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Jesus Christ is the Life – Part 1

Part 1 of 2.

Dr. John Burgess keynote lecture (part 1) at TM 2020.
Dr. John Burgess keynote lecture (part 2) at TM 2020.

Where Is Life? My grandparents were lifelong Presbyterian missionaries in Central America. When I was four years old, my grandfather came to see us. He had been in the United States on business and took a bus to Denver, Colorado, where we lived. I myself don’t remember the meeting, but my mother tells me that as he got off the bus, I ran right up to him, and he bent down and scooped me up into his arms. I do remember that he slept in my bedroom, on the bottom bunk of my bed, and at night he would take out his set of false teeth and place them in a glass of water on my dresser.

My family thought of my grandfather as a great man. He had planted dozens of churches among the Indian tribes of the Guatemalan highlands. He had become fluent not only in Spanish, but also in the language of the Quiche Indians. He knew Guatemala’s leading social and political figures. He published a newspaper and wrote dozens of tracts on various religious topics.

Only a couple of months after his visit, we received word that he had died at home in Guatemala of a heart attack. I remember lying in bed that night, weeping to myself in the dark room. Not quite five years old, I cried out to God, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” Whatever had taken my grandfather away was too awful, too repulsive. I did not want it to come near me. I wanted to live.

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” At its opening, the Gospel of John declares that “in him”—the Word, the Logos, who becomes flesh—“was life, and the life was the light” of every human being (1:4). And as it draws to a close, the Gospel of John returns to this theme, for John declares that these things “are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). Jesus offers us life, true life, life that endures, eternal life. And Jesus himself is nothing less than the life.

Human beings long for life. Isn’t it interesting that words such as flourishing and thriving have become so central to our Western social vocabulary today? We want our children to flourish and thrive. We want our congregations to flourish and thrive. We want those who have been oppressed and marginalized to have a decent shot at life, to flourish and thrive and realize all of their potentialities. Grow, develop, expand, increase—these words define not only our economic life but also our psychological and spiritual wellbeing.

The word life appears 46 times in the Gospel of John, more than in the other three gospels combined. Fifteen of John’s 21 chapters refer to life or to what is living. I have referenced just a few on your handout. “Your son will live” (4:53). “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). “I am the bread of life” (6:35). “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (6:68). “Out of his heart [of the one who believes in Christ] shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). “I lay down my life, that I may take it again” (10:17). “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25).

We could add many others. John 4:14: “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 5:21: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 17:2: “Thou hast given [the Son] power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him.” The promise of life comes cascading across the pages of the Gospel of John and embeds itself in images from everyday existence that offer life in its goodness and fullness: bread, wine, light, water, blood, and spirit.

Just what is this life all about? Certainly it is an embodied life. But it is also a life that is not dependent just on the condition of the body. Every pastor has seen people who are physically weak or debilitated and yet are completely alive, as though there is some life principle that sustains them even in the face of suffering and death. And, conversely, every pastor knows people who are physically healthy yet not really alive, so turned in as they are on themselves. We are speaking here about what the Church Fathers, drawing from the Scriptures, called the heart. The heart is the very center of our being. It is the principle that integrates mind and body, thought and activity. When we ask about life, we are asking about the heart and its longings and desires, hopes and dreams. We want to know, is our heart really alive? In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, when we look at ourselves, will we find a heart of stone or a heart of flesh (36:26)?

The human heart longs for life. But the human heart is fragile. Life events weigh on it. The heart can soar with joy, but it can also be disappointed. The human heart can feel compassion and love, but it can also be crushed. I am convinced that the question of our time is not simply whether we as Americans will flourish and thrive—professionally, socially, personally, or physically—but whether we will have a heart, a heart of flesh that can still feel life as a wondrous gift, can feel life as the gracious presence of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. Can the little boy who cries out, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,” not lose heart but really live—really live—in the face of death, which seems to take away every good and precious thing?

Two recent incidents have reminded me of just how much humans long for life—and will do whatever they think it takes to feel alive again in the face of death. I know a middle-aged man who for years has been driven by professional success and making lots of money. His wife and two daughters have suffered under his mood swings, from his excessive doting on them to his neglect and even verbal abuse of them. One day he suddenly passed out at work and was rushed to the hospital. It turned out that his brain had a tumor, and that he needed an emergency operation. His family rallied around him, prayed for him, and waited to see if he would live. Their prayers were answered. The surgery was successful, although a long period of rehabilitation would follow.

