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Putting On Christ and Finding Ourselves
By John Newton
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 John Newton
All rights reserved.
The Big Why
The more I become an "adult," the more I want to become a child again. I admire a child's questioning nature. My brother-in-law Jamie asked a lot of questions as a child and so his parents placed him on a strict ten question per day limit. When a child first learns to ask the question why, it will take years for him to stop asking. "It is time to go to bed. Why? Because I said so. Why? Because I'm in charge. Why?"
Of course those are all small why questions. Eventually we get to the big why. Why are we here? Why did God create us? Why were we made? God wove the big why question into our DNA and eventually we all get around to asking it.
I will never forget the first hopeless answer I ever got to the big why question. I was in college. We were reading some philosopher that got rich and famous for his response to the big why. He basically said that the human race was the random result of atoms colliding. Why are we here? According to this particular philosopher, we are here because of a molecular accident. This is no doubt the most hopeless answer to the big why question I've ever heard.
It may surprise you to discover that most people throughout history have given an answer with a similar ring of hopelessness. If you happened to grow up in the ancient Near East around 1200 BCE, just before the Book of Genesis was written, your world would have been incredibly dark and hopeless. Most people believed that many gods existed and that each god was at war with the others. As a kid you no doubt asked your parents why the gods created you in the first place. There isn't a kid in the world that doesn't get to the big why eventually. "We were created because the gods were bored." "We were created because the gods were lonely." "We were created because the gods were lazy and needed free labor." In other words, in the ancient Near East there was no why.
It was into this horribly dark and hopeless world that these words from Scripture were first recorded. "In the beginning ... God created the heavens and the earth ... And God saw that it was good ... God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them" (Gen 1:1, 25, 27).
We don't quite understand how radical and foreign these words would have sounded in their original context. We don't feel the scandal such a claim would have evoked from its first hearers. In 1200 BCE no one had ever conceived that the earth was good, that God was good, or that you and I were created in the image of a single God. This concept would have been as foreign to that world as the telephone.
What was and is so scandalous about the Biblical world-view is that we are not only made in God's image but that we were also created to bear God's likeness (Gen 1:26). Of course, this will make us wonder what exactly God is like in the first place, a question this book will answer in due time. However, our familiarity with sayings like "God is good" or "we are infinitely valuable" sometimes leads to overfamiliarity. And the moment anything becomes overfamiliar to us, it loses its transformative power. Such is why I want us to feel the controversy, scandal, and shock the Bible would have no doubt been to its first hearers. "You are made in the image of a good God. You are infinitely precious and intended to bear the likeness of the goodness that only belongs to God." These words were written to a hopeless world and nothing has ever been the same.
The Bible and "The Big Why"
I increasingly believe that the Bible's answer to the big why has the power to transform our life. It says we were created to reveal, reflect, and image a very good God as we grow into God's own likeness.
In contrast to a warring pantheon, the Bible reveals a supra-personal, loving God. The God of the Bible has three distinct personalities on the one hand, and yet is one. I am referring to the doctrine of the Trinity, which says that the God of the universe is a perfect community of love. The Bible contends that it was this Triune God, this Perfect Community, that created both our world and us. As Genesis 1:1 tells us, "God created," which we attribute to the work of the Father. In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, which is the exact same language the gospels use to speak of the Holy Spirit hovering over the water at Jesus' baptism. Finally, Genesis 1:3 tells us that God creates by speaking His Word. Creation is not something that God thinks into existence. Rather God speaks, and creation is called into existence. Christians believe that this "Word" is expressed fully in the person of Jesus Christ.
We all wrestle with the big why. We yearn to know what makes life meaningful, as well as what gives us value and significance. How we answer the big why often determines whether our life is a blessing or a nightmare.
This is why spiritual growth happens only as we acknowledge that we were not created because God is bored. We were not created because God is lazy. We are not a molecular accident or a cosmic goof. We exist because at the heart of all reality is a wonderful and dynamic Life Christians call the Trinity. We exist because this God is generous and kind and good, and because God wanted to create us to be what Swiss theologian Karl Barth called "a parable of His own life."
I fear too many of us have forgotten who we are, or like the pre-Genesis ancient Near Easterners were never told in the first place. Many people tend to oscillate between two extremes when it comes to our self-image. One view says we deserve a place equal to God. A few religions even teach that we are divine. On the opposite side of the pole we find the radically scientific and secular viewpoint where humans are a freakish cosmic accident-the random result of a random "bang." Christians accept neither viewpoint. We believe that we are the pinnacles of God's creative work, that we bear the image of the Triune God, and that we are created to share in God's life as we grow into God's likeness.
