Confession: I love Tom Waits. How do you classify him? He has been many things: a lounge singer, a street poet, actor, songwriter. He has the voice of a rusty exhaust manifold. One aspect of his persona(s) over the years that is endlessly fascinating is his way of tapping into the words and thoughts of the common sense of common man. Some of his characters are salt of the earth; others are down-on-their-luck lovable outcasts or outsiders.
In his song “Chocolate Jesus,” Tom describes a divine confection for those who cannot or do not want to go to church on Sundays:
Well, I don’t go to church on Sunday
Don’t get on my knees to pray
Don’t memorize the books of the bible
I got my own special way
I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more
Fall down on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee’s candy store
Well, it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied.(1)
Much of the song is up to interpretation: Is he describing the one with a young, innocent faith? The one who would rather do their own thing because church has too many rules? The apathetic? The one who wants salvation without sacrifice? The one who wants God without the pain of past church experiences? Sometimes there are understandable reasons why people want the chocolate Jesus, the one who just loves them, makes them feel good inside, and keeps them satisfied.
This has been me before. Perhaps you can relate. Before I became a Christian, I would visit churches from time to time looking for something, but it was never there. That might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it was the honest feeling. Years later, after becoming a Christian, I felt lost in a discipleship-less church that was big on rule-following but felt very small on love. Eventually I left and fell back into old patterns of a life without God. I tried church and it wasn’t for me. Wearily, I just wanted the God who loved me as I was.
Looking back, though, I notice something about that young man: I wanted the chocolate Jesus, sweetness without nutrition. God did love me as I was, but I started to get the impression that that was the end of the story.
Now don’t get me wrong: there is a place for the sweetness of God. The psalms tell us to “taste and see that the LORD is good,” and theologians like Jonathan Edwards write of the sweetness of God. In his Religious Affections, Edwards talked about the sweetness of Christ that brings peace and comfort to a wearied soul, a sweetness manifested in royal humility and gentleness. And this sweetness must be experienced to be understood; like honey, there is a difference between having the taste described and tasting it for yourself.
Yet Edwards also realized that one could taste sweetness and totally miss the resurrected source. Some in the era of the First Great Awakening wanted the nectar without the rooted flower. This was a major concern for Edwards and other revivalists. Were people just feeling good inside or were they being changed inside by this very goodness?
A lifetime of this sort of unrooted Christianity is detrimental to the self; generations of it is detrimental to society. It leads to an emaciated, gluttonous church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the context of an ever more powerful “Reich Church,” was an opponent of this type of church. Bonhoeffer recognized that the Christians in Hitler’s Germany were hopelessly addicted to cheap grace in an era where only costly grace could exist.
Cheap grace—that grace which is accepted without any concern for the responsibility that comes with it—is only possible in times of comfort and stability. The addiction begins when we desperately cling to security of the culture we grew up with, of the powerful position we inhabit in society, etc. Costly grace is the grace we receive as a commission to pick up the cross and follow Christ into a world that doesn’t want him. For grace produces both gratitude and obedience. To Bonhoeffer, there was no tasting the sweetness of Christ without personal crucifixion.
The chocolate Jesus can ultimately do nothing for us. If we give up any chocolate for Lent, let it be the chocolate Jesus of cheap grace who demands nothing from us and gives nothing to us. But I want to renounce the idea that I can do this alone; I want to renounce the ideology that says I can work out the best way to live my life and follow God— because I cannot. There are seasons where I need to bask in God’s grace so that I do not wallow in guilt and shame. But lest this basking devolve into self-worship, it is vital to remember that the sweetness God gives is neither of my own doing nor is it cheaply given without cost.
Give me the Jesus of bread and wine, the body and blood I am commanded to eat and drink in reverence and remembrance for my sake. Fill my soul with the Jesus of sacrifice and salvation, of victorious suffering and defiant hope.
Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Tom Waits, “Chocolate Jesus,” track 12 on Mule Variations, Anti Records, 1999.