Lent Reflection – Do I invalidate other’s identity or spiritual experiences when they don’t fit my expectation or belief?

5 min. to read.

We’re up to the 21st day of Lent. Halfway through! As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.

John 9:1-41 is our scripture today. This is another healing story, but it’s also a catalog of the many ways we religious people can be terrible to others in the name of God.

Jesus and the disciples come across a man who had been born without sight. In the shortest version of the story, Jesus heals the man, and the man decides to follow him. In John’s extended version, this event provides a catalog of some of the worst instincts we have as religious people.

First, when the disciples see the man who was born blind, they immediately debate the cause of his blindness. “Who sinned?” They asked. “This man or his parents?” We love discussing theology, but there are times when our theological discussions are so dehumanizing. “Terrible, this man’s situation. Really. But why did it happen? Was God punishing him? Or maybe his parents? Let’s talk about the nature of evil, shall we?”

Second, when the man’s neighbors saw him with his sight restored, they couldn’t believe it was him. Some of them didn’t recognize the man. For them, the man’s disability was his identity. He had to argue with them about his own identity! The religious leaders took this to such extremes that they dragged in the guy’s parents to determine once and for all if he really was who he said he was. They didn’t trust the man when he told his own story.

Who he said he was didn’t fit their views, so they would not accept his identity. (If you think that’s not something we do, I’ve got a long, long list of women, disabled people, black and brown people, and even gay and trans people, all of whom have been put in a position by Christians to debate their identity.)

Third, the religious leaders were so deeply opposed to Jesus that they could not conceive of the possibility that Jesus had healed the man. Healing blindness was rare, so rare that it was considered only something God could do. If they admitted Jesus had healed this man, they would have to accept that Jesus was more than an ordinary teacher. First, they said the man was lying. Then when they had no option but to admit he had been healed, they tried to debunk the miracle, looking for some other method or means by which Jesus had done it. They already had a set expectation for how God would work. Because of this, they had to discredit the man’s encounter with Jesus.

Finally, when the man who was healed would not recant his story, the religious leaders decided he was guilty by association. So they banned him from the synagogue. He would not accept their authority by submitting to their narrative about his life. So they kicked him out of the community.

There’s one last ironic exchange. After the episode wraps up, Jesus commented about how his work in the world will bring sight to some who are blind, but some others who think they can see will be blinded. Some of the religious leaders overhear this and, with a profound lack of self-awareness, said, “What? Is he saying we can’t see? That makes no sense at all.”

This chapter reads like a “greatest hits” of how we relate to people we disagree with or whose spiritual experience doesn’t fit our template. None of it’s good. Have you seen or experienced any of these?

  • We dehumanize people by turning their tragedy into theological debate.
  • We blame victims.
  • We disregard the personal experiences of people when they don’t fit our views.
  • We invalidate people’s sense of identity when they don’t fit into our expectations or beliefs.
  • We don’t believe the spiritual experiences of people we disagree with–even other Christians.
  • We demand people prove their experiences to us.
  • When these people won’t accept our judgment or submit to our narrative, we shun them, kick them out of fellowship, or otherwise declare that they are the worst kind of sinner.
  • When someone dares to challenge us on this behavior, we can’t even imagine that we were wrong. We’re good people. We’re right about God! How could we be the ones who can’t see?!

It doesn’t have to be like this. If we think the way of Jesus is life, why would we do harm as a result of our beliefs? If we believe we came to Jesus through God’s grace and mercy (even while “we were yet sinners”), how could we relate to others in any other way? If the guiding ethic that Jesus gave us is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” how could we treat our neighbors in ways we would never accept being treated ourselves?

Zahnd quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed.” Love is the witness. Or, our lack of love is the witness. one or the other. There is no other option.

Bottom line? If our religion doesn’t result in us loving people, why would anyone ever believe us when we say that God is love?

Lent invites us to pursue love rather than being right. This way is life.

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