The Problem Solving Jesus

What problem does believing in Jesus solve for you?

It’s a question that asks more about you than about Jesus. I recently posed it to a group of friends and heard back answers reflecting a range of concerns. Theological friends said Jesus solved theological problems. Intellectual friends said Jesus solved intellectual problems. Practical friends said Jesus solved everyday problems. Apparently, Jesus solved what they needed him to solve. But were any of their problems the right one?

We often think of “orthodoxy” as the right answer, but what about the question itself? What if orthodoxy has more to do with having the right problem? The right problem would have to be one to which Jesus is the unique solution, not a merely adequate one—the acceptable answer, not an acceptable answer.   A human problem Jesus solves uniquely provides the ground to stake the orthodox claim about Jesus: he is the only way. A problem Jesus solves adequately is the wrong problem because an adequate Jesus is the wrong Jesus.

For people who don’t believe Jesus solves anything uniquely, Christianity is just a benign option. Sure, Jesus can get us through the day, motivate us to help with poverty, provide a social ethic, or resolve intellectual problems. But people use many things to get through the day (including coffee). Indignation motivates crusades against poverty. Pick your social ethic. Theory solves academic problems. While Jesus can solve such problems adequately, an adequate Jesus inspires nobody. So long as people have the wrong problem, they will have the wrong Jesus.

Dispute of Jesus and the Pharisees over tribut...

Dispute of Jesus and the Pharisees over tribute money (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is a Problem?

Problems are encounters we interpret as inconsistent with our cognitive model of the world (how we think the world works). We reckon with life by assessing our priorities, expectations, and concerns against our model, and a problem is the gap between what we observe and what we expect. Our models thus set up problems that structure the solutions we seek. And there are only two kinds of models: one centers our perspective in the problem whereas the other displaces it.

Some people tend to treat the world as revolving around their perspective—their concerns, priorities, and issues—and thus make their perspective (ego) central to their interaction with the world. Let’s call that the “ego-centric model.” People with ego-centric models tend to identify their problem with the scope of their world’s problem—their country, social circle, or individual life—and scale solutions to fit that scope. Their faith in God is upheld by a theology scaled to resolve those problems. 

Others tend to treat the world as displacing their perspective, and thus adopt a posture of openness to new experiences that subvert their perspective. Let’s call that the “subversive model.” People with subversive models tend to invite new encounters that subvert their problem with bigger ones—perhaps on missions trips or in philosophy class—and expand their world in the direction of a bigger solution. Their faith in God opens them to bigger problems that destabilize their theological constructs.

These two models shape the problems we have, which in turn guide our theologizing about Jesus. Theology is how we integrate our beliefs about Jesus into our lives, how we “make solutions” out of him. But using theology to fit Jesus into our problems is a tricky business because our theological constructs are obviously not Jesus himself. They are what we use to get at him, which calls for two caveats: 1) constructs are tools for knowledge, not the object of knowledge itself; 2) we must loosely hold answers that result from our theological constructs. They are the output while models are the input. Thus, replacing theological constructs amounts to replacing answers: our underlying problem—what motivated our interest in looking to theology—remains.

Replacing a Wrong Problem

People change problems when they adopt subversive over ego-centric models of the world.

Changing models is ultimately a way of discarding an adequate Jesus by discarding the wrong problem.  Subversive models make us vulnerable to encounters that overturn our understanding of Jesus, surfacing how we use him for solutions and answers we want to get. But that means we must seek such encounters and learn to recognize when we’ve had them. Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying that our personal experience norms the truth, but that the truth norms us only by our experience of it.

Jesus himself performed ministry this way.  He entered the world in a moment of culture war. Competing ego-centric constructs about social problems filled first century Palestine. Pharisees claimed their problem (cultural decline) was the scope of their world’s (Israel’s) problem. Laxity in observing holiness had precipitated Israel’s decline, and so Pharisees wanted to hallow the land because Yahweh was holy: “You shall be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.” To correct the broken link between God and their world, they proposed a solution of personal and national holiness. And so they responded to Roman subjugation with a rigorous morality, emphasizing barriers between people along an axis of holiness.

