to do anyway -- that is, he always wanted total honesty.

Because of my own limited experience, I think there might be some circumstances in which a commitment to the teachings of Jesus can empower us to be true to ourselves.  Or, at least, to be more true to ourselves than we might be otherwise.  Yet, I do not think everyone discovers that a commitment to the teachings of Jesus empowers them to be true to themselves.

I once told my friend Don what a positive experience it had been for me to be a Christian.  Unfortunately, Don's own experience of being a Christian -- an experience that had lasted decades, rather than mere days -- was far from positive.  Christianity, rather than empower him to be true to himself, had too often caused him to feel daunting fear and guilt when he tried to be true to himself.

So,. I suppose it might depend on whether we get past reading our own self into the teachings of Jesus.  I never really did during my short time as a Christian.  Everything Jesus wanted of me was what I myself wanted of me.  Hence, Jesus was emotionally empowering.

But Don got way past reading his own self into the teachings of Jesus.  Then, like many, many other people, he discovered things in the teachings of Jesus -- or things in his religion as a whole -- that were self-alienating, rather than self-affirming.  Consequently, Jesus was not an overall empowering influence in Don's life. 

What do you make of this issue?  Can faith in Jesus empower us to be true to ourselves?  If so, how so?  If not, why not?

(H/T: Was Jesus a great teacher?  Sabio Lantz has begun a promising series of posts on that subject over at his Triangulations blog.  His core question -- "Was Jesus a great teacher?" -- inspired this blog post.)


  1. My significant other went to Catholic school in Spain, and after her experience with her teachers (nuns) she doesn't want anything to do with religion - period.

    Being Jewish, my introduction to Jesus was through the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. :) My images of Jesus were all positive - he was the inspiration figure on the stage singing beautiful songs, and radiating goodness!

  2. I read the Bible every day. Faith is mystical. My reading of the Bible, my prayer, my love affair with God- these things change me in unseen, unknown ways. God is leading me to be my ultimate self.

  3. For me it is a matter of getting to the heart of the historical Jesus and his message. Was Jesus a buddha who sought and arrived at his ideal of enlightenment and then went about sharing this with others? Was he a social philosopher and national spiritual leader who formed his views based on a life a struggle against his oppressors, say, the way Gandhi did and wrote about in his biography, "The Story of my Experiments with Truth"?

    What I'm asking is: At the heart of the matter, did Jesus set out to start a new religion or spiritual movement or did he come from and represent a distinct religious outlook?

    Accepting the synoptic gospels as giving us the best chance of understanding the historical Jesus and his teachings, the answer can only be that he was a Jewish teacher and prophet of the coming Apocalypse. There were many Messianic, apocalyptic movements afoot in Jesus' day, and he represented one of those. But his teachings were squarely in line with historic Judaism, including observance of the Mosaic Law and the temple worship.

    Strip this background away and attempt to fashion in its place for Jesus some historic version of Mohandas K. Gandhi and you have not only missed the point, you have misrepresented history.

    Jesus' teaching about love for neighbor and concern for the poor must be read in the light of his religion. There can be no gainsaying that Judaism is based on the idea that God chose - out of all the peoples on earth - the Jewish people to be His peculiar people, to be his light to the Gentiles (all the other peoples on earth). Jerusalem was to be the center of truth on earth and the Jewish people were to be its administrators. One of the great Commandments of the God of the Jews, the first in fact, was that there be no other gods before him. So much the worse for freedo of religion, I suppose.

    Now it was after Jesus was executed that some of his Gentile followers, like Paul the Apostle - with his head full of paganism and the mystery religions of Greece and Rome - came up with a more Gentle friendly form of Christianity. Centuries after Paul, the Roman Catholic Church came into power and furthered this and actually initiated a replacement theology that made the Catholic Church God's virtual Kingdom on earth.

    For purely self-serving reasons the Church downplayed Jesus' Judaism and his role as savior of mankind was emphasized in its place. Jesus was still Messiah all right, but he was now viewed as king over a mainly Gentile Church and the Jewish people were blamed for having betrayed him and having him crucified. It is this Gentile Jesus that is so popular today.

    Sorry about being so long-winded, but for the reasons above I answer "No!" to your question "Can Jesus Christ Empower us to be True to ourselves?" I don't see how he could. Jesus' thinking along these lines was actually quite narrow in scope, I believe.

  4. "Yet, I do not think everyone discovers that a commitment to the teachings of Jesus empowers them to be true to themselves."

    I experienced this myself as a Catholic (before I deconverted), and I've seen other Christians become mired in false personas, guilt, self-hatred, and rigid dogma.

    I think a few things would be key to using Christianity as a vehicle for being true to oneself. One would be a non-literal, non-inerrant interpretation of the scripture. Another would be an emphasis on Jesus' teachings about humanity and truth. Maybe approaching his teachings as koans rather than rigid edicts is the key?

