A Holy Indifference

A few years ago, when my wife and I first began going up to kayak on the Pend Oreille River, I would hike around and look at some of the places where people lived. I wanted to know what it was like to live on a river in such a pristine part of the country. One day I encountered a man sitting on his deck, overlooking the expanse. He seemed content, sitting there with a Budweiser in his hand. I asked him about his life in this part of the world. It turned out each day was pretty much the same. He basically got up to simply observe the wildlife and the river’s flow. The only change was winter. Come November, he escapes to Arizona, to his winter cabin, where it sounds like he does much the same thing.

I knew that if I was to ever have a place on the Pend Oreille, it would have to have more important objectives than observing the flight of an eagle, the slapping of a beaver, or the current of a river. I wanted it to be a place of spiritual retreat. I wanted it to be a place where I could get away from the noise and get a clearer reading on what God is saying. I wanted to gain a deeper sense of David’s words: “The heavens declare the glory of God…day after day they pour forth speech…their words to the ends of the inhabited world” (Ps 19:1-4). I wanted to hear this speech, and I have.

I also wanted to write. Where this goes, I am not yet sure. This is what I spent my four week Sabbatical doing (along with lots of observing). At the end of four intensive weeks in the Gospel of John, I sat out on my deck and started thinking about what God had been teaching me. I asked myself what I had learned in this rather strange and formidable Gospel. When you immerse yourself for seven to eight hours a day in a book, you begin to move beyond the words on a page or the insights of a commentary. You begin to feel the emotions of the writer. You begin to hear the tenor, the tone behind the ink. It began to course its way through my veins.

Working through John, I have been struck with how Jesus’ emotions often seem to run on a flat plane. It’s not that Jesus is unemotional, monotone. He is not the Prozac Jesus often portrayed in film. But the deeper I looked into Jesus in John, the more surprised I was with His responses. They are not always what we would expect. Jesus occasionally appears to be aloof, distant—almost cold. Sometimes, it seems He is not listening. As Culpepper, in his wonderful book, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, writes: “Jesus seems to be congenitally incapable of giving a straight answer.”

Consider these exchanges:

  • John 2-to His mother’s concern that Jesus address the absence of wine at the wedding “Woman, what is it to Me?”
  • John 3-He was not interested in impressing Nicodemus-a religious leader—bluntly telling him he needed to start over, be born again.
  • John 4-He showed no regard for established protocol and prejudice with the woman at the well
  • John 5-He confronted the lame man and challenged his desire to be healed and told him to stop sinning.
  • John 6-He told the adoring crowd that the only reason they have gathered is that they are driven by their bellies.
  • John 7-He disregarded His brothers’ wishes that He go to Jerusalem, telling them the difference between Him and them is one of substance
  • John 11-He stalled when He heard Mary and Martha needed Him immediately
  • John 13-when Peter announced he will give his life for Jesus, Jesus responded by telling Peter he would actually betray Him

Not the touchy, feely Jesus often presented in American Christianity. As Darrell Bock (Jesus According to Scripture) notes, Jesus is presented as top down in John—not bottom up (as the rest of the Gospels). It’s as if John wants to underscore that Jesus is not of this world (8:23). What this means is that we dare not try to superficially explain Him, let alone conform Him to be like us.

As I looked more deeply in John, I discovered something else, something I had not paid much attention to before. Jesus seems to go out of His way to underscore that it is not about Him. This statement could obviously be misunderstood. Our mission as the church is to glorify Jesus and center our lives in Him. But I am struck with how often Jesus directed people to focus on the Father. Again, note these examples:

  • “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (6:38)
  • “The works I do have been given by the Father” (5:36)
  • “My food has been to do His will” (4:34)
  • “I have not spoken on My own but the Father who sent Me has given Me a command as to what I should say” (12:49). Jesus came to be God’s mouthpiece. His words were not self-generated. “The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own” (14:10)

Clearly, the only thing that mattered to Jesus was the will of the Father. He did not come to satisfy expectations of family, fit into peoples’ timelines, please the crowd, do their bidding, nor affirm fragile self-esteem. He never sought to impress, nor was He afraid to alienate. What mattered most, what matters always, WHAT MATTERS ONLY, is the will of the Father. And that is hard for us. Mark Galli, in his Jesus Mean and Wild, writes: “The most tempting idol—is to imagine Jesus is the servant of our desires.” As the Son of God, and as the God-man fully God, He is a servant of the Father’s desires. It is a healthy Trinitarian corrective to many churches that seem almost Unitarian in their language.

The challenge that came to me on that day on the deck—and still to this day—is this: what if we truly lived this way, especially those of us in ministry? What if we, like Jesus, became increasingly indifferent to anything but the will of God? What if we sifted every thought, every plan, every strategy, every act through the grid—Is this what the Father, the Son, and the Spirit want?

In her latest book, Discerning the Will of God, Ruth Haley Barton makes this very helpful point:

“THE FIRST AND MOST ESSENTIAL DYNAMIC OF DISCERNMENT IS THE MOVEMENT TOWARD INDIFFERENCE”. We must learn to become indifferent to our wants, our will, become indifferent to undue attachments, outcomes—anything that keeps us from God and His will.  Sounds a lot like Jesus.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.