Sometimes I really want to shave my beard.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, if I may admit it.
I’ve had the beard since 2009, so 6 years of having hair on my face has left me a little curious as to what it looks like underneath.
My wife and I have had multiple conversations about when it would be a good idea for me to shave my beard (like maybe when I’m on a trip for a few days or something, that way it is at least partially grown back by the time I return home). Ultimately, however, it keeps coming back to a pretty basic reality: my family, especially my daughter, has gotten used to what I look like with the beard.
If I were to shave, she likely wouldn’t recognize me because what my face actually looks like would confront her image of me. If she were to see what my bare face actually looks like, it might scare her or cause her to wonder, “Are you really my dad?”
And some times, I wonder if we do the same thing with God.
The other day I asked my daughter what I thought would be a very simple question: “What is God like?”
She paused, looked at me for a few seconds, shrugged her shoulders and offered perhaps the most theologically sound response of all time: “I can’t even spell ‘God!’”
The more I think about it, the more I realize that all great theology, that is to say, all great knowledge about God starts with the simple admission of God’s utter transcendence, magnificence, and otherness.
Following my conversation with my little one, I asked a handful of my friends to describe God. Their initial responses were all fairly consistent:
- “Describe the indescribable?”
- “I can’t.”
- “That’s a big question!”
- “Is it weird that that makes me panic a little bit?”
In each response, it was clear that my friends were on to the same thing as my daughter: I can’t even spell “God.”
After pushing a little further, however, I started receiving answers like this:
- “He’s paradoxical. He’s somehow personable and mysterious. Like Jesus feels knowable and relatable, but the other aspects of God seem so much more lofty and full of theology to the point of making my stomach hurt.”
- “The fact that He’s the God of the Old Testament and the New seems paradoxical because He’s described as jealous and vengeful, but is not that in the New Testament or at least in a different way.”
- “He’s loving. Fatherly. Strict, but fair. He created us, so I think He wants us to be the best we can be.”
- “Our all-knowing, all-loving creator. He is the truth, life, light. Yet inconceivable.”
And the thing is that God is those things. As we pray daily, God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and in the Liturgy we state that God “brought us from nothingness into being.” Only one who is all-powerful could bring forth something out of nothing.
Unfortunately, I wonder if the God we – I follow is too much a god of my own mental construction. Perhaps I think of Him too much as “God with a beard.” I wonder if I have become too comfortable with God existing in my own image of Him.
Bear with me.
The Jews of Christ’s time all had “Old Testament” ideas about Who God is and how God acts, but when Christ came to them, that is, when God “shaved His beard” and showed His actual face, they couldn’t handle it.
The first generation of Christians knew how completely mind-boggling the incarnation is, how completely incomprehensible Christ’s death on a Cross is. They knew that the Gospel is something that neither philosophers nor priests could fully comprehend, a challenge to everything that anyone thought we knew about anything, because “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23)
The Church has long confessed that Jesus Christ is all that it is to be God and all that it is to be human. To speak of the man Jesus is to speak of Almighty God. But the God we are given in Christ is so entirely different from the god we have in our minds that when God came near us as a human, we killed Him, just because we couldn’t stand it anymore. We liked our ideas about God better than the revelation of God’s very Person.
I think we see this in particular when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the One they have been waiting for. Jesus enthusiastically says, “You’re right! Blessed are you, Simon Peter! And now I’m going to go to Jerusalem to die!” But for Peter, the Messiah is a political figure who conquers Rome and restores Israel as a kingdom, not someone who will suffer at the hands of sinful and violent men. So naturally, Peter tries to rebuke Jesus (i.e., “You’ve got it wrong, Jesus…let me tell you what the Messiah really does…”), but following this, Peter receives the harshest indictment that Christ conjures in the Gospels: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23).
Like Peter, I fear that we also are far too comfortable with our mental images of God being powerful according to a human definition of power. The God that Peter expected – and the God that we expect – does not come to us as a conquering King, but rather as a Suffering Servant.
And we struggle with this.
This Sunday is the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, and we are invited to crucify our faulty ideas about the divine and instead contemplate the God who reveals Himself in the all-too-human Christ.
Part of the Gospel this Sunday reads, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). To know God as He willingly and fully reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is the key to eternal life. Thus, to know God, we cannot look anywhere else than at Christ.
Not our experiences, not our feelings – and certainly not our thoughts and reason.
The Council convened initially to dispel the destructive heresy of Arius, who taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but rather was a created being, just like you and me. This may make me unpopular, but…I guess I kind of get why Arius would have thought that.
Hear me out.
