image of the invisible

We attribute to God rather obvious and cliche identity markers, making faith and belief appear easy and automatic-- like separating socks from underwear. I used to think that I could pick God out of a line-up, that recognizing Him should be clear and straight-forward like spotting a celebrity in the supermarket.

The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) gives it’s reader a strikingly anthropomorphic presentation of YHWH. By this we mean that God (as depicted by the writer) possesses a kind of human-like form. And such being the case, we find God in the garden with legs. He walks. God might have a mouth-- he speaks. The writer(s) makes reference to the face of God, God’s hand, and his outstretched arm... And so on. For the Hebrew there is in the text a clear, definite, here and now physical presence of Adonai who exists in immediacy. A God on the set of creation, right alongside men and women. A God who looks a lot like them. And so early descriptions of God then were not much unlike descriptions of a human being-- though this being was understood to be much more powerful than any man.

Angels in the Hebrew text are depicted in much the same way-- anthropomorphically. In early biblical stories in Genesis and in Judges there appear to human beings angles who resemble people so much that they are, at first encounter, considered to be nothing but ordinary people. Early Hebrew imagery does not make a lot of room for angels who pass through walls, float down to earth in a bubble, or come waving glow-sticks while stairway to heaven wails from a synthesizer. Rather, they simply appear on the scene in a conspicuously underwhelming fashion. As a result our biblical characters often have no clue they’re speaking to an angel. As far as first impressions go, the angels simply aren’t very impressive. In fact, these angels often and somewhat obviously identify themselves as angels. They seem to have to come right out and say it-- otherwise how would one know what/who they were dealing with?

Ironically, a similar pattern arises when God appears. In many early stories YHWH arrives on the scene in much the same way any person or angel might. And so the characters in the Hebrew Bible fail to immediately recognize God. The trend continues in the New Testament scriptures with Jesus whose real identity is masked in mystery. In Mark’s gospel nobody seems to have a clue who Jesus really is. As the story goes, the people around Jesus are interested in the message, they’re inspired, and convinced of his goodness, but they are not what we today would call “believers”. By that I mean that they probably did not have in their minds a concept of Jesus as divine. In fact, it isn’t until eight chapters into Mark’s story that we get anyone (even Jesus’ inner circle) making that bold profession. But this is natural, right? Why would one have thought Jesus was divine? How difficult it would have been to come to such a conclusion. And yet we project on to the biblical characters this sense that they should have understood Jesus upon first meeting him.

In all of these accounts--with angels, YHWH and with Jesus--there is this brief moment of confusion captured in the text. There is this moment wedged between the initial divine appearance and one’s cognitive recognition of who they are actually encountering. And in this brief moment, if only for a moment, our characters encounter but somehow do not establish the divine reality in their very midst. For a moment they miss it until, a time later, they come to recognize where and with whom they are. And they fall to their knees.

But for the biblical authors, writing in an age when paper was so precious and expensive, why record this moment? Why write down that a person was momentarily confused? Why capture in the story the fact that it wasn’t until seconds later that the individual recognized YHWH, the angelic being, or Jesus the Christ, the son of the one true God? Why does the biblical narrative, amidst all its authority to teach, to guide and to instruct our lives include in its most climactic moment(s) such an underwhelming admittance?

Maybe the biblical authors thought this tiny moment was important.

Maybe the Hebrew people understood something humbling about faith and what it means to encounter YHWH.

Maybe as Christians we need to revisit the scriptures and consider the presence of this moment in all of our lives. We have this sense as believers that these categories of “belief” and “unbelief” are completely autonomous and antithetical. That one must be all belief or else unbelieving. Or that one possesses elements of unbelief and therefore must be in a static state of damnation. But how are we entitled to such bold delineations? Looking at yourself, is your entire life characterized merely by belief alone? In your relationships, do you not from time to time express unfaithfulness, disloyalty, or insincerity? Action stems from belief-- have you never acted in unbelievably stupid ways, done that thing you thought unthinkable? In a moment of weakness have you never thought that thought no one would ever dream of pinning on you? Don’t all of us, in the reality of our lives, echo the prayer of the desperate father in Mark who believes but somehow at the same time admits to his unbelief and asks for Jesus’ help?

You see, each of us as Christians must wrestle with the notion of whether this God we know is a generous God or not. Of course, it would seem there is a little of both in the Bible, but we must at some point make the decision to place the one above the other and in the spirit of generosity give the “unbeliever” some room to live and to move. We’ve got to them give them their moment of confusion, allow them the freedom to exist there (if only for a time), and have within us the generosity of a generous God who has a preference for familiar disguises.

CS Lewis’ literary contributions to the Christian conversation have built within them an appreciation for this process, his generous disposition toward “unbelievers” having much to do with his own journey toward encountering Christ. Before conversion, Lewis had only an abstract theoretical being with which he connected. And though, as it were, this may have been grossly inaccurate and inconsistent-- it was, at the time for him, a positive step forward on his way. A moment of confusion before recognizing Jesus the Christ.

If Christ’s identity were not initially clear to his closest followers; if the presence of God and of angels could be mistaken; and if the biblical writers felt it necessary to include a moment of confusion within even the most divine of encounters-- What might we say?

What if the moment of confusion is an absolutely normal and necessary step in the journey of all who would believe? Would it come as a surprise to find in the Scriptures a God more generous than yourself and your judgments of what you critically deem simply to be unbelief?

What would happen if you exercised the patience necessary to wait faithfully with a friend, family member, or co-worker throughout their moment of confusion? What if your perception of that unbelieving other was, for a time, marked most by a remarkably sensitive and gracious understanding of where that person started out and where they might be headed?

