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.