April 6, 2017 / Theology
Peter Herman’s depression helps him nurture empathy and compassion with those who suffer most under a racist regime.
September 22, 2014
In the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthew 1, the gospel writer displays a deep awareness that Jesus is the one who has come to rescue humanity from all the things that mar, deface, and thwart life, preventing it from being everything that it is supposed to be. But there is more at play in the person and work of Jesus than just his address to evil. While Matthew primarily argues that Jesus has come to save people from their sins, he also proclaims that Jesus is God with us. He is Immanuel: God among us. Apparently, for Matthew, it is the Immanuel aspect of Jesus that is the crucial factor in salvation: Jesus deals with the horrific effects of the fall by existing as God withus.
Of course, the writers, prophets, and poets of the Hebrew Scriptures also lived with and celebrated the idea of Immanuel. When reading the Old Testament, one never gets a sense that God was relegated to the heavens, ever removed from the material world. Rather, the Hebrew writers depict God as always already powerfully present in the world. We read in Genesis 1, for instance, that in the midst of chaos, above the waters, the Spirit of God was hovering. Before the creation gesture goes into motion, God is present, and as the narrative of the Old Testament Scriptures unfold, the people of God are constantly comforted (and challenged) by the reality of Yahweh’s abiding presence above the watery chaos of their lives, guiding them into a fullness of life. Theologians have traditionally referred to this as God’s omnipresence, that is, that God is everywhere present, all the time. In any single place, in some mysterious, incomprehensible way, omnipresence asserts that God is uniquely present everywhere in a complete way without being divided against himself. He is here, there, and everywhere all of the time. This consciousness is present throughout the entirety of the Old Testament.
But in the New Testament, one observes a clear shift in this principle. There we find that God is not simply present as some sort of ethereal mist. Rather, God has done something utterly unique. He has taken the human experience, the human experiment, up into himself and made it a permanent possession of his. He has made it part of his living life, his eternity. John expresses it beautifully (and memorably) when he asserts, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God, John says, has made a home with us; in taking on flesh, he has made his dwelling place in the entirety of the human experience. This is why at the end of Jesus’s ministry, just before his Ascension, he is able to say, “And lo, I am with you always. Even unto the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He can say this because in his incarnation he has united himself to us forever, and he will never lay our humanity aside. He is infinitely present within it—Immanuel.
And so it is that the church, both historically and presently, asserts that God is with us somehow in Jesus. It is easy for us, however, to let this sense of Immanuel settle into sentimentality. The idea of Immanuel gives us a bit of comfort around the holidays when it crosses our minds; perhaps it fills us with a sort of contrived hope when we sing it or see it on a greeting card. But the truth is that when this Immanuel reality fleshes itself out in Scripture, it never dribbles off into such sentimentality. Instead, the notion that God is with us is always very gritty, very raw, and very real.
When we first encounter the name Immanuel in the Scriptures, it is in the Book of Isaiah, chapters seven and eight. Ahaz, the king of Judah, is shaken because a report has come to him that two powerful nations to the north have allied themselves against him. In the midst of his distress, the prophet Isaiah tells him, in essence, do not fear these two nations because God will shatter them before your very eyes. All of that is lovely news to Ahaz’s ears, but then, as prophets do, Isaiah continues:
Because this [disobedient] people [over whom Ahaz reigns] has rejected
the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
and the son of Remaliah,
therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
Immanuel! (Isa. 8:7–8)
Ahaz is counseled not to fear the two nations to the north because the much larger and more powerful nation of Assyria will, within a generation, spread its wings over the length and breadth of the land, devastating not only the two northern nations, but also sweeping over and through even the land of Judah. But as always with Yahweh, there is a plan at work, and Isaiah will go on to insist that if Ahaz and his people knew about that plan, it would stagger their imaginations. Immanuel is present in the abject terror of this impending crisis, and through it he will bring his people to new and deeper expressions of righteousness and peace.
When the notion of Immanuel gets worked out in the Scriptures, it is never a sanitized thing. It is always in the warp and the woof, in the shift and flux of the realities of life. That is the place in which God is continually present and calling to his people. Yet when we talk about the places God inhabits, the places where he is uniquely and powerfully present, we typically locate him in the places that make us feel good. That is, he is most certainly present in the times when we are out in nature, overwhelmed by the grandiosity of creation. When we are eating our favorite food or listening to music that elevates our souls, when we are holding our babies for the first time or staring into the eyes of our beloved—we believe and acknowledge that God is in all of that. We equate a sense of the presence of God, of his nearness, with our having a pleasurable experience. But if we are reading the Scriptures correctly, then it is at least as true, if not profoundly more true, that God is uniquely present in the places of struggle. He is in those moments that turn our knuckles white and our faces pale, that make our hearts race and that initiate our fight-or-flight internal responses. He is there, powerfully present, in the things that we don’t know if we can face. And in the midst of his habitation in the grime of our lives, he is at work, cultivating something beautiful and good, working to draw something out of us that, if we will yield to his work, will cause us to move into a place of more profound, deep, and authentic humanness, into a place of inner coherence and integration.
