When Eric Metaxas spoke last year at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., he used the opportunity to challenge his listeners. In his new book No Pressure, Mr. President: Real Faith in a Time of Crisis, he makes his remarks available to a broader audience and recounts the journey of a writer trying to be a Christian witness.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The e-book version of your book is titled “Jesus Hates Dead Religion.” How can you claim to know what Jesus hates?
ERIC METAXAS: The Bible says that God hates what is evil. According to my sources, Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, which is to say, God. Q.E.D. Have I missed something?
LOPEZ: Why was your talk worth making into a book? Shameless marketing?
METAXAS: I’m sorry you feel the need to tear down the successes of others. Don’t you believe in the free market? Don’t you know that a rising tide lifts all boats and that your being a little dinghy needn’t be a barrier to your own success?
LOPEZ: You are just full of lessons. Now: Why would you want to be funnier than Mother Teresa?
METAXAS: I guess I say that in the book, don’t I? Well, it’s just a personal goal I set for myself. Everybody needs a few easy “wins.” I also have the goal of being less pompous than Al Gore and less hairy than Ed Asner.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about “Amazing Grace,” which you got people singing within blocks of the White House?
METAXAS: Then you did watch the video until the end! For those of you just tuning in, I led the president and the assembled 3,500 in singing “Amazing Grace” at the end of my speech. But to answer your question, there’s a lot that’s special about “Amazing Grace.” First, it’s one of the few songs to which most people know the words. I might have sung “Happy Birthday to You,” but my wife was already ready to kill me for mentioning it was her birthday, even though I publicly pretended that Nancy Pelosi was my wife (I explain that in the book). Second, the song was written by the great John Newton — and not by Juice Newton, as is sometimes claimed. Third, “Amazing Grace” is the title of my biography of William Wilberforce. Fourth, the song has been embraced by both left and right (you may know of Joan Baez’s historical warbling) and so seemed especially appropriate for the bipartisan crowd that morning. Shall I go on? Perhaps I already have.
LOPEZ: In what way was the invitation to speak at the breakfast “a miracle”? Shouldn’t one save such a description for life-saving events? Or eternal-life-saving events?
METAXAS: Yes, calling it a miracle might have been slightly imprudent, since it doesn’t appear to rise to the level of some other more dramatic miracles I’ve experienced. But what I meant was that it was on some level tremendously random that I should be picked, and I perceived God’s hand in my being chosen, so yes, I still think it was a miracle. These things are difficult to articulate, but there are a number of things that created for me the impression that there was a divine element to it all. I’m sure the book will clear the mystery up for most people about why I think this. Have I mentioned that the book is available for sale and modestly priced?
LOPEZ: How do we “get out of the way” to let God make full use of us as instruments of His love?
METAXAS: That’s a big question. The bottom line is that we need to know him personally and need to ask him to help us do that. He created us to be his instruments and we really cannot be happy and fulfilled unless we ask him to help us become who he made us to be. There’s no trick to this. God is on our side and only wants us to ask him for help. He really will help if we ask.
LOPEZ: Do you always pray about your writing? How do you do that? Does it involve notebooks in church? And doesn’t that look awkward?
METAXAS: Although church attendance is important, we mustn’t limit our prayers to when we are in church. Jesus prayed everywhere, including on the Cross. For some reason many people have an idea that praying is a distinctly religious activity, one that must be done amidst religious trappings. But for a creature to speak to his loving Creator is the most natural thing imaginable, and we’re meant to do it always. Praying to God can and should be like breathing. It’s what we were created to do. And of course I pray about my writing and about everything. I want — and desperately need — God’s guidance and help. So I ask for it.
LOPEZ: What’s the Golden Fish story you wound up not telling at the prayer breakfast?
METAXAS: It’s a mind-blowing and of course true story, but it’s a bit long to tell here. But it really happened, and it changed my life. If you go to my website, I tell the whole story in a really cool short video. It’s on the far right of the homepage, just to the right of Jesse Helms.
LOPEZ: Is the prayer breakfast just a big show, or is it a real cultural/spiritual opportunity?
METAXAS: It can be both. For some it’s a lot of hoo-ha, a chance to hobnob with all kinds of powerful people, but for many others it’s a glorious and deeply spiritual experience. As with so many things in life, what it is depends on what we bring to it. One thing is for sure, much good has come out of it over the years.
LOPEZ: Is there something confusing to people — even scandalous — about hanging out and joking with people who we believe represent evil policies — abortion, the erosion of religious freedom?
