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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey

Jesus gave no philosophical answer to the problem of pain, but he did give an existential answer. I cannot learn from him why bad things occur, but I can learn how God feels about it. I look at how Jesus responds to the sisters of his good friend Lazarus, or to a leprosy patient banned from the town gates. Jesus gives God a face, and that face is streaked with tears.

Brilliant, untamed, tender, creative, merciful, slippery, loving, irreducible, paradoxically humble—Jesus stands up to scrutiny. He is who I want my God to be.

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? I do not know, but it helps me to realize that Jesus himself knew something of that feeling. He prayed all night over his choice of disciples, and still that list included one named Judas. In Gethsemane he threw himself on the ground, crying out for some other way, but there was no other way. At its core, Gethsemane depicts, after all, the story of an unanswered prayer. The cup of suffering was not removed.

I can worry myself into a state of spiritual paralysis over questions like “What good does it do to pray if God already knows everything?” Jesus silences such questions: If  Jesus saw the need to pray, so should I.

Mostly, Jesus corrects my fuzzy conceptions of God. Left on my own, I would come up with a very different notion of God. My God would be static, unchanging. Because of Jesus, however, I must adjust those instinctive notions. (Perhaps that lay at the heart of his mission?) Jesus reveals a God who comes in search of us, a God who is vulnerable. Above all, Jesus reveals a God who is love.

On our own, would any of us come up with the notion of a God who loves and yearns to be loved? Those raised in a Christian tradition may miss the shock of Jesus’ message, but in truth, love has never been a normal way of describing what happens between human beings and their God. Not once does the Qur’an apply the word love to God. Aristotle stated bluntly, “It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus” or that Zeus loved a human being, for that matter. In dazzling contrast, the Christian Bible affirms, “God is love” and cites love as the main reason Jesus came to earth: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”

I remember a long night sitting in uncomfortable Naugahyde chairs in O’Hare Airport, waiting impatiently for a flight that was delayed for five hours. Author Karen Mains happened to be traveling to the same conference. The long delay and the late hour combined to create a melancholy mood. I was writing Disappointment with God at the time, and I felt burdened by other people’s pains and sorrows, doubts and unanswered prayers.

Do you ever just let God love you?

Karen listened to me in silence for a very long time, and then out of nowhere she asked a question that has always stayed with me. “Phillip, do you ever just let God love you?” she said. “It’s pretty important, I think.”

I realized with a start that she had brought to light a gaping hole in my spiritual life. For all my absorption in the Christian faith, I had missed the most important message of all. The story of Jesus is the story of celebration, a story of love. It involves pain and disappointment, yes, for God as well as us. But Jesus embodies the promise of a God who will go to any length to get his family back.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today in the June 16, 1996 issue. By the permission of the author, we reprint it here.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website, PhilipYancey.com.

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