And what if that moment were to last for weeks, months, even years? Would you still have faith to believe God was working? Could you handle the tension as belief and unbelief mingle in the life of one person? In another individual's struggle with unbelief, what would you believe about this God who likens himself to a father who stays up all night, night after night, waiting for the return of his wayward son?

Early Hebrew authors wrote stories of a God who was experienced with all the senses who can be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears; one who reaches out and touches human beings. What if--if only for these moments--we had the faith to trust that this God has not changed,and that his purposes are, even in times of unbelief and uncertainty, perfect?

What if we saw in others what God must see in them and treated them likewise? Would they, amidst such an outpouring of love, even recognize us? Or might they see something new, perhaps someone entirely new, for the very first time and from that moment forward recognize the image of the invisible God overshadowing and bringing to perfection the persons we once were.


We have trouble expressing how God works in our lives. When the job of explanation gets difficult we like to simply chalk it all up to

God told me...
God gave me...
God led me...

But there is great ambiguity in these type of statements and the language we employ when speaking of God’s work in our lives is open to more than one interpretation. Commonly, our descriptions are unclear and inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been designated. When you say, “God changed this or that,” what do you mean?

Take, for example, popular beliefs surrounding scripture. We say with confidence that the Bible is “God’s word” but what does this gigantic statement intend to convey? When the prophet’s accounts were written were they (themselves) deliriously incoherent, in an acutely ekstasis state? Or think of Paul, orally dictating one of his epistles to an assistant; was he standing completely outside of himself? Was Paul self-transcendent, in a mystical religious trance? When we talk about scripture “coming from God” must one understand the interaction as God overriding humanity?

Or characterized another way, some prefer to defend the Bible as a “divinely inspired” document. Such individuals might defend or express their faith through reliance on a notion that God long ago spoke by seizing some obscure personality, paralyzing his arm, putting a fiery pen in his hand and forcing out the chosen words. One might helpfully insert here a Ghost phenomenon, a kind of Patrick Swayze/ Demi Moore body borrowing episode or something of the like. But it’s interesting to note that early writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen) never appealed to this idea of “inspiration” to prove or establish the authority of the text. And it should be relatively obvious for us to understand their hesitance, after all, anyone can say anything by way of claims to divine inspiration, God having told or shown them. And many of us have seen how dicey, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous such claims may be.

The other day a friend asked me how we, as Christians, can put so much trust and emphasis on a [Bible] that has been tampered with by so many humans? It is an excellent question. In fact, it’s connected to a whole series of other questions like: what makes the Bible authoritative, or how do you decide or know what is scripture?

The answer to these questions is not much unlike the question we must all ask ourselves and answering them requires great care in articulating how it is we understand the action and influence of God’s work in our lives.

But Christians are so used to having the Bible around that we tend to speak and behave as though it was written before time. We overlook the fact that centuries and civilizations past lived without written scripture. And we often forget that those authors who's writings are compiled between two covers never knew they'd be contributing to what we call the Bible. They had no idea how widely they'd be read. Their audience, as far as they knew, lived then not now. But we forget these things. It’s a classic case of great familiarity breeding even greater unfamiliarity. Early Christians understood the Bible to be true because it taught them then the rule of faith. It spoke to them about who God is, what God is like and what he did through the life of Jesus. We call these writings our “canon” because they are for us a means of measurement, a standard by which we judge, form opinions, discern meaning, and draw conclusions. So when we talk about the authority of the Bible, what we are really talking about is our acceptance of it’s particular judgments, and those things we believe to be normative to our faith.

Our scriptures are not God-breathed insomuch as God overtook human beings by uncontrollable force. Our scriptures do not have to be imagined as magically appearing like a cat from a hat or mystically arranged in the night out of a cloud of smoke. Rather, we are given the freedom to see it as God acting within our very humanness. The beauty and mystery of our Bible is found not in sanitized scriptures, emptied of all humanness, but in God’s having worked through real, living, cognizant people. The coupling of human words with God's is not a weakness of the scriptures, but a strength. These human/divine words are the expressions we have. These are the truths we hold. And this is the authority we claim. If you believe in the gospels, you must believe the words of the human beings who witnessed the events and believed before you. Their accounts cannot be removed, nor need they be.

At some point in your life, God has worked. Of this you may be confident and secure. But when you say that God told you, showed you, gave you or led you; when you say that God changed your mind, fight aggressively to express what you mean. Did God alter your DNA; did God physically relocate you through teleportation; were your hormones chemically conformed to his? Or did something much more nuanced in the common, and real transpire?

When you put words to your interaction with God you need not feel pressured to overindulge in vague notions of psychological suspension. You need not pretend that God’s action in your life, his quiet voice, touch or calling require circumvention of yourself or a hostile Swayze-like body-swap by God.

For centuries Christians have understood and accounted for the power of God in the midst of all their humanness. The mystery and the ridiculous absurdity of his presence in our lives is that he somehow, in some way, prefers to work with, in, and through people--amidst all our frail and unreliable humanness.

When we talk about scripture coming from God, when we speak of God’s work in our lives, or anytime we think about the mystery of God’s divine interaction with humanity, we need to fight to be articulate and honest (best we can) about what is going on. The human encounter with God--our expressions and those found in the Bible--is mathematically miraculous. One-hundred percent human. One-hundred percent divine.

May we all find words. May we all find freedom; the words and the freedom to express with sincerity and transparency the truth and mystery of God's work in our lives.