METAXAS: That’s a spectacular question. And the answer is complicated, because ultimately this is a judgment call, with two sides that need to be considered carefully.
On the one hand, God commands us to love our enemies. He makes clear that if we think we are morally superior to them, we are mistaken. In his eyes, we are not, and he loves our enemies because they are children created in his image. If they are wayward children, utterly lost and misguided, it breaks his heart and on some level it should break our hearts too, and motivate us to prayer, not just to anger. Also, the idea that I cannot sit at a table with the purveyors of awful ideas is something like saying Jesus ought not to have spent time among prostitutes and drunkards. That’s what the Pharisees thought. So yes, we are to go to those who need help the most. It’s an opportunity to reach the lost with the love of God.
On the other hand, the Bible clearly says that Christians are to be very careful with whom we associate, that we are to avoid even “the appearance of evil.” So if I’m seen hugging the leader of North Korea, that can send a message that he’s not such a bad guy, and by the way he is a very bad guy. We have to think about the Christians being imprisoned and tortured by him for their faith. So hanging out with Kim Jong Un could be a very bad idea. Billy Graham got in trouble for this very thing, for naïvely letting the Soviets use him in photo ops. And yet Pope John Paul II visited Cuba during Castro’s regime. In my Bonhoeffer book I talk about how Bonhoeffer was disgusted that some Christians still had this naïve idea that Hitler and Himmler could be converted and were making efforts to get personal time with them, when Bonhoeffer said that that time is past, that these men must be assiduously avoided.
So that’s the question: Has the Obama administration’s record on abortion and on religious freedom made it impossible for serious Christians to reach out to them? When do we say: Enough is enough. We will no longer allow you to co-opt us and pretend that you care about these issues when it seems clear from you actions and policies that you don’t? The president’s track record on religious freedom is scary. So yes, I take this seriously. But I don’t think we are to shrink from judiciously reaching out. We are to speak the truth in love and use our judgment and discernment as best we can. We won’t always get it right, but we must try.
LOPEZ: “You must obey God.” Isn’t that a very backward idea, and one that’s antithetical to freedom?
METAXAS: That all depends on who God is and on what freedom is. If God is an authoritarian killjoy, as many think he is, then yes, the idea of obeying him is indeed antithetical to true freedom. But if God is the Author of liberty itself, then obeying Him is not just not antithetical to freedom, it’s the only path to true freedom. And if freedom has been twisted to merely mean “license,” then yes, God is the enemy of mere “license,” which is itself antithetical to true freedom.
LOPEZ: How is prayer “real faith in God . . . not phony religiosity.” Couldn’t it be said that it’s simply talk?
METAXAS: Yes, but it’s honest talk. It’s not highfalutin talk, and so it doesn’t have to be laden with thees and thous. God wants us to talk to him honestly. He loves us and wants to hear from us. He doesn’t want us to feel that if we talk to him we need to get all formal and “religious.” He’s the King of the Universe, but he’s also our heavenly Father who loves us. We’re his sons and daughters, and he wants us to know that and not to fear him. He may be a King, but he’s made a way for us to approach him. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
LOPEZ: How do you know that “He knows the terrible selfish things you have done that have hurt others. And he still loves you”? Is that true, or is it just something that makes us feel better?
METAXAS: It would take more time than we have here to explain the omniscience of God, but everything I have read and understood and observed tells me that the God of the Bible does know everything concerning us and he loves us unconditionally. In fact, he loves us so much that he’s given us the freedom to reject him, which should terrify us.
LOPEZ: You write: “When he was tempted in the desert, who was the one throwing Bible verses at him? Satan. That is a perfect picture of dead religion. Using the words of God to do the opposite of what God does. It is grotesque, when you think about it. It is demonic.” Do we do that more often than we realize?
METAXAS: Of course. And we need to remind ourselves over and over that “religious” behavior, like quoting Scriptures or going to church, can sometimes be used for evil ends. It often is used for evil ends. God looks at our hearts and we can’t fool him. We can try to fool other people, but God is not fooled. So whatever we do, we need to do with the love of God. That’s something Satan cannot do, incidentally.
LOPEZ: You also said: “If you believe abortion is wrong, you must treat those on the other side with the love of Jesus.” How can you do that and convert people to your point of view?