Jesus confronted the culture war around him by subverting the boundaries of the Pharisees’ solution by enlarging their problem. Jesus criticized the ceremonial, social, and ultimately exoteric spiritual barriers of their holiness program while enlarging the formal principle—and problem—of holiness. “It is not what enters the mouth that defiles a man, but what proceeds from the heart” (Matt. 15:11). He dedicated his ministry to breaking down spiritual camps and advocated an alternative vision of human community, which was rooted in compassion on all groups that violated the barriers of each (as seen in the Parable of the Good Samaritan). He dealt with people’s hearts—their ego-centric models—by showing that their accepted problems were too small.

Finding the Right Problem

Jesus subverted people’s theological constructs by solving a problem different from cultural decline. He stressed that God’s compassion solved the right problem, while the culture war of the Jews’ holiness code impeded people from discovering it. Our enemies are not the right problem, so defeating them is not the solution. This is why we turn the other cheek to those we consider evil and love those who impede our solutions. Only after people confront the bigger problem will Jesus’s solution seem real enough to accept. How does someone get to the place of having a problem for which there is either no “adequate” solution for anyone, or one unique answer for everyone?

The right problem can be found by displacing our ego from the accepted problem of each of our worlds, narrowly considered. The right problem demands that we expand our world until it encompasses everyone equally. We must all be in the same camp: in other words, we must confront a universal human problem, rather than the problems particular to our concerns, club, or country.

Jesus devoted his ministry not to confronting people with sins and absolving their transgressions, but to proclaiming a kingdom through healing and raising the dead. Of 47 encounters Matthew records between Jesus and the “multitudes” and Pharisees, 28 involve healings or discourses about life and death, but only two involve sin or forgiveness. In Mark’s account, 22 of 38 encounters recorded involve healing and life, while only four mention sin. In Luke, it’s 23 of 43 encounters with four mentions of sin. In John, it’s ten of 20 encounters with four mentions of sin. Jesus’s own response to faith was never, “Your faith has made you sinless,” but “Your faith has made you well.” Death is the fact of sin, and sin’s reality is death.

We are objects of God’s compassion and Jesus’s ministry because we are subject to decay and death, and need his life. The enemies we make are objects of Jesus’s ministry and God’s compassion because they are subject to decay and death, and need his life.

Death is the Orthodox Problem

Jesus saw himself as solving death uniquely with life. His mystical teachings always center on his ability to impart “true life,” “everlasting life,” and the “life eternal,” to anyone who believes, and contemplated his own flesh as the solution given “for the life of the world,” according to John’s account. Matthew (10:39), Mark (8:35), and John (6:53) all record Jesus teaching that anyone who rejects him and clings to their own life will have no life.

The church fathers’ true north in the Christological controversies was a Jesus who solved genuinely the problem of death. He had to partake fully in divinity, fully in humanity. He had to have both natures, both wills. Only then could God become man that man might become god, in the words of Athanasius. Humanity only then could partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through mystical union with Jesus and share in the spoils of his victory over death. The subversive theology of the Incarnation uniquely solves the orthodox problem of death.

Sure, Jesus can meet you where you are and solve the problems you have. But spiritual growth consists in embracing the problem of orthodoxy, and effectively challenging the world spiritually consists in confronting it with death. The orthodox solution is joy unspeakable and full of glory: Jesus came to be the life of the world. And not the sort of life lived as passing through events—as the times crease into our faces—but the positive force of life of being and doing in flourishing relations with others under the expectation that our death is conquered and is the curtain call for the real show.

Nathan D. Hitchen is a professional problem-solver who lives and works in the Washington D.C. area with his wife, and is a 2007 John Jay Institute fellow.