The Shape of God's Image
Since we exist to be God's image-bearers and to grow into God's likeness, it would be good to put some flesh on what it actually means to live into this purpose. The foundation of growing into our God-given purpose is a clear understanding that we have a dignity and a worth that comes to us from God. "Worthiness" is foundational when we speak of our purpose to grow into God's likeness so that we might "image" God in the world. A belief in our worthiness and goodness and preciousness, apart from what we do or don't do, is central. Christians have a word for the unshakable worthiness we have before God irrespective of what we do or don't do. We call it grace. Built on the grace-full foundation of our worthiness before God, the Bible suggests that we reflect God most clearly when we participate in an intimate, life-giving relationship with God and each other, and when we engage in creative, meaningful work.
We are created to enjoy an intimate relationship with God and other people. Although we tend to speak of these as separate realities, in truth the two are deeply intertwined. We cannot have an intimate relationship with God and not draw closer to our brothers and sisters. Similarly, we cannot be courageously vulnerable and transparent with other people and not feel a divine tug to draw closer to God.
We were created to converse with God, to delight in God, and to trust in God. The early Church Fathers used the Greek word parrhesia to describe the intimacy Adam experienced with God in the Garden of Eden. Parrhesia implies a relationship characterized by freedom, boldness, and sincerity. Parrhesia is about showing God and others our "secret self." The Book of Genesis infers that Adam and God took an intimate, nightly walk together in the cool of the day. Adam was naked, a symbol for being fully known and comfortable in the presence of God.
I can't imagine that Adam was ashamed to walk naked with God. In fact we can only assume that God was naked as well. To be in the nude must have felt like the most natural thing in the world for Adam. Like an innocent child with the Father he admired so much, Adam walked nightly with his God, his friend, and his hero. Basking in the created world, Adam no doubt asked a million different big why questions as he continually explored the magnificence and wonder of life and of his place at the center of God's "very good" created realm.
Adam was exactly what God created him to be. He was wholly whole and fully himself. Adam was a priest, for to live was to worship and to worship was to breathe. Life was a natural and glorious exercise in reflecting back to God all of the goodness and love that God so freely poured into him. The word interpenetration seems to me the best descriptor of the perfect relationship that God and Adam enjoyed. God lived inside of Adam and Adam lived inside of God.
Intimacy with Others
Human relationships seem much more in our reach of understanding. We intuit at a deep level that to live meaningful lives we must learn to love other people. Thomas Merton said it's impossible to become fully "us" until we learn to truly love another person.
The Book of Genesis gives us a wonderful picture of Adam's life with God before "the fall." There is no sin, no disobedience, and nothing that damages Adam's relationship with God. Genesis also tells us that everything that God has created thus far is good. "God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was good." The light was good, the ocean was good, and the plants were good. The "goodness" of God's created world is the constant refrain of Genesis in chapter one. It was all "good," that is until we get to Genesis 2:18.
For the first time God looks at the man and says, "not good!" Someone once told me God says "not good" because God likes women better. But I think the reason God says "not good" is because Adam is "alone." A better translation of the Hebrew Bible would be that Adam was "disconnected."
Like each and every one of us, God created Adam to connect with other people at a deep, meaningful level. God created Adam for authentic and transparent relationships. There is only one problem. There is no one for Adam to connect with!
The Genesis story then takes a dark and comedic twist. God becomes Adam's wingman. Adam is lonely and God decides to "set him up." God makes a bunch of animals and parades them in front of Adam so he can choose a partner to "connect" with from among them. Adam is all alone in Eden and God brings to him animal after animal-horse, buffalo, cat, lizard, rat, cheetah-and God essentially says, "Adam, these are for you. Take your pick!" But as the story goes, "for the man there was not found a helper as his partner" (Gen 2:20). Adam's situation remains the same. Adam is still not connected with another person. "Not good."
The Bible then introduces us to Eve. God sends Adam into a deep sleep and forms Eve from Adam's rib. This act is meant to symbolize their deep interconnectedness as well as their common grounding in God, creation, and each other. Adam awakes and screams at last! "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!" (Gen 2:23). It is here, for the first time, that we are told that Eden was a nudist colony. "The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed" (Gen 2:25).
I like to imagine Adam's walk with God after seeing Eve for the first time. Was it difficult for Adam to leave her? Did Adam really want to walk with God that night, or did he prefer to stay with Eve? I don't really know. What I do know is that Adam felt so loved and so blessed by his God, his friend, and his hero. His God was always surprising him and blessing him with amazing new experiences and gifts.
