A devotional lesson has been rattling around in the back of my head for a week, a sure sign that I must write about it to be free of it. So here goes . . . .
The devotional, written by E. Stanley Jones, is a reflection on John 16:33-- “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” In his meditation on this verse, Jones shares that whenever he is confronted and bullied by “temptation, difficulties, sins, and problems,” he says to these issues, “Bend your neck.” If the trouble subsides, Jones triumphes, “There, I knew it, the footprint of the Son of God is upon your neck.” Jones interpreted his victory over trials as evidence that he had been given the ability to share in Jesus’ overcoming of the world (The Word Became Flesh, Monday, Week 17).
That phrase, “Bend your neck,” sounded off-ish to me. Something about it felt wrong, inappropriate, un-Jesus-like. I couldn’t say exactly why I felt this way. No immediate counter-argument came to mind. I didn’t have an alternative, more Jesus-y phrase to offer. The matter would probably have remained at the level of mild cognitive dissonance had not recent events sent me looking for justifications for my instinctive rejection.
Something about foot-to-the-neck didn’t seem consistent with what I remembered about John 16:33, which is part of the farewell discourse between Jesus and the disciples, so I began my search by studying the scriptures. In this section of the Gospel, Jesus is preparing the disciples for what is about to happen to him-- arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection. Then he describes what is in store for them-- desertion, conversion, the challenges of the mission.
No triumphalism here. No Son-of-God victory dance on the backs of vanquished foes. This is a somber occasion. Yet given this subdued context, victory is still the correct term to use in relation to this verse; Jones is correct about that point. Where the English translation uses the word “overcome,” Jesus uses a form of the verb νικάω (nikaó). Nike, both the goddess of victory and the shoe company, are from the same Greek root.
The farewell discourse is a post-game victory speech delivered as a pre-game pep talk. Jesus has already won the contest, he assures the disciples even as the other side makes plans to eliminate the competition. Before his team has taken the mission field and delivered his Gospel, Jesus has already conquered the world. Before the Cross, before the Resurrection, before the Great Commission, before Pentecost, Jesus has been victorious.
This is the connotation of the verb tense Jesus employs; νενίκηκα is the perfect active indicative form of nikaó, a verb tense which points to an action completed in the past that continues to exert an influence on the present, raising the question “Which of Jesus’ previous actions was the winning one?”
Up to this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ activities have consisted of the Incarnation, miracle-working, and teaching. Which of these past actions secured the enduring victory referenced in 16:33? Jesus doesn’t go into any detail; he merely offers assurance that his victory is a fait accompli. Apparently, a play-by-play analysis of his win is not necessary. The disciples are to take Jesus at his word without an explanation of how or when. In other words, they are to have faith in a victory that they can not yet see.
Faith in Jesus is also associated with victory over the world in 1 John 5:4-5-- “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” These verses from 1 John suggest that we share in the victory when we are born of God by having faith in Jesus.
Again, this is not a foot-to-the-neck victory; this is a shifting of allegiances. No one is forced to switch loyalties from Team World to Team Jesus. In my experience, the persuasion applied is will-bending but never neck-breaking. The faith experience born of God through Christ is a trust, belief, confidence and hope that inspires a defection from one set of priorities to another set of commitments. Fingerprints on the heart, not footprints on the neck, has the victory.
This linkage between victory and faith is reflected in the conclusion of Jones’ meditation. Jones labels his faith experience as one of surrender and obedience, receptivity and response. He accepts Jesus’ victory, and he joins Jesus in conquering a world of “problems, pains and sins.”
Here is the main problem with Jones’ meditation. He has de-person-ized problems. When he says “Bend your neck,” he directs the command at Tribulations in the abstract, as if he can disassociate trouble from the human agent causing it. Perhaps he can; I can not. For whenever I say “Bend your neck” I am always directing the words at the person I blame for my difficulties.
Case in point: I was aware of feeling foot-to-the-neck outrage this week when I heard about the trials my goddaughter was experiencing at school. I was saying “Bend your neck” to the teacher who had shamed her in front of class and the bullies who started to tease her in imitation of the teacher. I was not saying “Bend your neck” in a Jesus-gives-me-the-victory kind of way; however, more in a jaw-clenched-in-righteous-indignation kind of way. In that moment I did not want to overcome the world through faith, I wanted to protect my goddaughter by harming her enemies.
Foot-to-the-neck is a temptation to my vengeful nature instead of a cure for it. Therefore, “Bend your neck” is not an appropriate object of meditation and devotion for me. Instead of demanding “Bend your neck,” I got past the blind rage by saying, “Jesus, I place this in your hands.”
This alternative phrase was inspired by a song playing over the car radio. I was driving to the grocery store the day after hearing about my goddaughter’s troubles, still feeling angry, still wanting to personally bend somebody’s neck, when these lyrics finally cut through my machination. “How many times have you heard me cry out, ‘God please take this’?” the soprano sang.
Slowly as I pushed the cart down the grocery aisles, “God please take this” became “Jesus, I place this in your hand,” which eventually replaced “Bend your neck” by the time I got home from the store. When I placed the teacher, the bullies, and my goddaughter in the hands of Christ, I began to feel better, the tightness in my throat loosened, the pressure on my teeth lessened. My body started to shift out of fight mode.
Confession was intrinsic to those words. The confession that I did not know how to help; the confession of not knowing the good that would overcome this evil (Romans 12:21).
Surrender was a part of those words, too. Jones is right on that count, as well. The surrender of praying, “Thy will, not my will, be done.”
What are other alternative phrases to prayfully direct at the people we accuse of causing our temptations, difficulties, sins, and problems? Phrases that are more consistent with the witness of scripture and the Jesus revealed in the sacred text than the Jones example? Phrases that dampen our desire to retaliate rather than enflame it. Some thesaurus-aided brainstorming--
“Un-pledge your allegiance”
“Swing wide the portals of your heart” (Rev. 3: 20, 21)
“Shift your loyalty”
“Change your commitment”
“Re-align your priorities”
“Promise your fidelity”
“Pay your homage”
“Fall in Love”
“Swoon before your Maker”