I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit that, for most of my Christian years, I have answered an important question incorrectly. A critical question. I’ll get to that question. But first, rambling. Maybe it’s because I am “one untimely born” into a celebrity culture fueled by the following values: smarter, louder, better. Maybe it’s because I have always subconsciously gravitated towards big personalities. Maybe it’s because biographical sketches of the Ernest Hemingways and Jack Londons of the world are littered throughout my Google search history.
This is a true story: I once had somebody ask me if I had short man syndrome. I had thought my pop-culture vernacular was up-to-date and was forced to ask for clarification. And the definition she gave me for short man syndrome? “Short man syndrome is when a short man tries to make up for his height with his personality.” I’m 5-foot 7-inches. Maybe she’s right. Or maybe there’s an incorrectly answered question lurking beneath my theology.
Should humanity be recovered or surpassed?
Questions about our humanity are never questions asked outside of the classroom of the gospel. How we answer the question mentioned above gives a distinct flavor to our personhood. It can determine whether we limp with other people or run ahead, whether we bleed with other people or walk away at the sight of blood. It helps us answer questions of personality, like: do I need to be smarter? Louder? Faster
It’s okay if you require a moment to respond to this question. Do you feel the need to be smarter, louder, or faster?
For most of my time as a Christian, I thought my humanity should be surpassed, not restored. In thinking of my humanity this way, Cornelius Van Till would say: it’s only one drop of poison, but it poisons the whole glass. The following few paragraphs are a few ounces I humbly distil from the glass of my life. I hope they serve to illustrate how this notion can subtly poison a personality.
First, it eliminated from my parlance one of the most important statements central to being human: “I don’t know.” That sentence, though skinny in volume, is fat with anthropological meaning between the syllables. When you possess the freedom to use those three words, you also possess the strange ability to humanize yourself.
Hemingway would be proud of this phrase's compact way of confessing that you, too, are created from the same clay. But when we understand humanity as something to be surpassed, we feel the pressure to become a living, breathing, answer key. Did you know sometimes people ask questions they don’t want answers to? I didn’t. Remember that the phrase “I don’t know” is a fine way for the Christian to communicate that although we don’t have all the answers, we do have a Person.
Second, it subtly and slowly nudged me away from the social skill of empathy. We may never bump into a thesis about empathy in our systematic theology volumes, but empathy is deeply theological. If we understand humanity as an obstacle, then humanity is no longer something we can identify with. In my life, this means that when other people would vomit their failures and sins to me, I would present myself to them as the example, not the empathizer.
Slowly, my “here’s what I do” suggestions began to dominate the arm-wrestling match against my “I understand” sentiments. When we think humanity should be surpassed, people will strangely begin to look less like yourself and more like something else as you look across the table and over the steaming coffee in discipleship discussions. We can know that we have answered the question wrongly the moment people begin to look less like mirrors and more like fill-in-the-blanks. If people don’t know you are more like them than unlike them, may I suggest using the phrase “I understand” more?
Third, if humanity should be surpassed, then other people are merely obstacles. The impact this has on social dynamics is endless: disciples become competitors, brothers and sisters become rivals, and so on. Though I disagree with his premises, I sadly agree with Darwin’s conclusion that the dominant attitude of human beings in a relationship is marked by competitive hostility.
The Bible has much to say about this. When this attitude is present, this achievement is impossible: “If one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). If you notice you cannot rejoice when honoring others, could it be this poison is present in your spiritual life? The gospel has much to say about this, but most importantly this attitude reverses the reconciliation the gospel achieves.
Let me briefly address some pushback. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be a people of answers or example. I am saying that the phrase “I don’t know” sometimes has surprisingly more assuaging power than we realize. And “I understand” doesn’t always demonstrate a lack of ministry competence. Looking more like Christ doesn’t always demand looking less like others. If our humanity should be restored, then Jesus is in the business of making us like Jesus, not into Jesus.
This distinction matters. So let me say it again: Jesus is in the business of making us like Jesus, not into Jesus. The gospel is the story of Jesus restoring our humanity. J.I. Packer says, “To be truly happy, be truly human. The way to be truly human is to be truly godly.” He who is truly human can truly empathize with other humans. And that is truly godly.
All this talk about humanity and empathy also reminds me of Jonathan Edwards’ eighth resolution: “Resolved . . . that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.”
Edwards’ resolution is a resolution to be human. In the sins of others, he is resolved to see his own sins. In the confessions of others, he is resolved to see his own capacity for sin. When you read that resolution is that not a pastor you would like to spend time with? It shouldn’t surprise us that people desire to find their Christ in Christ and desire to find their people in people. Remember that people want genuine people.
Example and Empathizer
What should shock us most into joy is Jesus. In the person of Jesus and the story of the gospel, we have both our example and our empathizer: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). And from the person of Jesus, we hear him quietly and powerfully communicate both “here’s what I do” and “I understand”: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect. . . . For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:17-18).
But there are still times when I react with a frustrated hostility against the limitations of my humanity. I bite, claw, and scratch it by talking louder and reading more, but in rare moments of victory, I find quiet contentment with being human. I want you to have those in your life. What’s more these moments usually happen when my humanity is most restored and perhaps in these moments I am still just as loud and read just as much. But I am also more dazzled by a central truth about our Jesus: we have a person in our Christ and a Christ in that person.
Cole Deike is a full-time church planting resident at Redeemer Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa—a church that is part of the SBC. Formerly, Cole was a high school English teacher and wrestling coach. Find him on Facebook or Instagram.