I imagine Adam and God talked about how beautiful Eve was and about how much fun he was having getting to know her. When I began dating my wife Emily, I'm not sure I talked to God about anything else! It's no coincidence that our first dance as a married couple was to Etta James' At Last!
As for Eve, she must have felt so safe, loved, and cherished. She didn't feel used or taken for granted. She knew, in a way that no woman has ever known since, that she was appreciated and admired for who she was. Adam knew her because he saw her complete, naked, and secret self fully. Life in the nudist colony was good. Eve had a deep and intimate relationship with both Adam and God. That was, after all, why she existed in the first place.
I worked as a hospital chaplain a couple years ago and I had the privilege of being at the bedside of many dying people. I clearly remember two types of people. I met plenty of people who had measured their success by what they achieved. They had accomplished great things but never really connected with God or even their own family. They had a stockpile of wealth and power and social status, but like Adam before he met Eve, they were disconnected. Each one died with bitter regrets, or with bitter complaints, depending on whether they blamed others or themselves for their "lot" in life.
I also remember a second group, which I will call "connectors." These connectors measured their success by the relationships they formed and nurtured over the course of their lives. They were deeply committed to their family and friends. They had learned well the art of giving and receiving love. Their funerals, I was told, were standing room only. Not one of them regretted having lived their life for their God, their friends, their neighbors, their children, their family, or their church-not a single one.
I had a Bible study leader once that would always say we have a God-shaped hole in our heart that only God can fill. I think he was right. As St. Augustine once said, "our souls are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord." But a second and less obvious truth exists that we far too often ignore. We all have a human-shaped hole that God chooses not to fill.
I do not mean to suggest that we all need to get married or be romantically involved. However, Adam was with God before "the fall" and according to the Bible he was still disconnected. Adam had a human-shaped hole in his heart. No substitute, including God's Self, could fill that hole.
No substitute can fill our need to connect deeply with other people either. Not money. Not busyness. Not business. Not casual sex. Not casual conversation. Not looks. Not books. Not brains. Not achievement. Not alcohol. Not even our daily private time with God. Adam was in a state of sinless perfection, and yet Genesis tells us that he was "disconnected." According to God, that's "not good."
An intimate, life-giving relationship with God and other people is important but by itself relationship cannot answer the big why. Creative, meaningful work also lies at the heart of why we exist.
We hear something radical and shocking in Genesis 2:2: God "finished the work that he had done." The idea that God works was perhaps more shockingly scandalous than the notion that God loves us, especially when we place the Bible alongside other creation accounts of the day. For example, in the "Enuma Elish" we find the Babylonian creation myth with its views on the dignity of human work. The Enuma Elish tells the story of a great battle between the gods. In the ancient Near East, the gods were always at war with one another. A tale is told of the bold and daring young Marduk who wins a great battle of the gods. Marduk celebrates by slashing open the belly of one of the defeated gods. As the story goes, out of that dead, defeated god's belly came the world you and I inhabit.
Marduk is gracious. He invites the other gods to live on the earth and to enjoy its resources. But the gods soon discover that keeping up with the earth is a full-time job! The gods come up with a solution. They create humans to do the work they are too lazy to do.
The Babylonians had an incredibly low view of work. But so did the Greeks. Greek myth tells the story of Pandora's Box. According to legend, Zeus gave a woman named Pandora a beautiful box and said, "Under no circumstances are you to open this!" Unable to curb her curiosity, Pandora did what any seven-year-old would do. She opened the box! And in that box Pandora discovered all the evils and sickness of the world-death, decay, disease, Brussels sprouts, and of course work! Like the Babylonians before them, the Greeks had an incredibly low view of human work.
One can begin to see how the Bible was and is so scandalous, unique, and different. The Bible says work has dignity because God works. "In the beginning" God plants a garden. Work is not beneath God. Creative, meaningful work is something that God delights in and created us to experience.
Many Greeks taught that if you had to work, the only noble profession was to become a philosopher. Philosophers, after all, don't have to get their hands dirty. In light of all this, it is humbling to consider that Jesus spent thirty years of his life working as a blue-collar carpenter. Jesus had more in common with factory workers than he did with the tenured professor or the priest.
If nothing else, the Bible's high view of work should make us reconsider our picture of "the good life." Paradise is not an extended vacation or about acquiring enough money to relax, eat cake, and do nothing. Paradise is about beauty and friendship and God and work. Creative and meaningful work is at the heart of the big why. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but Christians call the meaningful work God has given us to do "mission." But we will say more about this later.
Excerpted from New Clothes by John Newton. Copyright © 2014 John Newton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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