Ultimately, the theme here is ‘grace’, which when googled gave me the unforgettable Grace Kelly. Nice, but not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking of something far more unforgettable that came forcefully to mind with this morning’s Sunday message entitled “There you are!” It centered on Jesus’ amazing capacity to see and recognize others and attend to their needs in truly disinterested fashion. In contrast, we can all think of the sort of person who walks into a room with a demeanor that announces, “Here I am!” But hopefully we also know a person or two of the sort who walk into a room with a presence that says, “There you are!” It’s a bit like that story about a guy on a first date who can’t stop talking about himself — what he’s done, what he likes, who he knows, etc. When he finally manages to let his date speak, he does so with “Well, enough about me. Let’s talk about you! What do you think about me?” Even when attending to others he’s really just attending to himself. He doesn’t really see others. He only sees himself in others.
A human being is a ‘search for identity’. Each one of us is his/her own question mark. Who am I really? Why am I here? What difference will my having existed at all make to the world? We’re hardwired with these questions, and so we find the answers ‘ecstatically’ by moving outside ourselves. That’s what ‘relational theologians’ harp on, namely, that we inevitably seek the fulfillment of our existence as personal beings by moving ‘outward’ (ecstatically) into relationship with others in the world around us and, most fulfillingly, with God.
In the Recovery program I direct, I point to four fundamental human needs that drive this ecstatic, outward movement: our need for acceptance, for identity, for security and for purpose. To be a human being is just to have these needs, and a fulfilled or successful life is just the experience of their fulfillment. Problem is, the same is true of everybody and everything else in the world. We are all this search for an acceptance which is unconditional, an identity which is unique and unrepeatable, a security that provides for our enduring permanence, and a purpose to contribute and partner in ways that make a difference.
In the Christian story, God is different — and this difference is why the gospel is a word of ‘grace’. God doesn’t need us in the ways we’ve just considered. The fullness of his being and existence isn’t a cooperative achievement he realizes through moving outside Godself and into relationship with the world. The world is not the stage upon which God achieves existential self-actualization. And this is why when God does create, he is able to walk into it and say, “There you are!” rather than “Here I am” (to stick with this morning’s sermon).
This gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. It’s the gratuity, the utter contingency of there being any creation at all, which points the searching heart beyond the abyss of its own nothingness to the voice of God inside the room saying, “There you are!” And God can say this because he’s free from needing anything at all from us. He shows up not to ‘get’, to self-actualize, to restore his equilibrium, to redeem a meaning for himself in this or that outcome, but to give, to fill up, to overflow. And this is precisely why we are freed. But you only get that kind of absolute gratutity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full.
This is hard to hear. It doesn’t come across as ‘good news’ for many. Turns out grace is not so easy. It’s hard to hear that God is so immeasurably complete and fulfilled as not to need us to complete him in any conceivable sense. We want to be needed. Not just wanted, but needed, because the only kind of wanting that we know (as the despairing creatures we are) is that wanting which is needing. Part of this fallen dysfunction, this lie that beguiles us, is our belief that our redemption flows out of and fulfills our perceived need to be needed. If my neighbor needs me, fine. If the governor needs me, better! If my country needs me, fantastic. Why stop? Why not have God need me as well? What kind of existential rush would follow from its being true that my existence fulfills God? And so we weave our narratives of salvation around this fiction, that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, and ultimately completed and glorified by our homecoming. The entire drama of creation, fall, redemption and final glorification are the stage upon which God achieves his final and fullest self-actualization.
It can be an unexpected stumbling block that grace should be gracious in every conceivable moment, and that the gift of our existence is enjoyed fully only on the other side of embracing the our utter contingency and finitude, namely, our nothingness. But in the recognition that God is an unsurpassable delight we can neither diminish nor improve whose love of us both designs and fulfills our four fundamental needs, our own self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their ruin we experience “his joy [not his pain] as our strength,” (Neh. 8.10) and we come to possess ourselves in “an unspeakable and glorious joy,” as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), “receiving the salvation of our souls.” We are saved when God’s own peace and repose become the truest thing about us and not until then. But when we are there, then we are in a position to truly see others. Greg Boyd, in Trinity & Process, elaborates:
“…a person need not sacrifice their self-love, their contentment with who they are, their own internal ‘fullness of life’ in order to genuinely enter into the sufferings of another. Indeed, it seems that the person who enters into the sufferings of others with a sense of internal fullness is in a better position to genuinely enter into these sufferings than one who lacks such ‘fullness’.
“To speak more specifically, a person who suffers for another because she needs the other — e.g., needs this other to make her “feel good” about herself, to feel loved and needed, etc.—is more inclined to yet have herself as the object of concern, and thus more inclined to be, to that extent, shut off to the real needs of the other. In contrast, one who enters into solidarity with a sufferer but who is self-content, who loves herself, who possesses an internal fullness which is not destroyed [or diminished] by the suffering, is free to have the sufferer as the sole object of her concern. She is free, in a sense, to “forget herself” in devotion to another…
“There are, of course, millions of humans who hold to a superficial form of self-contentment to the exclusion of, or even at the expense of, others’ happiness. In fact, the instances of an opposite disposition are unfortunately rare. The prevalence of this attitude, especially in first world countries, is no doubt one of the reasons why we have such difficulty in seeing God as being both eternally self-satisfied and also temporally self-abased. But, as we have argued, there is no necessary connection between self-contentment and insensitivity.”