Editor’s note: Each month, In Touch staff members respond to an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s teachings. For this round, Jamie A. Hughes, C. Lawrence, and Renee Oglesby discuss the physicality of God.
God has a body: Jesus came to earth in human form, lived among us, died, and rose again. And as He ascended into heaven, He took His physical body with Him. It’s a great mystery and hard to fathom, but the Lord’s incarnated form—seated in the heavenly place with His Father—is foundational to our faith. And yet, though we know this, the Lord remains invisible to us and so He often seems intangible. Unlike the disciples and first-century Christians, we don’t have the experience of seeing Jesus with our eyes, hearing the timbre of His voice, or feeling His touch. How should we engage with God when we can’t physically experience Him? This month’s excerpt comes from Dr. Stanley’s sermon “His Empowering Presence”:
God created us for fellowship with Himself. [But] we cannot see God, we cannot touch God with our hands, there’s no physical relationship here. God makes His presence known in other ways so that you and I can have a loving, intimate relationship with Him.
Kayla: It’s interesting that God created us for fellowship, yet the lack of physicality makes fellowship with Him more difficult for us humans. What do you think about that?
Jamie: We’re physical creatures, prone to view and judge the world through what we can perceive. And in many ways, that is a good thing. However, it’s also a very limiting one. God is so far beyond tangibility that we have to push ourselves past the observable.
C.: Well, the thing is, it’s not possible to understand our lives in Christ without the church—His body. We can easily get caught up in the notion that knowing God is solely about belief and not also communion, which is a better way of understanding fellowship. The body of Christ, the church, is made up of people like you and me—flesh and bone and muscle. And so for me, I think about how knowing God is inextricable from knowing others and being known by them. There’s a lot of physicality in that.
Jamie: I think you’re right, C. We discount community in a big way quite often. We talk a good game about the imago dei (image of God), but we don’t always appreciate it. We tend to separate the physical and the spiritual, and often to our own detriment.
Renee: I think this is one of the reasons things like a pandemic, with closed churches and schools, have been so painful for many believers. Particularly for those who live alone, or are single, the physicality of other believers in fellowship is a difficult thing to live without.
Kayla: C., it sounds as if you're saying that our relationship with God actually is physical. And maybe the problem is, we don't think of it that way enough.
C.: I think so, Kayla—in a certain way. And beyond the interpersonal connections we have with fellow believers—family and friends alike—and the affection between us, there’s the gift of the physical world. What we see, hear, touch, smell, taste. I personally believe that “taste and see that the Lord is good” is not just a metaphor. We are physical beings and God meets us in physical ways, even if we have yet to physically embrace the resurrected Lord in the flesh.
It’s not possible to understand our lives in Christ without the church—His body. We can easily get caught up in the notion that knowing God is solely about belief and not also communion, which is a better way of understanding fellowship.
Jamie: I am with you on that one, C. God gives us what we need to perceive Him through our senses. We should trust them to lead us more often than we do. And it’s not just the physical, natural world either—though it is altogether lovely. He created artists and performers who could speak even more of His beauty and glory into the world. And we would do well to pay attention to what they are coming up with.
Renee: Everything we feel from all our senses can communicate His power, His care, His presence.
Jamie: The human body is a beautiful, observable manifestation of God’s creation. But watching a dancer move—seeing that beauty being put to use in motion—gives it an even greater resonance. God speaks through that, I think.
It’s like Eric Liddell saying, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” He was using his body, the one created by God, and he experienced a degree of closeness with his Maker as a result.
C.: It’s important to have a holistic view of experiencing God. I worry that so much of what people expect from their life with Him is bound up in the mind. And that’s just too small to sustain a life of vibrant faith. A holistic view looks at all of life and seeks to experience Him in every aspect.
That word “experience” can be tricky, though. It can be hard for folks to trust an encounter with God that happens, say, through prayer or while in nature. Some think that if it doesn’t come through reading the Bible, then it’s dangerous.
But what does it mean for God to be with us? That He is only in the paper and ink of the Scriptures? Surely not.
Jamie: He’s there for certain. But I also think, for the Christian who is aware and knows how to look, He is in a good meal, a beautiful view, and a community of people.
God is in the Scriptures for certain. But for the Christian who is aware and knows how to look, He is in a good meal, a beautiful view, and a community of people.
C.: For me, God’s life is flowing through all the world, but so often I’m closed off to it. It’s possible to encounter Him in reading, praying, eating, singing, surfing, running—you get the idea. But I have to be in the right posture.
