Imagine that I buy my wife Becca some beautiful chocolate bonbons. Exquisitely crafted, carefully chosen. But instead of wrapping them up in box laced with ribbon, I put them in a Tupperware box. Then, when she comes home and sits down, I throw the box onto the couch and say, “Enjoy!” as bon-bons go flying everywhere.
This would be… unfortunate. It would probably not land as a gift of love because, ultimately—deliciousness of the chocolates aside—the container matters.
This has often been my experience within the Church. We’ve got chocolates, but the container stinks. We have good news of new life available in and through God, but if we don’t demonstrate the care of Jesus and his posture in how we are with people, the message rings hollow.
I hate it when I see people standing on street corners with “repent or perish” signs. The context around their invitation is so different than the context Jesus put around his. I’ve had people say to me, “Well, at least they’re doing something.” But I fear they are doing more damage than good.The message to repent is actually good news, a good chocolate, but the way it gets packaged, without a container of care and compassion, reduces it to liverwurst. They aren’tdoing what Jesus did, which was to make present the Reign of God as the container of his message. Jesus gave hard words to people, but he didn’t broadcast them broadly from a street corner. He was withpeople. He healed them, and he revealed that God is about life and wholeness. He went to the houses of outcasts, like Zacchaeus, and shared meals with them. He made present the love of God as an invitation into the Reign of God. From this place of love, we—like Jesus—can challenge people to believe. It’s not our place to do so from any other posture.
Jesus lives in this posture of hospitality and invitation because, ultimately, he has a higher goal in mind than just getting people to “straighten up” or “get in line.” Within his commitment to redeem all things, Jesus is focused on re-humanizing those that God the Father gives him to love.
Our humanity is precious, but it often gets lost. It gets buried within us.
I have a neighbor whose sorrow is so intense that she drowns it almost nightly with Jim Beam. She used to come over and talk with me, slightly drunk (sometimes more than slightly). However, at some point—no doubt after a few times sobering up and remembering her behavior—she got embarrassed. She rarely comes by our house anymore. She is slowly drinking herself to death in a bid to numb the pain she feels so deeply, trying to stay one step ahead of it. She has endured so much heartache and disappointment that avoidance and survival is the only path she sees. She is a woman whose story needs to be heard, whose pain needs to be held. That’s the way that healing comes. But she is terrified of telling her story and of facing that darkness. It’s easier to turn to the bottle. In the short-term, it’s always easier to avoid, even if it costs us everything over time.
Our humanity is the place that holds our deepest longing. When God created us, we were made “in His image” as vessels that contain the same longing for love and relationship that lives within God Himself.In fact, God Himself isa relationship, which we call the Trinity. Our humanity, made in His image, yearns for relationship in which we can know and be known, love and be loved, belong and be safe and in turn invite others to be the same.This longing is the center of the Imago Dei, the Image of God, within us. Think of this core part of us as a vibrant, shining heart which is unable to be dampened. It can be covered over, but the light itself can never be extinguished. To be human is to experience this longing for love burning within us, just as it burns in God. This longing means we can be satisfied, but it also means we can be racked with loneliness, pain, and despair.
To staunch our pain, we often do things that dehumanize us. Things that are less than what we are intended for. This was the first sin of Adam and Eve, who used discontent with their station in the universe as a pretense for justifying their rebellion against God.They attempted to get power on their own terms through knowledge that would be “like God’s,” so that they wouldn’t have to be so dependent on Him. This has become the human pattern: we look for some power that can free us from our need for God and from our need for relationship in general. Real relationship require vulnerability, which can feel terrifying; it’s easier to figure out how to meet or control our emotional needs on our terms, without having to be vulnerable. This leads to self-focus, which is the heart of sin.Sin is the movement of focusing on our own needs, independent of others and without regard or repentance for our behavior’s impact on others. It takes us out of relationship and, since we were designed for relationship, dehumanizes us. Adam and Eve, as humans, were meant to dwell with God, but they were dehumanized through their fall.They literally hid from God, a posture exactly opposite from the flourishing, with God and with one another, that God intended.
Indeed, when we try to find new ways of being powerful through sin, we always become dehumanized. When I was five, I pretended not to hear my best friend as he called my name, simply to hurt him, so that I could feel the sense of power that comes from wounding someone else rather than being the one wounded. My neighbor drinks to find some power that can, even for a moment, push away the pain of her humanity. When we engage these temptations to gain power over our vulnerability—when we engage sin—it leads to death, just as it did for Adam and Eve.Part of this death is feeling less than human, less aware of our connection to the Divine and to the image of God within each of us. The vibrancy of our bright heart and our God-longing gets buried beneath shame and guilt and pain.
How do we address these realities? And how do I approach my neighbor? Her humanity has become saturated by pain, and she is no longer living to fulfill the longing for love but rather to stay one step ahead of despair. She is living to survive. I could call her out on her sin of over-drinking (and in fact, we have discussed it). After all, Jesus doesconfront sin. But Jesus’ goal is never justto confront sin; Jesus’ goal is to re-humanize. Unless we understand that, we can’t understand his mission in the world, nor how to be with others. Jesus doesn’t condemn because he always sees through the pain and into the humanity, into the original intent of creation, into the Imago Dei of the person who is before him.
For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'
I’m not arguing that God can’t ever use such signs, just that we shouldn’t confuse the mercy of God (who can use almost anything to lead people to hope) with the bone-headedness on the part of people.
Genesis 1:26; I John 4:8.
Perichoresisis a Greek word used to describe the continual movement of self-giving love within the Trinity, the mutuality of endless relationship within the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
See Genesis 3.
Sin, in Scripture, most literally means “missing the mark.” Since God is love, anything which is not others-focused love, such self-focus and self-obsession, misses the mark.
It is of note that many scholarsthink the phrase “Son of Man,” used often in reference to Jesus and used by Jesus to describe himself, can also be translated “The Truly Human One.” Cf. Luke 9:22, et al.
Cf. James 1:13-15.