It is Saturday, not yet noon, when the doorbell rings. Jehovah’s Witnesses. They come by every other month or so, always catching me off-guard—dressed in my yoga pants to clean, or midway through cooking up a weekend brunch. They come in pairs, or threes, wearing suits and ties, dresses and patent leather shoes, bright smiles that falter when I speak. When they leave, I feel slightly sick, sad and baffled.
It never fails. As soon as I close the door, I remember what I should have said, the just-right logic that might have scored a point. They flip open the Bible (their version, conveniently re-translated) to the perfect verse, serving me a gentle volley that I could spike over the net… if only my mind hadn’t just gone blank.
But perhaps scoring a point isn’t, after all, the point.
Today when they knocked, I’d just been thinking about the names of God. How, in the Bible, in one encounter after another, God’s people learn a new name. The Lord Who Sees, The Lord Who Heals, The Lord Our Righteousness.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses, right?”
I ask the men at my door which is their favorite name for Jehovah. The younger man, holding out a flyer, is startled. He looks to the older gentleman, who steps in.
“My favorite name for Jehovah? He… he is God Almighty.”
“Yes,” I agree. “But I love the ways He’s named in the Bible: Jehovah Jireh, our provider, Jehovah Nissi, Jehovah…”
“Ah,” says the man, smiling. The younger man backs away altogether with his stack of shiny papers, and I wonder how many of my neighbors have ever read a Bible, have any ammunition against these smooth pamphlets.
“You know, I think the names tell a story,” I continue. “The Lord our Provider, the Lord our Shepherd.” I am thinking of Abraham, his son on the altar, when God provides a better sacrifice. I am thinking of Isaiah, praising the Lord, Our Salvation. I am thinking of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The smiling man nods. “Of course, Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ So if God is our shepherd, and Jesus is our shepherd…”
It is cold out. There is still ice on our doorstep, and I am worried the man will slip and break a hip. We speak quickly, but I want to slow it down, to tell the story the way the Bible lays it out—that in the beginning, Father, Son, and Spirit enjoyed perfect companionship, that Love spilled out in extravagant creation, that Adam and Eve were the apple of His eye. I want to recount all the ways we’ve screwed things up, and the impossible chasm that lay between us and the Lord God Almighty, that only a perfect sacrifice could atone for so much ugly sin.
I know that the men on my porch believe that only 144,000 will be saved. I want to shake them. There are ten times that many Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even if all my neighbors joined, there wouldn’t be enough room in heaven for them, according to their own beliefs. And so they come, door to door, not because they want to see me saved, but because they want so badly to earn salvation for themselves. They strive to accomplish what Jesus has already done.
The man pulls out a Bible. Flip, flip. “Here,” he says, pointing. He wants to score a point. “In Philippians 2: ‘Christ Jesus, who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.’” The bad translation makes me cringe, but I know wading into those weeds will not woo him.
I recite the familiar words in my mind: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”(Phil. 2:5-8)
The JW finishes up, “…death on a torture stake.” I’m distracted. Why protest the cross? How are so many millions brainwashed into this historically illiterate faith??
“You see,” he says, “the Christ was not God. It says here he was not equal with God.” The Christ. It is something he repeats a dozen times, not the name of a friend or one to worship, but a job description. He does not know my Jesus.
Only later I realize that he did not finish reading the passage in Philippians, which goes on to say (in any proper translation):
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” I wish I had pointed it out—the whole crux of this chapter is that Jesus gave up what was rightfully his, that Jesus in his humility demonstrated the grace and love of God, that Jesus himself is worthy of our worship, as Lord. I wonder why I couldn’t find the words at the moment, why I never can. Maybe God doesn’t like it when I get too big for my britches. Pride is no kind of love.
I wonder, too, how the JWs always seem to miss the point. Do they ever read for the big picture, or only to win arguments?
We keep talking. Usually they don’t let me get this far, but this guy is of a mind to teach me something. “I and the Father are one,” I quote. We talk about Peter. “Who do you say that I am?” I bring up Colossians, “the image of the invisible God.” He likes that one.
“Don’t people ever tell you your kids are the ‘spitting image’ of you?” he protests. “That doesn’t mean they are you. And look here…” He skips over to I Corinthians, reading that “‘the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.’ So you see, the ‘head of Christ is God.’ The Father is superior to the Christ.” I’m flabbergasted at his reasoning. I cock my head.
“My husband isn’t superior to me, but I submit to him,” I answer. “It’s not about being superior, it’s about love. It’s about relationship.” He fidgets, agreeing that my husband is not superior to me, that’s not what he meant at all.
It’s ironic, how we struggle with this verse, with its application, when, flipped upside down, it isn’t an argument for subjugating women, but a picture of self-sacrificial love between equals. It’s less a polemic and more a love poem.
After a few more minutes I watch them go, on to the next house, the next neighbor, the next argument. They wield a book they do not know, hung up on trivial things and missing the whole point of the story. “You blind guides,” thundered Jesus, “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24) There have always been Pharisees.
Culturally, we have lost our place in the story. Our preferred religion is a thin and watery mishmash of dos and don’ts. A guy can learn all of the arguments, all of the hair-splitting, can proof-text to his heart’s content. Works great for Twitter. But without the grand drama, the pathos and the paradox and the parable of it all, we have nothing. We’ve got a teaspoon of baking soda and two cups of flour and some cocoa powder, and we’re starving. All of the ingredients, but no cake.
Cults prey on hungry people. In the absence of nutrition, they measure out cheap substitutes. Watch out for gnats! Don’t mind the camel. But as Christians, we’re also in danger of malnourishment if we don’t lean into the story.
I want to warn my children of all the cults, all of the latest-and-greatest prophets to pop up on the scene and scaremonger people into some new craziness. I want to point out the similarities—the charisma, the new revelations, the legalism, the elitism. New wisdom, or old heresies repackaged? I do want my kids to know point and counterpoint, the finer shades of doctrine, and the ramifications of their reasoning. But I also want them to know how unlikely it is they’ll ever really win an argument wrangling over counterfeits.
Far better to fall in love with the whole beautiful story, to feast on it all our days.
Once there was a God, who called himself “The God Who Sees. The God Who Provides. God, Our Salvation. The Light of the World.” He came down from heaven and walked among us for a while, to put flesh on the abstract ideas of love and justice. He came to save me.
All I know is I was blind, but now I see. Amazing grace.
PS. In case you are wondering about JW doctrine and the history of this particular group, check out Justin Taylor’s summary here.