METAXAS: To love our enemies is a command, but that doesn’t mean agreeing with them. In fact, it usually involves telling them the truth. But we must communicate in a way that shows God’s love. So if we demonize those with whom we disagree, we negate the message of truth. True love — which must never be mistaken for mere “approval” — is the only thing that can “convert” people to anything. People can ignore logic and they can ignore shouting, but who can ignore love? It’s not so easy. If people see God’s love in us when we disagree with them, there’s a chance of getting through. We have to remember that in God’s eyes, we are no different than that person. There are places in our own lives where we are doing things that are wrong. So we must bring God’s grace and love to bear on the situation, just as we want that to be how others — including God — approach us when we are wrong.
LOPEZ: What’s a “biblical view of sexuality”?
METAXAS: That’s not easily summed up, but in my speech I’m mainly alluding to the idea that sex between anyone other than a married husband and wife is out of God’s will. Clearly this has both heterosexual and homosexual ramifications, but most recently our culture has focused on the latter, and has demonized those who would take a traditional biblical view of the subject.
LOPEZ: How is that view not backward?
METAXAS: You’re implying that all things are evolving in the right direction, but of course that’s just not true. Some old ideas are very, very good and some new ideas are very, very bad. Are Shakespeare’s plays “backward” because they precede the plays of Neil Simon? Is Van Gogh “backward” because he precedes Leroy Neiman? Help me out here.
LOPEZ: It’s still Christmas time, and there are a lot of people suffering. In New York, people have lost homes, lost lives. Many faced Christmas without loved ones. Many had a tough time making it a special day on account of finances. Why does God allow this? Why does he allow evil and suffering? It’s a question you raised tangentially in your speech.
METAXAS: This is the great mystery, and of course no one can have an easy answer to it. But the more we know God and love God, the more we begin to understand the Scripture that says “All things work together for good for those that love the Lord and are called according to his purposes.” If we submit our pain and suffering to him and ask for his help, he can do things we can hardly dream about. We don’t always see those things, but we need to know that God is a God of redemption and if we look to him, our suffering is never the end of the story. And we have to remember that God entered human history and suffered and died. He enters into our suffering. So the God of the Bible is not some aloof deity. He is either Emmanuel — God with us — or let’s face it, he’s not worth bothering about.
LOPEZ: At the breakfast you said, “Keep in mind that when someone says, ‘I am a Christian,’ it might mean absolutely nothing.” How can you tell when it truly means something? We’re not all going to be William Wilberforce and end the slave trade in England. We’re not all going to die at the hands of the Nazi regime like another one of the great men you’ve written about.
METAXAS: The Bible says we can be known by our fruits — by our actions and our character — and not just by our words. If our behavior doesn’t give people the impression we are serious about God, then it’s possible we are not serious about God. People know when someone really believes or when it’s just mostly talk or ritual. And God knows. So yes, our actions — small and large — are at the heart of what we are and what we believe.
LOPEZ: What might Bonhoeffer say about the state of things in America today? We’re supposedly mostly religious, but our culture doesn’t seem to reflect that.
METAXAS: The main reason my Bonhoeffer book has been such a best-seller is that people are seeing dramatic parallels between some of the things that were happening in Germany in the Thirties and some of the things happening in our own culture today. The state of the church in America today is oddly similar to the state of the church in Germany during that time. There is a complacency. If the church were really being the church, it would stand up heroically for what is right; it would stand against all injustice; and it would stand up for religious freedom, which is under tremendous threat right now. The very idea that most readers of this article don’t know about or haven’t signed the Manhattan Declaration speaks for itself. We’re drifting along and there’s a waterfall ahead and we don’t seem to notice that the water is getting rougher. I pray that we would wake up and take action.
LOPEZ: Why did you say the following? “You know Jesus is not just for so-called Christians. Jesus is for everyone. For everyone. The grace of God is for everyone. I hope you know that.” Isn’t that a fairly intolerant thing to say in a mixed crowd?
METAXAS: First of all, the contemporary idea of “intolerance” is so subjective as to be extremely silly. Who defines what is “tolerant” or “intolerant”? Usually it’s people who are tremendously intolerant of anyone who dares disagree with them. “Tolerance” has become code for “intolerance.”
But for Christians, Jesus is the God who loves everyone. So he loves those outside the Christian fold as much as those inside it. We don’t earn his love by becoming Christians. We can never earn his love. He loves us when we hate him, just as a parent loves his child when that child is rebellious. And therefore he loves everyone and is for everyone. It’s a bit of a conundrum, but it’s not a tautology. Jesus is for non-Christians. And there you have it.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.