Immanuel and the Slow Coming of God
I was surprised when, upon entering Starbucks I noticed the Christmas decorations. Surprised, because it was early November. Halloween had just passed. Thanksgiving was not even upon us. And it struck me at how hard it is for us to wait for so many things. We are at a point at which Amazon now delivers my packages before I even order them.
But it is not so with God. Nor is it so with our minds.
God comes to us slowly. Far more slowly than I would like. How long did it take him before he found in Abraham someone who was willing to cooperate with him? How was it that the Hebrews were in Egypt for 400 years? Why then did they plod along in the wilderness for 40 years longer? (Why not 4 months?) Why 500 years between the last king of Judah and the coming of Jesus? And now, more than 2000 later, and despite the advances in our material engagement with the world, there appears to be no advancement in human nature, Steven Pinker’s naive optimism notwithstanding. Sometimes it appears God is not coming very quickly—or perhaps, has not come—at all.
But then I read the prophets of the Old Testament, and I am taught—because I must learn—that the God of the Bible acts in the way he does in part because he is insistent on being thorough. And I discover in those ancient passages that he is thorough for at least two reasons. First, he is committed to telling the story of the world truly, faithfully. He tells us about ourselves and himself the way we really are. In Ezekiel 16, for example, God speaks through the prophet with virtually no metaphor being off limits, describing how Israel has prostituted itself. Why not just say all that in a brief, non-judgmental paragraph? But no, he leaves no behavioral stone unturned nor linguistic motif untried not just to describe the totality of Israel’s sin, but to get their attention; and then he tells them they must bear the disgrace of it. Rolls and rolls of scroll text. But not without reminding them that he will create with them a new, everlasting covenant.
Secondly, I wonder if (seemingly to us) God takes so long arriving because he takes us so seriously. He is unwilling to force himself into the life of any one of us. He is unbending in his commitment to our willingness to join him in the life he is offering us. It takes him a long time (in my mind) to convince me that he is actually good, that he loves me—even delights in me—and that he wants me to join him in creating goodness and beauty in every moment that I am alive. And the reason this is so is because it takes me a long time to allow him to love me. Not unlike discovering how much we like someone upon meeting them for the first time. But to allow them into our hearts? To come to believe that they believe the best in us and will be loyal to us even when they find out we are broken and fake and sick?
In fact, I can think of a hundred micromoments in the last week in which I made choices that indicated that I don’t believe I am loved by God. Oh, sure, do I love God? You bet. But much of my brain’s wiring, not least my embodied self that is regulated by the right hemisphere; and my mind’s implicit memory responds to my wife, my colleagues, my friends, and my perceived enemies (actually, I’m not aware of a single enemy I have in the real world, but I do have a number of them in my imagination) as if God’s kingdom is nowhere to be found, let alone right there in the room I occupy or in the activity of my inner life. In this way, my mind, given the parts of me that are insecurely attached, primes me to defend against God’s coming. As Dan Siegel has helpfully written, we long to be seen, soothed, feel safe, and secure. Only God comes to us offering us those experiences in fully trustworthy ways. And he has done so in Jesus.
But he also comes demanding. Demanding that I follow him willfully (not coercively). That I, as in Ezekiel, bear my disgrace—or, in other words, that I receive him into the parts of my story in which I am most ashamed and afraid in order to look at them and be with them in his presence in order that they may be healed as he takes them on (something I often, quite non-consciously but robustly resist). That I receive his gaze of forgiveness—and transfer that gaze on to those who have wounded me. That I repent—that I turn from my insistent, petulant independence. And that I take him at his word that his delight in me is not just for me, but for others through me. But, neuroplastic transformation being what it is, I need practice and I need people in my life who will enable that practice to take on embodied reality, such that real maturation, real transformation can be realized.
And all of that takes time. Time that God is willing to take.
Immanuel—God with us—has certainly come, then, in Jesus. Our work is to receive him. I think it’s time we do.