Every time I start a new book, the angels get the giggles and say to one another, “Can you believe it? The old guy is doing it again!”
I stopped working on the book to write to you.
When the book comes out, while I hope you find it helpful, I’m writing it more for me than for you. That’s also true of sermons, lectures, and even this letter. It’s all a sort of self-examination when I ask, “Where do I hurt and sin? What are my fears and doubts? Where am I needy and afraid? How do I deal with this emptiness? Why can’t I sleep?” And then I tell Jesus that if he will help me, I’ll turn around and tell as many people as I can about what he did and how he did it.
So, if you don’t find any of what follows helpful, do know that I did. If you were a real Christian, you would be glad for your brother’s helped heart. (:
I’ve been thinking (it’s the chapter I’m working on in the book) about God’s identification with us and how he made us in his image (Imago Dei). I know, I know. “It’s not about us, it’s about him.” And that feels spiritual to say. But while that statement is partially true, it misses a very important biblical truth. Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). (By the way, that isn’t a verse you can use to get your husband or wife to stop smoking and get some exercise.) It is an amazing statement of the reality, value, and focus of God on us. And then Paul goes even further, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).
In other words, while it’s about God, it’s also about us. In fact, the reason for creation is us. Before God created the world, the sun and the moon; hung the stars in the sky; and hollowed out the valleys and made the mountains, he thought about us. Love does that, you know? Real love is focused on those who are loved. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16).
The implications of human beings being created in the image of God are many and profound. It’s the reason every person is valuable. It’s the basis of the pro-life movement. It’s the reason Christians are called to respect and affirm people whose views we find offensive and whose actions cause us to wince. It’s the reason believers feel such sorrow at sin without having to be told. It’s the cure for racism and xenophobia. It’s the source and reason for our longings, and the explanation for our redemption. As a great number of people move away from any belief in or even awareness of our being created in God’s image, it’s also the reason for the meaninglessness and alienation that permeates our culture. If we’re created in the image of God, it’s good news. If we’re just a vagrant happenstance, there is no good news.
When we get the amazing message of God’s identification with us by creating us in his image, it becomes a game changer. When we go through periods of great sadness and loss, mature Christians tell us to just grow up and deal with it. When we get too frisky and laugh, they tell us to just calm down and be serious. But what if both the sadness and the laughter are gifts? And not only that, what if the very place where we encounter God is the place of our lament and our laughter? Our lament is deep and wrenching, and our laughter is free and joyful, because restoration (and the knowledge of it) is what it means to be created in the image of God. It is a reflection of the lament and laughter of God himself.
We live in a world that is, at minimum, not what it’s supposed to be. Something is seriously wrong and everyone knows it. That knowledge is particularly extant in believers who know God’s plan, but it’s not just a Christian knowing. It’s reflected in the music, art, culture, and philosophies of thoughtful people everywhere. It’s reflected in the silent—if unspoken and undefined—sadness and joy of everyone. Logic suggests that people who live in the darkness of a fallen world would simply accept the dark with nothing more than stoic acquiescence, but that’s not what has happened. In the hearts of human beings there is always the cry, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” That’s the basis of our universal longing.
In Calvin Miller’s wonderful The Singer, the Singer (i.e. Christ) is being tortured and will soon die. World Hater (i.e. Satan) cries out with delight to Earthmaker (i.e. God), “I have you crying, Earthmaker. You can never glory in your universal riches, for I have made you poor. . . . You lie at man’s caprice and wait for him to break your heart. Earthmaker is crying at the mercy of his earth. . . . Cry, Creator, cry! This is my day to stand upon the breast of God and claim my victory over love. You lost the gamble. In but an hour your lover will be pulp upon the gallows. Did you tell him when his fingers formed the world, that he would die . . . groaning with his hands crushed and whimpering in my great machine?”
Yes, the Creator does cry. He laughs, too.
G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy writes about God who delights (and is even childlike) in creation: “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Do you know what I’ve discovered? The Bible is full of God’s sadness and gladness. For instance, in Genesis 6:6 and Psalm 78:40, God is “grieved.” And in Hosea 11:8, there is great pathos in God’s heart at the thought of giving up his people: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” There is also laughter and joy everywhere too. Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
You ask, “So?”
Did you hear about the little boy who was drawing? When his father asked him what he was drawing, the little boy said that he was drawing a picture of God. His father told him that nobody knew what God looked like. “They will,” the boy said, turning back to his drawing, “when I’m finished.”
I haven’t finished the chapter on the image of God yet. I’ll get back to you when I have some more answers to your question of “So?” But let me tell you something that I’ve already discovered. God’s gift to his people is the freedom to be real, and there is great power in that. It’s not only a gift; it’s a reflection of God himself. When it hurts deeply and the tears flow, God’s tears are mixed with yours. When you laugh at a good joke, dance at a fun party, and delight in a friend or someone you love, you can hear his laughter intermingled with yours.
I’m often asked how we can sense the presence of God. Waiting and watching in the silence is, of course, always appropriate. The Bible and prayer are a part of it. And the religious “means of grace” in fellowship with God’s people are helpful too. But did you ever think that sensing the presence of God happens when you laugh at a good joke or cry at a great loss? What if that is the place where we hear the “soft sound of sandaled feet” more than at church?
Do you know why the cross and the resurrection are so powerful? The cross is the place of God’s greatest sadness, pathos, and tears. And when Jesus—a dead Messiah—got out of the grave it became the place where God’s laughter spilled over onto a sad and broken world. The power of the cross (his and yours) and the joy of the resurrection (his and yours) are where we profoundly meet God.
We are often not what we appear to be. I have a friend (and he knows me well) who says that I’m the most intense and inhibited friend he has. “You seem loose, laid-back, and easygoing, but you’re not.” I asked Jesus and he said, “Bingo.”
So I’m going to let Jesus change me! When I feel like laughing, I’m going to laugh out loud (even if it’s inappropriate). And when I feel like crying, I’m not going to hide my tears.
Jesus said that he would show.
You can do that, too, and with the same result.
He told me to tell you.