I wonder if Arius’ impulse was the same as ours. Perhaps he simply felt uncomfortable that God had “shaved His beard” in Christ, came down to us, dwelt among us, and (even more scandalously) had died as one of us. Perhaps the thought of the impassable God becoming a vulnerable human was simply inconceivable for Arius.
Perhaps Arius would have been more comfortable with a lightning bolt-throwing, cloud-parting, earth-quaking God whose power was made manifest in the kinds of ways we would expect a god to make himself known.
But that god is not our God.
Our God is a God who came into a world with no room for Him and considered a straw-filled manger to be a basinet fit for a King.
Our God is a God who touches the sick and makes them whole.
Our God is a God who snuck away from the crowds who wanted to make Him their ruler.
Our God is a God who had no place to lay His head.
Our God is a God who did not disdain humanity, but rather, chose fully to identify with humankind to the point of death – even death on the Cross.
And it is this God, whose power is made perfect in weakness, that we are invited to know this Sunday – not some god who is an amalgam of powerful images existing only in our heads.
No, our God is the crucified and exalted Christ, the Holy One of Israel.
But this God, the God who is revealed in and through the crucified and exalted Christ, makes us a little uncomfortable compared with the God of our imaginings. We want a god who can zap bad guys, who can give us job promotions if we just pray hard enough, or (even) who gets really mad at us when we screw up.
But that god isn’t our God.
Instead, we are given Christ. The crucified one who willingly endured the shame of the Cross, even at the hands of those He came to save. The one who didn’t cast down thunderbolts from the Cross, but rather forgave His killers.
But part of the reason that this God-Man, Jesus, makes us uncomfortable is not only because He reveals a God who willingly unites Himself to weakness, but because He also fully reveals to us our own weakness and vulnerability.
And that is what really makes us uncomfortable.
The reality is that just as much as we can look at Jesus and see all that it is to truly be God – long-suffering, humble, healing, patient, self-giving – we also look at Jesus and see all that it is to be human – weak, frail, mortal, dependent, vulnerable.
We do not want to be vulnerable, because it feels like death, and this reminds us, that we, too, are mortal.
Often, in our fear-based culture, we think of ways to “insure” ourselves against disaster, disease, and death, thinking that if we just quit smoking, we might live another 10 years.
But it’s not just physical vulnerability that makes us nervous. It’s also social vulnerability that makes us dread being fragile and frail humans, so we often gird our loins and try to put our “best selves” forward, believing that if people saw us with “shaved faces,” they may not like what they see.
And so we ignore our family members so we can work longer hours, believing that the next job promotion will give us the status that will complete us. We gossip about others so that we can feel that at least we’re better off than someone. We lie to those we love in order to avoid disconnection with them for fear that “if they really knew who I am” we would lose them forever.
We are a culture that lives, breathes, and dies shame, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” And so we do all we can to avoid this kind of vulnerability wherever it appears, including turning away from those who are openly vulnerable themselves.
We look the other way when we see the poor at freeway off-ramps. We debate the ethics of abortion instead of doing the costly work of building an orphanage in every city in America. We distance ourselves with advice when our friends and family members open their suffering to us instead of simply “being there,” offering a hug and a mere “I’m with you until the end.”
This is the vulnerability of our God. It is not a vulnerability that offered advice about our miserable state, but rather is a vulnerability that shared it. Willingly.
This kind of vulnerability scares us, though, because suffering sucks. But to avoid vulnerability is to cease to be human for to be human is to be vulnerable.
And this Sunday, Christ invites us to accept our vulnerability, praying, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:11). If Christ reveals a God who suffers with human beings, then we as His Living Body will also be called to be a Church that suffers with human beings.
Vulnerability is the name of the game. God has shaved His beard, inviting us to do the same. Instead of turning away from the vulnerability we each possess, God asks that we, instead, turn toward one another, holding each other close in our shared humanity – a shared humanity that suffers vulnerability and dies.
God shares that vulnerability doesn’t have to scare us because He has already “been there and done that,” revealing that on the other side of dying is not death, but abundant and everlasting life.
So let us be brave and walk the path of vulnerability with Jesus Christ, the God who shares in our common humanity, trusting that if vulnerability was good enough for Him, it’s certainly more than enough for us.
What do you think? Is vulnerability something that scares you? What do you do to avoid confronting your own vulnerability? How does it comfort or bother you to know that Christ has identified with your own vulnerability? Comment below!
 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012), p. 69.
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.
Half Shaved: Éole via Compfight cc
Nicea Icon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaea_icon.jpg
Crucifixion: RobertoUrrea via Compfight cc
For more on Christ as revealing true humanity, check out this episode of Be the Bee:
For more on the power of the Cross and the transformation of vulnerability and death, check out this episode of Be the Bee: