As a society, we fluctuate between extremes in how we see humankind and its potential. On the one hand, we love self-help books, we want to fix ourselves and to fulfill our individual dreams. On the other hand, we look at man as just another animal filled with its own sets of instincts and innate desires that need to be met. If we follow these to their natural conclusions, we’re led either to the temptation of pride or to despair. It’s this negative vision of humanity that causes us to say that exasperated expression, “I’m only human!”
Saint Irenaeus famously wrote, Gloria Dei est vivens homo, "The glory of God is man fully alive," or, "the glory of God is a living man." He went on to say that "the life of a man is the vision of God.” So there must be something more to being human than society assumes. There must be something more profound in our human experience, if it’s through being human that we encounter and know the Living God.
What are we actually saying when we refer to ourselves as only human? After all, what we say matters, and our words about God and mankind reveal what we believe about ourselves and God. Here are three reasons Orthodox Christians probably shouldn’t say we’re “only human.”
If we refer to ourselves as “only human,” what does that say about our belief in the work of Jesus Christ? It gets to something deeper: why Jesus even came in the first place. Father Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, has a beautiful reflection on Jesus Christ as a man that’s really worth listening to (along with any and all of his podcasts!).
Something truly remarkable happened 2000 years ago. God - in all of His glory and power - became human. He entered into our experience, He took on our humanity and lifted it up, lifted us up into a relationship with Him. And in case we forget this mystery, we confess our belief “in one Lord Jesus Christ...Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” And on Pascha we hear the words from the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). That God became human is key to our understanding of ourselves and God.
"Though He was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Philippians 2:6-7). God did all of this, He tells us, so that we "may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). When we have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27) in baptism, when we have been grafted into Christ (John 15: 1; Romans 11:17), when we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1) by receiving Christ in Eucharist, we have this abundant life.
Jesus didn’t become human so that we could be “only human”; He became human so that we could be more truly human.
Usually when someone says that they’re “only human,” they’re making a statement of defeat. Somehow there’s no reason to keep on, no reason to grow further, because this state we’re in is inescapable. We might think it’s pointless to fight against our temptations or pointless to surrender and let God work in our lives because each time we try, we fail.
But St. Paul tells us to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). To internalize a vision of ourselves as only human, we lose hope in the work that God is doing in our lives. So St. Paul reminds us again:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
The life of a Christian is a life of hope and expectation. Imperfect though we may be, God can and does work in our lives. We have reason to hope.
As soon as we accept being “only human,” we’re not only losing hope and denying the work of Jesus, but also making an excuse not to move forward. We become like the paralytic who waits for years at the pool but is never healed. To him and to us Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed?” We identify with the sick man who answers Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me” (John 5:6-7). The sick man’s paralysis and our humanity are not the issue; that’s not what keeps us back. Our excuses help us to avoid answering Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be healed?”
So we make excuses and keep ourselves from prayer or from being the hands and feet of Christ in our communities because we’re just one person or because we’re only human. We forget the words of St. Paul when he urges us to “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).
Each one of us has limitations; that’s true. But we have to give ourselves an honest evaluation of our motives and the excuses we make. God became man so that we could be raised up into a relationship with Him. He wouldn’t have done that work without also giving us the strength to carry the weight of that responsibility.
We worship a God who intimately knows the experience of being human. After Christ, our being human is no longer a barrier to an encounter with the Living God. Jesus Christ revealed to us the fullness of what it means to be human and makes that goal of unity with Him possible.
How we speak about ourselves as being human reveals what we believe about being human. It can reveal our need to reflect on the work of Christ and His human experience. And while saying, “I’m only human,” can lead us to despair, we have reason to hope. And though we might just want to make excuses, Scripture calls us to move forward with the strength of Jesus Christ - our God Who became human.
How does reflecting on the humanity of Christ inspire you to live a Christian life today? What excuses are you making that keep you from moving forward in your walk with Christ?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.
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