“He is the one who tells us we must love our enemies and then tells his own enemies that they are vipers and stink of death underneath their whitewash and tells them that exactly because he loves them.” — Frederick Buechner
“He who has seen me has seen the Father.” — John 14:9
I remember sitting in my counselor’s office a few months ago, doing my best to hold back the ambiguity and complexity of emotions welling within my soul.
As I sat up upon the edge of the couch, these words came out: “I have heard people say that ‘when God sees you, he doesn’t see you. He sees Jesus.’ Well, I want God to see me. In the middle of all my shit. In the middle of my hell. In the middle of my brokenness. I want him to see me. And I want him to love me despite all of it.”
A faint hint of tears began to form in my counselor’s eyes, and though he didn’t say it, I know that he has felt that same cry within his heart. The cry to be seen. To be heard. And to be loved despite it all. Anything other than that is paganism and legalistic religion.
But, unfortunately, the “other than that” is the very thing that many churches preach these days.
While visiting some missionaries in Jamaica, I remember laying on a concrete slab outside for over an hour watching one of my favorite kids — Zadian — playing a soccer game on an old android he borrowed from a friend. Zadian is a kid of few words, but each time I would look away from the screen, he would nudge my arm and say, “Jake, watch.” Every few minutes, as he would score a goal or block an opponent, he would look at me with a slight grin and then go back to the game. This went on for at least an hour. Zadian’s desire to be noticed is no different than mine. Clearly, whatever we say about humanity, we must say that we all desire to be seen.
And yet, in the most ironic way possible, it is simultaneously what we fear. We hide from that which we need most. Each one of us is Adam and each one of us is Eve, hiding behind fig leaves, bushes, iPhones, and fake smiles. We do anything we can to protect us from vulnerability and intimacy, settling for cheap alternatives we mistake for the Tree of Life, or perhaps don’t mistake for but choose anyway. Our fear keeps us in hiding, and our hiding keeps us in death as we dig our own graves. We run from the very thing we so desperately need, crawling back into the casket time and time again. As Dumbledore put it in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” But the God we see revealed in Jesus calls us out of the darkness and death we find ourselves in, proclaiming that he holds the keys to Death and has defeated the very powers that keep us in hiding and hell. He offers us not just forgiveness, but life. He offers us what it means to be truly human. He has lassoed his kingdom of heaven and brought it down to earth, and slowly but surely he will redeem this world.
I agree with Brian Zahnd when he says that, “God looks like Jesus. God has always looked like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” I’m convinced that Jesus does not come after us with a rifle, but with a scalpel. God knows we are all dying; like a pack of Marlboros, our sin and shame sucks the life out of us. What we need is someone who will heal us. Restore us. Lead us back to the well of life. And that, I believe, is what Jesus does. He circumcises the hell out of us. And it freaking hurts. But oh how bad we need it.
Ironically, despite what the sidewalk preachers may want you to think, when Jesus said the word “repent,” it was good news. It was the declaration that God’s kingdom was breaking in to the present. “The Kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The era of sin and shame is over; we have all been invited to turn away from our self-destructive ways of living and instead embrace the ways of the Kingdom and, most importantly, be embraced by He who became king by dying for his enemies.
I think back to the first time I told my counselor about my deepest struggle at the time (which was a porn addiction), even though I had known him for months. My shame and contempt toward myself kept me from exposing the area of life where I needed the most healing. When the weight became too much to bear and I became honest about the battle I was facing, I was not met with condemnation and judgement but with kindness and compassion. For one of the first times in my life, I felt seen. I felt loved. And that was good news that eventually helped get me out of the mess of shame, self-condemnation, and contempt that I was in. It was good news that opened up my heart to a new way of seeing things, as if I had been seeing only black and white and could now see in color. The prison doors had been opened. The fog had been lifted. The fig leaf had been torn back, and my fear was met with a love that casts out fear.
(That conversation was years ago, but was one of many that eventually inspired me to pursue a degree in counseling.)
God was not in the Roman centurion nailing Jesus to the cross; God was in Jesus, reconciling the world to himself. If you want to know God, look at Jesus. He is the most beautiful, mysterious, disturbing, and loving man who has ever walked this earth, who died on a very tree he made. And maybe it’s just the mystic in me, but I think he still walks this earth. Not in the way he did in Galilee, but he’s still here nonetheless. The gospel, when told right, should not push people away, but invite people into the dance of grace and mystery that is the love of Jesus. It is not retributive, but restorative. Life-giving. Mystery-enhancing. The moment we unlock our hearts is the moment we come to experience the saving grace of the love that has been singing over us since our existence.
To the kid with fresh scars up his arms. To the girl who measures her worth by the numbers on the scale and the face in the mirror. To the frat guy who hides his insecurities and pain behind a laid-back smile and a few white claws. To the stay-at-home mom whose marriage has been falling apart for years. To the atheist who confidently proclaims there is no God but then tears up when he sees the sunset and has no one to thank. To the prideful prick who thinks he has life all together. To the doctor or businessman who has gained the whole world but lost his soul. To my current self. To Zadian in Jamaica. I have good news for you: Jesus sees you, and he loves you. He’s not scared of your shit, and he never has been. He sees you, and he loves you. And the beautiful thing about the love of Jesus is that it is always transformational. When we come to finally accept and rest in the love of the one whose image we are made in, we are always transformed into something other than what we are. In one sense we begin to die, but in another sense we begin to truly live. It is true that love will change the world, but that love must be the love of Jesus. And as we step in to it, we learn what it means to be truly human, which is to say we learn how to live and how to love.
Jesus does not shy away from our mess; he rolls up his sleeves and gets in the middle of it, allowing it to do its worst to him as he exhausts it of its power, providing us with the love and life our hearts so desperately long for. Heck, maybe he doesn’t even roll up his sleeves. Maybe he just jumps right in. Right in the middle of our mess. To paraphrase Eugene Peterson in The Message, God put on flesh and moved in to our neighborhood (John 1:14). And the world hasn’t been the same since.
So my question to you, then, is do you want to be seen?