    A passage pops into my head: "The kingdom of heaven is within you."

  5. Jon, I think my Jesus when I was growing up owed a lot to Jesus Christ Superstar, too. I certainly did not have many negative experiences with nuns or other especially religious folk that were worth noting.

  6. Garnet, I'm intensely curious -- what do you mean by "ultimate self"?

    Just from the sound of it, I really like the notion that god is leading you to be your ultimate self. But I'm not sure what you mean by "ultimate self".

  7. Doug, thank you for the time and effort you put into your response!

    Reading your post, I became curious as to whether you had read any of Bart Ehrman's writings?

    Also, I think what you say is (at least) largely on the mark if you are speaking of someone like yourself -- someone with a measure of intellectual honesty and integrity who, as it were, asks the "dangerous" question, "What does the Bible mean?", rather than the much less "dangerous" question, "What do I want the Bible to mean?"

  8. Ahab, I agree all those things would be key if one were to approach Jesus as a means to self-empowerment. That is, unless one was naturally quite a jerk.

    By the way, I've long thought "The kingdom of heaven is within you" to be among the Bible's more accurate bits of wisdom.

  9. Yes, Paul, I have read some of Ehrman's work and find him quite enlightening on early Chrsitianity.

    But truth to tell it was while still a Christian and I was studying Bible prophecy that I noticed a body of scholarly work that dealt with these things as matters of historical fulfillment. This helped me to better understand Jesus's message. I dabbled with preteristic prophecy before becoming convinced that Jesus' prophecies fell flat, simply put. At this same time I was reading Paine's Age of Reason and thought to myself, "okay, say the Bible isn't the word of God ... let me read it in that light and see where I end up."

    Without having an ax to grind with biblical infallibility, I was able to see things in what I feel is a truer light. In other words, the understanding I briefly (relatively speaking!) offered in my previous comment.

  10. You've had a fascinating journey, Doug. And, frankly, I rather admire you for having accomplished it. It is my impression that it can be very difficult to leave fundamentalism.

  11. I note that the post title asks if Jesus can empower us to be true to ourselves, while at the end of the post the same query pertains to faith in Jesus.

    Before addressing that variance, I wish to note that quite an ambiguity comes into play about both 'empower' and 'true to ourselves'. We could get lost in speculations and disagreements about what these terms mean. But I'll pass on that for the nonce.

    Jesus cannot empower us any more than David Koresh or Harold Camping. All were failed prophets (with the possible exception of Jesus, who such outlying thinkers as Robert Price, Earl Doherty, and Albert Schweitzer, among others, think may not have existed at all).

    Faith in Jesus can empower, or at least create feelings of empowerment, just as faith in Aryans as the master race empowered Nazi Germany. The catch is that one can be mightily convinced of being empowered in the direction of 'true to oneself' and be mistaken.

    As Feynman said, it is most vital not to fool ourselves. But this is the most common error of all. Of course if we knew we were doing it we would try to stop. But most are so sure (it is God's word, for Pete's sake) that critical examination is not possible. Certainty is the enemy of investigation.

  12. I suppose that believing you are acting in accord with Jesus' teaching is automatically empowering... if Jesus has always been held up before you as the ultimate authority. Maybe it is more accurate to say that it is automatically validating. Now, I am more comfortable with god who is described as Jesus than with the god who is described as anything else that the Abramic religions have come up with. Having been raised in a Jewish home, Jesus cannot carry the authority to validate me in my dealings with the world. Maybe "empowerment" amounts to validation in one's dealings with the world. That said, I have felt the steel in my spine on a few occasions when I realized that I live more consistently with the teachings attributed to Jesus that have to do with charity and compassion and with justice for the downtrodden and unfortunate.

  13. Paul, Thanks for prompting me to put it into words. It goes like this: The ultimate self is formed as one is refined and shaped by, while not being possessed or obsessed by, the things, events, and worries of this ephemeral world. Think of these traditional tools of religion: fasting and meditation. Think of where they lead. It is in the direction of forming the ultimate self.

  14. @ Exrelayman: It would be interesting if, as you seem to suggest, there were no significant difference between someone feeling empowered to be true to themselves by a belief in by Jesus, and someone feeling empowered to be true to themselves by a belief in Aryan superiority.

    I think your point, if I have understood it, might have a certain plausibility, but I don't have enough experience of feeling empowered by a belief in Aryan superiority to speculate on how similar it might be to feeling empowered by a belief in Jesus.

    Thanks for an interesting comment!

  15. @ S.W. Atwell: That's a fascinating analysis! I wonder why you have felt the "steel in your spine" on those particular occasions?

  16. @ Garnet: Thank you so much for the elaboration! What you say is intriguing.


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