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  • Tex

    Been re-reading your second to last paragraph in the section on “Finding the Right Problem” and can’t quite figure out why you chose to contrast the ministry of Christ as proclaiming life with the ministry of Christ as dealing with sin and forgiveness but then equate sin and death in the final sentence. The contrast seems to subvert the conservative evangelical identification of the The Problem as sin and the need for forgiveness and salvation. The identification seems to give back (or mollify?) what was just subverted.

    My suggestion is that sin is the root Problem, and death is the fruit and wage. Jesus is in the business of dealing with roots and not just their fruits. The life He gives is more than an overcoming of death or, better, perfect righteousness gives life. Righteousness is the answer, life everlasting the fruit and reward.

    • Matthew Anderson

      Tex,

      What do you make of Paul’s line (which has long perplexed me) that “the sting of death is sin”?

      • Tex

        Matt,

        Good question and I’ve been pondering it, too. I think that it refers to the fact that, since sin puts us on the wrong side of the law with God, the death of the unregenerate individual will not be a peaceful passing into a) non-existence or b) heaven or some iteration of it. Rather, it will result in judgment by God and some further punishment ultimately ending in the “second death” in the lake of fire. This is the sting. This sting is taken away from death for the regenerate believer whose death is a passing from life into life eternal. Your thoughts?

  • Nathan

    Tex,

    That sentence you’re reading is indeed a caveat–essentially it’s juxtaposing Paul’s theological account of sin and death next to the Gospel writers’ own witness to Jesus’s ministry.

    Jesus was working with a death-sickness-wellness-life spectrum, according to the Gospel writers, while Paul’s own legal training equipped him to overlay juridical aspects onto Jesus’s ministry. The Latin Western church tended to emphasize the forensic aspects (sin as crime against law, the God-Man’s death pays the legal penalty) of the Gospel whereas the Greek Eastern church tended to emphasize the ontic aspects (sin as sickness to death, the God-Man’s death conquers Death).

    The tension you detect is this divergent account of what the atonement was: Christus Victor or the Satisfaction Theory.

  • MHouston

    I think the beauty of the Canon is that the early church
    seemed to think all these diverse views belonged, that the infinite truth is
    somehow bigger than any one human word picture. It seems to me it is a great
    grace that Christ gives life AND that he saves us from our sins. The two are
    inextricably linked, and we do well to hold both in mind.

    In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says.” We are told that
    Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by
    dying He disabled death itself….Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s
    death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary…”

  • MHouston

    Unfortunately, I didn’t make it clear that I love the thesis of the wrong problem. I always felt bothered that the only testimony I had was that, somehow, I came to believe Jesus was who he really said he was. That reality won’t change no matter how much I feel he “works” or “doesn’t work” for me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Bobby.Ray.Hurd Bobby Ray Hurd

    This article has blessed me today. Thank you.

    I think what you point out here is important for how Christians should view the world and their ministry to it. So often I find myself wrapped up in a world of an ego-centric retelling of the problem and, therefore, articulation of the real problem cannot go any further than the degree from which I am an unrepentant sinner. Jesus calls us to tell the truth about the world and make it the world; the first priority of the church. If I do not first identify the problem of the world as being death, how can one begin to identify sin (that which grants us death) and give it a name?

    If I am understanding you correctly, does an orthodox understanding of holiness mean being able to tell the truth about the world in such a way that does not pit the theological, the philosophical, and the practical against each other? If we arrive in such a place where they are pitted against each other, we have identified the problem..the death that comes through living out such unholiness.

    This all sounds well and good (and its certainly compelling to me during this season of my spiritual formation), however…it proposes a problem for me I am wrestling through:

    If holiness is ultimately the defeating of death through the reconciliation of the theological, the philosophical, and the practical, does this mean that the goal of orthodoxy is fundamentally idealogical? If the goal of orthodoxy is idealogical, does this not then make G-d the “Idea” (big “I”)? I wrestle with this, because the notion of G-d being the Idea offends my theological sentiments deeply.

    Your thoughts would help me during this season am I sure. After all, you are a professional problem solver, yes? :-)