Jamie: I think that’s what I was getting at, C. He isn’t those things, but His handwork is evident in them. He made them to teach us something of Himself.
Kayla: So it's more of an awareness?
C.: Awareness is a good word. Openness is another.
Renee: There is a balance to be found between experiencing God intellectually, emotionally, and in the physical world.
Kayla: And we so often focus only on the intellectual! Think about all that we're missing.
Jamie: Limiting ourselves to intellectual experiences of God is like painting with only blues or something. I mean, there are a lot of beautiful shades of blue, but what about the reds and yellows and all the blends?
Kayla: How do you think the disciples (or anyone else who encountered Jesus) experienced Jesus differently than we do today, because they experienced His physical being?
C.: One thing that comes to mind is that when you’re physically in people’s presence, it’s harder to make them fit your vision of who they are. They act in ways other than you would have them act. They say things you don’t expect. That said, the disciples still had a hard time seeing Jesus for who He was in His fullness.
Renee: I’m struck by what it would be like to see Jesus in the flesh, and to realize He was feeling the same things I am feeling. Tiredness after a long journey walking, for example.
There is a balance to be found between experiencing God intellectually, emotionally, and in the physical world.
Jamie: Absolutely. But don’t you think encountering the physical person of Christ was probably totally unlike anything they’d ever experienced? He was a complete person in a way they (and we) are only trying to be. They must have felt such a sense of wholeness when they came into His orbit.
C.: I totally agree, Jamie.
Jamie: I imagine they sensed the possibility—the potential—of true humanity.
Renee: I think it must have been confounding, too, to be in His presence. A sense of, “I am experiencing the exact same things, yet His response to them is so different than mine.”
C.: I’m curious—have any of you ever had a profound experience of encountering Jesus in another person? The whole idea behind being a Christian is that we become like Him.
Renee: More than seeing an expression of the fruit of His Spirit, C.?
C.: Yeah—rather than signs of Christianly behavior, have you ever met someone who was actually like Jesus? I’m thinking about a person who from day to day, in various ways and situations, lives in a way that resembles Jesus. Where you feel you encounter God through that person in a profound, compelling way. Honestly, it seems rare.
Kayla: I can't think of anyone.
Jamie: Yes. I’m sitting here thinking and can’t come up with anyone.
C.: And I’m certainly no such person. But why should it be so rare? Isn’t that very telling and maybe even sad?
Jamie: I know a lot of people who are trying, but it’s as if we’re all trying to swim with one arm or something. Maybe that ties back to the first point—about how we experience God in only a limited way. Maybe that’s all we allow ourselves?
So it makes sense that we can’t express it fully if we haven’t experienced it fully.
It’s important to have a holistic view of experiencing God. I worry that so much of what people expect from their life with Him is bound up in the mind. And that’s just too small to sustain a life of vibrant faith.
Renee: Isn’t that a human intellectual response, though? I can’t be it if I haven’t seen it?
C.: I can’t help but think of the apostles after Pentecost. Just think of Peter’s shadow and Paul’s handkerchief—people saw the life and power of Christ in the apostles to the point that they hoped just one of their shadows would fall upon the sick and heal them. (See Acts 5:1-42.)
Jamie: I mean, consider Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Kayla: So here's God, who can do anything, and He chooses to have a non-physical relationship with us. There must be some benefits to that right?
Jamie: Instead of allowing Jesus to do the living for us, God has sent us the Holy Spirit who helps us learn how to live as Christ would. A multiplying effect. We’re all to be “little Christs,” according to C. S. Lewis: “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”
Renee: We do need constant access to the Helper He sent.
C.: It’s hard to understand, isn’t it? It seems counterintuitive—if in this life we long to see Him as He is, to be face-to-face with Him, why didn’t He just hang around?
Kayla: Sometimes I wonder, If God were here with me physically, would I be looking for Him in the trees in my backyard? In my husband’s eyes? I'm not sure.
Jamie: I don’t think it’s an either/or thing. The experience is there with all three persons of the Trinity. God wants to know and make Himself known. We just need to look and be receptive to Him.
C.: I think we have to respect—not as an excuse or as a way of copping out—that there’s a mystery here we can’t escape.
Renee: The word mystery has been in my thoughts for the past 10 minutes. We don’t always like it, but accepting the mystery of faith in Jesus can be so compelling! It creates a tension, that as C. mentioned, we need to learn to live with.