Oftentimes, however, the way we think about faith inoculates us against seeing this. I grew up in a tradition that stressed the idea that if you had faith, your life would be happy and free of struggle. We believed that your body would always remain healthy, and you would always have enough money in the bank. The correlate of this, of course, was that if your life was malfunctioning in any way, it was a sign that you did not have enough faith, that God had withdrawn his hand from you. This meant that whenever we encountered something that was hard, we blamed ourselves and begged for God to return to us—because of course this wouldn’t be happening if God were really present and blessing us.
This sort of ideology has the subtle and pernicious effect of teaching us to view most of life as a space in which God is absent because most of life is hard. Relationships are hard. Managing money is hard. Making something out of your career is hard. Trying to overcome whatever it is that your parents did to you when you were five years old is hard. Life is a painful struggle most of the time, and the mentality that many people of faith have is that such struggles and hardships mark out the spaces of God’s absence. But this is false and destructive to our faith. By revealing himself as Immanuel, God shows that he is uniquely present in the hard places. Whatever is difficult or trying, whatever it is we want to run away from; those are the places where God in Christ has made a home among us. He is inviting us, calling us, and challenging us to stand firm and face those difficulties. He wants us to walk through it because he is working through the struggle to forge something uniquely good in us.
C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, remarks that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.” A robust, Immanuel-oriented faith will attempt to locate these places of struggle and renarrate them as, one might dare say, sacramental in their value. That is to say, if we have eyes to see it, the place of struggle can be a place where unique, transforming grace is administered to us, perhaps, we might say, in a way that it is not administered elsewhere. Our initial response to struggle, of course, typically falls along the lines of “God Almighty, how long before this is over?” But if the Immanuel reality we are describing is true, then we must rethink these patterns of thought. We must begin recognizing the places of struggle not as places where the story has somehow, through some fault of our own, gone off the rails or as places where we are experiencing something outside of the normal flow of life with God, but rather, as the domain where God is uniquely at work in our lives. Hard things are the places where Christ the Lord is present and calling us.
What would happen if we viscerally believed that the hard things of life had a sort of sacramental value to them, much like the eucharistic experience, where we believe that unique grace is administered to us when we take the broken body and shed blood of Jesus into our own broken bodies? At a minimum, it seems obvious that our avoidance of the pain brought about by having to face hard things would be greatly minimized. Avoidance, of course, is something we all deal with; it is natural for us as human beings because we don’t want to have to face what is hard, which I think is worth further exploration.
In my experience, there are a few different components to avoidance. First of all, avoidance is born of fear. We have a desire to move toward the other in authentic relationship, but we fear what will happen if we begin to speak and live our truth before them. We have a desire to find resolution on recurrent emotional issues, and we know that therapy may be a big help, but we fear what will happen if someone starts digging around in our past. We have a desire to fulfill our sense of vocational calling and we know that we will have to take great risks and make sacrifices to get there, but our previous failed attempts at making something good happen have created a visceral risk aversion in us. It is our fear that causes us to avoid facing the difficult things in our lives.
Secondly, our habits of avoidance typically manifest in some form of self-indulgence. We all have different forms of self-indulgence, of course, but the common thread between them all is that they are the places we run when things get difficult, daunting, or challenging. Some of us turn to television or drinking; for others it’s shopping or gambling. For some it is pornography or sex; for others it is sleeping or constantly making new friends (rather than dealing with the ones we’ve got). Many of these activities aren’t inherently bad, but when we use them to avoid discomfort we cause the joy we originally sought in those pleasurable activities to dissipate. In a paradoxical way, the glutton enjoys food less the more he eats. He becomes numb, which is a profound tragedy, for numbing is the blunting and diminishment of our humanness.
We were made to feel; we were made for love; we were made for explosive joy; and we were also made to feel sorrow and grief. Each of our emotions forms part of an organic whole, and whenever we engage in activities that seek to numb one of those emotions, we inadvertently dampen and mute our entire humanity, which is quite the opposite of the divine intention for our lives. God wants our humanity enhanced. He is looking for wholeness and completeness, for an integration of all the depth in whom we are. For us to numb all of that is to diminish our humanity.
One of our best examples of this universal human tendency to avoidance born of fear is found in Genesis 32, the famous story of Jacob wrestling with God. The text tells us that Jacob, whose name means “deceiver,” tends toward the quiet domestic life, staying among the tents with his mother, whereas his older twin brother, Esau, is a man of fierce veracity who prefers hunting. As the boys come of age, Jacob tricks Esau out of the rights of the firstborn and then later steals from Esau their father Isaac’s blessing just before he passes. When Esau finds out, he is murderous with rage. And so Jacob flees, and the alienated brothers go their separate ways.
But the story does not end there. As Jacob begins to make a life for himself, one wonders how often he thought with sorrow of what transpired between him and Esau. One wonders whether he worried about what would happen if he ever encountered his brother on the road. Like all of us, Jacob must have desired reconciliation not just with Esau but with his a sense of inner disjointedness, a sense of having a painful loose end hanging over his head.
