Your Own Personal Jesus?
By Tom Gibbs

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash.

In 1989, the popular British electronica band Depeche Mode released a song that went on to be among their biggest hits, “Personal Jesus.” The song begins,

Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who’s there

Though interpretations of the song were legion, songwriter and lead band member Martin Gore explained, perhaps surprisingly, that this song is about Priscilla Presley’s relationship to Elvis. In 1990 he told Spin magazine, “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about how Elvis Presley was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”

I think we would all agree on the danger of trying to turn our earthly relationships, no matter how intimate or healthy, into a substitute for our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even Gore anticipates this danger. As Christians, we rightly identify this as yet one more form of idolatry.

Nevertheless, embedded in this familiar tendency of the sinful human heart to turn the things and people of this world into idols upon which we depend is a different temptation. This one, perhaps, is more subtle but no less dangerous. Unlike Gore’s metaphor, this one rears its head only when talking about the actual Jesus of the Bible. Who really is Jesus? What kind of person is he? Turns out, when we try to answer this question, regardless of the biblical record, the abiding tendency of the human heart is to make Jesus exactly who we want him to be.

At least part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the overwhelming popularity of Jesus. No matter how secular or pluralistic this current cultural moment, one might say Jesus still is king. Case in point: a recent Wall Street Journal article notes that the peak time for searching for “Jesus” on the Internet typically is the week of Easter, but in 2023 interest peaked in February. According to the article, this was due to two ads sponsored by the He Gets Us campaign that aired during the Super Bowl telecast. 

You may recall them. In one, children are shown being kind to each other and to animals while Patsy Cline sings about viewing the world through the eyes of a child. In stark contrast, the other featured a montage of Americans angrily confronting one another against the background of Rag’n’Bone Man’s soulful and hard-hitting track “Human.” Both ended with the slogan: “He Gets Us. All of Us.” There are now almost two dozen such videos that can be found at

To be sure, the ideals of this campaign are noble and even consistent with Jesus’ command to share the good news of the gospel. Unfortunately, however, this conversation all too often ends up in the crosshairs of Christians who are confident they know what Jesus would say or do, yet who also have starkly different points of view.

For example, it didn’t take long for progressives to indict the He Gets Us campaign for spending (wasting?) millions of dollars on an effort Jesus surely would never have supported. By the same token, religious conservatives objected to the campaign’s perceived undue emphasis upon the humanity of Jesus to the exclusion his “divinity and clear call to conversion.” As the Wall Street Journal article notes, “At a time of shrinking church membership, Jesus remains a uniquely powerful and popular figure in American culture. The great divide is over what he stands for.” 

I must recognize if Jesus always agrees with me and never challenges me, then it is likely I have departed from the Jesus of the Bible.

Though the appeals to Jesus’ character and authority are laudable, our struggle to find more common ground on just who Jesus is sabotages those appeals and often only deepens what divides us.

This problem is not new; Christian scholarship has acknowledged it for at least a century. It was theologian George Tyrell who first recognized the tendency in modern biblical scholarship see in Jesus what scholars wanted to see. Commenting on a study by theologian Adolf von Harnack, he wrote, “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”¹ 

In a 1998 article in Christianity Today titled “The Jesus I’d Prefer to Know,” John Stackhouse astutely notes the following:

Skeptics dismiss Jesus as a lunatic, a charlatan, a troubled poet, or an impotent revolutionary—or embrace him as an ironical, detached, innocuous fellow such as they see themselves to be. Rationalists who do not discard him discover him to be logical, sensible, and practical. Liberals admire him as idealistic, brave, kind, and wise. Romantics extol him as passionate, vital, and free. Reformers revere him as bold, visionary, impatient, and forceful. Some modern Jewish scholars find Jesus to be, in fact, a pretty good Pharisee (while Paul, the ex-Pharisee, turns out to be the troublemaker who actually started the Christian religion).

Quoting the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, Stackhouse summarizes his point: “Theologians produced the figure they could admire most at the least cost.”

In this post-everything age, which recognizes the bias and claims to power inherent in all interpretation, no matter our view of the human condition, we can all regard this human tendency as plausible. Unfortunately, this tendency is also problematic if one is seeking to have conversation with others about who Jesus really is.

So, what are we to do? Well, why not start with greater humility and self-awareness? Admitting that we have a knowing and interpreting problem is the first step towards greater health (Matt. 9:13; 1 Cor. 8:2). Let’s start by acknowledging the pervasive and sinful tendency we all have to imagine a version of Jesus, the Jesus we prefer, separate from the complete and authoritative biblical account Jesus is revealed to be. What is so tricky about all forms of self-deception is also true here. This tendency shows itself precisely when I believe I have eliminated the whole concept of bias as even an issue. Therefore, I don’t have to listen to other divergent perspectives or entertain the idea that I have more to learn. How tragic. 

Though it was not the point of the song, we all tend to seek our own “personal Jesus,” even when using the Scriptures. And if, like Thomas Jefferson, we have a pair of mental scissors, our personal Jesus will not be hard to discover.² Surely, you and I can recognize the dangers in such a project. Nevertheless, I must recognize if Jesus always agrees with me and never challenges me, then it is likely I have departed from the Jesus of the Bible. 

By contrast, let’s endeavor to wrestle with the infinitely more complex picture of Jesus we are given in the Scripture. After all, no matter how strongly we object to something we observe Jesus do or say in the biblical accounts, we will not be able to celebrate the other things he says and does unless we regard all of them as authoritative and true. As with any person, we must receive the total composite picture of Jesus. When we do that the picture that emerges is a Jesus who is more beautifully human than anyone I have encountered, but who is also sovereign and divine, demanding my absolute allegiance. 

Jesus is clearly personal, but he is not just mine. At the feet of this Jesus, we are comforted in the way we have most longed for, but we are also summoned away from self to a life of sacrifice and devotion to our Lord and love for our neighbor.

Tom Gibbs is the president of Covenant Theological Seminary.

1. Christianity at the Crossroads, London: Longman Greens, 1909, 49.

2. Our third president famously created his own version of the Bible. At 84 pages, it was focused only on Jesus, but left out anything that could be regarded as miraculous or divine. In the end, Jefferson’s personal Jesus was a man of morals consistent with Enlightenment ideals. 

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