Truly Human (Again)
How Jesus healed the wounds marring our humanity and dignity as God’s image-bearers—and made it possible for us to become our true selves.
by Winn Collier
Twice a year, our church transforms Sunday worship into an arts gallery. Our curator collects visual pieces—paintings, ceramics, photography, needlepoint, pottery, woodworking, and installations of various sorts—and arranges them throughout the first of three gallery spaces. In a second area, an assortment of culinary arts sits on display (and for tasting).
Recent delights were a three-layer salted caramel chocolate cake, meringues, apple pie, and (my favorite) beef jerky, all handcrafted. A performance space occupies our gallery’s third section, where we enjoy poets, classical choral ensembles, and original lyrics from singer-songwriters. Each time we schedule a Sunday gallery, we reconsider the questions: Why are we doing this? And why are we doing this as part of the normal Sunday service instead of at another time?
Though there are many ways we could achieve our aim, we have chosen to host these galleries because we need help believing the truth that God delights in our humanity. Our creativity—our capacity to make beauty, truth, and goodness out of the raw materials of this world (be they wood, clay, musical notes, or flour), is part of what it means to be God’s image bearer.
God, the great Creator, fashioned a stunning physical world as well as every stitch of goodness it contains. Then He sat down, sighed contentedly, and called it beautiful (the word good in Genesis 1 could be translated “beautiful”). The Lord’s next gesture evokes stunning possibility for every human. He created Adam and Eve, charging them to move into the entire world, exerting their divinely ordained humanity by filling the earth with the beauty God had already crafted in them.
Adam and Eve, and all their children, were to work the soil. They were to tend to the animals and the gardens. They were to bear children and raise families. They were to be fruitful in God’s world, fruitful in every conceivable way. This was ordinary activity, common humanness—and it was splendidly beautiful, infused with God’s own handprint.
Given this narrative, we can put aside any subtle suggestions diminishing our humanness, as if our human longings and labors, our joys and our varied passions, are something we should dampen. Quite the opposite, God created our humanity to reflect His own glory and goodness. Being human is God’s idea.
This means that every human act, when done as a reflection of (and in submission to) God’s reign in the world, is an intensively spiritual activity. Painting, plumbing, researching diseases, and managing computer infrastructure are all work that can be (should be) done to the glory of God and for the bettering of God’s world. One of my favorite Martin Luther stories recounts when a parishioner asked Luther what he would do if he knew Jesus were returning tomorrow. “Why,” Luther replied, “I’d plant a tree today.” In God’s plan, there is no dichotomy between truly spiritual activity and truly human activity.
Sadly, though, too much of our work, too many of our hopes and our passions, are not the true humanity God created us to enjoy. We know that Eden’s perfection received a ghastly scar. Adam and Eve rebelled, and the angel with the flaming sword removed them from the garden. However, the commission to exert their God-designed humanity was not retracted. They were still to work the ground and bring children into the world. They were still to do their best to make beauty, only now such efforts would progress with immense difficulty. In fact, all of life would be futile, were it not for the promise that God would send One who would restore their humanity and full dignity, and release them to once again be their true selves.
If we want to know the vast value God places on humanness, we need only look to Jesus, in whom God took on human flesh. Jesus came not only to die as a human, but also to live as a human. Jesus Christ is the truest human who has ever existed. Jesus, the one Scripture describes as the second Adam, did for us what the first Adam was unable to do: live the life we humans were always intended to live—a life in close communion with God.
Jesus’ communion with the Father was the core expression of—and never at odds with—His humanity. Jesus taught us what it looks like to be truly human. He showed us how to weep tears over wrenching sorrows, how to celebrate at festive parties, how to pursue friendship, how to love even to the point of death.
Last December, when our nation mourned with the families of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, we rightly proclaimed our hope in a God who will one day make the world right; but we also clung to hope in a God entwined with human flesh, a Jesus who knows what it is to mourn and grieve and cry out for mercy to our good Father. He taught us how to live toward God, in both grief and joy.
Jesus did more than model true humanity, however. He also healed our humanity. At the cross, He defeated Satan and forgave our sins. Christ also healed our mortal wounds, those wounds marring our humanity and our dignity as God’s image bearers. As Paul reminds us, “Christ . . . is our life.” We are created to live in union with God, as one with Him. This is our true self. To return to life in God is to return to our true humanness.
This is why the apostle could say that “when Christ who is our life appears (or, is revealed) then [we] also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4 NIV). Remarkably, Scripture declares that when Jesus returns, we will see not only His glory but also our own glory. We will appear as God intended—truly human, fully in harmony with God. As Augustine said in City of God, “We know ourselves better in God than in ourselves.”
In his book God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis used vivid imagery to describe Jesus’ rescue of humanity:One has the picture of a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch-black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get. The thing is human nature; but associated with it, all nature, the new universe.
At our Sunday galleries, we always position the communion table right in the middle of our gallery space, making it something everyone will have to maneuver around. This table reminds us that what we are doing is worship directed to God. This table reminds us that God came in flesh to give His broken body and His gushing blood for our redemption. This table also reminds us that with all our human creativity and expression on display, God’s Spirit is actively loving and restoring us—and hopefully using us to participate in healing every person in the world as well.
God longs for us all to be home, for us all to be truly human.