A Strange Way of Being Human: God and the Modern Self #11

In the past three installments we’ve allowed Jesus to teach us who God is. This view of God differs radically from the modern self’s image. The God revealed in Jesus is a “for us” and “with us” God. The Father of Jesus Christ is the gracious giver of life and the Savior who gave himself for us. In no way is this God a threat to the genuine good of human beings.

Now we allow Jesus to model for us what a human being is supposed to be. In the next two installments we will unfold a view of humanity that makes clear from the human side that defiance or subservience or indifference toward God is not necessary for the full flowering of our humanity. Ultimately, I want to show that only by affirming God’s full deity can we affirm our full humanity.

The contemporary and culturally dominant view understands the human self as a center of arbitrary will that, in its search for happiness, can exercise its freedom and dignity only by doing what it pleases without external restraint. Christianity teaches, in contrast, that human beings are created by God, in the image of God. Only by actually imaging God in our actions and character can we exercise our true freedom, experience our dignity and attain happiness. Human beings are by nature “aimed” at God and open to God. We are born with the potential to be conformed to the image of God and united to God through Christ. And that potential cannot be fulfilled in any other way.

In the gospels, Jesus refers to himself most often as “the son of man.” But Mark begins his gospel by designating Jesus as “the Son of God.” When “supernatural” characters speak about Jesus, they often call him “the Son of God.” Most importantly, the divine voice heard at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration, said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The concept of “Son of God” as it is developed in the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament is rich and full. It includes affirmation of Jesus’ divine nature and his eternal existence with the Father; and it gives character to Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was both divine and human. Hence when Jesus related to his Father, he related as God and human at the same time. Or let me put it another way. Jesus related to God as human in time the way he relates to the Father eternally: in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love. We see this dual relationship dramatically illustrated in the temptations Jesus endured at the beginning of his ministry and in his prayerful struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion.

After his baptism and the heavenly voice’s declaration of Jesus’ sonship, Jesus immediately went into the desert, as Matthew describes it, “to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). The devil placed three temptations before Jesus: to turn stones to bread to satisfy his hunger, to leap off the Temple to test God’s promises, and to worship the devil to receive power over the world. In two out of the three temptations the devil prefaced his suggestions with the words “if you are the Son of God.”  In these words the devil attempts to cast doubt on Jesus’ sonship and implies a false view of what it means to be the Son of God. Clearly, the devil thinks being the Son of God means possessing powers and privileges to be used according to one’s own selfish will. Jesus responded to each temptation by rejecting the devil’s view of divine sonship. For Jesus, divine sonship means gratitude, trust and obedience to the Father.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed to be spared from the humiliation and suffering to which he had been assigned. He begged the Father three times for relief, but after each request he said, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Again, we see the Son of God relating to God as a human being in time the way he relates eternally: with gratitude, obedience and self-giving love. Of course, this is not the end of the story. Divine sonship also means the victory and glory of the resurrection. But it must not be forgotten that even for the Son of God victory and glory come from the Father through suffering and death. And in the face suffering and death, being the Son of God means trusting and obeying God.

Perhaps this installment raises more questions than it answers: how does this view of the human relationship to God do justice to human freedom and dignity? How can we conceive of trust, obedience and self-giving as acts of freedom and dignity that lead to happiness? We don’t have answers these questions at this point, but we have established something important: if we believe that Jesus Christ models how a human being should relate to God, we have to consider the possibility that trusting, obeying and submitting our wills to God, as unlikely as it seems, really do fulfill the concepts of freedom and dignity. What a strange way of being human!

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 11 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“A New Way of Being Human”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the proposal that Jesus models the ideal human relationship to God. What reasons does the New Testament give for this belief?

2. Do you agree that Jesus models in his humanity in time his eternal relationship to the Father? If true, what is the significance of this likeness between the divine Son of God’s eternal relationship to God and his human relationship?

3. Discuss the temptations of Christ. How are they related to temptations that face us, and how do Jesus’ answers to the devil make sense?

4. Discuss the argument made in the last paragraph of the essay. It goes this way:

a. Jesus models the true human relationship to the God of Jesus Christ.

b. Jesus related to God his Father in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love in all circumstances.

c. To relate to the God of Jesus Christ in a truly human way, we must relate in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love in all circumstances.

The next installment will explore the implications of Jesus’ teaching that we can be God’s children too.

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