“Do you not yet understand?” – Jesus, Mark 8:21
“If you understand it, it is not God.” – St. Augustine
At the half way point, the central crisis of Mark’s gospel is that Israel’s leaders and Jesus’ own disciples are blind to who Jesus is and what the Kingdom of God is all about. This is not an innocent blindness due to genetics or an accident. This blindness stems from their “hardness of heart,” which is a biblical expression for rebellion against God’s rule (Mark 6:52). In other words they are intrigued by Jesus, but they have no interest in truly learning his new Way of humble love. In fact, the most powerful among them will eventually grow murderously opposed to it. Literally. Like, Mark’s story ends with a cross and faithful women running away confused and afraid.
So Mark’s story is about learning to see (and hear), which is why there are several healings of blind and deaf people at crucial stages along the way. Following the crucial “two-stage” healing of a blind man at Bethsaida, Peter finally recognizes Jesus as “the Christ.” But still, like the blind man, he and the others still do not see clearly what that actually means. Jesus keeps saying and doing things that they weren’t taught to expect of the Messiah and God’s Kingdom. It simply doesn’t line up, and so they become disillusioned. In the coming chapters Jesus will tell them exactly what is going to happen and still they cannot accept it because they don’t have categories for it. And so when Jesus is finally arrested in chapter 14, it is no wonder that the disillusioned disciples defect to the point of flat-out denying their association with him.
Okay, a little game. I’ll say a word and you tell me, without thinking about it, whether it registers as positive or negative. Ready?
I’ll hazard a guess and assume you thought negative. But now actually think of the word itself: dis-illusion-ed. To have one’s illusions removed. Oswald Chambers says it means being “free from deception”1 and Mark seems to think being disillusioned is a crucial part of discipleship. Just think, if someone were to ask you whether you’d like your vision improved, or whether you’d like to be free from deception, that’d be a no-brainer, right? Of course we would. Disemboweled: bad. Disillusioned: good.
I’m actually not so sure we would. In Mark’s gospel, those surrounding Jesus cling to their cherished illusions about what constitutes greatness, about justice, about divorce, about money, about suffering, about who is in and who is out, about God, about a violent Messiah, and the list goes on. And as we’ve seen over and over, not even blatant miracles move them an inch. Hearts only grow harder as the story progresses.
W.H. Auden nailed it:
“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
But now, thanks to the Bible, we see right through those illusions, right?
Or, might it just be that we love nothing more than the illusion that we are not like them? (And isn’t that always our favorite illusion?) We are not the image-obsessed Pharisees or the bewildered disciples. We are not the poor. We’re the good guys, and we totally would have been faithfully crucified along with Jesus. Right?
Let’s face it. Our illusions are safe. Jesus is not. Discipleship is not. Discipleship is learning to get naked in front of ultimate Reality. It is the crucifixion of the ego. It is scary. Allowing ourselves to be disillusioned, i.e. learning to see, is scary. But listen! Following Jesus is only scary because our cherished illusions (which are only reflections of our idols) are not safe from him. So actually, that naked vulnerability is true security! So discipleship ultimately is…safe.
No one enjoys admitting they’re wrong. Isn’t it unsettling to let others, let alone ourselves, question our deepest beliefs about someone, about Jesus, about violence, about poverty, about science, about salvation, about the church, about sexuality, about gender, about race, about poverty, about you-name-it? Isn’t it a terrifying thought that these cherished beliefs might just be, at least in part, cherished illusions that reflect our heart’s or our community’s idols? But if we would feel unsafe without that belief, then we need to face up to the reality that we might not actually want our illusions removed (especially if we are in a community where everyone “sees” things similarly). And that therefore we might not actually want to follow Jesus into embracing Reality. Yikes.
Of course, I’m not saying that you (whoever you are) are necessarily wrong in your beliefs or that we shouldn’t have strong convictions or even certainty. That would be silly. As G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, we open our minds for the same reason we open our mouths: in order to close them again on something solid. But what if our minds more like eyes than mouths? We may need to close our eyes from time to time in order to rest, but it’s dangerous to live that way. “If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”2 Plus, you sure do miss a lot of beauty.
Following Jesus involves continual repentance, which literally means to change our minds (Mark 1:15). And that always comes through a painful process of disillusionment. It means going there. It means questioning that. (Is there really any other way to learn?) But the invitation to discipleship is an invitation to see, and that means there will be dizzy periods of adjusting to the light, to new truth. Do not close your eyes in fear. Otherwise, Chambers warns us that disillusionment can leave us worse off than before: cynical, bitter, overly critical and judgmental. Know any Christians like that?
Finally, a note for comGroup leaders. Beware of trying to “fix” people’s disillusionment. Listen to them. In fact, as leaders, part of our job is to dis-illusion people. And no one likes that (least of all you and I, perhaps). Ronald Heifetz referred to leadership as failing people’s expectations at a rate they can stand. How good is that!? And he’s exactly right. So as a comGroup leader, your main job is to create a space where people feel safe enough to bring their idols and illusions into the light. And friend, that starts with you.3
So, could you be wrong?