Sunday, January 6, 2008

God's Good Going Away

I have grown up believing that being close to God, knowing him directly and immediately, was one of the highest, most honorable, and most mature goals I could have. It’s hard for me to remember a time when this idea was not part of my spiritual thinking.

It threw me for a loop, then, when I read Jesus saying things like this: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)

If I’m supposed to grow close to God, then how can his going away possibly be a good thing? Even when there’s no physical contact involved, you still feel closer to someone when you can see them and hear their voice. The second half of the verse tries to offer an explanation, but the logic behind how the visible incarnation of the Son of God being replaced by the Counselor (i.e. the Holy Spirit)–an invisible, inaudible, misty Thing that most people don’t like to even talk about, let alone try to explain–could be a good thing was a proposition that seemed fuzzy to me, at best.

The conclusion seems inescapable: No matter the fringe benefits it brings, Jesus going “there” means that he is not “here” anymore, and how could that possibly be a good thing? It takes a body to hug you, to calm your nerves with its touch, to soothe your fears and lull you to sleep with the sound of its voice, to wipe away your tears and to take on the lurking bullies; can a ghost, even the Holy one, do any of that?

A few chapters earlier–but still part of the same Upper Room speech to the Disciples–John records a statement that feels even more audacious:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

If we have faith in him, not only will we do what he was doing, but we will do even greater things. If anyone other than Jesus himself had said that, I would laugh it off and dismiss it without another thought. It sounds too ridiculous to even consider. But Jesus did say it, and so I find myself forced to wrestle with it.

The explanation for why we will do even greater things, “because I am going to the Father,” seems to link this verse with John 16:7; somehow, God exiting the scene is an immeasurably good development. But how can it be?

According to John, the answer has something to do with the Spirit coming. But like I wrote earlier, I have trouble understanding what’s supposed to happen when the Spirit comes, so I needed to find another way to look at it.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes that being in Christ doesn’t just upgrade us from what we used to be, but actually makes us into a whole new creation. A few verses later, he explains what our job is because of our new creation-ness:

“We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

An ambassador acts as a stand-in, living in a foreign country and serving as the visible representative of the real ruler. Albeit in a delegated capacity, he has the same power and responsibilities as the ruler; to put it another way, he speaks with the king’s voice. And that is the position God has entrusted to us: To be his face and voice, as though we were making his appeal through us. All because Jesus left and sent the Counselor (the only reason we can function in our new position at all) to us.

The pieces start to fall into place. Jesus leaving and the Spirit coming is good because instead of the presence of God being localized in a single person (or a single place, in the Old Testament), God’s presence is dispersed into billions of breathing, walking, talking people. I get to see God because of them. Even more daunting, they’re supposed to see God because of me.

There are any number of ways to apply this idea, but the first that comes to mind for me has to do with how I talk to people. Why would I want to hide anything from you, when your response could be the words of God to me? And when I ignore you or blow you off, what does that communicate about God to you?

I’m still trying to imagine how prayer might fit into this.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------While I don't want to say unequivocally that God doesn't communicate with people directly anymore, it's never happened to me. My attempts to rationalize that formed the beginnings of this note.

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