The Christian story dwells upon the tender elements in the world which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds its purpose in the present immediacy of a Kingdom not of this world . . .
– Alfred North Whitehead
In order to make sense of certain biblical passages, we first of all have to examine—or re-examine—the images we have of God and of ourselves. If these are distorted, as they frequently are, then we have very little chance of understanding some of the things that are said throughout the pages of Scripture.
For example, a reading from the Book of Micah seems to give the impression of a God who is in anguish and sorrowful over the way he is being treated; that is, dishonored and ignored by his people:
O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me. For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the House of bondage, and I sent you Moses, and Aaron and Miriam (Mic. 6:3–4).
This is not the voice of an avenging and powerful God, but of an unrequited and heartbroken lover. Is this how we usually think about God?
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:22–24).
To which many then and now might respond: Are you kidding? Are you asking us to believe in a God who pours himself out completely into our messed-up and often malicious humanity, ends up on a cross of suffering, and then dies? That would be foolish or, as St. Paul says, an act of folly.
And consider the Gospel of Luke, in which we hear the famous Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek . . . and so forth. Perhaps more often than we would like to admit, the Beatitudes are received with more than a little cynicism by the sophisticated and powerful people of the world; they are regarded as utterly ridiculous, a sure formula for creating a community of wimps and weaklings. “C’mon,” we hear them say, “who can run a government or a country or a business on those principles? It can’t be done. Besides, how could we possibly respect a God who would make such demands upon his people?”
The images of God and humankind that are described in these readings were completely revolutionary at the time they were written, and they remain completely revolutionary in our own times. The good news of the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus was then and is now a total inversion of secular power. Secular power seeks conquest and domination of others, and is based on self-assertion and self-sufficiency. Secular power spends time and energy on building elaborate strategies of protection as it plots its own solitary survival. The reign of God, on the other hand, was not a proclamation of conquest, but a proclamation of reconciliation—of humankind with God, and of men and women with each other. How different, how naïve, how foolish must all this sound to technological man in a schizoid world, a world that is power based, fragmented, and increasingly violent.
And yet this is precisely what we are asked to believe in: a God who is vulnerable, a Savior who empties himself of power and dies on a cross, a Spirit who fashions a people called to risk their lives and reputations for the sake of the hungry, the poor, the helpless, and the hopeless. What a strange religion we profess! Can we believe in such a God, and can we live in such a manner?
This is our challenge as a Christian community, and it is not an easy one. We need to give more time, thought, and prayer to reflect on the kind of God we worship and love. Our God is a God of intimacy and affection, a God who is not immune to our own indifference or lack of hospitality toward him. The God we hear speaking in the Book of Micah is sorrowful and hurt by the rejection of his people. This is a God who is looking for a response from his people, whom he loves, and does not receive it. The same is true of Jesus. He does not go to the cross unaffected by the rejection of his people. He goes to the cross brokenhearted over his seeming failure to receive from them the love that he was seeking.
We must rid ourselves of any notions or images of God that would remove him from experiencing the suffering that love and fidelity often entail. God has entered into our lives completely, and we must never forget this astounding truth of our faith. The theologian John Shea expresses this truth well:
Often theologians, fearful of losing God’s transcendence, deny him . . . the flesh he has freely taken. . . . God shares our human existence, and when our psyches crack, and our bodies break, he suffers. When in love and freedom we release each other from our fears, heal our wounds and build the beloved community, he rejoices with us.
Shea concludes with this almost scandalous sentence:
We have no right to deny God our pain and our hope, for we are part of him.
This is the true and revealed image of our God to which we must hold fast. This is the God represented in the cross of Christ, which Paul calls “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
And what about us? How can we possibly live up to the ideals of the Beatitudes? Perhaps it is not as impossible as we might think. It is possible, but it may require that we give up some of our most cherished images of ourselves; images of self-sufficiency, of self-protection, of invulnerability, of privacy and isolation—images tightly clung to by our egos.
Shea has described the ego as “the self turned inward, preoccupied and anxious about its status.” It is this false conception of ourselves that Jesus asks us to renounce. When Jesus talks about self-sacrifice and renunciation, he is not asking us to engage in some kind of masochism. He is asking us to free ourselves from the imprisonment of self-centeredness and to open ourselves to the wealth and richness of a full human life. Christian love demands sacrifice, yes. But what must be given up is not the self, that unique image of God in each one of us, but rather the ego or the false self. Authentic Christian love is a movement from the disillusion of the ego to the expansion of the self. It is a process in which the self becomes a willingness to belong to other people, to embrace other people, and to grow with them.
In his book entitled The New Testament without Illusion, John L. McKenzie makes a very important observation. In a chapter in which he discusses magic and miracles as they are portrayed in the Gospel accounts of Jesus, he says that neither magic nor miracles are expected or required from the followers of Christ. He then refers to the 25th chapter of St. Mathew’s Gospel, a passage with which we are all familiar:
Then the king will say to those on his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me . . .” (Matt. 25:34–36)
Notice that there is neither magic nor miracles required of anyone in order to perform these tasks. They are very simple, basic, even common activities in which one person is helping another. And yet, according to Jesus, they carry the weight of eternity within them. McKenzie remarks about this passage: “In this scene of Matthew, no one is praised or condemned for performing or failing to perform wonders, but for performing or refusing to perform tasks that are entirely within our powers, if these powers be motivated by love. When these things are done, the Reign of God has arrived.”
As Christians, we believe in a God who was vulnerable and generous. Our God is asking the same of us; namely, that we be vulnerable and generous to each other—nothing more, and nothing less. It will be precisely through these kinds of behaviors—caring, consideration, and kindness to each other—that we will work out our destinies and, in the process, become more fully human.
Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.