His wife hoped that he would see life differently now, that he would be able to give thanks for life, life rescued from death, and would live with gratitude for his family. But that didn’t happen. Instead, as he got better, he became more self-centered than before. He became obsessed with protecting his life. He began working out excessively at the gym. And, then, in his desperate longing to feel alive again, he secretly began an affair. When his wife finally moved out and divorced him, he celebrated by having the house in which they had lived for twenty years torn down, so that he could build a new house on the site, shorn of all memories of the past.

The second story has to do with a man who is a distinguished professor at a major American university and a leading scholar in his field. He is not a religious person, although he respects religion and believes that it genuinely expresses human longings for transcendence. One day I learned that he has a son who is a performer—well, let’s just say, of the type that I could never imagine seeing and, indeed, that I cannot understand why anyone would see. And it has startled me that this professor is very proud of his son and on his website even features him and his performances.

Recently, I was at a conference where this professor gave a keynote address. It was a scholarly tour-de-force, but suddenly he paused and asked for the privilege of sharing something personal. He introduced the audience to his new wife, who came forward and joined him at the podium. He noted that many in the audience knew his story, how several years ago he had lost his first wife to a terrible battle with cancer. For several years, he and his son had lived through hell, as they watched her die. Now, the professor declared, he had found love again, he was coming back to life. And, then, he talked about his son, how devastated his son had been at his mother’s death and how his son had struggled with depression. But his son too had come back to life, too, had come back to life by transgressing social norms and creating something outrageously new through his performances. And suddenly I saw everything in a new light. Transgressing social norms, creating something outrageously new—this son was desperately searching for life in the face of death.

Many people in our time—even prosperous, well-to-do Americans—are crying out, “I don’t want to die.” They want to flourish and thrive. But as sympathetic as I am to these two men—I have no interest in judging or condemning them—I am nevertheless troubled by their stories. I feel troubled because I know from my own life that all my efforts to make life, grab life, protect life, break through to life have never given me the life I was really seeking. I have had to learn that life—real life—is something that only God can give and that I can only receive from God’s hand. True life—what the Gospel of John dares to call eternal life—comes as pure gift, sheer grace, and it evokes wonder and awe, joy and thanksgiving, and humility and repentance.

I am now at an age in life in which every year I lose beloved friends and family members. I have had to recognize that my own mind and body are aging, and that I too someday will die, however incomprehensible that still is to me. Interestingly, it has been not only the Gospel of John, but also the Book of Job that has helped me in recent days remember the wondrous, mysterious, and perplexing gift that is life from God. So, as we think in this first presentation about Jesus as the life, I invite us to ponder Job.

Suffering Job has come to represent all human beings who no longer feel that they are really alive, that they can really live. His wealth and physical comfort are taken from him. His children are senselessly killed. His health is broken. And he is convinced that God has done all this, that God has turned against him, that God is no longer a source of life but rather his enemy, his adversary, his destroyer. Here even the longing for life seems to have been extinguished. Job’s plea is not, “I don’t want to die,” but rather, “Please, let me die.” If we cannot count on God to give us life, where do we turn? As Job’s wife declares, nothing is left for us than to curse God and die.

Old Testament scholar Carol Newsom has written thoughtfully on the Book of Job, and she calls it a polyphonic text. [1]  That is to say, the Book of Job does not present us with a single, rational, logical argument but rather with a variety of perspectives on suffering that clash and resist coherence. Job, we could say, offers us a spirituality that takes account of how we, believers in the God of Israel and the church, actually experience suffering. When life bears down on us, we, like Job, sometimes feel God’s gracious, comforting presence, and sometimes we wonder where in the world God is. Like Job, we sometimes are able to trust that God is at work, even if we cannot yet see how, and sometimes we cry out with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These contradictory moments may come one right after another, or they may even come up against each other at one and the same time. Job and his friends give voice to the multiple, contradictory ways in which we humans react to the threat of annihilation. But what is at stake for Job—and for us—is not simply physical life and wellbeing. Rather, this is a book about the human heart and whether the heart can live, when life circumstances would crush it.