And then the opportunity arrives. One day, long after Jacob’s family and wealth have grown large, he becomes aware that the encounter he has long dreamed of and likely dreaded is imminent: Esau is coming. So he divides up his camp, sends his people ahead of him, and then the night before the encounter, when he is left all alone, he wrestles with a man in the dark, throughout the night.
There is a reason this story has captured the imagination of Christian iconographers for centuries: hardly any narrative in Scripture more poignantly portrays the heart of the human struggle for wholeness, integration, and completeness. Jacob’s life is a litany of loose ends, the largest of which is his relationship with Esau, and he knows that he must pass through the gauntlet of an encounter with Esau to find the wholeness he longs for. But before he does so, he wrestles with God, as all of us must.
The text does not tell us why such an encounter is necessary, leaving it open to provoke our imaginations. I suggest two reasons for the encounter. First, I think that Jacob needed a moment in which his old identity as a deceiver, as one who cannot get ahead in life except through surreptitious actions, is transformed. He needs to know himself not through his deceit but through the inner integrity of his person. But he cannot just decide that his old identity is null and void. No, he must pass through an experience that will do this for him, and so he wrestles with God, who changes his name from “Deceiver” to “Israel”—which means something like “struggles with God” or even “prevails with God”—saying, “You have struggled with God and man and have overcome” (Gen 32:28 NIV). The shift in identity, in self-understanding, for Jacob is crucial.
But secondly, in a related way, I think that Jacob also needs to come to grips with the strength that he has always had. The narrative has painted him as an underdog. But Jacob, the text says, wrestles with the man until daybreak, and then he refuses to let the man go until he blesses him. It is obvious that the reputation that has dogged Jacob, the reputation of being soft, which he himself likely believed, is simply false. Jacob is a man of extraordinary power and ability; he was not stuck among the tents because of a genuine lack in his own person but for some other reason (which we are not told and which apparently does not matter in any sort of ultimate sense). What is clear is that Jacob is sufficient in himself to face this daunting encounter. In the morning, after struggling with God, Jacob pulls himself up and faces Esau, and they embrace. The one who struggles with God comes out on the other side of the struggle with a much deeper sense of self and integration.
What does God want for us human beings? We can, of course, give all kinds of proper theological answers to such a question. In the theological West, we have traditionally answered this with terms such as sanctification, which carries with it a sense of cleansing or removal and even consecration. In the theological East, we say that God wants theosis, or “divinization”—an act of God taking you up into himself so that your life takes on the radiance of the divine nature. Although both terms undoubtedly carry something of the biblical witness in them, the question remains: what does it look like practically when one experiences them rather than explains them analytically or theologically? For many people, myself included, the practical experience of these concepts has been that the disjointed pieces of life begin to come together. One starts to feel an organization around a new center, a cohesiveness. God, we must understand, wants an ever-deepening sense of fluidity and relatedness in the interiority of our personhood. He wants us to experience reconciliation with the frustrating, daunting, paradoxical, contradictory parts of our lives. Such integration is the completion of faith, hope, and love in us.
The Scriptures and the best parts of our great tradition seem to teach that you do not get to this place of integration except by entering the struggle with God and man. Jacob refers to those places of struggle as the face of God itself, for he names his place of wrestling “Peniel”—the face of God. In the Scriptures, the face of God is that which gives life and vitality. Thus, we have the Aaronic blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26). For the writer of Genesis, struggle is the place where the face of God that gives life shines through. In a memorable verse, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I love you, Gentlest of ways, Who ripened us as we wrestled with you.” No life is trouble-free; all human beings are born in struggle and find themselves immersed in it each day of their lives. But far from being absent, Immanuel God is already powerfully present in the struggle, and not just present, but calling us right now, at this moment, through those places, inviting us into deeper life, into the full ripening of our person. If we enter the struggle, the ripening process can happen. It is a sacramental reality: it is the potential for grace and power to come rushing at us through the pain.
In the depths of our interiority, we human beings long for an encounter with God that leaves us transformed. If the Scripture’s portrait of the Immanuel reality is accurate, then we must insist that wherever there is pain, wherever there is struggle, wherever there is brokenness and hurt, wherever there is conflict, wherever there is paradox, wherever there is contradiction and chaos, wherever the human struggle for integration and wholeness is present, those are the places that God is present and calling us. These are the sacramental places, Immanuel places, where life, grace, and fullness might be demonstrated to us in new ways. God is not just possibly present in these places; he is precisely present in them. And it is in these places that he is inviting us into deeper life. Everything hangs on whether or not we believe that Immanuel has truly come.
 See Matthew 1:21 ESV.
 Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996), 91. Italics mine.
 Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2005), 70. Emphasis mine.
Andrew Arndt received his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2006 and now serves as the teaching pastor at Bloom Church in Denver, Colorado, where he resides with his wife, Mandi, and four children, Ethan, Gabe, Isabella, and Liam. He’s the author of Only Where Graves Are: A Lenten Meditation.