From the outset, Job is concerned about the condition of the human heart. At the beginning of the book, while he and his children are still flourishing and thriving, he rises early each morning to pray for them, for “it may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5). And after he has lost everything except his bare physical existence, he nevertheless remains concerned to preserve what he calls his integrity, a heart that is rightly oriented toward God. Job declares to his friends, “until I die I will maintain my integrity” (27:5, TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1988, hereafter cited: JPS); “let [God] weigh me on the scale of righteousness; let God ascertain my integrity” (31:6, JPS). Job insists on keeping his heart whole, even when life has become a terrible burden.

This kind of integrity is apparently not a static, stoical indifference to life and its tragedies. The heart like Job’s that has integrity does not rest in blissful peace. It struggles, it resists, it protests, it argues, it demands. Amazingly, the Job who suffers has a heightened sense of life. He feels life more fully than ever. He plumbs more deeply the depths of his heart. So, let us for a few minutes follow the contradictory impulses of Job’s heart, and how he seeks life, real life, life in God—for Job’s impulses set forth everything that we experience today as we look for life. I will briefly trace eight of Job’s reactions to his situation, eight manifestations of his longing for life, eight perspectives on God and God’s presence and God’s absence in his life.

One impulse of the suffering heart: Life can get so bad that a person just wants to die. Job suffers “loathsome sores” from the “sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7), and the pain and humiliation of his condition are so great that he can only curse the day of his birth, which strikes us as perilously close to cursing God himself. Job declares, “Perish the day on which I was born, and the night it was announced. … May that day be darkness; may God above have no concern for it. … May it not be counted among the days of the year. … May it not see the glimmerings of the dawn” (3:3, 4, 6, 10, JPS). Job wonders why God did not simply let him die at birth and be at peace (3:21). Perhaps all of us have known people who were so sick that they could no longer see any point in living, and we were able to sympathize. They weren’t going to get better, and death would mean release, relief. Paradoxically, death in such a situation seems more life-giving to the heart than life itself.

But, one might ask, Is this protest against life actually a protest for life? Is this “I want to die” is, in fact, an “I don’t want to die”? Is Job asserting in the only way that he knows how that he still has a heart, that he has not turned to stone? As scholars have taught us about the Psalms, the Old Testament voice of lament and complaint—Why do you sleep, O Lord? Why do you hide your face? (Ps. 44:23, 24)?—paradoxically rests on the confidence that there is a God, and that this God has listened and answered in the past and therefore will listen and answer in the present. But this confidence is not easy. It is plagued by doubt, fear, and uncertainty. Will God, in fact, listen and answer? Significantly, Psalm 44, that classic psalm of lament, concludes with a series of pleas, not thanksgivings. “Rouse yourself, O Lord! Awake, do not cast us off forever! Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us” (vv. 23–26, passim). But Job does not seem capable even of calling on God to arise. His is more like the condition of the suicidal person, who simply finds no coherence any longer to life. The protest against life becomes a longing for death.

A second impulse of the suffering heart: God is an oppressor, not a liberator. He is an exacting judge, not a merciful Father. Job 7:17: “What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him?” The Book of Job here parodies Psalm 8, which declares, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor” (vv. 4–5). For Job, God is all too close. Job’s friends insist that suffering is punishment for sin. Job must have done something wrong. But Job protests that even if he has sinned—and he denies that he has—God is all too obsessive compulsive about it. “You inspect [man] every morning, examine him every minute. Will You not look away from me for a while, let me be, till I swallow my spittle? If I have sinned, what have I done to You, watcher of men? Why make of me Your target, and a burden to myself? Why do You not pardon my transgression? (vv. 18–21, JPB). Job’s friends keep telling him that all will be well if he will just turn to God in prayer. The problem is that Job needs a God who will first turn to him and give him life, not death.

A third impulse of the suffering heart: There may be no hope for me now, but I trust that God will vindicate me after death. Job 19:25–26: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth—this, after my flesh has thus been destroyed.” Karl Marx famously described this impulse as “the opiate of the people.” He argued that the church has kept suffering people passive and powerless by assuring them that if they patiently accept their lot on earth, they will receive their just reward in heaven. Marx was half right. Sometimes the church really has kept people down. But he was only half right. There really are times when suffering humans cannot change their life circumstances. When we think of all those whose life has been cut short by no fault of their own—disease, war, famine—innocent children who have never had the chance to grow up and experience life in its fullness—we must have hope that there is a God who redeems life beyond this life.

A fourth impulse of the suffering heart: I long for God, I just want to be near him. See the continuation of Job 19, v. 27: “But I would behold God while still in my flesh. I myself, not another, would behold him, would see with my own eyes.” Here God is not the unfathomable giver of a life that no longer seems worth living, not the tormentor who seeks out every human imperfection only to punish it, but also not simply the redeemer of life beyond death, but rather “a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). Jews and Christians have believed that we can encounter God as a gracious presence especially through prayer and worship. Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (v. 1). Psalm 84: “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (v. 10). Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Impulse number five: I long for God, but I cannot find him. Job 23:8–9: “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand, I seek him, but I cannot behold him; I turn to the right hand, but I cannot see him.” Perhaps every Christian has experienced a dark night of the soul. We pray and fast and call on God but hear nothing in return. We feel as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “[God’s] invisibility is ruining us. This madness of being constantly thrown back to the invisible God himself—no one can stand that anymore.”[2] A commentator adds, “We have so few grounds in either the world or the church for trusting in a fully unprovable reality such as God.”[3] 

Impulse number six: God’s presence is frightening. It is more than I can endure. Job 23:18 states: “Therefore, I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him.” Job reminds us that God is God, his ways are not ours. He is pure energy, and we should not presume upon his goodness and kindness. In the words of Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). One of my mentors, the theologian and ethicist James Gustafson, captures especially well this sixth impulse of Job’s suffering heart: we “cannot fully account,” writes Gustafson, for the “tragedies inherent in the movements of history and nature . . . as the outcome of sin.” They are also “the outcome of the sovereign powers . . . that are beyond the capacity of all human will, technology, and institutions to fully determine.” As Abraham Lincoln declared in his Second Inaugural Address, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” Gustafson adds, “God will be God.”[4]  

Impulse number seven: God is the creative, mysterious power at work in all that exists. Job 38:28–29: “[Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.] Who begot the dewdrops? From whose womb did the ice come forth? Who gave birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” And for three chapters, we get beautiful poetry about the indescribably intricate web of life, ranging from plants and animals, to stars and seas. Up to now, Job has lamented that God is all too absent, or, alternately, that God’s hand is all too heavy upon him. Job has longed for God, has been terrified of God, has hoped in God, and has longed for God. And now God himself speaks, and what Job hears is, “Gird up your loins, and answer me, where were you when I. …?”—and God lists his marvelous deeds, one after another.

Finally, an eighth impulse: I have seen the Lord, and I no longer need to fight him. Job 42:5–6: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” Now Job experiences God’s comforting presence, yet this presence is so glorious and sovereign that Job can only fall down in fear and trembling. Who is any of us to stand before God, the Lord Almighty? And, yet, this God addresses us by name, this God comes to us and lets us see him. God with us—Immanuel—is good news that nevertheless humbles us.

What gives Job’s heart integrity is its ability to hold these conflicting feelings and reactions together. He does not discount some as irreligious or privilege others as godly. God declares that in all that “my servant Job has spoken”—in all eight of the impulses of his suffering heart—he has “spoken of me rightly” (42:7). Nevertheless, a significant progression does take place in Job’s experience.

After his many cries of lament and complaint comes God’s voice from the whirlwind, and it teaches him that God’s life-giving power is always at work in the world, even when we are unable to perceive it, even when God seems absent or, on the contrary, even when God seems all too near and threatening. By the end of God’s address to him, Job has learned again that life is a wondrous gift, a miracle. God has revealed himself to Job in all that exists, and Job bows down in adoration and humility. Just how small we really are in the larger scheme of things—a mere speck of dust in the universe—and, yet, God has granted us life. We exist alongside the Pleiades and mountain goats, the ostriches and hawks, and the monstrous creatures of earth and sea, Behemoth and Leviathan. It is as though God is asking Job, is asking us, Will you understand that you truly have received—to return to the words of the Gospel of John—you truly have received “grace upon grace” (1:16)?

What finally happened to Job after all this? Job 42:16 simply tells us, “And after this Job lived . . .” He lived. Tomorrow we will return to the question of how we receive this life—the life that we believe is ultimately Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

John P. Burgess
John P. Burgess
Dr. John P. Burgess, Ph.D., is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.


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